Marketing Communications

By Ruth Atherley

We recently had a potential client come to us for a social media strategy and tactical plan. They also wanted us to implement the plan. As they laid out their goals, targets and key performance indicators (KPIs) for the first six months, we worked to respectfully, but honestly communicate that what they expected was close to impossible – for anyone. (And that anyone who said they could achieve those targets was either misinformed or overselling themselves.) In addition to unrealistic goals, they had an incredibly small budget. They were adamant about their expectations and didn’t want to hear our feedback about the realities of what could be accomplished. It was clear that this client wasn’t a good fit for us, so we respectfully declined this contract.

We love social media and have an in-depth knowledge of the power of social networks and online engagement – but it takes resources, effort and time to build a community, to create engagement, and to facilitate communication and dialogue. We’ve been including social and digital media in our strategic communications plans since we opened our doors over 14 years ago. And we have learned some valuable lessons about what it takes to do social and digital media well.

View social and digital media as a component of your overall communications strategy.
No element is a stand-alone and there will always be overlap. It is crucial that you don’t just repost the same content on all of your networks. Change it up a bit to speak to the specific community or stakeholders, use different images, and stagger the posts from one network to another.

Don’t try to be all things to all people.
Unless you are a large consumer product or service company – limit which networks you use. It is impossible to keep up with multiple social media networks and do it well. Pick your top one, two or three and do those well first – and then see how you can expand out.

Create an editorial calendar.
Have it include all of your communication vehicles, networks and outreach. Identify the events, initiatives and information you will share and work through it like a magazine would work through their editorial lineup for the year, quarter, month and week.

Put enough resources into it to do it right.
Having someone manage your social media from the side of their desk doesn’t work anymore.

Respect the fact that your social media channels are a megaphone to the world.
Copyedit, proofread and fact check what you are saying. It matters.

Give yourself time to build a community and to create engagement.
Don’t expect that you will have thousands of followers the first week you are active on a social network. It doesn’t work quickly – and you want a good community that will engage. That takes time.

Give more than you take.
Engage with others. Comment, retweet and share. If you aren’t actively supporting others, you can’t expect them to support you.

Keep the algorithms of the social network in mind.
On Facebook, your followers might not see a specific post. Comment on your own post or respond to a comment to help bump it up a little. Don’t repeat a post three or four times a day – that becomes irritating to your audience – and don’t try to trick them by changing up one thing like an image. Your audience will see through that. If you want to make sure they have seen your post, find different ways to showcase it that isn’t irritating and repetitive.

Repurpose content.
Spread it out over a range of channels and social networks – plan it out with the editorial calendar.

Social and digital media are important parts of a communications strategy. To do it well, you need time, resources and action.

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Della Smith, my friend/colleague/mentor, is running a great blog series called Dining with Della. Each week, she profiles someone and asks them three key questions about communications – the answers are often about a key moment in the person’s personal or professional life, they are incredibly honest, and there is always an important takeaway. This series is worth reading. The most recent piece had a response that spoke about the importance of value in structure, and it got me thinking about structure and its role in strategic communications. Here at AHA, we do a fair amount of work regarding sensitive subject matter. And while I think structure is important in all of the work that we do, it is exceptionally so when the subject matter is sensitive or when you are dealing with an issue or a crisis.

On several initiatives, we worked with a diverse range of stakeholders – they included family members and/or victims, community groups and advocates, justice system organizations and professionals, local, national and international governments and, of course, the public. It was crucial to create structures – frameworks for how we would communicate with the stakeholder groups. When working on complex issues, there are so many interrelated elements that need to be arranged in a manner that allows for transparent communication to all and yet acknowledges and respects the needs, expectations and culture of the individuals and specific groups. It’s not an easy feat – and it’s almost impossible to do without structure.

While each project is unique, there is an approach that we use that helps to define, not just what needs to be done – but also why, how and when. We typically start off with a statement of purpose, which defines what we want to achieve throughout the process. Our statement of purpose isn’t just about the end results; it focuses on what we want to accomplish as we move through the process.

We clearly – and candidly (but always respectfully) – identify the current situation and review what works, what is no longer useful or effective, and what needs to be changed. This includes undertaking a SWOT analysis – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. As a part of this, we do a PEST analysis, listing out the political, economic, social and technological factors that could affect our work – negatively or positively. We also do a deep dive into each stakeholder group so that we can understand their true needs. We find out who they are – not just within the context of the initiative, but overall. What are they interested in – what do they want to hear from us and why? What don’t they want to hear from us and what does that tell us? Where do they get their information? (Online? In person? Via group communication or in a more individual manner?) What is their communication style? And – especially when the subject matter is sensitive – we (as communications people) also have to think about how the leadership of the organization wants to communicate and how we can bring different elements or philosophies together so that everyone feels respected, valued and understood.

Once we have all of this information, then we are able to develop a strategic communications framework that provides a road map to move forward. This supports the overall strategy and the tactical day-to-day activities.

Developing a structure takes effort, but it provides huge benefit throughout the project.

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dreamstime_xs_65257404We spend a lot of time talking about, producing and getting client approval on great content here at AHA. We create a range of pieces – from speeches to newsletters, web content, editorial-style articles, infographics, presentations, video series, photo essays, news releases, media pitches, social media content (including Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, LinkedIn and more), blog posts… and so much more. And – before we put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, turn the camera on, or open PowerPoint, Keynote or iMovie… we identify who the targeted audience/community is and work out where the content will be distributed, shared or shown.

We’ve all heard that content is king, but is it really king if it’s not effectively distributed, shared or shown? You can create the best content in the world, but if you don’t share the content in the right place – the place where the targeted individuals, groups or communities are – then it isn’t effective.

For content to work, it has to be seen, be understood and, in most cases, be shared by the influencers, the engagers and the leaders in the target market. By creating content that authentically speaks to them, that resonates and that attracts, and by making sure that it is seen at the right time and in the right medium or network – you are creating the opportunity to ignite the engagement with your stakeholder groups. This is such an important piece of stakeholder engagement and one that is often overlooked when developing a content strategy. It makes a huge difference in the results that you can generate through branded content.

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dreamstime_xs_51748984Early in my journalism career, I applied for a section editor position at a national magazine where I worked. The section editor was responsible for following trends, fads and news, identifying the types of articles that would be written for the section, pitching them at the weekly story meetings, and assigning and editing articles. I thought it would be a good step forward in my career.

During the interview for the job, the senior editor asked me what I thought was more important – understanding which topics our readers wanted to see or going with what I thought we should write about. To me, it felt like a bit of a trick question. While this role demanded that the editor have a clear understanding of what was going on in the world relevant to the areas that the section covered, understanding what our readers wanted seemed crucial to the success of the section and for the magazine overall. And I said so. The senior editor smiled, made a note, and we moved on to other areas of responsibility.

It turned out that I didn’t get the job. The editor told me that he thought I would be happier working as a writer rather than an editor and he wanted someone who had a bit more experience than I had, at that point. He also said that out of the 20 or more seasoned, talented, experienced journalism professionals he interviewed for this role, I was the only one who said that understanding what our readers were interested in was a priority. All of the others got it wrong – they thought they knew better about what their readers would like. He told me to hold on to that attitude and that it would take me far. And I took that advice seriously.

Here at AHA, we have recently been taking a deep dive into creating engaging content with several of our clients. And before any content creation (written, audio or visual) is undertaken, we take three important steps to ensure that what we produce will be relevant, engaging, useful and timely.

Understand Your Stakeholder Group, Target Market or Community

The first step is to understand who you want to engage – who do you want to inform, connect with, update or start a conversation with? Defining your audience is crucial and fully understanding what they are interested in; what their perspective is; what – if any – their bias is; and sometimes, depending on the subject matter, understanding their hopes, fears and dreams are all important too.

There are many ways to do this and social media provides us with a communication channel that makes it easy to see how people are feeling about ideas, products, trends and organizations. It’s not always easy to embrace the criticism or negative feedback, but it is always valuable.

Research How They Consume Information

You will use different communications vehicles or social networks, depending on the audience you want to speak with. It is important to identify where your stakeholder group, target market or community spends time online. Is their demographic active on Facebook? Is Twitter their medium? Is YouTube their favourite place to learn more? Where do they go to get information, to be entertained, or to join a discussion or conversation? Discovering how they consume information is also about what mediums they prefer – video, podcast, article, short blog post…

There are times, depending on who it is that you want to engage, when you may need to create more than one type of communications piece to share your information or message. It may be a blog post, a photo essay or a video series. If your stakeholder group is diverse, it is important to share information in different formats so that you will reach as many people as possible.

Identify How to Share Your Content in a Way That Best Meets the Needs of Your Stakeholder Group

Once you understand the needs, demands and expectations of your stakeholder group, target market or community, then it is time to put together the information that you want to share in a way that will be most appealing to your target market. This has to be done in an authentic, respectful manner. You can’t just wrap bad news up in a pretty package and hope that no one will notice. In undertaking this important step, it is crucial to put together an information package that a) reflects the culture or habits of the community you are speaking with; and b) is produced in a way that will encourage consumption of the information.

Making sure that you balance what you want to share with the needs of the people you want to engage is key. We still see some organizations pushing out information that their target market doesn’t find interesting or doesn’t care about. There is no value in creating content if it isn’t going to be of interest or appeal to the people in your target market.

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dreamstime_xs_52765848The AHA team recently met with several of our clients and a few prospective clients to plan out communications initiatives. More and more often, digital content and brand storytelling is an important component in how we are helping our clients to tell their stories, moving forward.

In this day and age, an organization cannot rely solely on media relations or publicity to tell their stories. More and more media outlets are shifting to sponsored content, especially in the “softer” news segments (think breakfast TV, talk shows, lifestyle and business sections of publications and, of course, online). They might not announce it, but there are partnership and sponsorship deals happening that result in advertorial-like coverage. The challenge right now is that the media outlets doing this aren’t exactly being transparent with their audiences about the source of the content. As communications professionals, we all know it. We can spot a sponsored segment a mile away, but our clients are not as immersed in the media and may not.

It is harder and harder to get “earned” media coverage (editorial coverage that is pitched to media and is covered because it is a solid news item or tells a good story). That means that organizations must tell their own stories. These days, people get online and go to a search engine to find out information. This is an opportunity for your organization to tell your story and to use search engine optimization (SEO) to help potential clients, customers or other stakeholders find you.

There are now full-time digital content producer/manager/editor/curator positions at many companies. Creating your own content and housing it online is not something that is leading edge or brand new, but it is something that every company needs to be doing.

Rather than lament the decrease in media coverage, smart organizations are seeing this as a huge opportunity to build relationships with stakeholders, to engage with their communities, and to tell their own stories in an interesting, engaging, compelling and often entertaining way. Articles, Q&As, videos, photos, blogs, podcasts, videocasts… there are so many mediums to choose from and, depending on the demographic and content consumption habits of your stakeholder groups and communities, you may choose to use two, three or four different approaches to sharing information.

One of the first things we do with a client who wants to start or increase their digital content production is to look at who they want to connect with and where these individuals and groups are online, and we find out how they consume content, what their online habits are, and what are they interested in. It is a combination of an audit and research approach that provides us with solid information on what communications tools, tactics and mediums to use in order to engage in a fulsome manner. Knowing this allows you to build out your content/editorial schedule, to identify how to measure success, and to set key performance indicators.

Once you have created or produced content, it’s not enough to upload it and hope someone will read or view it; you need to think like a publisher and promote it to your potential audience. And you need to continue to monitor and engage. This is a key element of the plan that we focus on when working with clients. SEO, promotion of your content, identifying and connecting with influencers who can help expand and extend your audience base, and engaging with your readers/viewers in a timely, authentic and relationship-building approach is a long-term commitment that increases in value as you build momentum (and relationships).

It is an exciting time for organizations with a good story to tell. The ability to create great content and build an audience is in our hands. And it can be an incredible asset when done well.

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