Communicate Smarter, Not Harder
Organizations are communicating all the time. Whenever staff describe their work in conversation, send an email, or post content on a website, they are communicating the organization.
However, not all organizations are communicating strategically. They are not conveying content in a way that persuades their audiences to take the actions necessary to achieve the organization’s goals.
Communicating strategically may take no additional time and will get you a better result. Better outcomes through more efficient work: there’s not much downside to that.
Communication Strategy in 8 Questions
There are a lot of great processes for develop communication strategies. The problem is that they are time-consuming and complex. It’s great to take few hours to do a contextual analysis like SWAT or PEST with fellow staff. But the hard truth is that most of us don’t do any communication strategy work at all because we lack the time to engage in these more complex processes.
This post presents all the important choices of a communication strategy in a process that is quick and clear, guiding you through eight key questions:
- What challenges do you need to solve right now?
- What audiences need to take action in order for you to solve those challenges?
- What values are these audiences seeking that you can provide?
- What content can you create that presents this value?
- What channels should you use to convey your content to your audiences?
- Of the communication activities you’ve identified, which should you actually do?
- Who will be responsible for doing the activities you’ve decided to undertake?
- How will you measure your progress in order to adapt your activities?
After you have gone through this process you can do the more in-depth methods of analysis I linked to in the beginning of this section. The time to begin communicating strategically is now.
The 3 Stages: Vision, Audit, Plan
The eight steps are broken into three stages, each of which is associated with a worksheet that you can download below.
The first step of the communication strategy process is visioning. This means you create a vision that identifies the communication you need to undertake to solve your most pressing challenges.
Of course, a new communication strategy doesn’t emerge in a vacuum. You are already communicating, though perhaps not in a way that is helpful to you.
In this next stage of the process you’ll evaluate how well your current communication activities are meeting the strategic needs that you’ve just identified by filling out a communication audit sheet.
You’re almost there. You’ve evaluated your communication activities according to how well they provide value to your audiences. You’ve identified new activities you may need to do to replace old activities that aren’t working well (or well enough).
Now it’s time to decide which of these activities you’ll actually do based on how much benefit they will provide and how costly they are to undertake. You’ll also need to develop some ways to measure your progress and you’ll need to assign responsibilities for implementation. Then you’ll record everything in a communication strategy snapshot, which captures all the learning you’ve done and the decisions you’ve made.
Go as Far as You Can
Know where you’re headed (vision), then check where you are (audit), then develop a plan of forward motion (snapshot).
Though this is a faster process than most, there is still work to do. The good news is that if you do any part of the process – visioning, auditing, or all the way to strategy snapshot – you will have made huge progress toward communicating more strategically.
Even if you just read and understand the steps in this post you’ll find yourself approaching communication more strategically. So let’s get started.
VISION: Determine Your Communication Needs
In this section you’ll create your own sheet like the example above to determine the type of content you need to communicate in order to address your challenges.
1) CHALLENGES: Problems You Need to Solve Now
It’s common to start any kind of strategy by identifying the goal. (You may even have heard of the popular SMART criterion for goal definition.) Goals, however, are often abstract and aspirational. Let’s be honest. You have a goal that you hope to achieve because you have a challenge that you need to solve right now. So let’s start there.
The goal of your organization may be to achieve policy change around an issue like climate change, homelessness, or animal welfare, but right now your problem is that you can’t retain volunteers and you’re worried about presenting an appealing picture to funders. Be honest that, because that’s the work you need to do right now. Write down your most pressing challenges (fewer is better) on the Visioning Worksheet.
2) AUDIENCES: People You Need to Persuade
Audiences are the central focus of communication. They are the people who need to take action in order for you to resolve your challenge. They are the people you will persuade to take action by creating content that is valuable to them.
3) VALUES: Your Audiences’ Motivations
Now it’s time for a little strategic empathy. You know what you want from your audiences (money, time, skills, etc.), but in order to get it you have to figure out what they want from you. You’ll need to get inside their heads and figure out what they value. They’ll be more likely to do what you want if you are giving them something they want.
It’s important to be evidence-based as you do this exercise. Use your knowledge of the statements, behaviors, and contexts of individual audience members. If you need more information about an audience, note that and move on. Right now, use your memory of your past interactions with them and what you know about their lives.
Audiences are always individuals and you’ll provide value to them more effectively if you remember that. When considering an institutional audience, like a foundation or government ministry, remember that you will still be persuading an individual grants officer or staffer. You may even have communicated with this individual personally. Or you could look up their profile on LinkedIn. This will tell you something about their education, personal values, and professional aspirations.
4) CONTENT: What You Communicate
Now list the types of information, stories, and messages you think will provide your audiences with the value they seek.
Remember, we are not talking about channels yet. If you send event announcements to your volunteers by monthly newsletter, day-of reminder email, and Facebook posting that is still just one type of content: an event announcement. Content is the “what” of communication, channels are the “how.”
AUDIT: Evaluate Your Current Communication
Now that you have created a vision of what you need to communicate, it’s time to compare it to your current communication reality. In this section you’ll evaluate how well your current communication addresses the strategic needs you just identified.
5) CHANNELS: How You Communicate
The communication audit brings communication channels into the process. Channels are the means by which you transmit content to your audience, and can be online or offline.
In this section I’ll also start using the the term activity to refer to a particular type of communication content transmitted through a particular channel. For example, an email newsletter is a channel, introductions to other volunteers are a type of content, and creating personal stories about volunteers for the newsletter is a communication activity that presents introduction content in the newsletter channel. In the worksheet above, each cell contains activities.
Now, in the cells of the worksheet, list your current communication activities and make a qualitative assessment of how well you think they are providing value to their audience. The above chart shows only three channels (conference, email newsletter, grant report), but you should evaluate all the channels you use to communicate.
After you fill in all the cells, evaluate each column by making a note in the bottom row. These notes should both evaluate how well your current activities are providing audience value and suggest new channels and content you might need to create to better serve that audience.
PLAN: Choose New Ways of Communicating
You have already done so much good work and you are almost finished. Yay! In this section you’ll make the final decisions on activities, measures, and responsibilities and put it together in one neat snapshot.
6) ACTIVITIES: Communication Work
The audit you just completed, particularly the evaluation at the end, provided many options for how you can use your channels to transmit valuable content to your audiences. Unfortunately, you don’t have the unlimited resources to do all these valuable activities. You need to make choices about which communication activities you will actually spend your time doing.
The activities you choose should have the highest communication ROI (return on investment). That means you get the most benefit per unit of cost. You should drop or drastically reduce communication activities that aren’t really helping you solve the right-now problems you identified in the visioning stage. You should also adopt new activities that will be more effective in creating value for your audiences.
This kind of change – both removing the old and adding the new – can be very hard for organizations and for individuals. It is also the key activity of strategic analysis. If at the end of the strategic process you are basically doing what you did before then either your previous activities were extremely effective or you did not get the full value out of the strategic process.
7) RESPONSIBILITIES: Who Will Do that Work
Responsibilities are an element that is often relegated to communication work plans, but I find that assigning responsibility is where the rubber really hits the road for communication strategies. All things are possible until real people get assigned real work. Then the true limitations of what is possible become clear. So assign areas of communication work during the strategy phase. You can use color coding to identify which individual will be responsible for which communication activities, as the sheet above shows.
8) MEASURES: Methods for Adaptation
Your strategy is a set of assumptions – of best guesses – as to which activities you think will solve your challenges. Your activities are experiments that test those assumptions. Measurement allows you to learn from your activities so you can correct faulty assumptions and improve your communication activities.
Remember to create a direct link between challenges and measures. If you decided that the volunteer coordinator will create handwritten notes to volunteers you wish to recruit into higher levels of engagement, see if those individuals really do volunteer more within a given amount of time after receiving a card. For example, you might measure how often that individual volunteered in the two months before they got the card (as a baseline) and two months after receiving it, to see if card-writing is really worth the extra time. If it isn’t, then experiment with a new way of communicating value.
This process of constant learning and improving is called optimization. This post showed you how to create a basic communication strategy. Now your job is to go out and optimize it by experimenting, learning, and adapting your communication activities.
Customizing This Process
Every organization’s communication challenges are different. While this process presents a basic process and tools for analyzing a small number of activities, your organization’s context may be more complex or require alterations.
I’d be happy to work with you to customize this process for your own unique situation or to answer a question about it. Feel free to write me at email@example.com. I look forward to hearing from you!