Communicate with a plan!

    HOW TO

  • Roll out your message effectively
  • Improve your message through forward-thinking

If you have something important to say, you need a strategy to get your message across to the right audience. A few social media posts, hoping for the buzz, just aren’t enough. Building an effective communication strategy is an intensive process, which we usually skip for that reason. And often we regret: Our smart message goes nowhere; worse, it backfires and we come under attack; or the financial costs of our communication efforts simply get out of hand.

A strong message grows stronger with planning

There are two positive arguments in favor of planning. On one hand, the better the message, the more planning it deserves. On the other, a strong message will only grow stronger the more planning you do! A few concrete steps will help you build a strategy that produces such results.

1. Unpack your goals

That sounds easier than it is. Our objectives tend to be full of hopes but thin on details. To help realize those lofty ambitions, you should start by asking yourself:
  • who do I want to reach?
  • how do I want these people to change?
  • why would they decide to do so?
  • when will my campaign end, regardless of its outcomes?
  • what measures of change can I use to assess my efforts and refine them in future?

An effective way of tackling these questions is to answer them as clear, formulaic statements, describing the desired effects on target audiences: We will communicate to get [audience] to [change] because [motive] within [timeframe] as showed by [indicators]. These goals may be tentative. They will be expanded and refined iteratively, throughout the course of the campaign itself.

2. Picture your audiences… 

Once you have listed the different categories of people you will address and aim to influence, you must give life to each of these groups. Again, ask yourself:
  • who are good representatives of each audience, not least among people I know?
  • how do they relate to the topic I want to communicate about?
  • why do they think, believe, talk, and act in the ways that characterize them?
  • where do they ordinarily go for information, and whom do they trust?
  • what problems do they face that are relevant to the topic of my campaign?

You might consider drafting personae—a method used for user-oriented design and marketing—to help make this more concrete.

The last question in the above list is tricky but crucial. We respond above all to communication that meets one of our needs. To be effective, any form of communication involves solving a problem—whether the solution is advice, information, inspiration, comforting, validation, or warning. A successful campaign therefore aligns its goals with the fundamental needs of its various target audiences. 

3. …and your competitors

It would be nice if we had a megaphone to hand; we could then speak over everyone else. But in reality, we’re up against many other voices influencing the same audiences, whether intentionally or not. As always, ask yourself a few questions:
  • who are my competitors?
  • what are their narratives?
  • how do they communicate them?
  • why are they successful?
  • where do they fall short?

Here, you may find it useful to use a conventional marketing tool: the SWOT analysis, which stands for a matrix in which you map Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. Whatever the methodology you choose, you must analyze others to understand your own distinctiveness. In other words, how will your communication stand out in a noisy, competitive landscape?

4. Decide on your touchpoints

Possibly the most critical step in a campaign is to pin down what avenues for communication you will invest in. That depends entirely on completing the steps above. Communication can be in person, at public speaking events, on traditional media, via social media, on billboards, in pamphlets, through the mail, at help desks, and so on. Each one of these media has numerous variants, which may be well suited to specific campaigns or audiences, but not all. Your decisions at this stage determine everything that follows, so make sure you answer these questions:
  • format—will I pull together a compelling argument, catchy visuals, a grassroots network?
  • budget—what will it all cost, and how does that affect my positioning?
  • timeframe—how much time will it take, realistically?
  • workflow—which tasks are required and which processes must fall into place?
  • responsibilities—if this involves a team, who must be leading, consulted, informed?
  • feedback—where will I find credible measurements of impact?

All this suggests no small amount of change at your own end. Indeed, there is an essential thing to understand, when it comes to successful communication: To transform others, we must also transform ourselves. To meet your public, you must think, speak, and act on their terms.

5. Plan your content

More than genius, your content needs coherence

A campaign, by definition, is a consistent effort structured by rules. No communication can proceed in fits and starts without undermining its own impact. So your content may include a few sparks of genius, but it must also enjoy a coherent overall identity. Only within such a framework can it efficiently adapt to the reactions of your target audience. A content plan will therefore include a combination of elements:
  • guidelines for verbal messaging—namely slogans, arguments, stories, and keywords
  • guidelines for nonverbal cues—visuals, body language, tone, underlying themes, brand markers, etc.
  • sequencing—ideally with a gradual escalation of output leading to a climax
  • a feedback loop—to pick up reactions to the campaign, process them, and fine tune next moves
  • a contingency plan—in the event reactions are overwhelmingly negative

6. Close and conclude

Don’t let a campaign drag on, whether it’s working or not. You’ll only make things worse as fatigue sets in. You can always come back to the topic in a new campaign later on. That’s also why you must always end a communication effort with a thorough evaluation of how it went.

Remember, your best chances of success in the future lie in the lessons you learn from the past. If you didn’t transform your target audiences as much as you’d hoped, it may be because you still have much to change yourself!

14 December 2023