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.


CC photo credit: joebeone

Brand analysis: Study your peers’ communications




There’s a simple surveillance exercise I encourage nonprofits and foundations to do once a year. January is a good time. 

Set aside a few hours to keep up with communication developments among your peers/competitors by exploring their websites. It’s almost like doing a mini- analysis of brands.

First, review your own website carefully. Then, identify six of your most similar peers and/or important competitors. Visit their websites and take a thorough look at what they’re doing in communications vis a vis what you’re doing. Create a comparison grid so you can record the results of your study and see them side-by-side.

Keep notes especially about things the other sites DO BETTER than yours (and how they’re doing them). The kinds of things you’re looking for are:

1) Website design

How professional and attractive is it? Does it convey clarity or clutter? Do the main pages direct the eye from the most important thing to the least? Is navigation difficult or easy? Is a call to action prominent? Are photos and photo captions effective? Are important keywords woven into headlines and subheads? Is there a search option? What kind of emotional impact does the home page have? Does it engage you immediately? Is the content fresh? What kind of “personality” does the website convey? What are some unique or cool features that work well? Do links take you off the page, to a pop-up, or to another window? Could you guess from the contents of the home page what the key audiences are for this organization? How transparent does this organization seem? How authentic? Is there too much bragging? Too little information? Is it highly institutional site versus a more human site? Is website copy short, digestible, and easily understood? Is there a lot of scrolling required? Are the most important things placed “above the fold?”

2) Knowledge base

Foundations and nonprofits are eager to share their knowledge. How well does the site do that? Is the knowledge base simple to find? Is it all in one place or scattered throughout the site? Is it well named?What does it consist of—publications, PDFs, videos, presentations, podcasts? Are the items in the knowledge base easy to understand or full of jargon and data? Are the items inviting to read? Is it clear for each item what its audience and usefulness are? Are PDFs simply print publications or are they specially designed for online readers? Are there executive summaries or simple abstracts that describe the contents of each publication or PDF so readers don’t have to skim the whole thing? Are there events attached to the knowledge base: meetings, seminars, webinars, workshops? What other kinds of resources does the organization offer to help interested visitors learn more?

3) Interactivity and social media

What are the ways that visitors can interact with the site? How well linked is it? Does it offer a place to sign up for a newsletter or mailing list? Does it include or is it linked to an organizational or CEO blog? Are there opportunities to leave comments or to participate in forums or groups? Are there videos or podcasts available? Is there a live feed option? Are there links to a social bookmarking site? flickr group? LinkedIn profiles? Facebook group or fan page? SlideShare or Scribd? Does it include or link to a wiki or other kind of small community site (e.g., Ning). Are there feeds from news media or external bloggers? What other signs do you see that this organization is trying to engage with its visitors? If there is a newsletter—how frequent and how well done is it? If there is a blog—is it kept fresh and interesting? How many comments is it getting?

 5) News room

Do they have a news room? If not, how do they track and share their news releases and media coverage? if they do have one, what does it include: executive bios/photos; news releases; media coverage of the organization; media coverage of an issue(s); story ideas; list of staff expertise w. email links; event calendar; executive speeches/commentaries; photo archive; media contact information; recent financials and tax return forms? What level of transparency does this news room convey? What level of accessibility?

6) Storytelling

Taking into consideration everything you see on the website—how good is the organization at telling its story in terms of human impact? (not data) Does it feature the voices of its beneficiaries? Other testimonials? Does it use ample quotes, not just its own voice? Does it provide smaller, “snapshot” stories about its successes that have strong emotional impact? Does the organization clearly let people know what they can do to support it? Does the organization talk about its processes and activities more than it talks about the positive impact it has on human beings? Does it feature compelling stories about donors and supporters? If it produces an annual report, how well does that publication tell the organization’s story? How well does the organization use photos? Are the photos high quality? Are they of human beings? Do they use videos to do storytelling? Are they effective?

It  doesn’t take long to get a clear picture of how your organization’s communications rate compared with peers or competitors. You’ll see where you can make improvements to get the edge, and maybe even discover an unoccupied market niche you can fill.

None of your key audiences lives in a vacuum; they’re exposed to communications from your peers and competitors and position you somewhere within that larger universe. Make sure you’re the brightest star!

CC photo credit: uBookworm