External advertising on internal-facing intranets has been around since intranets first emerged in the mid- to late-nineties. Even in 1997 marketers were eyeing up the possibilities, although it was also clearly a contentious issue. Since then larger corporates like BT have carried some modest levels of external advertising and, today, it is possible to advertise on the company intranet for a number of local councils in the UK.
The advantage of intranet advertising is singular – it brings in revenue. This can be a very attractive option for cash-strapped departments who can either plough funds back into the intranet, or who need to impress cost-cutting senior executives where ROI is king and intangible benefits don’t count for much. For local councils in the UK that have been squeezed from years of austerity, any extra revenue is potentially welcome.
Interestingly, the opportunities for the intranet as a potential source of revenue could increase. As the data which intranet teams use to send targeted messages becomes richer and more sophisticated, there is a greater potential for very targeted advertising. That has real commercial value for marketers – being able to reach individuals based on location, role and even interests – although it may start to sail close to the wind regarding data protection.
Of course, the elephant in the room is whether the employees like it. Does it disengage users and erode trust and confidence? Most intranets have a pretty murky image and carrying adverts just might make it that little bit murkier. On the other hand, do employees actually care that much?
I genuinely don’t know the answer, and the truth will depend on a number of factors. Here’s six elements to consider when thinking about running external advertising on your intranet.
Is external advertising right for your organisational culture? If you’re an international company, will all your locations feel the same way about it? Intranet managers should know their audience and their gut feel about whether external advertising will work might be a good indicator.
Context and perception
In general individuals may be more tolerant of online advertising in some contexts. For example, I’m quite happy to put up with adverts on sites and services which provide value but are free to use, for example Spotify or Skype.
But in work time, where advertising is unexpected or has the potential to get in the way of what employees are doing, advertising may irritate. A company I once worked for experimented with advertisements as screensavers and it wasn’t that popular. Even though it wasn’t really that evasive, more work was needed to explain why the change was taking place. The initiative hadn’t anticipated an undercurrent of “the management is making more money out of us again!” One particular area to watch for is whether there could be a perception that your organisation is misusing your personal data for financial gain.
Intensity and frequency
The success of external advertising also depends on how “in your face” the adverts are and how often they run. Nielsen Norman recently carried out some research which shows just how annoying some online advertising can be, particularly when it is disruptive to your user experience.
If you choose to use ads then it’s all about getting a balance. For example when BT ran advertising, Mark Morrell points out that the levels were kept reasonably light and subsequently they had very little pushback from users.
What’s being advertised
You also need to be wary about who you chose to advertise. For example a banner advert for Uber and its recent bad publicity might not sit that well with a page dedicated to inclusion and diversity.
At the same time some forms of advertising could even prove popular, if they were promoting items where staff can get perks or discounts. A 10% off voucher on a weekend break? Yes, please.
Intranet brand and strategy
A key point to watch for is also whether featuring external advertising fits in with your intranet brand and strategy. You may have cultivated a social intranet which is perceived as a channel owned by employees rather than being a corporate mouthpiece. Or your strategy may be to reach that goal. Would having intranet ads sabotage what you’re trying to achieve?
Taking a data-driven approach
Naturally you’ll want to use data to try ascertain what employees think of external advertising on the intranet. How do they feel and how do they act? Are site metrics and click through rates for other promotions affected? Does your intranet satisfaction survey reveal strong opinions? Could you do a simpler pulse check via a poll? Do you have in intranet focus group to test the idea out on? Does everyone ignore the ads anyway? You may be surprised by the results.
8 out of 10 users
Is external advertising right for your intranet? Personally, I think the negatives outweigh the positives, but I could be persuaded if 8 out of 10 users said they preferred it. I’d be fascinated to hear from anyone who has run external advertising and has some evidence of what the users think.