Never Mind the Why and WIIFM*

August 17th, 2010
*Gilbert and Sullivan fans, I’m hoping for at least a wry smile

When I teach business students about business communications, as I did last week at the University of Washington and previously at Washington State University, a key concept I want them to take away is “the why and the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?).”

Whether you’re marketing to consumers or communicating to employees, you need to understand your audience and what motivates them. And believe it or not, employees are not motivated by directives that don’t explain (a) their reason for being and (b) why the employees should care.

Here is a great example. When I was manager of sales communications strategy for a national wireless carrier, I edited the weekly update to ~10,000 store associates. One day I came across this entry:

New Rules for Password Reset
Starting June 5, store associates will not be allowed to call Customer Service to reset passwords. All passwords must be reset online at:

Hmm. No why, and definitely no WIIFM. I asked the writer to give me more information, and it turned out both were really quite compelling. The reason for the change? Store reps couldn’t reset their password online – they had to call Customer Service. And you can imagine how popular that situation was, with store and CS reps, and of course with customers.

Plus, someone had run the numbers, and calculated that the company was losing a stupid amount of money on lost productivity.

So this was actually great news – but you’d never know it. Our rewrite read something like this:

Password Reset Now Online
Did you know that 1,000+ store reps a month call CS for password resets? That’s time away from our customers and $250K in lost productivity a year. Now everyone can do their jobs more easily—and help profitability—with fast, simple online password resets. Check it out at:

Now, was that “spin”? Sure. But what better proof that spin is not a bad word, despite its four letters?

This simple equation is a very effective guide for most communications: Why + WIIFM = Benefit. You could even try it at home.

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