The communication strategy describes how a company organizes its own behavior to create a certain perception of itself. This includes how the company plans to impact external and internal groups. It also defines how to measure and improve itself continuously.
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The communication strategy should be available before the marketing strategy and ideally be directly derived from the business strategy so that all three are aligned. The goal in marketing is to promote sales in the short and medium term, while corporate communications shapes and maintains a company’s reputation and brand in the long term. While pragmatism and quick decision-making are indispensable tools in the entrepreneur’s repertoire, they aren’t helpful for long term results in communications. To establish a reputation and build a brand, continuity and consistency are the most important influencing factors.
Continuity and consistency are diametrically opposed to our zeitgeist, where nothing can happen fast enough, and change is our only constant. At the same time, however trust and credibility are established over time and do not arise spontaneously. This makes a strategic approach to communication all the more important, because only a solid communication strategy can create continuity and consistency. If, on the other hand, companies communicate as needed in a permanently changing public, they will keep running after what stakeholders are currently interested in and remain in the backseat.
When establishing a reputation and brands consistency is the most important ingredient for success
How to define objectives in a communication strategy?
Many articles state that goals should be “SMART,” meaning Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-bound. This is a helpful tool, but first you should figure out where you want to go. Strategic goals in communications deserve a lot of attention as they need to hold up with time. They describe our investment strategy in terms of our reputation.
Analyzing the status quo
Put simply, the communication goals result from a comparison of the current situation and the desired situation of the company’s reputation. So, you first start with the analysis of the status quo of your communications setup and answer the following questions:
- How does the company currently present itself to the public?
- Who is the company’s communication aimed at?
- Which measures are primarily used for this purpose?
- How has success in corporate communications been defined to date?
The goals of the communications strategy are also derived from the corporate strategy, so the status quo is also about the business’s current strategic positioning. A communications strategy that is not aimed at supporting business goals is expensive and ineffective. It therefore requires accurate insights to market structure and how the company is positioned within. From this you’ll understand market segments, competitors positionings and customer groups which gives you a comprehensive picture of the scenario with its communicative opportunities and challenges.
Determine target state
It’s tempting to rely on your creativity when envisioning the desired perception of your company. This way of setting a direction is motivating in the short term but won’t hold up. A communicative objective that matches the objective of the corporate strategy and is adapted to the opportunities and challenges of the market situation is harder to create. However, it is a lot easier on the long run when the strategy pays off and gives you a reliable foundation. Therefore, the following fundamental questions should be clarified:
- What role can and should strategic communications play in the corporate strategy and leadership?
- What resources do I have available for communication in the long term based on the corporate strategy?
- What communicative effects should be generated in order to optimally support the corporate strategy?
- What effects do I want to generate with customers, market participants, partners, and other stakeholders? (Communication cannot merely inform, as it concerns affect, cognition and behavior – thus we consider the effect)
- How should the company be perceived?
Now with the strategic direction you have developed the SMART method is a perfect next step for translating the direction into tangible goals. We explain this in more detail in our article on SMART communication goals.
Who are target groups and stakeholders in the communication strategy?
Target groups are the people you want to reach with your communications. We also talk about stakeholders, the term is a little wider and includes those people who are not the primary target of the communication, but who are still important. A typical example would be residents next to an industrial site. The company doesn’t see neighbors as customers, business partners or other target groups and would not normally communicate directly to them. However, neighbors may be particularly sensitive to messages from the company because they may be affected by its activities.
So, a detailed stakeholder analysis is very important for the communication strategy to be able to plan how to deal with possibly conflicting stakeholder needs.
Stakeholders vary depending on the company, but typically include customers, business partners, suppliers, potential employees, and competitors. Again, we can use the corporate strategy and make deductions about who stakeholders are.
It is important not to lose sight of your stakeholders in daily business, you might miss them otherwise. Personas are helpful tools to prevent this and to always keep stakeholders in mind. Personas are fictitious descriptions of people who are stereotypical and representative of an entire target- or stakeholder group.
How do I define my key messages?
The key messages are the most important statements (roughly 3 to 5) that my target groups absolutely need to hear. A key message is like a research question in a study: the research question is never posed to a test subject; it is the guiding question for a research design. Likewise, core messages aren’t used literally as word-by-word content blocks, but as a meaning that should be incorporated in content.
Core messages and stakeholders
The purpose of core messages is consistency. While each target group is different from the others and many statements will be made, overarching core messages create continuity and will be communicated consistently across each target group. This creates the same image of the company in each target group, despite different topics.
How do I translate core messages into content?
A core message could be “Company XY is a top innovator because it invests a lot in research & development”. As such, the statement works well, but depending on the target group, it needs to be translated and contextualized to get it right. In the case of the target group of suppliers and business partners, there is detailed industry and contextual knowledge, so the statement could be made transparent and convincing with a few concise facts. On the customer side, there is no specific, technical knowledge, which is why you would focus on innovative product features rather than research investments.
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What measures do I use in my communication?
Measures are at the very end of the process and here the strategy already goes into practice, so it is the operationalization of the strategy. Communication measures include all communicative activities from advertising films to social media activities, cross-media campaigns, events, press and media relations to web communication and everything else there is.
It is important that the measures are consistently derived from the communication goals, convey the core messages and serve the corporate strategy. The more precisely this process of derivation is made, the more reliable the monitoring of success will be, which brings us to the next topic, the Key Performance Indicator, or KPI for short.
How do I measure the success of my communications strategy?
To measure the success of my communication strategy, you want to capture the difference between the status quo and the target state in numbers and to observe their dynamics. Both states have already been analyzed when creating the strategy. Now the question is how to put each of these states into specific, measurable values. For example, you found out during the analysis that you are not really visible on the web, then the most simple measurement value (key performance indicator, KPI) for this would be the number of visits to your company website. The interpretation of this value could then be derived from the target state or our communication goals. The two following questions then give me another frame of reference to define success:
- What is a realistic number of visitors to the website in relation to the market and my competitors?
- What is a realistic growth rate?
From such KPIs, you’ll get a very clear picture of how well your strategy is performing. Choosing the right indicators and values and interpreting these results in communications is anything but trivial and you can quickly end up with fragmented and distorted results that don’t really reflect reality. For this reason, many companies are establishing KPIs that are only of limited help. But it can be very rewarding to derive a few KPIs cleanly and measure them continuously. Feel free to contact us, we will help you to measure your communication.
In many cases, KPIs get abandoned after a while, even though the real situation hasn’t improved yet at all. The reason for this is often that an overarching plan or frame like the “growth setup” is missing.
Growth Setup – Build, Measure, Learn
Once the KPIs are defined and tracked the really important part of measuring success starts – identifying weaknesses, learning from them, improving, and doing so in a continuous cycle. Through this approach, an organization becomes more efficient and effective over time, gaining more and more experience. This approach is especially important in corporate communications because communication, more than any other profession, is influenced by a growing number of highly dynamic variables, influencing factors, and data points. Additionally, communication is an intertwined psychological, social, and technical process. It seems to happen quite obviously in public media, but in fact it takes place for the most part in the minds of people. Communication arises and operates within the affects, cognition, and actions of individuals, while two of them are hard to quantify research subjects.
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But still, in corporate communications, we naturally want to understand how our communicative actions affect not only individuals but target groups. So, this measurement is not just about the complex inner lives of individual people, but of numerous people, which exponentially increases complexity. Another dimension of complexity is added by the high diversification of customer interests, topics, communication channels and a constant churning change of them. In this environment, we try to determine whether a particular message, campaign, or ad has caused a customer to buy more, whether they like a brand, or trusts a company. So (depending on the company) you would have to survey thousands of people every day in detail about how they perceived what message. That would be out of the question even for the largest companies.
In this overwhelming situation, many are choosing the pragmatic and safer approach of combining strategy, experience, and intuition to lead corporate communications. These ingredients are incredibly important and certainly better than getting lost in data with no results, but they are far from optimal.
One way to find meaning in this jungle is the “build, measure, learn approach,” a pragmatic and applicable method: you continuously collect data about your corporate communications, draw conclusions, adjust your communications accordingly, and observe what changes to get closer to the goal step by step. So instead of trying to trace exactly what is happening from the press officer down to the psyche of the individual, you systematically learn from the accessible data.
Eventually, a growth setup with the Build, Measure, Learn approach is far superior to gut instinct. We are happy to help you find out what data is hiding in your organization, how to make it measurable and how to improve your communication continuously.