Thanks to modern-day omnichannel marketing, there are many different vehicles to incorporate messaging into a digital campaign, each of them serving a unique purpose. One element that often gets overlooked is incorporating a comprehensive communications strategy to be a part of the campaign.
A program can be wonderfully put together with all of the right demand-gen and digital marketing components, but all of that effort goes to waste if it’s not communicated to the right audiences in the right way. That’s where a strategic communications plan comes in, and it often goes beyond your intended external audience. Communications also provide a great opportunity to include your internal stakeholders with details about the programs so they can help drive them. It may also include other indirect external media to help spread the word to new prospects. The plan will also include correct intervals to hit audiences at the right time so that you’re not missing any details, while still maximizing their top-of-mind awareness.
Today’s available marketing tech stack is built to not only accommodate but optimize the effectiveness of communications within a marketing campaign. Tools like marketing automation take communications to the next level, allowing marketers to segment audiences, target messaging and lead score the audience. All of the data available at our fingertips within marketing automation platforms can help us figure out what’s working, what’s not and what we can do to optimize future communications.
Throughout this post, I’d like to pull from past experiences and share how marketing and communications professionals can successfully brainstorm, create and roll out a communications strategy for an organization and/or individual campaigns.
What is a communications strategy? What is a strategic communications plan?
The term “communications” is broad. There are many outlets, forms of media and types of communications that can get key messaging across. You’ll see me intertwine “communications strategy” and “strategic communications plan”; the two have very similar, or very different definitions depend on who you ask.
To put it in my own words, generally, a communications strategy is the brand voice within an organization that clearly defines how the company narrative will be deployed, consistently, for all marketing campaigns. A strategic communications plan is a more tactical approach to communications, designed to effectively inform and enable internal and external audiences about specific marketing objectives that match business objectives.
Why is having a communications strategy important?
According to research cited by the Content Marketing Institute, “a documented strategy marks one of the biggest differences between effective content marketers and those who fail.”
Having a strong communications strategy that is cohesive and aligns with business objectives is not a one-size-fits-all formula. It’s much more of an art to crafting a communications strategy than a science. However, creating a clear, concise internal and external communications plan is all about awareness and enablement, and the methods used to get there will vary depending on several factors, such as:
- Resources available – What does your team size look like? Who is dedicated to creating content, sending emails, tracking analytics?
- Marketing tech stack – Take an audit of what you have available at your fingertips: do you have the correct communications vehicles in place? How will you measure ROI?
- Subject-matter expertise – Do you have enough original content to work from without repeating yourself? What existing materials can you pull from to reduce the duplication of work? Who is providing the credibility and expertise needed to convey the right message to your audience?
Having a communications strategy also helps define how you can tailor messages to a specific audience, as well as what methodology you’ll use to hit that audience. For example:
- Internal audience: Ensuring that your internal audience has a specific call-to-action or advance notice before customers become aware of an event or product launch is critical. This will allow them to gather the knowledge they need to be able to effectively answer any questions that might come up once the external communications are released. You might have several supporting documents created, such as pre-written email templates, presentations, FAQ documents, instructional videos or datasheets that internal colleagues can use ahead of an external communications campaign.
- Marketing communications (external): More often than not, your strategic communications plans will place a focal point on this area – making customers more aware and informed. Having a strong external communications strategy is essential to conveying your brand voice and influencing the overall perception of your organization. Company messaging is an extension of customer service; in fact, with more users researching products and solutions on their own than ever before, strong communications will play a massive effect on whether or not a prospect ever gets to a sales representative.
- Public relations: Beyond your internal stakeholders and your external prospects, incorporating public relations into your communications strategy can be an effective way to build relationships and amplify your voice to more outlets.
Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that a communications strategy loses value without a defined campaign(s) to accompany it, and the campaign can’t thrive without a cohesive communications strategy to support it.
What are the elements of a strong communications strategy?
One thing to keep in mind as you build out your communications strategy is to allow for the unknown. Don’t box your timeline and deliverables into a fixed, non-flexible format should any changes or updates need to be made. If you work in an environment as many marketing professionals do, there are many obstacles and unforeseen circumstances that arise.
One activity all communications managers should apply is playing devil’s advocate for all possible scenarios. What could go wrong? How could these communications be perceived? What contingency plans should be put in place? Does your audience know about the topic you’re discussing? Are they experts at what you’re discussing? By asking yourself these questions, even the ones that might seem ludicrous and unnecessary, you’ll be prepared to approach your campaign dynamically.
Plan ahead for:
- Dynamic content – have multiple versions of certain communications prepared, based on outside factors that may influence one to be more appropriate than the others
- Adjustable timelines – Perhaps it’s a product launch, an acquisition or merger, or an upcoming webinar, and the official launch/finalization/live date gets pushed back; be prepared to look ahead to ensure pushing back communications won’t interfere with things like holidays or other announcements.
- Variable audiences – Beyond just internal and external audiences, segmenting your audience… and then re-segmenting… is a great way to ensure a more targeted or customizable message reaches all audiences, and also maximizes the use of your resources. For example, if your first message is all about awareness, perhaps you’re interested in learning who opened the email. For those that opened it, maybe the second email includes a link, so you’ll track everyone that clicked the link and add them into a new segment. The third email may then include a Net Promoter Score survey, and you’ll create new nurture lists based on whether or not they’re a promoter or a detractor.
In addition, a massive component to communications strategy is being clear about key performance indicators and specific about how they’ll be tracked. If your strategy is around content aggregation and curation, you might just be looking to increase open rates. If you’re looking to grow the attendance at an event, you’re likely tracking registrations gained from the communications. New product launches will likely be tracking web conversion to an e-commerce site. No matter what, you’ll want these KPIs to be specifically tied to company or project objectives. Once KPIs are established, you’ll want to set clear goals, how they’ll be tracked and how they’ll be useful to the company.
How do you build a communications strategy?
Many strategic communications plans lack the “strategic” portion of the phrase. I’ve listed out three things to keep in mind to make your plan more tactical and calculated:
- Building a schedule - Stick to a timeline and a schedule. And then adapt. Some of your plans may be a more general 12-18-month plan, while others may be a more condensed single-project 6-week plan. When building out a plan, there’s usually some sort of T-minus zero launch date, such as the day an event starts, or a product becomes available. It’s always best to work backward from that date to build up the hype, anticipation or even just general FAQs that your intended audience will need to know. In some cases, this buildup messaging will be the most critical portion of the plan. In other scenarios, a bulk of the messaging will happen after the event happens. Be as specific as possible when creating your strategy, and then get even more specific. Just as you think your communications strategy is detailed with dates, times and key messages, add even more information that you know won’t be misconstrued or lacking details.
- Establish and know your audience – There are many ways to interpret this, but in B2B marketing communications, knowing your audience initially begins by understanding their basic profile demographics (geographic region, experience, role, industry, etc.) and then evolving into behavior demographics (engagement levels, purchase history, etc.). Everything you do, from setting goals to writing out a plan to execution, keep the audience in mind at all times.
- Writing relevant content – I’ve touched on it a few times throughout this blog, but in 2021, your audience doesn’t have the time or attention to entertain irrelevant messages. Customers expect both inbound and outbound messaging to match their current needs and interests, and those that consistently don’t do so face the risk of blocks and unsubscribes. By knowing what business objectives, product, service or marketing campaign you’re creating awareness on, and writing content with audience demographics in mind will directly translate to an increase in open rates, clickthrough rates, and ultimately, conversion.
One effective method to capture all of this information in one place is by creating a SWOT analysis. Brainstorm the internal strengths and weaknesses of your communications department and the external opportunities and threats that come with your communications plan as it stands. Taking a full audit of everything at your disposal will quickly allow you to fill out this analysis, as well as populate your plan.
You’ll find dozens of communication plan templates online, but some of the ones that I’ve found most effective:
- HubSpot: How to Write an Effective Communications Plan [+ Template]
- Smartsheet: Ultimate Tool Kit: Free Communication Strategy Templates
- Upleaf: Communication Plan Template
You’ll notice similar elements of each of these templates, including the date/timeline/frequency, message topic/content, delivery methods/vehicle, business objectives and stakeholders.
Lastly, once a communications strategy is rolled out and a campaign plan is executed, use all of the feedback and data available to capture what went well, where there’s room for improvement and how future communications plans can be adjusted. After all, that communications plan you created just in case might just have you prepared should disaster ever strike.
If you find yourself looking for additional guidance when executing your communications objectives, connect with our Tech Data Agency team, who use data to create campaigns that drive results for our partners.
About the Author
Mike Fitch is a content marketing expert with more than 9 years of experience in B2B marketing, specializing in marketing automation, branding, social media, and content strategy. Mike currently serves as a Senior eMarketing Strategist for Tech Data’s Advanced Solutions Americas business.