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How to structure your strategic communications plan

What is a strategic communications plan?

When it comes to communication planning for your external audiences, it’s common for organisations to dive straight into mapping out tactics like media relations or influencer management. While these are important, your strategic communication plan should always be in place first, which guides your big-picture objectives, choice of audience, broad messaging, time frame, budget and an understanding how how you will measure success. Tactics should always fit under these.

What is typically included in a communication plan?

A successful communication strategy for your external audiences is always underpinned by a comprehensive communication plan.

While each will differ from business to business, strategic communication plans typically follow the same basic structure:

  • Objectives: Clearly defined goals and objectives for the communication effort.
  • Target audience: A description of your target market and audience segments.
  • Key messages: The main points that the communication effort should convey.
  • Channels: The methods and media that will be used to reach the target market, such as email, social media, press releases, etc.
  • Timeline: A schedule for when each communication effort will take place.
  • Budget: A breakdown of the costs associated with the communication effort.
  • Metrics: A plan for measuring the success of the communication effort and evaluating whether objectives have been met.

In other words, your organisation needs to understand the reason for the plan in the first place and why you need one, who you want to speak to and what you want to say, as well as where you plan to communicate and when.

Finally, strategic communication plans should let you know how much it’s all going to cost and what you’re going to receive in return the effort and money! With each important step in place, your marketing efforts are more likely to achieve the results you’ve been hoping for.

Do you need to create your own communication plan? Download our strategic communications plan template and our communication plan example. Our free templates will help you ensure you cover each of these important areas.

Read our article on how to create an strategic internal communication plan, designed to help you connect with and influence internal stakeholders.

How is communications plan different from a marketing communication plan?

In general, communication efforts tend to focus on stakeholder communications, including both internal and external audiences. For this reason, communications plans are sometimes called a stakeholder communication plan. Marketing activities are often more aligned with advertising activities that aim to promote products or services and generate revenue from external audiences. These plans are sometimes called marketing plans or a marketing communication plan.

Why a communication plan will help your organisation get ahead

Creating a strategic communication plan offers several benefits for businesses, including:

  • Consistent messaging: A communication plan helps ensure that messaging is consistent across all channels and platforms. This can help build trust and credibility with stakeholders, as well as reduce confusion and misunderstandings.
  • Better targeting: A communication plan can help businesses target their messaging to specific audiences, such as customers, employees, investors, or the media. By tailoring messaging to the needs and interests of each audience, businesses can increase the effectiveness of their communication efforts.
  • More efficient use of resources: Communications plans can help businesses prioritise their communication efforts and allocate resources more effectively. By identifying the most important messages and the most effective channels for reaching each audience, businesses can avoid wasting time and money on ineffective communication efforts.
  • Crisis management: A communication plan can help businesses prepare for and respond to crises, such as product recalls, data breaches, or negative media coverage. By having a plan in place, businesses can respond quickly and effectively to manage the situation and minimise the impact on their reputation. (It is often a good idea to write a separate crisis communication plan. A crisis communication plan can include holding a list of key risks and holding statements).
  • Improved relationships with stakeholders: A communication plan can help businesses build stronger relationships with their stakeholders, including customers, employees, investors, and the media.

By communicating regularly and transparently, businesses can demonstrate their commitment to their stakeholders and build trust and loyalty over time. Overall, a communication plan can help businesses achieve their communication goals and ensure that their communication efforts are effective and efficient.

How do you set your communication goals?

Setting communication goals involves identifying what you want to achieve through your communication efforts. Here are some steps to help you set effective communication goals:

  • Define your overall business objectives: Before setting communication goals, you need to have a clear understanding of your organisation’s overall objectives. This will help ensure that your communication goals are aligned with your organisation’s broader goals.
  • Use the SMART criteria: When setting your communication goals, use the SMART criteria to ensure that they are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. This will help ensure that your goals are clear, realistic, and achievable within a specific timeframe.
  • Develop metrics for measuring success: How will you know if you have achieved your communication goals? Develop metrics for measuring success, such as website traffic, social media engagement, or customer satisfaction ratings. This will help you track progress and make adjustments as needed.

Examples of communication goals might include increasing brand awareness among a specific target market, improving employee engagement and morale through more effective internal communication, or enhancing customer loyalty through targeted communication campaigns.

How do you define your target audience?

To identify your target audience or target market, it is important to focus on key stakeholders who are most likely to be interested in your products, services, or messaging. Stakeholder management involves understanding who these key stakeholders are and tailoring your communication efforts to their specific needs and interests.

Here are some steps to help you identify your target market or target audience:

  • Research your market: Conduct market research to understand the demographics, psychographics, and behaviours of potential customers or key stakeholders.
  • Develop user or customer personas: User or customer personas are fictional representations of your ideal customers or key stakeholders. They can help you better understand your target market or key stakeholders and tailor your messaging to their specific needs and preferences.
  • Consider your value proposition: Your value proposition is the unique value that you offer to customers or key stakeholders. Consider how your value proposition aligns with the needs and preferences of your target market or key stakeholders.
  • Analyse your existing customer base: Look at your existing customer base to identify patterns and characteristics that may help you refine your target market or key stakeholders. This may involve analysing customer data or conducting customer surveys.

By following these steps and focusing on key stakeholders through stakeholder management, you can effectively identify your target audience or target market and tailor your communication efforts to their specific needs and interests.

Developing user or customer personas can be helpful in this process, as they provide a clear and detailed picture of your target market and help you create more targeted and effective communication strategies.

How do you build out your customer personas?

Customer personas, also known as buyer personas or user personas, are fictional representations of your ideal customers. They are based on market research and data about your target market and can be extremely helpful for keeping who you are speaking to top of mind.

They provide a detailed and humanised understanding of your customers’ needs, behaviours, and preferences.

Here’s what a customer persona should include:

  • Demographic information: Gather information such as age, gender, education, income, and location.
  • Job and company information: If your product or service targets businesses, your customer persona should include information about your customers’ job titles, industries, and company sizes.
  • Personal goals and challenges: What are your customers trying to achieve? What challenges or pain points are they experiencing? Understanding these factors can help you tailor your messaging to their needs.
  • Behavioural information: What are your customers’ buying habits and decision-making processes? What channels and devices do they use to research and purchase products or services?
  • Communication preferences: How do your customers prefer to receive information? Do they prefer email, social media, or in-person communication?
  • Hobbies and interests: What are your customers’ hobbies and interests? What kind of content do they enjoy consuming?

When developing customer personas, it’s important to base them on research and data, rather than assumptions or stereotypes.

You can gather this information through methods such as surveys, focus groups, or customer interviews. The more detailed and specific your customer personas are, the better you can tailor your communication strategies to their needs and preferences.

How do you create the right messaging?

Developing key messages for your communications plan is an essential step in ensuring that your messaging is clear, consistent, and effective.

One effective way to develop these is to start with messaging pillars.

Pillars are extremely helpful when it comes to prioritising the core themes or ideas that sit above your more granular messaging matrix.

Pillars should reflect your organisation’s values, mission statement, vision, and goals. Here is where you can start:

  • Identify your core values: What values and beliefs are important to your organisation? These can be taken from your mission statement and should be reflected in your pillars.
  • Define your key themes: What are the main themes or ideas that you want to convey through your messaging? These should align with your core values and reflect your organisation’s mission.
  • Discover your unique selling proposition (USP): Conduct market research to understand your target audience and their needs. You can then analyse your own business and compare it to your competitors to identify what sets you apart and what unique value you can offer to your audience.
  • Develop pillars: Using your core values and key themes as a guide, develop messaging pillars that encapsulate your core messages. These should be broad and timeless, and should provide a framework for your core messages.Examples of messaging pillars for a retail store could include service, range, price. They should be universal and broad.
  • Create key messages: Using your messaging pillars as a guide, create specific, targeted messages that address the needs and interests of your target audience. These should be clear, concise, and consistent, and should be designed to resonate with your audience.
  • Test and refine: Once you have developed your pillars and key messages, test them with your target market to ensure that they are effective and resonant. Refine your messages as necessary based on audience feedback and market research.

By starting with messaging pillars, you can ensure that your key messages are aligned with your organisation’s values and mission, and provide a clear and consistent framework for your communication strategies. This can help to ensure that your messaging is effective, resonant, and memorable.

How do you select the correct communication channel for your organisation?

Selecting the correct communication channel for your organisation is crucial to ensuring that your messages reach your intended audience and are received and understood effectively. Here are some steps you can follow to select the correct communication channel:

  • Know your target audience: Before selecting a communication channel, it’s important to understand your target market and their communication preferences. Consider factors such as age, location, and occupation, as well as their preferred channels and devices for communication.
  • Consider the nature of your message: Different communication channels are better suited for different types of messages and marketing materials. For example, a complex technical message may be better suited for a written report or a face-to-face meeting, while a quick update may be better suited for an email, instant message or piece of creative featuring social media graphics.
  • Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of different channels: Different communication channels have different strengths and weaknesses. For example, email is great for reaching large groups of people quickly and cost-effectively, but it may not be the best channel for urgent or sensitive messages. Consider factors such as reach, cost, speed, and interactivity when evaluating different channels.
  • Choose the appropriate channel: Based on your understanding of your target market, the nature of your message, and the strengths and weaknesses of different communication channels, choose the appropriate channel(s) for your communication strategy. This may involve using multiple channels to reach different segments of your audience.
  • Test and refine: Once you have selected your communication channel(s), test them with your target audience to ensure that they are effective and resonant. Refine your strategy as necessary based on audience feedback and market research.

By following these steps, you can select the correct communication channel(s) for your organisation and ensure that your messages are received and understood effectively by your target audience.

Why is a timeline important for your communication plan?

Developing an action plan that outlines key timeframes for your communications activities is important.

It will help ensure that your project deliverables are rolled out at the right time and in the right sequence to achieve your objectives.

Here are some steps you can follow to define the correct timeline:

  • Define your communication objectives: Start by defining the communication objectives you want to achieve with your campaign. These objectives should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART).
  • Identify your key milestones: Based on your communication objectives, identify the key dates and milestones you need to achieve to reach your goals. These milestones could include the launch of a new product, the announcement of a major initiative, or the start of a new campaign.
  • Determine the time required for each activity: Estimate the time required for each communication activity, from research and planning to execution and evaluation. Be realistic about the time required for each activity, and take into account any potential delays or obstacles.
  • Build in time for review and adjustment: Build in time for regular reviews of your progress, and make adjustments as needed to stay on track. This could include changes to your messaging, media channels, or tactics based on feedback or new information.
  • Create a detailed timeline: Once you have identified your key milestones and estimated the time required for each activity, create a detailed timeline that outlines each step in the process and the timeline for completion.
  • Test and refine: Test your timeline with key stakeholders and make adjustments as needed based on their feedback.

By following these steps, you can define the correct timeline for your communications activities and ensure that your messages are delivered at the right time and in the right sequence to achieve your objectives.

How can you create a communications budget that you will follow?

Creating a communications plan budget is important to ensure that you have the necessary resources to execute your plan effectively. Here are some steps you can follow to create your communications plan budget:

  • Define your tactics: Based on your communication objectives, define the tactics, or communication methods, you will use to achieve your goals. These could include advertising, public relations, events, social media, and more.
  • Estimate costs for each tactic: Estimate the costs associated with each of the communication methods, including any expenses for creative development, production, media buying, event planning, and staffing. Be sure to factor in any variable costs, such as media placement fees or event venue rental costs.
  • Allocate your budget: Once you have estimated the costs for each tactic, allocate your budget accordingly. Consider the potential impact of each tactic on your communication objectives, as well as the cost-effectiveness of each tactic.
  • Consider contingencies: Build in a contingency budget to cover unexpected expenses or changes in the marketplace. A contingency of around 10% of your total budget is a good rule of thumb.
  • Monitor and adjust: Monitor your budget closely as you execute your plan, and make adjustments as needed to stay on track. This could include reallocating funds between tactics or adjusting your plan based on changes in the marketplace or feedback from stakeholders.

By following these steps, you can create a communications plan budget that is aligned with your communication objectives and ensures that you have the necessary resources to execute your plan effectively.

What is the difference between communications goals and tactics?

Communications goals and tactics are two important components of a communications plan, but they serve different purposes.

Communications goals are the overarching objectives you want to achieve with your communication plan. These goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART). Communications goals typically focus on outcomes, such as increasing brand awareness, driving sales, or improving customer satisfaction.

Communications tactics, on the other hand, are the specific actions you take to achieve your communication goals. Tactics are the individual activities you undertake to execute your plan. Tactics can include advertising, public relations, events, social media, and more.

In other words, communications goals are the destination, while tactics are the vehicles you use to get there. By setting clear communication goals, you can ensure that your tactics are aligned with your overall objectives and work together to achieve your desired outcomes.

It is important to note that tactics alone are not enough to achieve your communication goals. You need to have a clear understanding of your goals in order to select the right tactics and execute them effectively. Without clear communication goals, your tactics may be disjointed, unfocused, or ineffective.

What are some great examples of communication tactics?

Great communications tactics are those that effectively reach your target audience, communicate your message clearly and convincingly, and help you achieve your communication goals. Here are some examples of great communications tactics:

  • Content marketing: Creating high-quality content that provides value to your target market can be an effective way to build brand awareness, establish thought leadership, and drive engagement. Examples of content marketing tactics include blog posts, whitepapers, eBooks, infographics, and videos.
  • Influencer marketing: Partnering with influential people in your industry or niche can be a powerful way to reach new audiences and build credibility. Influencer marketing tactics can include sponsored posts, endorsements, reviews, and collaborations.
  • Social media marketing: Leveraging social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter can help you connect with your target market and drive engagement. Social media tactics can include creating and sharing content, running ads, and engaging with followers.
  • Public relations: Building relationships with media outlets, journalists, and bloggers can help you earn media coverage and build credibility. Public relations tactics can include press releases, media pitches, interviews, and events.
  • Email marketing: Email marketing can be a highly effective way to nurture leads, promote products or services, and stay in touch with customers. Email marketing tactics can include newsletters, promotional emails, and automated email campaigns.

These are just a few examples of great communications tactics.

The most effective tactics will depend on your specific communication goals, target market, and budget. When selecting tactics, it’s important to consider the potential impact on your audience, the cost-effectiveness of each tactic, and how well it aligns with your overall communication strategy.

Do you need a communication plan template?

If you want to create your own communication plan, sign up for Strawberry Media’s free communication plan templates, designed to provide a simple roadmap for your next communication plan.

Before you start the planning process:

Do a SWOT analysis of your organisation

A SWOT analysis (also known as a situational analysis) is a useful tool to identify and analyse the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats related to your organisation’s communication strategy.

This can be conducted at the beginning of the communication planning process to help you better understand your organisation’s internal and external environment and identify areas where you need to focus your communication efforts.

Line up your project management team

Creating a project management team for your communication planning is essential to ensure that your efforts are well-coordinated and effective.

Here are some reasons why you need to create a project management team and what project stakeholders should contribute:

  • Cross-functional expertise: Your project managers should include individuals from different functional areas of your organisation, such as marketing, public relations, social media, and customer service. Each team member should bring their unique expertise to the table.
  • Clear roles and responsibilities: Each team member should have a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities within the project team. This includes defining specific tasks, timelines, and deliverables to ensure that everyone is on the same page.
  • Collaboration and communication: Your project team should be committed to collaborating and communicating effectively to ensure that your communication plan is well-coordinated and consistent. This includes agreement on communication cadence, in other words, how often you will have regular team meetings. Brainstorming sessions, and open communication channels will also help ensure that everyone is working towards the same goals.
  • Monitoring and evaluation: Your project team should also be responsible for monitoring and evaluating the success of your communication plan. This includes tracking key metrics, such as website traffic, social media engagement, and customer feedback, and making adjustments as needed to ensure that your plan is effective.

Audit your current communications strategy

it is highly recommended to conduct a communications audit before starting a communications plan.

A communications audit involves reviewing all of your organisation’s past and current communications efforts across all channels, both internal and external, to identify strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement.

By conducting a communications audit, you can gain insights into what has worked well in the past, what needs improvement, and where there may be gaps or missed opportunities. This information can then be used to develop a more effective and targeted communications plan that builds on past successes and addresses areas for improvement.

A communications audit can include a range of activities, such as:

  • Reviewing past communication materials.
  • Analysing website and social media analytics.
  • Conducting surveys or focus groups with stakeholders.
  • Assessing the effectiveness of internal communications channels.

The specific activities will depend on the scope and objectives of the audit.

Overall, conducting a communications audit can help ensure that your communications plan is informed, targeted, and effective in achieving your organisation’s goals.

By taking the time to review past communications efforts, you can avoid potential problems and develop a plan that is informed, targeted, and effective in achieving your organisation’s goals.

Hold a team workshop for additional collaboration and buy in

Team workshops can be helpful for communications auditing and planning for several reasons:

  • Collaboration: Team workshops enable team members to collaborate and share their perspectives and ideas. This can help to identify communication gaps, strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities. By working together, teams can leverage their collective knowledge and expertise to develop more effective communication strategies.
  • Alignment: Team workshops can help to ensure that all team members are aligned and working towards the same communication goals. By discussing and agreeing on communication objectives, strategies, and tactics, teams can ensure that their efforts are coordinated and complementary.
  • Creativity: Team workshops can spark creativity and innovation, enabling teams to come up with new and creative ways to communicate with their target audiences. Brainstorming sessions and other creative exercises can help to generate new ideas and solutions that might not have been considered otherwise.
  • Consensus-building: Team workshops can help to build consensus and buy-in among team members. By involving all team members in the auditing and planning process, teams can ensure that everyone is committed to the communication strategy and is invested in its success.
  • Learning: Team workshops can be a valuable learning opportunity for team members. By sharing best practices, case studies, and other examples of effective communication strategies, teams can learn from each other and stay up-to-date on the latest communication trends and techniques.

How often should you update your communications plan?

Your communications plan should be updated regularly to ensure that it remains effective and relevant. The specific frequency of updates will depend on factors such as the size and complexity of your organisation, the scope of your communication efforts, and the pace of change in your industry or market. Here are some general guidelines:

  • Share your communication plan with your team: Make it easily accessible in your central source of project information. If any changes occur that impact your communication plan, be sure to update it promptly and communicate those changes to team members. This ensures that everyone has access to the most up-to-date communication plan for the project.
  • Review your communications plan annually: A yearly review can help you assess the effectiveness of your current plan and identify areas for improvement.
  • Update your plan when there are significant changes in your organisation: If your organisation undergoes major changes, such as a restructuring or merger, your communications plan may need to be updated to reflect these changes.
  • Revisit your plan when you launch new products or services: Whenever you launch new products or services, you should update your communications plan to ensure that you are effectively reaching your target audience.
  • Make adjustments as needed: If you notice that your communication efforts are not yielding the desired results, you may need to make adjustments to your plan.

In general, it’s a good idea to be proactive about reviewing and updating your communications plan, rather than waiting for problems to arise. By staying on top of changes and continuously evaluating your communication efforts, you can ensure that your plan remains effective and helps you achieve your goals.

Communications plans in a nutshell…

Developing an effective communication plan involves conducting a communications audit, defining communication goals, identifying and understanding your target audience, selecting appropriate communication channels and tactics, setting a timeline and budget, and conducting regular reviews and updates.

By following these steps, you can create an effective communication plan that aligns with your organisational goals, helps you reach your most important stakeholders with clear and convincing messages, and helps you need your business needs.

Picture of Trinity

Trinity

Trinity is the CEO and founder of Strawberry Media. She has 10+ years of experience in traditional PR and has seen first hand how companies struggle to effectively communicate.

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