Tactics—Step 4 in strategic communications planning for nonprofits

Tactics photo

flickr/popculturegeek

This is the last in my series of posts guiding nonprofits through strategic communications planning. So far, I’ve tried to help you figure out your true communication objectives, your key audiences, and the kinds of messages and interactions that can motivate them.

Now we move to tactics—selecting messengers, communications channels, and timing. Deciding on tactics is usually pretty easy when you’ve done the hard work outlined in the first three posts. As you well know by now, my mantra is spend 80% of your time on strategy and 20% on tactics. You won’t be sorry.

Your messengers

Often, nonprofits—satisfied they’ve figured out what stories and messages their audiences would find motivating—skip an important step: thinking carefully about which messengers pack the most punch. They can be as motivating as the message sometimes.  Here’s a past post of mine that encourages nonprofits to be strategic in picking messengers—including unusual suspects. The only thing I’d add to that post now is that—thanks to social media—your supporters can and will be some of your most important messengers. Take a look at this case study post from Nancy Schwartz about priming them for that job.

Choosing channels

The medium is a messenger too. The channels you pick also influence the audience’s reception and response to your communications. (If all your communication uses one-way channels, that sends your supporters a pretty clear message you’re not very interested in them.) Channels have proliferated like rabbits over the past few years. It’s difficult to keep up with them (and who they are most popular with), but keep up you must. Ways to do that include:

1) follow a few good tech news blogs like NTEN, The Next WebMashable, TechCrunch, and Google’s public sector blog

2) subscribe to the RSS feed of the Nonprofit Marketing Zone, where someone is sure to be covering nonprofit uses of the latest communications tools and channels

3) find and follow blogs that specialize in popular social media channels, like John Haydon who covers the latest developments on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter as they relate to nonprofits. Beth’s Blog is another must follow if you’re trying to keep up with new channels and their nonprofits uses. Think about following good business tech sites, too, like allfacebook and mobilemarketingwatch.

4) check out my del.ici.ous list of free and low-cost communications tools, which I keep adding to all the time

Finally, look over IdealWare’s new The Nonprofit Social Media Decision Guide, a great, research-based report about which new communications channels are best for which kinds of audience and outcomes.

Social media have changed the communications landscape forever, shifting power and stirring new expectations among your audiences. Still, these new channels are just tools—like websites, publications, direct mail, emails, media stories, and old-fashioned letters and telephone calls. Your plan should consider the full breadth of communications tools, their strategic uses and relative costs. Don’t  dismiss the personal touch as old-fashioned. As digital communications become more and more dominant, a handwritten note or telephone call makes a very powerful statement.

In the end, the best channels for you are the ones that are: 1) most popular with the audiences you’re trying to reach, 2) best matched to the objectives of your communications—whether that’s getting a crowd to an event, enlisting volunteers, changing public policy, or raising money; and 3) doable for you, in light of your staff and budget limitations. (That last item is darn important.)

Timing is everything

That old saying holds true for communications planning as well. Even if you have clear objectives, understand your audiences, and use the best messengers and channels—timing your communications flow is key to success.

What you’re after is a steady, even stream of communications using multiple channels. (This is general advice; the specific preferences of your audiences are always the determining factors.) Timing is a delicate balance, you don’t want to be seen as a spammer or a nuisance, but you don’t want them to forget you. You probably  don’t want three communications to arrive one month and none for the next two. Nor do you want to wait until your end-of-the-year fund raising to communicate. If you can, keep up the drumbeat all year and please, don’t make every communication an “ask” (not even every other communication).

Channel integration is a critical part of timing. The more they hear from you in a variety of channels (that are popular with them)—the more they’ll remember you and have a chance to interact with or respond to your communications. Just be sure to think through how each of those channels can reinforce the others in your tactical flow.

Message integration is also important. Think about your annual communications plan as a building wave that moves your audiences closer to you and closer to action. Within that big wave there are smaller waves that add momentum. You can create an engagement path for them month by month. And you can choreograph those little waves to resonate with their shifting interests throughout the year. What messages and information might be most resonant in January—after the holidays at the beginning of a new year? What would they be most interested in as spring approaches or as the school year starts? Look how retailers shamelessly leap from one holiday to the next in their promotions. Don’t emulate them! But learn from them—they are tuning into the shifting interests of consumers throughout the year.

Once you have a tactical plan for the year, don’t get so married to it that you miss late-breaking opportunities to tie your communications to news happenings. But try not to overuse these or they can lose their punch.

Start now

Late summer is a great time to start your 2011 strategic communications plan. I know the temptation (and pressure) is for nonprofits to go into full fund-raising mode in the last two quarters, but get out of the trenches long enough to take in the long view. Devote adequate time to planning next year’s strategy and budget. You will be so grateful in January.

I didn’t want to end this series without pointing you toward two other helpful resources—The SPIN Project’s Strategic Communications Planning guide (pdf) and Nancy Schwartz’s nifty Nonprofit Marketing Plan template.

Lastly, thanks for your patience. I realize it’s taken me a while to finish up this series. I hope you find it useful!

Earlier posts in this series:

Strategic communications planning for nonprofits: Step Three—Audience research and messages

DIY stratetgic communications planning for nonprofits: Step Two—Key audiences

DIY strategic communications planning for nonprofits: Step One—Objectives

Creative Commons photo: popculturegeek


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