First step in strategic communications planning: Communications audits If I had one piece of advice to give any foundation or nonprofit communicator in this new financial paradigm of thrift, it would be to develop a strategic communications plan. It may be your biggest conservation tool. If you already have a plan, the second half of the year is a good time to revisit it for fine-tuning or mid-course corrections Some people quake in their boots at the words ―strategic plan.‖ The trick is doing it step by step, and not rushing to tactics. If you spend 75 % of your time getting strategy right, you’ll only need to spend 25% of your time figuring out tactics—because they grow organically out of your strategy. For this series of posts, I’m assuming you don’t have money hire a firm or an external consultant to help you with a plan, but you still want to do as much as you can internally to improve the effectiveness of your communications. I’ll try to keep my advice realistic and doable. This week, I’m going to talk about the first step in the process—communications audits. If you’re planning on redecorating your house, you don’t just go out one day and buy paint and furniture willy-nilly. You first look around and see what you already have. That helps you develop a vision for what you want, and exposes what needs to be changed. That’s what communications audits do. You need to know where you are to figure out where you want to go next and how best to get there. Audits assess your current communications practices and products, and highlight areas that need improvement. There are lots of ways of doing them, but I’m paring it down to what I think can help you the most and not overwhelm you. (But it will take an investment of your time. No way around that.) Make a list You’re going to be gathering and analyzing all of the communications you currently produce. So, the first thing to do is make a list of them all—from your Facebook page to your annual report, from grantee announcement letters to the voicemail message on your organization’s main telephone line, from the signatures on your emails to donor thank you cards. Don’t think just in terms of print or written communications—include all your digital communications and social media platforms as well. Even include your signature special events and small group meetings if they’re important communications tactics with external audiences. What you’re trying to get from this audit is a complete picture of the panorama of communications tactics you’re currently using, and a sense of the cost/effectiveness for each. Once you have this list, add some details for each item (create a grid): Time frame (e.g., annual report—March; enewsletters—Jan, April, August, Nov.) Audience/Purpose (who you’re trying to reach and what you want them to do after receiving your communication) Reach (e.g. how many publications are printed and distributed/how many you have left in your storeroom; how many facebook fans you have; how many people receive your email newsletters; how many twitter followers; web visitors, etc.) Cost (real cost, not what you budgeted) Staff time (note whether staff time investment in this communication is intensive, moderate, or small) Any known return on investment/ROI (through your strategic planning you’re going to get better at measuring this, but put down anything you know right now—total donations through facebook page, results of reader surveys for major publications, how many website downloads, etc. What you’re trying to discover is which communications best lead to people taking the action you wanted them to take.) Analyze this information in several different ways. Look for duplicate efforts; maybe you can eliminate the tactic with less ROI. Notice where you have no idea about ROI; you’re flying completely blind there. You need to build in evaluation. Notice any correlations between cost, reach, staff time, and ROI–the ideal communication causes the most people to take the action you want them to take and costs the least amount of money and staff time. Are you spending the most staff time and money on communications with the largest reach to key audiences and biggest ROI? Are you inundating any of your audiences? Ignoring any ? Are your communications choreographed to arrive at optimal time intervals with each audience? Are you leading audiences into a deeper relationship with your organization with every communication? Are there important audience actions that aren’t covered in the ―purpose‖ of any of your communications? What’s the balance you’re striking between print, digital, and face to face communications? Are you too heavy into print? Are you slighting face-to-face? Are you spending too much time on social media? Gather samples Now, gather as many actual samples of all your printed pieces as possible—including your letterhead and business cards and print-outs of your digital landing pages. Lay them all out on a big table or tape them to a wall. (For clearer insights, arrange them horizontally according to when they occur during the calendar year and vertically according to audience.) Overall, what you’re looking at is your visual identity. Notice how things cohere and reinforce each other (what you’re striving for) or how different they all look (uh-oh). Some questions to ask while reviewing these items: Is your logo/wordmark/tagline and contact info on every piece? Does your logo/wordmark look identical, except for size, everywhere? Are you using a limited, consistent, easily recognizable palette of colors? Is there some kind of design consistency throughout, even though every piece doesn’t have to be identical? Would someone easily recognize these pieces as all being produced by the same organization? Is there design consistency between our printed and digital communications? What three adjectives do you think people would think of when looking at your current visual identity? (Be honest. If you don’t trust yourself, ask some friendly strangers from the next office to come in and offer opinions.) Are these the three adjectives you want people to think of when they think of your organization? Does everything look professional—even if cheaply produced? Is there a warmth, a ―human being‖ sense to your communications, or are they cold and institutional? Now study the content of your communications. Are they immediately engaging for the reader? Are there high quality compelling photographs that reinforce main messages? Are headlines meaningful, informative, and attention grabbing? Do you use subheads, captions, drawn quotes, and sidebars to layer information for skimmers? Is the content really interesting to your audiences, or is it just something it was easy for you to pull together? Are you conveying your one or two main strategic messages throughout our communications mix? Look for conflicting messages; if you’re messages contradict each other you’re confusing audiences. Are you providing easy cross-referencing for audiences to all your channels—Are there links to your latest newsletter and social media pages on your website home page? Is your web address front and center in your printed materials? Are your publications featured on your social media pages, and vice versa? What’s the quality of writing? Is your web writing just like your publication writing? (It shouldn’t be. See my free ebook about best practices in nonprofit website design.) It is it in plain, easy to understand English, or full of complex sentences and jargon? Is your writing too long? Do you include other voices in your writing, or is it always you talking about what you’re doing and why it’s important? By the end of this part of the audit, you should have a pretty good idea of 1) how your products and practices are either hitting or missing the mark and 2) which ones are the most cost/effective in light of your communications goals and your institution’s strategic plan. Make notes about all the weaknesses, opportunities, and improvements you’ve discovered, and record any ideas and insights. This will all help set the context for your strategic planning. Next week I’ll cover three other parts of a communications audit—media coverage analysis, digital identity, and competition analysis. In subsequent weeks, I’ll get into the actual planning process.