These are the steps we use to develop a comprehensive communication strategy. The resources here are a combination of what we’ve developed and best-in-class content from the field. And we’re sharing them because we believe that advancing the communication of other organizations, advances the field for us all.
How to Create a Communication Strategy
STEP 1. Determine how you align to your organization’s mission
Once you’ve chosen to spend time and energy on a communication project, it’s hard to resist the urge to jump right in. But effective projects are made from thoughtful strategies; and we think the first step in being thoughtful is listening. You need to be fully aware of how your project aligns with your organization’s mission and goals. That overarching direction should act as guideposts from which your activities should flow. This is especially important when measuring your activities. If the metrics for each of your activities can be connected back to what the organization’s mission, you can more easily answer the question that everyone wants to know - “Is our communication effective?” Depending on the size of your project, you may also want to include a project mission statement. Below are some resources for writing one.
To assess your organization’s mission statement - or create a project mission statement - use these measures: Assessing Your Mission Statement.
STEP 2. Listen to your audience’s needs
It is key that your plan is built around the needs and preferences of the people you’re trying to reach (also called your target audience). To do this, you must first clearly determine who your target audience (or audiences) is and what makes them different from other people. In communication, we call this segmentation. Each target audience group – or segment – you select will drive the development of your content, selection of dissemination channels, and forms of engagement.
Your communication plan should include up to three target audiences. These are your primary audiences. If there are other groups who are also important (like internal stakeholders) you can also have up to two secondary audiences.
The most important thing to remember is: You are NOT your audience. By trying to serve everyone, you serve no one.
For initial strategy development - and to maintain fidelity throughout your project - develop a persona for each of your primary audiences. Here's a basic overview from Buffer of how to create a persona.
User-centered design principles offer great lessons for designing projects based on your audience’s needs. Here’s a great book to learn more about this approach: The User is Always Right by Steve Mulder (2007)
STEP 3. Develop a written strategy with clear goals
Now it’s time to bring your business requirements (described in your goals) and your audience’s preferences (described in the target audience research) together to create a plan. Your plan can be as formal or informal as you need it to be, but it should be a written document that you can look to throughout the project.
The best place to start is to state what you’re trying to acheive. The goals you set will determine your activities and direct how and what you measure. While your goals may be broad, remember that an effective communication plan should be based on goals that:
Can be achieved through communication activities;
Are focused on your highest-priority business requirements;
Are possible for the timeframe and resources; and
Once you've written your goals, you should create measures of success for each. Before you send a single piece of content out into the world, you should know how your will measure it and what success looks like (don’t worry, we talk about this more in step 8).
STEP 4. Establish internal processes to support implementation
Before you begin implementing your strategy, you should establish internal processes to support the creation, approval, and dissemination of content, engagement with your target audience, and project assessment activities. Here are some important questions to ask:
What sources will we use to develop content? We will be repurposing content from other parts of the organization? How will we generate ideas for new content?
Who will review and approve content before it’s published? How much time is needed and/or appropriate for review?
Who will publish the content, on what schedule, using which tools?
What level of engagement do we want with the target audience? How will we manage those interactions? In what timeframe will we respond and/or engage with the audience?
Who will collect process metrics during implementation? How will we review those? What process will we use to incorporate insights into our ongoing communications?
Using a thematic approach to content development helps build internal momentum, maintain a consistent level of frequency over time, and allow for opportunities to think strategically about content partners. Many digital communicators use editorial calendars, here’s a sample calendar you can adapt for your program.
Style guides can be used internally to ensure all content being produced is consistent. They also make great training tools for new staff. Here’s a sample outline for what I think is most helpful in a style guide.
STEP 5: Produce valuable content
The content you create must bring value to your target audience. It must also consistently reflect your brand and drive your audience to take action. Great content often:
Is something your target audience will find valuable;
Matches your target audience's language in tone, formality, length, and format;
Uses plain language best practices, including being first-person, direct and concise; and
Includes a specific call-to-action that tells your audience what you want them to do next.
One of today’s popular content trends are listicles. Here’s a related article I wrote: The Top 10 Reasons Why I Love Listicles
STEP 6. Implement your strategy
Finally...it’s time to put your strategy into action! Your strategy should specify the steps for implementation; but here are some tips:
Set aside dedicated time for content creation.
Publish based on engagement data and update posting schedule over time.
Use data and analyses to refine content creation and tailor content for your followers.
Site and browser integration simplifies content creation easy.
Between developing a frequent stream of new content and managing engagement with your audience (which we discuss below), you should take advantage of efficiencies whenever you can. These are the two tools we’re using the most these days:
Buffer (scheduling and analytics tool) - we love this tool because of the built-in integration with the platforms and web browsers.
Followerwonk (Twitter analytics tool) - we love the data this tool provides on your Twitter followers and their “social authority,” which you can use to find and connect with influencers.
But there are many others. We recommend getting demos for several different options and comparing them to your requirements.
STEP 7. Connect with your audience
Today, it’s unlikely you’re using any communication channels that are only made to deliver information. So, if the tools work for two-way engagement, you should ask yourself if you’re using it to its fullest potential. Most audiences want to connect with your organization or project, although their expectations vary across industry so you don’t have to keep up with the big brands to be effective. It’s important to set expectations early about how often and in what format you plan to engage with them.
STEP 8: Measure what matters
There are many tools - some free and some very expensive - that will help you measure your digital media communications. However, we find that most people have only two questions they really care about:
Are we making progress?
Are our numbers good?
To answer “are we making progress?” - Track the specific goals you identified for each goals. You don’t need all the data; you only need the data that matters. Organize your metrics report by goal so that you can determine if you’re making progress over time.
To answer “are our numbers good?” - Compare yourself to yourself, over time. There is no other organization out there that has your specific focus, type and frequency of content, and length on any particular platform. So don’t compare yourself to anyone else (including industry averages). If your metrics are improving over time, your numbers are good.
STEP 9: Continuously improve in tiny increments
Unless you’re conducting a formal research study, you should be continually evolving and refining your approach. Your data isn’t just a marker of whether or not you reached your goals, they should be a continuous source of insight for how you can make your content more effective. Each time you review a metrics report, ask yourself these questions:
Why are our numbers going up/going down/remaining the same?
How would our target audience rate our performance over this period of time? (revisit the personas you developed in step 2 and answer this from their perspectives)
What insights do I have from these data? How can I turn that insight into a change in our content development or internal processes?
What am I hoping to see next month?
STEP 10: Assess emerging technologies
I doubt there’s anyone out there that feels like they’re fully prepared for what’s coming next in digital media (If so, please send us note. We’d love to meet you!). While you may not feel prepared, you can plan for changes. Using a systematic approach to identify, assess, and incorporate new technologies into your project is the most cost-efficient and effective way to stay current with today’s changing digital media landscape.
Here’s our process for implementing a systematic approach for assessing emerging technologies: How to Identify and Assess Emerging Technologies
Is Your Strategy Complete?
Once you've developed your strategy - or when it's time to review a strategy you've been using for a while - spend some time assessing your strategy's effectiveness.
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