Developing A Content Strategy for Today’s Communications Plan

What is a content strategy anyway? This is a list of things you will do to ensure that what you have to offer in the way of content (information, data, video, audio, ideas, etc.) will reach all facets of your target audience in the way they want, when they want.

This is why you need to deeply know your audience first.

You must know how you will design content for all contexts via any device in use today: phone, computer, iPad, online, anywhere. Not only will you need to tailor your content this way, but you will want to be able to remerchandise it in various forms. This will ensure your messages and stories, news and product announcements, white papers and thought leadership and more will reach your audience and be well received.

Additionally, a content strategy should include some idea of how you will develop it, including workflows and responsibilities. Do you have the resources to offer content in the digital age? This often (but not always) means offering a multi-media, conversational, 24/7 experience.

What do you have to offer?

First, know what you have to offer and what you’ll primarily be using as content:

  • Original pieces, such as white papers, research studies, market data and more?
  • Product announcements, event announcements or the like?
  • Opinion and “think” pieces?
  • Other people’s research, writings, video and more?
  • Presentations, productions and performances?
  • Conversation starters from the position you hold, past experiences or an event?
  • “Reports from the field,” giving an eye level account of something happening?

What will your content reputation entail? Who will you “be” in this age of information?

  1. Content curator: collecting and passing on information from other sources, making you an expert on a particular topic, idea, industry or market? American express does this well with their Open Forum. And, Guy Kawaski with his AllTop service is another great curator.
  2. Original content generator: issuing original thought leadership, ideas and stories. Shel Israel of Global Neighbourhoods is one such content producer who provides practical, yet original thinking and ideas.
  3. Enabling and empowering user-generated content: inciting conversations among people that form new ideas, positions and philosophies. Many radio talk show hosts fall into this category, asking listeners to call in and direct the conversation.But, so does and, whose product review functions are  legendary for influencing and spurring (on or off) sales.

Most organizations will fall into the first two categories. Most companies and nonprofits engage in a mix of content curation and distributing original content. But, do decide. Also, have some sense of how you will be as a communicator:

  • “The first to know, the first to share” (breaking news)
  • The commentator? (adding to the conversation, bringing in a different angle or filling in holes)
  • The provocateur? (stimulating or debating?)
  • The objective source? (just the facts, please)
  • The correction agency? (dispelling myths)
  • The influencer (directing and guiding other’s thinking)
  • The expert (on a market, industry, product, service or other?)
  • The entertainment? (bringing in a pleasant, fun, humorous or other characteristic to a market or conversation?)

How will you design your content?

Is your audience highly mobile and need content in a variety of forms (phone, computer, iPad, and more)? In today’s multi-media world do they need visuals, infographics and video? Or, are they editorially focused, such as reading peer-previewed journals and reports? Your content should be able to be “remerchandised” to fit a number of channels. But, know the main channels that you need to fill, robustly. Just because you can deliver content in one form, doesn’t mean you should given your unique goals and objectives. (More on this tomorrow.)

How you will develop it?

Someone has to deliver this content. Do you already have a pipeline of material that is pretty full, just waiting to be shared? Or, will it need to be developed? Who will do this? What team do you need (help from creative, communications, marketing, online)?  Who will do the posting, tweeting, uploading, downloading, pinning, designing, writing, distributing, monitoring and tracking and reporting?

Once you’ve determined these things, develop your section of the communications plan that will:

  1. Declare who you’ll “be” in the way of content sharing and the reputation you want to build.
  2. Declare which channels will need to be filled and in what form.
  3. Identify where you can “remerchandise” your content (and where it makes sense to do so).
  4. Assign roles and responsibilities to the content generation, sharing and monitoring.

Modern Communications Planning: The Target Audience Section

Continuing our series on modern communications planning, today we discuss the target audience. Or, to whom are you trying to communicate?

In my 27 years working in the communications field, I have found many organizations spent much time talking about how the proverbial “we” were going to get our ideas across to people “we” were hoping will spend time and money with us. In fact, most of the time was spent talking about what “we” want to say, and a smaller percentage of the time was spent talking about who was going to hear it. If this sounds familiar, it is time to reverse that trend.

Including a section that has basic information about your client or customer base, such as top-level demographic data, key market research findings, descriptions of their world, and other information helps keep your decision-making real world and relevant.

First, honestly answer how well you know your audience. You may believe you know them quite well. Sales force feedback, focus groups, surveys, and direct conversations give you good information. But, is it proving to be enough?

In  the book Transformational  Speaking, author Gail Larsen, offers the following four questions to ask yourself about an audience:

  1. Is your audience seeking information?  Is your audience moved by data? Do they just not know much about your topic and they want to know more?
  2. Is your audience seeking insight?  Are they just looking for what to do? Are they looking for someone to lead
    the way?
  3. Is your audience seeking to expand their imagination? Are they seeking to make something new happen?
  4. Is your audience seeking to be illuminated? Are they seeking to be changed at a deep level? Do they want to be moved?

These questions are mostly used before developing a presentation. But by knowing where your audience falls in the above four categories, you may now set the tone of all your communication efforts.

But, then, dig a little deeper before delving into the strategies and tactics portion of your communications planning. Answer the following questions about your prime target (your sweet spot customer):

  1. What are the top 5 things on their minds right now? What is keeping them up at night? (e.g. keeping their jobs, growing their company, completing a project? Something more specific?)
  2. And, what magic wand do they wish they had to resolve their concerns, issues or challenges?
  3. What are 3 things that motivate them? What is most precious to them (e.g. time, money, health/vitality, power, success/admiration, security, comfort, leaving a legacy, making a difference/contribution)?
  4. What tone of voice attracts them? (e.g. humor/entertainment, serious business/security, urgency?)
  5. What was their defining moment or defining experience that led them to possibly needing you and what you have to offer?

Layer the demographic data and market research data on these answers to develop a one page profile of your target audience. Include:

  • Job title/where they fit into the organization
  • Where they get their information
  • Who influences them
  • What they need solved, advanced or changed, and why
  • What are they worried about
  • What messages would likely resonate with them (the tone, word choices, and stories)

You’ll find  that the communications strategies you choose will be (or should be) developed to fit the needs of this profile.

TEDTalk: The Problem With Stories

Professor and economist Tyler Cowen spoke about storytelling at TEDxMidAtlantic from late 2009. He talks about the problems with stories. There are some unique things in here, such as focusing on the stories where no one has an incentive to sell something. (Cowen holds the Holbert C. Harris Chair of economics as a professor at George Mason University and is co-author of the popular economics blog Marginal Revolution.)


Step 1 of the Modern Communications Plan: Vision and Desired Achievements

Yesterday I offered a template for a modern day communications plan. If you haven’t refreshed your plan in the last 18 months, you may want to consider doing so.

I will blog about each section in the coming days. First up is identifying your vision and desired accomplishments. Also developing a list of goals and objectives is important. Determining these upfront will ground your planning and execution and ensure communications programs result in what you want and need.

With communications, an end is never truly reached. It is an ongoing effort. But, when do you know you’ve arrived at a place where you can say it is working? Write up your vision for the communications effort. Once reach, influence and action is obtained from your communications, what is the big result? What is the reputation and image you want to develop?

A good result of a communications effort for a nonprofit organization might be to reach “go to” status on all things related to their cause. For a business, it may be developing a level of authority or be seen as the most customer friendly of all competition. Regardless, name the reputation and image you want to have resulting from the effort. This segment of the plan keeps everyone on the same page and working toward the same status, character and standing in your market or industry. It is grounding.

Our Greatest Accomplishment
By listing a Greatest Accomplishment you are essentially telling everyone there is a specific goal you want to reach that will illustrate when you have “arrived.” What is the “holy grail” achievement that would show your influence is working?

An example would be for an organization to have changed a particular conversation in its marketplace or to have introduced a new idea. For some businesses, getting on the front page of The Wall Street Journal (in a positive light, of course) is seen as the ultimate success. Whatever it is, give everyone something to strive for that is concrete and achievable. It is motivating.

Goals and Objectives
This section differs from the Greatest Accomplishment. What are the mile markers that show you are making things happen and are headed in the right direction?

Goals are milestones to reach, likes steps on a giant communications ladder. They include things such as number of followers, fans, likes and engagement levels from audience members. Other goals might be getting published, having so much traffic at a trade show booth, and holding a certain number of events to positive acclaim and more.

Objectives are things you create, such as sparking new conversations, new ways of thinking, and new levels of status and standing. Other examples include moving from proactively pitching the media to having the media reach out to you for commentary or being asked to be a guest blogger regularly. Regardless, list them as specifically as you can. It will keep the plan “working.”

On Monday, I’ll delve deeper into the Target Audience section.

A Template for the Modern Communications Plan

Beyond the usual strategy and tactics (reaching out to reporters, attending trade shows, etc.), what are some of the things that need to be considered as part of today’s communications planning? Below is a template that we use for planning our clients’ overall communications and special projects. Each day I will blog about the main parts, including providing questions  that need your answers, tips and techniques, and identifying the big changes taking place in the world of mass communications.

  1. Vision. This section is a one paragraph answer to how the organization wants to be known. Or, if it is a project, what do we want to leave behind when the project is complete?
  2. Our Greatest, Desired Accomplishment.  This section highlights the single most important communication accomplishment that the organization or project can achieve in one year.
  3. Goals and Objectives. This section differs from the greatest accomplishment in that goals are things you reach (milestones such as audience numbers) and objectives are things you create (new creations, such as new conversations and ways of thinking or a new status).
  4. Target Audience. This section can include demographic data, market research, and other information that describes who you are communicating to.
  5. Main Communications Channels. This section should describe the main channels (social channels, traditional, media outlets, events and shows and more) that you are going to use to push out your information, thought leadership and ideas.
  6. Strategies. This section discusses the main strategies employed and why.
  7. Main Tactics. This section is the action plan. It answers what you are going to do on a daily, weekly and monthly basis to move the communications effort forward.
  8. “We Won’t” List. This section does precisely what the title says. Knowing what you will not focus your attention on (but could) is vital to having a focused effort.
  9. Content Strategy. The section addresses how you are  going to assess, develop and manage the ideas, thoughts and content you will use to direct conversations, viewpoints and reputation and image.
  10. Positioning, Messaging & Storytelling. This section should include your story and message guide, from a positioning statement, value proposition and spotlight pitch on the organization or project to a few signature stories that illustrate what you are accomplishing or how you think.
  11. Monitoring & Measurement. This section, one of the most well-intentioned but often ignored  areas, will go into measuring how well you are doing and how to share that with managers, executive teams and other stakeholders.
  12. Team Players. This section will identify – by name – who is going to design and implement the plan.

We are open to your ideas, as well. If you believe a modern day communications plan should include sections we neglected to include, let us know. In the meantime, check back daily for the plan’s breakdown.