Modern marketing is driven by storytelling. And storytelling is driven by creating a sound communications plan. This entails developing a clear understanding of how you’ll reach the right audiences with the right messages to meaningfully move the needle for your organization.
In this post, you’ll learn:
- The importance of having a communications strategy in the first place.
- How to document your plan from start to finish (with a downloadable template).
- And how to execute that plan effectively.
Best of all, we’ll keep everything simple and actionable enough to start putting this process into practice quickly without cutting corners. By the time you’re done, you’ll have an outline for a high-level strategy (plus tons of links to more in-depth resources to help execute each step).
DOWNLOAD: Communications Plan Template
Save time documenting your strategy with this downloadable template. It aligns with each section of this post, so by the time you’re down reading, you’ll have all the information you need to lay out an entire plan from beginning to end.
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What Exactly is a Communications Plan?
While the answer to this question may seem obvious, there are a few different ways to understand what a communications plan entails. Are we talking internal vs. external? Could we even be referencing a crisis communications strategy?
Let’s take a moment to remove that ambiguity and establish a working definition:
An end-to-end plan for delivering strategic messages to key audiences in order to drive positive business outcomes.
In plain English, that means figuring out:
- Who are you trying to reach?
- What message do you want them to receive?
- How will you try to reach them?
These are simple questions with often complex answers that a documented plan can help clarify.
Who Benefits From Having Such a Plan?
All kinds of different organizations can benefit from documenting an actual communications strategy (rather than just winging it). Here are some examples:
- In-house marketing teams. From SMBs all the way up to major enterprises.
- Agencies. Both for the agency, and their clients.
- Non-profits. For planning cost-effective social media and PR strategies.
- Marketing and communications consultants. Working with clients.
What Does an Effective Communications Strategy Look Like?
A communications plan doesn’t need to be complicated. Here are the twelve steps you can follow (with the included template in this post) to create one yourself:
Step One: Develop a Brand Statement That Summarizes Who You Are
Before you can communicate the value of your organization, you need to understand who you are, and exactly how you serve the audiences you want to reach. An easy way to summarize this is by creating a brand statement (or a brand definition).
Take a look at some examples (from brands you definitely know):
- Starbucks: To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.
- CoSchedule: A family of agile marketing products that will help you stay focused, deliver projects on time, and make your team happy.
- Nike: To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world.
Here’s a simple template to write yours:
Our organization exists to provide [benefit] [benefit], and [benefit] to [audience] through [product or service]. You can document this within your template:
Step Two: Identify Your Unique Selling Proposition (USP)
To craft effective communication, you need to know your unique selling proposition.
Here’s how this term is defined according to Marketing Donut:
Your USP is what makes your business and its products/services different. It's what you offer that no-one else does in your market - whether that's higher quality, a lower price, a better customer experience or a new technological innovation.
If you can't identify your USP, you'll have a hard time convincing prospective customers to buy from you instead of your competitors.
Let’s take a look at an example from mattress retailer Casper. Their unique selling proposition is that their mattresses are made from unique materials that provide more comfort and better sleep. Naturally, that messaging is reflected on their website’s homepage:
Defining Your Own USP
So, what makes you unique? And why should people care about those traits? Find the answers by starting with these questions:
- What problems do your products solve or what need do your services address?
- What do you offer that your competitors don’t?
- Is there anything about your products or services that are difficult to copy?
Once you’ve determined these things, you can develop brand statements, taglines, and other messaging that inform your marketing strategy.
Step Three: Identify Your Business Objectives
The next step in your process is to identify your business objectives. Business objectives are goals your company or organization needs to hit to be successful.
Every goal your team sets needs to contribute back to these objectives. If you’re unaware of what you’re aiming for, you’ll miss every time.
Talk to or schedule a meeting with your manager to find these objectives. Once you have them record them in your template:
Step Four: Develop Audience / Customer Personas
The next step is to find your target audience or audiences. These are the people your organization is trying to reach.
Therefore, you need to identify who they are and what makes them tick so you can create messages that connect with them.
Identify Your Target Audience
Before you start developing your audience personas, you need to identify your target audience. Your target audience is the group of people who are most likely to purchase your product or service.
Here are a few ways to learn more about your target audiences:
- Survey current customers to learn more about them. Try using tools like SurveyMonkey or Google Forms to gather data from your audience. Ask demographic style questions to gather the information you are looking for.
- Dig into Google Analytics to learn more about who is currently visiting your website.
- Search through your competitors social media followers to see who they appear to be attracting (and compare that to your own followers).
Once you’ve gathered the data, you need to create a one to two sentence description about your audience. It could look something like this:
Our target audience is made up of professional 20 to 28-year-olds who have just started their first job after graduating from college with a four-year degree.
Remember to keep it brief, as you’ll go into more detail later. Record these statements in your template:
Step Five: Understand Other Key Publics, Too
You might need to communicate with people and entities other than customers. Some examples might include:
- News media. News outlets and blogs (and the editors and writers working for them).
- Government agencies. Nonprofits and government entities may have public-facing communications with other government agencies.
- Other organizations. Do you partner with companies or organizations?
You don’t need to get too in-depth yet. For your purposes at this stage, you’re just looking to be mindful every possible target audience your communications strategy may need to consider.
Step Six: Determine What the Worlds Needs to Know About You
So far, you’ve figured out who you are, what makes you unique, and who interacts with your brand or organization. The next step is to connect your company and your audience by identifying the high-level messages you need to communicate about your brand.
What’s Your Story?
This gets back to your story and what you’re all about. What makes you interesting and what value do you offer to the world? The messages you deliver should connect back to this.
Think about the following two items:
- What are the most important things people need to know about your organization?
- What are some common misconceptions you need to combat against?
Everything you do marketing and communications-wise is going to tie back into one of these two things.
Step Seven: Choose Your Channels
The next step in your communication plan process is choosing the channels that you’re going to share your message on.
Your Company Blog
According to Express Writers, featuring a blog as a key part of your website increases your chance of better search engine rankings by 434%.
Blog posts are great for establishing topical authority, sharing news, :
- Company news and events.
- Useful how-to content.
- Sharing information about product updates.
A second channel option to consider is email. According to Imagination, emails usually generate 38 dollars for every 1 dollar spent. That’s a 3,800% return on investment.
Some common types of email you might send include:
- Email Newsletters: Keep your audience up to date with your latest content and news.
- Sales Offers: Having a limited time offer to entice your customers to buy from you? Let them know with a quick email blast that encourages them to buy.
- Outreach: This includes PR,
If you decide to use social media, ensure that your organization is using the best channels for your purposes. Here are some facts to keep in mind about each network:
You can also choose your networks based on where your audience would be most active. According to the Pew Research Center, this the most updated audience demographic data as of 2016.
SMS marketing is another great way to get a direct line with your audience. Some practical use cases include event reminders, sales announcements, and discount offers (particularly for brick-and-mortar businesses).
This is core to any communications strategy. You need to have a strong understanding of who covers your space, which writers and editors you need to build relationships with, and how to get them to notice you. This is all PR 101, but it’s important not to overlook solid execution of the basics.
This could include printed flyers, brochures, in-store signage, direct mail, and other materials you might provide for your audience or potential customers.
Ever wonder why you hear extended sponsored product placements in podcasts? It’s because brands understand the value of consistently being heard by loyal listeners in a format that holds people’s attention for 30 to 60 minutes or more at a stretch.
Print and television advertising aren’t dead. Even as modern marketing goes increasingly digital, people aren’t watching less TV (and TV is going increasingly more digital … but you know what we mean), and print media is enjoying a resurgence as a niche product.
Step Eight: Plan a Messaging Matrix
Now it’s time to pull together what you’ve worked out in the previous steps, into a cohesive messaging matrix. This is a document that outlines the following:
- Brand Statement: What value do you provide?
- Target Audience: Who benefits from that value?
- Core Problem or Issue: Which problems do you solve for each of your audiences?
- Key Messages: How do you communicate that value?
An Example of What This Might Look Like
Before planning this out yourself, let’s take a look at a hypothetical example for a bank.
Let’s say this bank has three main audiences:
- High school and college students setting up new checking accounts.
- Home buyers shopping for mortgage providers.
- People approaching retirement age looking for financial planning assistance.
The messaging needed to reach each of these audiences may be dramatically different. The best ways to reach each of those audiences might be different too. And that’s where having a clear communications strategy with messages mapped to a matrix comes into play.
So, say this bank has a different message or value proposition for each audience, which looks something like this:
- High-interest student checking accounts with free $100 for account activation (for high school and college students).
- Having the area’s top-rated mortgage team (for home buyers).
- Expert financial planning advice (for those approaching retirement).
This bank would then execute campaigns focused on communicating each one of these individual messages, through the channels best suited to reach each audience.
So, taking what they know about social media demographics and knowledge of how these different groups consume information, they tailor their execution to meet each one’s needs. Here’s how that might break down:
- Teens and young adults: Organic and paid social (Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter), in-store signage, SMS marketing.
- Home buyers: Television ads, Google PPC, print ads, direct mail, in-store signage.
- Retirees: Brochures, in-store signage, Google PPC, television ads, direct mail.
This is a crude hypothetical set of examples, but you get the point: different messaging, for different audiences, on different channels, all focused on communicating the bank’s value to potential customers.
Aligning Messaging With Audiences and Channels
You have an idea of what your high-level messaging strategy looks like, and you understand which audiences are most easily reached via specific channels. Now it’s time to connect these three things with your messaging matrix. Here’s what the template included in this post looks like:
This is about as simple as a messaging matrix can get, but it’ll help you narrow down which messages need to be communicated to which audiences, and by which channels. Follow the example in the previous section to complete this as it makes the most sense to you.
Step Nine: Determine Your Important Events and Campaign Plans
Another critical part of your communication plan is going to be laying out the essential events your team needs to keep track of throughout the year. You’ll also want to start formatting the campaign plans for each of those events.
To start take a look at your calendar for the next year. Some common North American holidays are:
- Thanksgiving (In the US)
- The Fourth of July (In the US)
- Memorial Day (In the US)
- Veterans Day (In the US)
- Labor Day (In the US)
- President’s Day (In the US)
- Valentine’s Day
- St. Patrick’s Day
- New Year’s Day
Some other recurring events and times of year to consider might include:
- Seasonal sales cycles.
- Major events and conferences in your industry.
- Annual fundraising drives.
If you know something will be coming up, then be prepared to plan and execute those campaigns.
Step Ten: Set Your Communication Goals
The next step in your communication process is to set goals that your communications team needs to reach.
These goals should relate back to the business objectives you identified earlier in this post.
For example, let’s say your business objective is to increase charitable donations by 50%. So a communications goal for your team could be: increase the number of event signups by 75% from last year.
Each goal that you create should also be SMART:
Try this fill in the blank template when you’re creating your goals:
Our [insert team name] will reach [number] [metric] every [time frame] by [date].
So in practice, it could look something like this:
Our communications team will reach 5,000 event trial sign-ups every quarter by December 2020.
Once you have your goals you need to determine what metrics you’re going to track. Metrics are data points that show whether or not you are reaching your goals.
Step Eleven: Plan Content and Campaigns on Your Marketing Calendar
Organize and execute your communications strategy with a marketing calendar. This will make it easier to enforce deadlines, deliver organization-wide visibility into what your team is doing, and help your staff understand what needs to be done and when.
Here are some resources to get you started:
- How to Plan a Marketing Calendar That Actually Works
- Annual Social Media Calendar: How to Plan All Your Posts the Easy Way
- The Best Email Marketing Calendar Template You Need to Manage Newsletters
- The Best Annual Content Calendar Template to Get Organized All Year
Step Twelve: Measure Your Impact
Measuring each component of your communications plan is critical to understanding how well your efforts are moving the needle. How you do this exactly depends on the channels and tactics and use, but in general, a strong communications plan should help you gauge public perception and understanding of your organization.
For a deeper dive into metrics to monitor, consider digging into these recommended resources:
- Definitive Guide to PR Measurement (Talkwalker)
- 3 Ways to Measure Brand Sentiment Effectively (Cision)
- How to Use Social Media Sentiment Analysis for Listening (Mention)
- 12 Metrics You Need to Measure Brand Awareness (Invoca)
That should be plenty to get started with. The takeaway to remember is you’re working toward establishing and expanding an accurate understanding of your brand while building trust with potential customers. If you leave this post absorbing just one thing, this should be it.
Manage Your Marketing and Communications Strategy With CoSchedule
When you’re ready to move on from spreadsheets for communications planning, consider getting organized with CoSchedule. It’s a family of agile marketing products built to help teams stay focused and deliver projects on time.
Ben Sailer and Breonna Bergstrom contributed writing to this post.