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Social Chain’s chain reaction of engagement

Kiera Lawlor, Head of Happiness at award-winning social media agency Social Chain, explains how creating engaging campaigns for its clients begins with engaging its own people.

Can you remember your first day at work? Even for the most experienced of us, starting a new job is daunting.

Clammy palms and the panic that you’ll forget your new manager’s name – sound familiar?

But imagine a first day when the whole company comes out to welcome you, and you’re handed a gift box brimming with tech and goodies. That’s what Sean Brown, Head of Talent, discovered when he arrived at Social Chain.

Captioning a photo of his new MacBook, social media bible, branded hoodie, stationary and a bottle of rum to toast his arrival, Sean took to LinkedIn to write: “I think I’m going to enjoy myself here.”

But the welcome pack is just the beginning when it comes to how the agency looks after its people.

The Manchester-based company launched in 2014 when co-founders Steve Bartlett and Dominic McGregor set out to help companies reach their consumers.

Today Social Chain has a reach of more than a billion, counts Apple, Spotify, and Puma among its clients, and can get a brand trending in minutes.

Its motto is ‘Deeper than engagement’ – out to create projects that resonate with people and inspire them into action.

Social Chain

But the company firmly believes this begins by engaging its own team – and that’s the responsibility of Kiera Lawlor, Head of Happiness.

“I think engagement is a key thing in the workplace,” says Kiera. “If we’re engaged in our own professional environment, we’re better placed to help brands to engage their consumers.

“It’s any employer’s dream to have staff who get up in the morning and want to go to work, and that’s genuinely how people feel here.”

But how has Social Chain created its highly motivated environment? Kiera and the team have created a programme that hones in on people’s happiness and individuality at all stages of their employment – and it starts at the recruitment stage.

Kiera said: “One of the massive things we look for when hiring is whether someone’s going to fit in with the culture. They might not be the most experienced at what they do, but we’d rather have their personality and what they can add to the team than someone who’s experienced but doesn’t share the same enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is key.”

Selecting passionate employees is one thing, but it’s another to maintain that same level of drive in the months and years that follow.

Kiera has this covered too: “We all have personal development programmes. I sit down with new starters and find out what they want to learn about and what we can do to make it happen. We call them Happiness Meetings. If a person has a development idea, they can chase it – no one will ever turn around and say no here.”

Team members also share their own knowledge at weekly Lunch and Learn sessions. Over a meal put on by Social Chain, employees take it in turns to give presentations on a hobby or skill they’re using to benefit their work.

And that’s not the only time there’s food in the office. Social Chain understands that well-fed employees are happy employees, so the kitchen is restocked twice a week with croissants and cereals, snacks, lunch options and – best of all – bacon sandwiches to banish the thought of Monday-morning blues.

Whether it’s National Gin Day or National Cupcake Day, Kiera keeps on top of all reasons for the team to celebrate together.

“I want to make sure there’s always something going on to keep it exciting,” she said.

And what with a fully stocked bar, a slide and ball pit, and French Bulldogs Louis and Pablo wandering freely between the benches, Social Chain hasn’t just created a workplace; it’s built a creative playground.

But it’s about more than just having fun. Playing hard lends itself to something else – working hard. And Social Chain’s people certainly do lots of that.

“We have barely any recorded sick days. Holidays are unlimited – we can take as many as we want – but because people love being here, they don’t abuse that. It’s just nice to know we’re trusted to get on with our work and get it finished.”

It’s down to this hard work that Social Chain has thrived so much in such a short period of time. In just over a year, the team has gone from 15 people to 74.

The business has also recently opened offices in Berlin and New York.  By looking after its people, its people are delivering amazing projects for their clients, and these clients are propelling the business forward. Social Chain has created a thriving chain reaction – and it all begins with engagement.

Kiera said: “Employee engagement here means that everyone’s dream is to see the company get as big as it can possibly get. Everyone is so invested in Social Chain. They want to see it grow.”



Six hour days: Can we really do more with less?

How would your boss react if you asked to work fewer hours for the same pay?

It might sound unlikely, but research is showing that – for certain types of job – shorter working days can improve employee performance, morale and even health.

Of course, these benefits will pale in comparison for most employers if output is affected. So is it possible to achieve a ‘full day’s’ work in just six hours?

I thought I’d give it a try.

The method

Our business uses a task management tool that lets users track time spent on major tasks, but doesn’t account for internal meetings, everyday admin, lunch breaks, discussing the Strictly results, or any of the other daily duties that fall into the ‘unproductive’ basket.

By dividing my ‘tracked’ time by the length of time I spent in the office, I was able to calculate the percentage of each day that was spent productively.

The results

Length of day Percentage of time spent on productive tasks
Control week 1 (Eight-hour daily average) 65 per cent (5 hours, 16 minutes)
Control week 2 (Eight-hour daily average) 70 per cent (5 hours, 39 minutes)
Control week 3 (Eight-hour daily average) 68 per cent (5 hours, 31 minutes)
Six-hour test day 92 per cent (5 hours 32 minutes)


While I’m the first to admit this experiment is far from comprehensive, the results are too striking to simply dismiss out of hand.

As the Swedish research had indicated, I found that having less time spurred me on to get things done quickly. Yes, there was time pressure, but there is on most days.

Since I finished work at 3pm I was able to go and collect my kids from school and spend some time with them at home before the usual bath and bed routine – a rare treat.

On the down side, I did opt to take a shorter lunch break and there were internal reports and updates that I chose to defer until the following day.

Can it work for you?

Working six-hour days won’t be for everyone. Jobs that involve working outside an office environment (not to mention people who are self-employed) will find it hard to break away from the eight-hour grind.

But for those working in internal communications, the idea warrants a trial period at the very least – providing you can demonstrate that productivity won’t suffer.

We asked Vanessa Kettner, Coach with productivity training specialists Personal Best, for some advice on how people can optimise productivity and achieve more with less time.

  1. Write down the things you need to and want to do; don’t keep them in your head.
  2. Stick to your list – don’t be swayed unnecessarily by latest and loudest, or by other people’s agendas (unless your role requires it).
  3. Do on a weekly basis what most people only do before they go on holiday – review all of your upcoming appointments and commitments. Getting all your ducks in a row will help you feel in control and more relaxed.
  4. Don’t ‘live’ in your email inbox. Visit at regular intervals that are appropriate to your role.
  5. Employ the two-minute rule: if you can do something in less than two minutes, do it now.
  6. Be selective about which meetings you choose to attend. Is going to a particular meeting the absolute best use of your time?
  7. Make sure you have all the tools you need in order to work productively and that your workspace is attractive to you.
  8. Take breaks. Moving around and getting away from your desk will allow you to focus better when you’re back in your seat.

Company narrative: get your story straight

Your company narrative is the most fundamental building block when creating effective internal communications and a positive workplace culture. Here’s why.

There’s no denying that terms such as ‘storytelling’ and ‘narrative’ are industry buzzwords at the moment, and they are often misappropriated to label existing (and usually dull) communications in the hope of making them feel fresh and relevant.

But if you can get through the noise, the company narrative can be a game changer for your communications approach.

When developing your communications strategy, it is critical that the narrative is developed at the same time, because – if it is done properly – the narrative becomes the bedrock from which all other comms and key messages are developed.

What is a company narrative?

At it’s simplest – a two to three page document that covers aspects of your company’s history, values, ambitions and hopes for the future.

Mark Bonchek is founder and Chief Epiphany Officer of Shift Thinking. He helps organisations achieve growth and change by adopting new thinking to engage customers and empower employees.

Mark Bonchek
Mark Bonchek

He states that a narrative: “says who you are as a company; where you’ve been, where you are, and where you are going; how you believe value is created and what you value in relationships. It explains why you exist and what makes you unique.”

The key aspect to make clear in the narrative is what Mark calls the ‘shared purpose’ – the outcome that the organisation and the customer are working towards together. It is the foundation of the relationship that the company has with its customers and its employees.

Mark adds that: “Most people think of purpose as what your employees do FOR your customer.  But in a social age, the real power is creating a shared purpose WITH your customer.”

This shared purpose creates the opportunity for a different kind of relationship with the customer.  One that is more collaborative and reciprocal than the typical “producer/consumer” relationship to which we are accustomed.

Mark took us through some examples of companies with powerful narratives built around a shared purpose, an authentic Brand DNA, and a relationship beyond the transaction:


“With a shared purpose to ‘inspire the athlete in all of us,’ Nike’s relationship with its customers is not just a producer/consumer relationship, it’s more like coach/athlete, and it comes from the fact that Nike was co-founded by a coach, Bill Bowerman” says Mark.

Virgin America

Rather than the ‘airline-passenger’ model, Virgin America’s narrative (and therefore marketing and advertising) is, Mark argues: “more like they are the host of the party and we are the party guests.” It also connects back to the Brand DNA established by Richard Branson, known for throwing a great party.


“Typically, the relationship in the hospitality industry has been one of lodger/guest, based on the a transaction.  What Airbnb has done is shift that relationship to neighbour/neighbour, based on a shared purpose of ‘Belong Anywhere.’” says Mark.

Shared purpose for employees

What is interesting about the Airbnb example is that the shared purpose of belonging and the neighbour/neighbour relationship is reflected in how the company engages with its own employees. Meeting rooms are inspired by active Airbnb listings, free lunches are themed around the 191 countries where it hosts, and there is a $2,000 (£1,360) annual travel budget given to each employee to use outside of work; all geared towards immersing their employees in the brand and making them effective ambassadors.

Airbnb is just one example of how a strong narrative can help to take employees on the journey with you, and this is particularly important when dealing with subjects that – at least on the surface – are not what employees will take a huge interest in.

Using narrative for specific campaigns

Kate Shaw, Internal Communications Manager at Nationwide, recently won a raft of awards for her work on a campaign to get colleagues more interested in, and signing up to, additional contributions to their pensions.

Not the most engaging subject, you might argue, but one that nonetheless is very important to Nationwide’s colleagues, as Kate explains: “The organisation was very keen to engage people on the importance of pensions. There were important changes happening so if we had communicated these in the wrong way, all they would have heard was ‘you’re taking more of my salary every month, and I don’t get why’. So getting our narrative right up front was really important”.

The resulting campaign, one of the highlights of which is a witty and accessible pensions video, has seen the number of employees signed up to make additional contributions rise from 10 per cent to 83 per cent.

A huge achievement, and one that Kate puts down to planning, and having their narrative established from the beginning.

She said: “We had a story written down about how we wanted employees to feel and what we wanted that end experience to be. We wanted to articulate from the employee point of view how it feels to work for Nationwide, how the organisation cares and looks after them, and then go into the pension details.

“The narrative itself is the most unglamorous document! But that’s on purpose so stakeholders don’t get distracted from the story. Having it signed off along with the strategy then meant sign off on subsequent materials was dramatically easier because you have agreed the narrative content upfront, everything you write reflects that original document.”

And Kate is clear that the narrative must come early in the comms planning process, saying: “Before we even went near the video or any of the methods for delivering the campaign, we sat with Ian Baines, Head of Pensions, and went through with him what we were trying to achieve from a business perspective, and how we could achieve this through narrative and storytelling. We had to understand where we were going first and agree that with Ian, so we made sure we could deliver what the business wanted.”

Humans + stories = communication

Kate’s success proves that knowing where you want to get to and having your narrative straight from the beginning gives you a huge advantage in creating a successful communications campaign.  Whether you are writing a narrative for your whole business or a specific time-fixed campaign, the benefits cannot be underestimated.

A good story is the most powerful way to communicate an idea, a concept or important information. So it makes absolute sense that, when planning our communications, the narrative or story elements are not an afterthought or something bolted on to make our messages easier to digest, but instead at the very heart of everything we do.

Narrative versus story

It is important to make the distinction between narrative and story because they are not the same thing, especially in the context of a company narrative.

Story is a structured narrative; it has a beginning, middle and an end (although not necessarily in that order) and, most importantly, has some sort of conclusion. Story is something that we witness or experience, but we do not play a part in.

Narrative, on the other hand, is open. More like an unfinished story that doesn’t need to have a distinct beginning or end. The narrative creates a story world in which we can get involved, a place for us to create our own stories.

A good parallel is the difference between movies and a video game like Minecraft. In a movie, we witness the linear progression of the story, hopefully enjoy it, and then the plot is all wrapped up at the end. In Minecraft, all of the elements of a story are there — the world, characters, the stakes — but it is left to the player to then take part, to build, to make the world their own, to create their own stories. And, crucially, the world of Minecraft never really ends either.

In the context of IC, the company narrative should usually contain at least the beginning of the story – the history of the company, their values, what they are trying to achieve (shared purpose) and then leave it open so that employees can play their own part in the success of the business and create their own stories within the world that the narrative has created.


Guest blog: Three secrets to internal communications measurement

Independent communications practitioner Jane Revell shares her secrets to effective IC measurement.

Wherever I go a recurring theme is raised by internal communications people: the ongoing challenge to measure our work and demonstrate return on investment.

Research by Newsweaver shows that although 95 per cent of internal communications professionals say measurement is important, it is the activity people spend the least time on.

With more information at our fingertips than ever before, measurement must not continue to be our Achilles heel. Here are three simple ways to get into the measurement cycle today.

1. Know what you want to achieve – what do you want people to think, feel and do as a result?

Measurement is often considered only after the work has been done. This needs to change.

Whether you are launching a new digital tool, holding an employee event or creating internal videos, you need to set out the purpose of your internal communications (what you want people to think, feel or do) from the outset as you plan your activity.

Set SMART objectives and know how and when you will measure before you start.

2. Make time to measure monthly

Measurement is regularly put to the bottom of the ‘to do’ list and often ‘bumped’ for something ‘more important’. It needs to be prioritised with time set aside each month to measure against the objectives set.

Measuring monthly with a quarterly review is a good approach. A top tip is to establish a process of reporting on findings to senior leaders to demonstrate the value of internal communications and our role in helping to achieve business goals.

The measurement you do will depend on the objectives you have set, however, tools you can use include:

  • Pulse surveys (well-designed questions that focus on finding out if you have achieved the objectives set)
  • Focus groups and interviews with employees
  • Analytics (intranet, email, apps, microsites)
  • Event feedback
  • Quotes from conversations with people across the organisation
  • Conversations and comments via internal social media, blogs and direct to leaders and managers.

3. Create a measurement dashboard

This isn’t as scary or complex as it sounds. The idea is to simply reflect on measurement results so you can track trends and identify any challenges or issues so that you can review and change your approach.

An internal communications measurement dashboard should include:

  1. An overview of the business goals you are working towards
  2. Overall communications aims
  3. Sections for each objective set with a summary of the measurement findings under each to show process against the objective
  4. Visual aids, graphs, pull-out numbers, direct quotes from employees.


Useful resources:

CIPR Inside measurement matrix

Kevin Ruck ICQ10 model





Six Headliners shortlisted for ICon Awards


The ICon Awards shortlist has been announced – and six Headliners are in the running.

The awards, run by the Institute of Internal Communications (IoIC), celebrate the most talented professionals in the IC industry.

Editor Peter Bennett has been shortlisted in the Best Editor category, while journalist Holly Whitecross and senior journalist Katie Nertney are both up for the Rising Talent – Best Young Communicator award.

Designers Brian Amey and Chris Keller have both been shortlisted for the Best Designer award, won by Headlines’ Duncan Boddy in 2015. Head of Video Sara Wilmot is in the running for Best Visual Creator.

The winners will be announced at the ICon Awards lunch on 10 November at London’s Radisson Blu Edwardian Hotel.

According to the IoIC, the ICon Awards recognise “the people who consistently turn theory into great internal communication practice”.

Simon Dowsing, Head of Media Operations at Headlines, said: “It is fantastic news that we have six people from our creative teams shortlisted for these prestigious awards.

“They are all thoroughly deserving and do an excellent job for our clients and our business.”

The news comes after multiple other award wins in the last five weeks including Best Mobile/App in the industry at the IoIC Awards 2016, three Awards of Excellence at the same event and a Silver Award for Best Mobile App at the MK Digital Awards.