A Communication Strategy is a plan put in place by a business or organization that outlines the methods of effective communications with their audience.  They can be specific to an event, situation or a target market.  The plan does not need to be an actual document; they can be small situational instances where communication needs to be addressed to reach a specific goal.

Communication strategies are usually developed for internal use within a company or organization.  It outlines the policies and procedures of communications with fellow colleagues, stakeholders, the public or the media.  They serve as the framework to disseminate information quickly, correctly and effectively.

Not having a communications strategy in place is usually evident when you least want it to be – in a time of crisis. A lack of strategy reflects poor planning which in turn produces poor results for the organization.  No one wants to utter the infamous words “I wish we had communications strategy to tell us what we should do.”

With the growth of online communication tools being an effective way for a business or organization to relay information to their audience, Online Communication Strategies are becoming a necessity for dealing with the online audience.  These plans deal specifically with online communication channels such as social media, the company’s website, email marketing efforts, mobile applications and participation on online forums and discussion boards.  Companies have either integrated their online strategy with their offline strategies in one document or they are two separate plans.

All Online Communication Strategies should:

  • describe the goals of the communications,
  • identify the target audiences,
  • define the messages that should be sent to these audiences;
  • identify the ways in which the messages will be, and
  • outline a plan for dealing with feedback, both positive and negative, after the messages have been delivered.

With the proper planning and management, developing an effective online communications plan does not have to be an arduous task.  It can be embraced as a project that will not only serve your businesses’ goals but will also strengthen your own understanding and knowledge about how your company is communicating with its audience.

In its simplest form, I have always tackled the Online Communication Strategy project – and it is a project that should be spelled out in stages with the proper management in place – as a five-stage process.  They are:

  1. Statement of Purpose,
  2. Internal Research and Analysis,
  3. External Research and Analysis,
  4. Draft Production and review,
  5. Publication of Strategy.

In detail, the approach I take is the following:

1. Statement of Purpose

It is helpful to state up front why the document is being produced, who benefits from it and how it will be used. This helps create a common vision within the organization.

Examples of why a document is being put together could include the following:

  • to provide content that is engaging, relevant and appropriate to our online audiences;
  • to understand and meet users’ expectations;
  • to improve web site usability;
  • to define internal workflow for generating and publishing content, including roles and responsibilities;
  • to meet current and future requirements of the web accessibility laws;
  • to increase our influence among our online community;
  • to develop effective monitoring and measures to determine if we are meeting our objectives.

The reasons for putting together the plan will differ from organization to organization.

By stating what the goals are, the document has a set of criteria to follow.  The framework has been put into place for its creation.

2. Internal Research and Analysis

This phase takes a look at the internal makeup of the organization you are writing the plan for. It is an important section of the development and incorporates a few different phases. They are:

  1. Review of the organization’s current communication situation
    An assessment of the current communication situation of the organization includes both online and offline marketing initiatives to determine what the organization’s strengths and weaknesses are – what works and what doesn’t work – and how it can be applied to an online communication strategy.   It is during this phase that a PEST Analysis, SWOT Analysis and a Competition Analysis are undertaken.
  2. Review the organization’s current online situation
    A review of the organization’s online situation begins with the identification phase.  It is important to conduct a thorough investigation, through interviews with employees and general web searching, what the organization currently uses for its online marketing.

    After the identification phase is completed, evaluate the current online situation of the organization by conducting an online audit of these channels.   Ask yourself these questions when determine the effectiveness of the current situation:

    1. how was it made, and does it work?
    2. is it accomplishing its target goals, and how?
    3. are goals being reached the most efficient way through use of employee time?

    For example, if you are auditing the organization’s website, question #1 would involve looking at it’s usability, design and content.  Question #2 would address its target market, search engine performance and its reach.  And finally, question #3 would look at how much employee time is devoted to maintenance, support and content production.

  3. Review the organization’s current policies and processes
    As part of the evaluation of the current online situation, the productivity specifications – how goals are reached through the productivity and actions of the organization’s employees – are analyzed. A key component of this is a review of the processes and policies.It is important to look at the business’s overall Strategic Plan and verify that current actions fall within its mandate and, more importantly, that any recommendations made in the Online Communication Strategy, do so as well.
  4. Identify the organization’s online needs and wants, including organizational communication objectives
    The Online Communications Strategy should follow the overall organizational plan set forth by the organization. It is after a review of the processes and policies that we will look at the organization’s overall vision and core aims and objectives. You could then suggest how online communications could help deliver these goals.The strategy should help complement and enhance the overall objectives of the organization. This creates a situation where it fits into the overall vision for the organization, not just becomes an additional document for future reference.
  5. Identifying the key organization stakeholders
    It is key that you identify not only the stakeholders, which may include the public, politicians, media, staff and regular users of services, but also to identify potential audiences the organization wishes to communicate with.After identifying these stakeholders, it is important to identify which audiences would be interested in which aspects of the organization. Understanding this will make the prioritization of the online communication easier.
  6. Identifying key online messages
    After identifying the key audiences, determine what messages need to be conveyed to them. Begin this by prioritizing the audiences and then determining the message(s) that would be relevant and appropriate for each of them. This would then dictate how that message should be sent. It is important that all of the stakeholders understand the nature of the organization, so these messages need to always reflect the organization’s core values.

3. External Research and Analysis

The external research of the development involves looking at other organizations and identifying trends in online communications.

  1. Analyze three external organizations’ Online Communications Strategies
    An often-overlooked phase in the development is looking at other similar organization’s online communication strategies. This generates ideas that may be missed within your own planning. Depending on the organizations chosen, and the their level of desired participation, a preferred a three-step procedure analyzing their strategy involves reviewing their strategy documents; interviews with key developers of the strategy, focusing on development, implementation and success; and reporting the key findings.
  2. Identify and document Internet best practices
    To document the best practices for the organization, concentrate on the Internet channels that they will employ, plus those that they should employ. For example, these could include best practices a number of activities, such as website design, website usability, discussion forum moderation, social media use, data privacy and web analytics management.
  3. Identify emerging trends and opportunities
    After identifying and reporting what these trends are, apply them to the organization in a manner dependent on their online channels they wish to employ. These allow you to identify and evaluate their opportunities and help you formulate the final Strategy.

4. Produce a Draft Online Communications Policy

This is the phase where everything comes together. This draft serves as the basis of the final product and is open to everyone that has a vested interest in implementing its findings. I implement a five-step approach to this phase.

  1. Identify and recommend online tools and procedures
    After a thorough analysis and understanding the current communication situation of the organization, including the stakeholders and intended messages, identify the appropriate online communication channels for communicating with them. Keep in mind not all online communication methods will be appropriate for every audience.After identifying all of the channels at organization’s deposal, construct the online communications strategy by linking audiences, messages and channels.
  2. Identify and recommend secondary strategies and structures
    The implementation of the Online Communication Strategy will result in numerous secondary strategies and structures needing to be developed. These may include governance plans, development plans, maintenance plans and support plans. The complete list of strategies and structures will be determined after the research and the identification of recommended online tools.
  3. Develop workflow and implementation plans
    Upon completion of the recommendations, a workflow to implement the online objectives of the organization should be developed. All aspects of the report should be used to generate this plan.
  4. Create evaluation criteria for the recommendations
    The last step in the content development of the Online Communication Strategy is devising the evaluation criteria for each of the goals specified in the Strategy. This is best conducted by answering two important questions:

    1. What does success look like?
    2. How will we know when objectives have been met?

    Depending on the communication channel, each question should be analyzed and answered. For some online initiates, simple page counts to a web page may suffice. Perhaps ‘opens’ and ‘bounce-rates’ dictate the effectiveness of an e-newsletter. Video views of a webinar may indicate interest in a particular topic, or perhaps the number of responses to a discussion thread will.

    Effectiveness of various online marketing initiatives is not commonly measured by online actions. Using the Internet as one large communication channel, does it create a circumstance where people engage with the organization offline? Are people using the organization’s services because of its effective online communication? Are people becoming more aware of the organization? Are people finding the organization trustworthy through its online communication?

  5. Write the Draft Online Communication Strategy
    Phase four should wrap up with the writing of the Online Communications Strategy. To incorporate all of the facets of the report, I would recommend producing a report containing all of these topics:

    1. Executive Summary
    2. Introduction and Benefits
    3. Background
    4. Approaches to Online Communications
    5. Situational Analysis
    6. Recommended Tactics and Tools
    7. Ongoing Maintenance and Monitoring
    8. Best Practices
    9. Glossary
    10. Summary

5. Finalize, Publish and Disseminate Online Communication Strategy

Produce and publish the final version of the Online Communication Strategy in accordance with the organization’s style guidelines and other governing policies and procedures. Online versions should be produced in PDF format.

If needed, convene a series of information sessions for the organization’s staff to acquaint them with the document. The number, duration and focus of the sessions should be determined in consultation with the organization.

Examples of such sessions could include “Introduction to the Online Communication Strategy,” “Effectively Using Social Media in the Workplace,” “Online Data Risk Assessment” or “Protecting the Organization’s Online Reputation.”

Conclusion

In only a few short years, online communication has revolutionized the way businesses and organizations reach their audience. The days of static, one-directional communication have given way to engaging, thoughtful and multi-dimensional conversations mostly through social media. Audiences are expecting quick, concise and accurate information from organizations in exchange for the use of their services, or the purchasing of their products.

Organizations must have a plan in place to deal with this communication and the Online Communications Strategy fills that need. By embracing the world of social media, by reaching out to audiences with email, by developing a system of client retention based on online support forums, your organization can capitalize on this opportunity to inspire, teach, and facilitate relevant and accurate information in a way the world has never seen before.

About the Author

Other than being a digital management specialist with expertise in web project management, online audits and proposal evaluations, Glenn loves a well-pitched baseball game, a perfectly mixed double-double and a certain, usually sweat-soaked, rock star.

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