In addition to the annual holiday craziness, December is the time when companies are developing their communications plans for the coming year. At our company, this process is already well under way.
It’s no secret that big end-of-year plans can be sidelined by mid-January in favor of a breaking priority or immediate initiative. While there’s nothing wrong with pursuing ‘of the moment’ opportunities – realistically, the fast-track world we’re in frequently demands it – any reactive communication activities around opportunistic news events have to be balanced by a well-thought strategy that supports annual business goals while factoring room for agility; otherwise you’re just spinning your wheels – and probably wasting a lot of resources.
It’s *ALL* About the Business
Strategic communications must support business goals. Those goals will vary based on myriad factors – from the maturity of the organization to the competitive landscape, from technological advances to changing market expectations, and more. Whatever the business goals, the communications team should work with business leaders to set and align top-level communication goals. Goal clarity will necessitate careful attention and probably some internal debate. You may set customer acquisition as a goal, when acquisition is really needed to support an ultimate goal of fundraising. The distinction will affect how you apply focus and resources.
Set Your Anchors
Once those goals are set, it’s time to take a real and honest look at what we refer to as communication anchors: your market differentiators, audiences and messaging.
- Re-evaluate your differentiators. There is tremendous market noise these days. A lot of companies churn out content and opinions trying to position as market leaders. The hard reality is buyers, press and analysts aren’t hearing too many true differentiators from one bullhorn to the next. Shouting louder won’t change that. Instead, companies need to become very self-aware and assess what actually makes them better in the minds of their audiences. That takes research and pragmatic input from a cross-section of company leadership, customers, prospects and competitor claims. It also takes opening yourself up to feedback that could be uncomfortable—it’s better to know so you can do something about it.
- Identify your audiences. Unless you are dramatically shifting markets, your audiences will stay the same over time; but their level of priority may change year-to-year against your business goals. Annual planning is the perfect opportunity to reassess who your most important audiences will be for the coming year. However, secondary and tertiary audiences still matter; carefully assess the direct and indirect influencers you need to reach, then prioritize your efforts.
- Articulate market-resonant messaging. Do not add un-needed noise to an already saturated space. Determine what your most important message is for your prioritized audiences, then make sure ongoing communications reinforce it. All too often, we see companies thinking ‘more is more’, talking to too many audiences, and using too many messages. For example, the cybersecurity market is awash in venture capital and in hype; so much so that tradeshows like the RSA Conference have ballooned to attendance of 45,000. The stiff competition makes the risk of message dilution significant. In such situations, one’s primary message can’t come through because everything becomes the primary message. Instead, effective communication programs take a less-is-more approach, focusing in and amplifying highest priorities.
Develop Your Action Plan
These three anchors will keep you tied to your top level goals, while allowing swing room for unexpected events and opportunities that invite response. For example, in the cybersecurity market, breaking news and unplanned events are common. But what actually helps you sell product? How do you get media’s attention? Stay prepared with an insightful, credible and experienced perspective.
From here, build out the pillars of your action plan – media relations, content marketing, social media and events. These are the core of any integrated marketing program, and should be calendared out several months in advance to allow plenty of preparation and alignment.
As the year progresses, customer demands will change; the market will shift. Know that you’ll need to tweak and adjust – but don’t throw out your core plan. If you’ve done your groundwork correctly, it will be your anchor through market storms, and keep your communications – and your position – consistent and credible.