Message Planning

This is the first post in a series on the importance of message planning in the communications process. I’ve been thinking a lot about message planning and message management over the course of the past couple of months. For one, we’re in the thick of the political campaign season. Few communication disciplines provide such a deliberate look into the effectiveness of communication planning to deliver a measured outcome as politics. While I personally have zero campaign management experience, as a communications professional, I appreciate the work campaign strategists do to manage messages over the course of a campaign. Say what you will about any of the candidates running for office at the moment, but behind all of them are talented communications professionals that know how to leverage market data to adapt – and in some cases manipulate – messaging to persuade audiences in one way or another.

It’s also a great time of year to start thinking about your own message strategy and planning process. If you’re like most organizations, you’re probably entering some form of annual planning. Budgets are being set for the coming year, and you’re most likely starting to think about the campaigns you’ll kick off in January. Most of these campaigns will include strategies for communicating with the target audiences most important to your organization. This is where message planning comes into play – or should come into play. Organizations that overlook the importance of message planning will waste valuable marketing resources trying to communicate sporadically with their audiences. Don’t make this mistake. Over the course of the next few posts, I’ll explore various aspects of the message planning process that I’ve employed in the past to help clients develop and deliver more effective communications. I’m not taking a stand that any of these recommendations are the right way to go about message planning. I’m simply providing you with some ideas you may choose to incorporate into your own process as you move forward planning your communications. I hope many of you will share your perspectives on ideas you like or share your own suggestions for developing and delivering more effective communications.

Here are some of the topics I plan to address in the series. Please feel free to share your feedback on areas you’d like to see me address in greater detail. I look forward to your responses:

  • The Message Platform – the importance of developing and adhering to a formal messaging and positioning platform. I’ll include my suggestions for the critical components of a messaging and positioning platform – that is, the components I think are most useful for reaching consensus across your organization – and getting everyone aligned around your core messages as an organization. This will include the basics, like developing a positioning platform, vision statement, etc. I’ll also provide some less common suggestions that I have found useful when taking a message to the market.
  • Audience Identification – this post will focus on the art and science of audience identification. Whether it be fictional personas used to manage your brand communications strategy, or actual audience segments based on market data or your own identified target audiences (e.g. publics). Message strategy and planning begins with a clear understanding of your audiences – that is, the “who” you’re communicating with. The better you know your audiences, the better equipped you’ll be to communicate with them. This may sound obvious, but it’s a frequently overlooked stage of message planning (most organizations assume their way through this stage – they already know their audiences).
  • Message Mapping – once you know who you’re talking to, I suggest taking things a step further. This post will provide some suggestions for mapping your message to each audience over the stages of your relationship. For sales-focused organizations, this may be over the stages of the customer lifecycle (from suspect to repeat customer). For others, the communication strategy may move target audiences toward consumption and brand loyalty. I’ll provide a few different scenarios and leave it up to you to decide which stages of the relationship are best to map your messages to for each audience.
  • Packaging Your Message -marketing communications and public relations professionals know this stage of the process all to well. This is where the rubber meets the road – where you must translate the message strategy into action, across the communication channels and vehicles you have at your disposal. What’s the difference? Your blog is a channel you have at your disposal, the post is a vehicle for delivering your message through the channel. You’ll be familiar with most of the suggestions I provide in this post, but you may find a few ideas you can run with to expand your efforts in 2013.
  • Strategies for Timing Your Message -you know that right place, right time thing? There is an approach you can use to set yourself up for maximum impact when delivering your message. In some instances, it’s better to hit on all cylinders when introducing a message – for example, when launching a new product. In others, your message builds over time through effective reach and frequency across your communication channels. This latter approach is more common when rebranding an organization or introducing a new platform to your publics. I’ll also stress the importance of managing your message over time. Through consistency and clarity, you’ll be able to build momentum for your messaging across your audiences. If you don’t manage your message, you’ll watch it atrophy over time and see it’s impact degrade.
  • Message Testing and Refinement -to improve the effectiveness of your messaging, you need to understand the options at your disposal for testing and refining your message over time. Few organizations land on the optimal message the first time around. This post will also explore the importance of having a system in place to measure the effectiveness of your message delivery, to provide you with the feedback you need to adjust your strategies and tactics over the course of a campaign. Ad agencies and digital marketers leverage message testing all the time. I’m not sure the same can be said for all communications efforts. I’ll explore this topic in greater detail in the post.
  • Planning for Tough Questions – few message strategies are complete without planning for interaction, and the inevitable questions you’ll encounter along the way. Planning for question responses is an essential component of communications planning. In this post, we’ll explore interview preparation or community management – providing suggestions for developing a database of questions and planned responses for the most anticipated ones. This type of planning helps you align all your spokespeople around consistent responses that reinforce your key messages across all your interactions. When a question is asked, anyone in your organization should know where to go for the answer – and be able to give it. No more “no comment.”
  • Competitive Messaging – with every advancement you make with your messaging, your competition will adapt and work to discredit you. Likewise, you need to adapt your messaging to the new strategies and tactics employed by your competition in the game of communications warfare. How can you best monitor and adapt to competitive messaging to best position your organization, its products and services or its experts without alienating yourself from or confusing your target audiences? This process starts with establishing a starting point for your differentiation as it relates to your communications strategies. More to come in this post.
  • Communicating Through Experts – how you can best equip your spokespeople to best deliver your messaging through their interactions? Your spokespeople are more powerful in terms of delivering or sabotaging your communications strategy than any other communication tactics. Whether it’s positioning your experts as thought leaders in your industry, or leveraging them as the media themselves, through ongoing audience outreach, your experts are often the best conduit for your message. This post will focus on the principles of evaluating the capabilities and limitations of your spokespeople and provide suggestions for how to transform even the least experienced communicator into a powerful weapon in your communications arsenal. The better prepared your spokespeople are, the more effective your message delivery will be.
  • To Be Determined -over the course of this series, I anticipate identifying topics I haven’t thought of yet. Like all good communications, interaction is key to improvement. This is where you come in. I want your feedback on the topics you find most helpful in developing your message. It’s possible we’ll have a guest post or two during this series. Feel free to submit your ideas for review. Like all Journalistics’ posts, I want this to be a learning opportunity for all of us.

I look forward to receiving your feedback over the course of this series. Look for the first post later this week – there’s still some work to do on that one. Thanks in advance for your help.

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