I rarely operate without a plan. And when I say a plan, I am talking about a written communications plan that articulates the objectives, strategies, and tactics – and typically includes a timeline (ideally even an editorial or content calendar), budget, and metrics. Because without a plan, you literally do not know what you are doing, or what goal you are working towards. Nor do you have anything to measure, to determine whether or not you have accomplished what you set out to do.
Having spent the bulk of my 30-year career at agencies or as a freelance consultant, I can tell you that a written – and approved – plan is essential. It ensures that both you and your client understand exactly what you are trying to accomplish, what they are paying you for, and how you will determine whether or not that work has been delivered – and effective.
I once made the mistake of moving forward without an approved plan only to have the client continually switch focus and priorities. Because they had yet to figure out what they wanted to do (which is another benefit of engaging a thoughtful communications professional: the clarity and focus they can bring to the rest of your business), we spent all of our time and effort getting up to speed on their latest direction or new concept, and then making recommendations to address that (none of which were approved, of course, because they had already changed direction again and moved on to the next idea). This went on month after month until the end of the year came and the client asked where the deliverables were, and where the results were.
You can encounter similar pitfalls when working in-house. When I was working as the Marketing Director of an organization, I encountered some fairly confused department heads as I conducted face-to-fact meetings in the planning phase for my first fiscal year there. No one had ever asked them what their communications needs were, or even talked about communications in terms of how it could help them achieve their departmental objectives. But that was an unusual organization, in that no one seemed to have had a written plan for anything – only spreadsheets that detailed the numbers they needed to achieve, often without any tangible idea as to how they would go about achieving them. And after meeting with each department head and coming to agreement on what support we could provide them with in the coming year, I presented my detailed plan to my boss and was met with an equally confused look, as my predecessor had never put together a strategic plan. Like I said, it was an unusual organization.
The bottom line is that you can’t achieve your objectives if you don’t first define them – in writing, so everyone is in agreement. And you can’t achieve those objectives without a defined strategy, and specific tactics – again, in writing, so everyone is in agreement. At a bare minimum, this provides a blueprint for the services you will be providing and a checklist to measure your contribution. However, whenever possible, I also like to agree upon KPIs – key performance indicators – to measure the effectiveness of our work. You may need to set a baseline with many of these, but then you will be able to gauge how much the needle moved in subsequent years.
I have developed and implemented countless communications plans over the years. These plans have always been strategic, in that I have taken into consideration the company’s business goals, target audience, and competitive environment (more on this in a moment). These plans have also been integrated, or at least as integrated as possible when I was restricted to specific marketing disciplines (when working for a public relations firm, for example). And whenever I have been working in-house, these plans have also been holistic.
In an integrated plan, the goal is to provide a unified and seamless brand experience utilizing all of the communications disciplines and channels. I began my career at an integrated marketing firm, so I have first-hand experience in nearly every communications discipline. As a result, it is only natural for me to take an integrated approach to communications. It is my default setting.
A holistic plan is similar to an integrated one but also takes into consideration every aspect of the business, not just communications, and recognizes their inherent interdependencies. I like to think of it as integrated planning, drawing input from every aspect of the business, as well as considering broader interdependencies such as the role of the company in the lives of its customers as well as in society at large. And similar to my belief that all communications should be integrated, I prefer a holistic approach as well, because I feel that businesses need to be more integrated, less siloed, and communications can play a key role in helping to achieve that. Again, having worked in-house and gained first-hand experience with a holistic approach to marketing, this has also become my default setting.
A strategic plan is one that is designed to accomplish specific communications objectives, which are designed to address specific business objectives. To identify these objectives, and what communications strategies – and subsequent tactics – could best be used to achieve them, you need to consider the company, its goals, its target audience, the competitive environment, and the budget and resources available. And to gain the necessary understanding of these things, you first need to develop a thorough knowledge of the business, its target audience, and its competitive market.
Know Your Business
This may seem rather obvious, but it is essential for a communications professional to know and understand a company’s business objectives. You may come across a senior executive, particularly in entrepreneurial organizations, who only shares the information they think you need to know. In their limited business experience, they have always been the one with the answers, so they view everyone else as mere facilitators of their vision. More seasoned executives understand that business is really a team sport, and that if you invest in someone with a particular expertise, then you should at least listen to and consider their input.
This actually happened to me once, when I was working with some young entrepreneurs fresh out of college. They had told me that their objective was to sell ads and newspapers, which made sense given that they had just started a specialty newspaper publishing business. Naturally, I spent all of my time and energy focused on this objective, only to discover later on that what they really wanted was some publicity for themselves, so they could launch the next phase of their careers. And had we not stumbled into an opportunity to profile this start-up in The New York Times (an ideal place to stumble into such a thing), I would have never known this. Which was a real shame, because I could have spent my time and energy pitching their story to a wide variety of business outlets, positioning them as rising young entrepreneurs.
In addition to understanding the true business goals of an organization, it is essential to know the company’s products and services inside and out – including their strengths and weaknesses, so you can emphasize the former and downplay the latter. Many refer to this as the unique selling point or value proposition, what sets it apart from the competition.
I also like to learn about the history of the business, to understand how the company, its products and services, and the market in general have evolved to get where they are today. In fact, I like to gain an understanding of everything from the research and development work being done to the way in which the company sells, distributes, and supports its products. The more I know, the better the advice and support I can provide.
Know Your Audience
As a psychology major, I have always enjoyed a deep dive into the mindset of the target audience. And nothing is more frustrating to a marketing professional than being told that the audience is “everyone.” Only people who are too lazy to give sufficient thought (let alone adequate research) to who is buying – or likely to buy – their product would make such a claim. Even if you are selling air, you would be wise to start off by focusing on those who are winded and out of breath.
At a minimum, you need the basic demographic data. And given the amount of data available today, and the ease with which it can often be collected by smart businesses, you can usually learn a lot more about your customers – and potential customers – than that.
As a data-driven professional, I have conducted focus groups to gain first-hand knowledge of the target audience. I have also conducted online surveys, both through email as well as hosted on a website. And I have even gone on sales calls and worked in retail settings to better understand the customer’s purchasing experience.
The more you learn about the target audience, the better you can tailor your communications – including advertising, content marketing, direct mail, experiential communications, public relations, social media, sponsorships, etc. And when you can bring that kind of insight to the table, the entire organization benefits – not just communications.
Know Your Competition
Occasionally you will meet a business leader who insists that no one has ever brought anything like their product or service to the market. Again, these are usually entrepreneurial types, with limited business experience. But even if the company is truly groundbreaking and unique, whatever they are selling is fulfilling a need. And that need has been previously filled, however inefficiently or insufficiently, by something else.
As a communications professional, you need to fully understand where your company and its products and services fit into the marketplace. Everyone claims to be revolutionary, “disrupting” this or that, but you need to cut through the buzzwords and other bullshit because you have to provide proof points for those claims – to ensure that the unique selling point or value proposition are genuine.
Again, it is a question of doing your homework. Learning about your target audience will give you a better understanding of who your competitors are, as well as their strengths and weaknesses. And if your product or service is actually something completely new, you can also find out how people have been fulfilling whatever need your product will fulfill.
When working in-house, I find it helpful to also map out long-term plans – three to five years in scope. These do not necessarily have all the detail of an annual communications plan. They are more for forecasting budgetary needs, such as anticipating new technologies, adding new capabilities, and making new hires.
Long-range planning can also improve your annual plans, putting them in context as you work to advance the company’s long-term goals. And, again, by taking the initiative with such things, you will often find that the process can benefit the entire company by encouraging other executives to think long-term about their departments as well.
As for those who argue that their business is too fluid for such visionary planning, they are either missing the point or simply being lazy. Remind them that this is planning, not predicting, meaning that much of the value is derived from the process as opposed to how accurately the plan ends up matching the whims of the mercurial marketplace. Which leads us to…
Improvise, Adapt, & Overcome
When I was growing up, a friend’s father was a Marine who taught us all how to climb, kayak, and shoot. He also taught us one of the mantras of the United States Marine Corps: “Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome.” Though I understand that today’s Marines prefer the abbreviated version: “Semper Gumby” (always flexible).
This is good advice for anyone, but it is particularly useful for communications professionals. Change is the only constant in our business. That is why communications plans – and their budgets – need to be viewed as living documents, adjustable and adaptable to the evolving business environment.
And it certainly makes sense to take advice from the Marines. After all, they were the first to take an integrated approach in their field of work, choosing the best strategies and tactics – the best disciplines and channels available – to achieve their objectives. Like the Marines, take the time to gather the necessary intelligence, develop a plan for success, adjust accordingly once you hit the beach, and then look back to determine what worked best so you can better prepare for the next battle.