I meet all kinds of people in the internal communications game: practitioners, consultants, platform vendors, comms gurus. It is one of the perks of writing regularly about IC and running simply events. But Andrew O’Shaughnessy is someone who really stands out in the IC landscape.

Written by Marc Wright

He built a dream from a standing start into a company that now employs over 200 in Cork and Boston. And now the company he leads, Poppulo, has just attracted a whopping €30m from US tech investors Susquehanna Growth Equity. The size of this achievement cannot be underestimated; only 5 years ago internal comms was still the Cinderella of the corporate comms story. Yet today Andrew was able to choose which investor was going to play the Fairy Godmother to his flourishing business. And it’s worth noting that even that hefty sum only bought a minority share.

I caught up with Andrew and expected that with all that cash he would be taking it easy and enjoying the fruits of twenty plus years of hard work. Not a bit of it. He is as passionate as ever about internal communications and his vision is to extend Poppulo both globally and into new product areas. The man from Cork is not looking to slow down; the IC challenge to large organisations is too acute and he is on a mission to help them:

“It’s about the marketplace. The old competitive advantage of having information doesn’t apply anymore, because information is so accessible and freely available to everybody today. The same applies to what used to be the advantage of speed to market, because now we can all bring products to market a lot faster than we could in the past.

So the old competitive advantages are disappearing; you can see that by how short a time companies now stay in the FTSE 100.

“It’s the ability to execute that is now paramount. It’s a case of ‘my organisation has to change and react better and faster than yours’. And to do that needs huge alignment and engagement of employees. In the past, execution wasn’t as paramount because of those old advantages that companies could rely on. But now it’s all about the employees. The big question today is how do you enable and empower your employee base to outpace the competition?

“The customer-centric organisation is being outperformed by the employee-centric organisation.”

From weaving news to engaging people

All of this is a far cry from Poppulo’s origins. Originally dubbed Newsweaver, the company started by offering a marketing email platform to be used externally. When I first came across Andrew he admitted that he concentrated on the IC space because Mailchimp and the other large players in email marketing were pointing in the other direction. Very quickly Newsweaver came to dominate the internal email management market. The product worked, the people were nice to deal with and clients also enjoyed some of the best analytics of how messages are travelling around their networks.

But email has long been the victim of its own success and Andrew and his team needed to innovate with new products and that meant a new name and a new approach to internal comms.

“We did some ethnographic research with customers and non-customers. We wanted to know the reasons why engagement stats are so woeful. Gallup has long established that only a third of employees are truly engaged with the company they work for – and it’s even lower in Europe!

“We spoke to the line managers and the employees in companies and when the results came back I was straining at the leash to get the insights.  The main issue was around relevance.  When I heard that I despaired – we did all this research to find out something we always knew. But when we drilled down we found the key.

“The research revealed not just a communications gap. It was a gulf…”

“No matter who we asked: desk based managerial staff, frontline workers, doctors and nurses, factory workers, delivery teams and retail – these different groups all want relevant information. But what is relevant has to be personalised.  Yet internal comms still has a publishing mindset – just get it out: the same info to everyone. This meant that for most people they were not getting relevance.  It was a turn-off.  The research revealed not just a communications gap. It was a gulf.”

What the research showed Andrew and his team was that if you do not personalise communication then you are sending out a clear message to your audiences that they are not important enough to you to warrant the time and attention to ensure that the right messages are getting to the right people at the right time.

“We realised that what the end user wants is information that is relevant to them in their job. Our communicator has to be a translator.”

So out went the name Newsweaver, associated with the old publishing model, and in came Poppulo – the Latin for People.

“Poppulo is an approach where you pick content and the system will dynamically get the right info to the right employee and give you feedback. It allows the internal communicator to step into the shoes of different personas.”

“Our platform does not deliver just any particular channel. Our system helps communicators to get the right content to the right people. at the right time. Audiences have very clear ideas of what channels and formats they prefer to use to receive various types of communications – even if communicators often don’t know which channels they should use to reach different target audiences.”

Since the rebrand and relaunch Poppulo has expanded dramatically. Instead of dealing with top down comms from the IC dept the system could enhance the communications of every department in an organisation. It meant that IC could move from managing communications to helping managers communicate. And the more managers who use Poppulo the greater the budgets available as HR, Sales, Operational and other functions started employing the platform.

Not one channel – it’s multi-channel

I assumed that Poppulo would invest their newly minted cash into building an enterprise social network in its own right, but that was a misapprehension of Andrew’s vision:

“The future of IC is multi-channel. Through mobile apps content is being reconfigured and pushed into other channels. You have to understand what is happening across channels, not just managing them in isolation. Take face-to-face, it’s your biggest channel. Yet IC don’t see the training of the line managers as part of their role although it is one of the biggest, most important comms channel in any organisation.”

It’s the ecosystem – stupid

So how will Poppulo develop its products? Andrew has gone on record that they will create a further 125 jobs in Ireland alone. Many of those will be software engineers bringing the tools of AI to the IC environment.  He talks about ‘hyper-personalisation’ the use of big data analysis that goes beyond use cases and personas to audiences of one.

“We are putting the emphasis on the eco-system. Pulling info into the Poppulo system and out into your other systems. For example, AI will mean internal communicators will be free to focus on content instead of trying to work out which channels and formats to use to reach specific audiences – it will all be done much more efficiently, automatically.“

It’s a brave new world where communicators will use predictive insights to know how messages are going to land before they are sent. Sounds ambitious? Well remember that Poppulo starts with a huge installed base of clients already using its software, so it won’t be hard to land and expand these new services. There isn’t much in the way of competition since the Social Chorus and Dynamic Signals of this world are still focussed on delivering a single platform rather than being the glue between a whole range of independent channels.

“Integration is a hugely important part of the mix. How your employees across the departments are all interacting with your content. Workplace by Facebook, Google, Success Factors and PeopleSoft; no one system does everything for you.”

The future of Poppulo is people

Apart from the large base of happy clients (according to Gartner they have almost 20m users worldwide), the other advantage that Andrew has up his sleeve is the quality of life he can offer his own people. Poppulo has regularly scored in the top 10 of great places to work. And in Cork he can offer a global job in a delightful environment of affordable housing and easy commutes. And with Boston expanding it can’t be long before the Poppulo brand spreads east as well as west.

At simply we will watch Poppulo very closely as they invest both in people and products. Not just because of Andrew’s unique vision but because he and his team really believe in our industry of internal communications. His parting comment at the end our interview summed up the DNA of Poppulo:

“We want to succeed in a market we are passionate about.”



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