How to develop a communications strategy

Find out the critical ingredients for developing communications strategy and then apply and review the approach you have chosen.
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An effective communications strategy is important. It can help you engage local people, encourage them to use your service and bring to the attention of health and care services the improvements that people want.

This guide aims to help you consider the key ingredients for developing an effective communications strategy for your organisation.

1. What do you want your communications to achieve?

It is vital to start by being clear about what you want your communications to achieve. So start by writing a purpose statement that explains how your communications will help deliver the objectives of your service.

Express your statement in plain English and try to answer the questions:

  • What would success look like?
  • How will our communications make sure we successfully achieve our objectives?
  • What are we hoping to achieve with communications (change in attitude, greater awareness, behaviour change)?

Example statement

The purpose of our communications is:

To raise awareness, change perceptions and engage our audiences in acting to help achieve our vision.

2. Understand where you are now

Before you get into the detail, it is essential to recognise the context within which you communicate.

Be clear:

  • How does your strategy links to your strategic priorities?
  • What do you know about your audience?
  • What have you learnt from your previous communications, and
  • other factors like the external environment?

One tool for helping you assess the context is a SWOT analysis. A SWOT enables you to think about your strengths, weakness, opportunities and threats when it comes to questions like:

  • The communication skills you have in-house or can purchase;
  • The capacity you have available to communicate;
  • The access you have to the right channels to reach your audience;
  • The insight you have on what your audience thinks and feels and how they act;
  • The customer experience you provide and the levels of trust people have in your service; and
  • Your ability to creatively engage your audiences with your communications.

Example SWOT analysis

Strengths

  • Investment in social media and new website resulting in a growing reach.
  • Able to harness the support of local partners.
  • Insight based messages and tangible calls to action.
  • An established approach to planning and running campaigns.
  • Case study led approach resulting in better results.

Weaknesses

  • Not enough investment in PR coverage and email marketing.
  • Unable to carry out face to face engagement in community.
  • Vital local partners still not engaged.
  • Attracting feedback from expert patients and local activists but not wider community.
  • Most people only feeding back once, limited repeat business.
  • Not leaving long enough to plan campaigns.
  • Over long campaigns it is difficult to sustain external events, reducing engagement.

Opportunities

  • Increase reach with a broader range of local influencers.
  • Cut through with a greater focus on PR, maintain relationships with email marketing.
  • Invest more in paid-for social media and physical advertising in services.
  • Deepen engagement by supporting user-generated content.
  • Shorter campaigns timeframe to provide a stronger focal point.

Threats

  • Campaigns lack a clear incentive for partners to support.
  • We do not have the skills to get coverage or do email marketing.
  • The campaign ask is too broad to stimulate action.
  • Other high-profile health campaigns with similar timing.
  • Not communicating impact reduces future engagement.

3. Identify your audiences and set your objectives

At this point, it is essential to think about who you want to engage with your communications. The more you define your audience, the better the outcomes will be, but it’s necessary also to ask:

  • Why? Or in other words what’s the purpose?
  • How will you do it?
  • What will be the outcome?

Answering these questions can help you ensure that your objectives are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound).

Example audiences and objectives

The Public

Segment: (a) Recent users of health and social care services (b) Their family, friends or carers.

What do we want them to think, feel or do? To be aware of our service and to see the value of seeking advice from us or sharing their views with us.

Objective: To increase by 10% year on year, the number of people sharing experiences with us or accessing our advice and information.

Professionals and policymakers

Segment: (a) Commissioners and service managers (b) senior health and care leaders (c) front-line staff.

What do we want them to think, feel or do? To be aware of our service and to see the value in acting on the views of the public.

Objective: To increase by 5% year on year the number of our recommendations actioned by services.

Stakeholders

Segment: Intermediaries and partners.

What do we want them to think, feel or do? To be aware of our service and see the value in supporting our objectives.

Objective: To increase by 8% year on year the number of organisations and influencers supporting the promotion of our campaigns.

Our people

Segment: Our volunteers.

What do we want them to think, feel or do? To value being part of our Healthwatch and to see the value of working together to achieve our objectives.

Objective: 80% of our volunteers think that our work is valuable and makes a difference to the local community.

These are just example objectives, and you might have different outcomes you want to achieve, such as:

  • Increasing the loyalty or frequency of people who use your service;
  • New professionals seeking your advice and insight;
  • Reducing the churn of volunteers; or
  • More partners who advocate on your behalf.

4. Harness your insight & develop a clear proposition and message

Your detailed, audience-specific messaging will change with each campaign. Yet, at a strategic level, you need to understand your proposition for each audience and the consistent points you want to get across every-time you communicate.

Your proposition should tell your audience the value of the service you are offering or how it meets their needs.

To develop a compelling proposition (and the messages that support it), you need to understand your audience needs and interests, why they engage with Healthwatch and the barriers that might prevent them.

Example proposition and messages for recent users of health and care services

Insight

  • Most people want to provide feedback if it results in better care for them or their loved ones.
  • They are more likely to support community causes, especially if they are quick and relevant to them.

Messages framework

Brand promise: Making health and care support work for you.

Proposition: Tell us what matters to you and help make care better.

Elevator pitch: Do health and care services provide the support you need? Help make care better for you and your loved ones. Speak up about what’s working and what is not. We’ll use our powers to make your views are heard.

Proof point ‘Easy’:

  • We work in your community.
  • Sharing your experience is quick.

Proof point 'Relevant.'

  • We cover all health and care issues.
  • Whether the issue is big or small, we want to hear from you.

Proof point ‘Benefits you and your community.'

  • If it mattered to you, it could matter to someone else.
  • We have the power to make sure your views are acted upon

Call to action: Speak up and help make care better for you & your community.

5. Decide how you will reach people and encourage them to act

Insight also plays a big role in deciding which channels or approaches you will invest in to deliver your strategy. Questions to consider include:

  • How do people find you?
    • Using search
    • Using social media
    • Via PR in the local media
    • Via on-line and off-line partnerships with services or community groups
    • Via email or events
  • Once they find you, do they have a good experience and act?
  • Once they act, do they come back to you? Do they tell others about you?

It’s unlikely that you will only invest in one channel. Still, you need to understand which channels deliver you the greatest return, which channels you need to improve and the journey you want your audience to take.

6. Describing your approach

The crux of your strategy is to choose what tactics you will focus on to achieve your objectives. The tactics you choose should link back to the context and be based on audience insight. The final tactics can focus on a range of things, including:

  • The channels you choose to focus on improving;
  • The processes you decide to adopt; and
  • The audiences, issues and content types you think you should prioritise.

The vital step is to refine them down to those that you believe will help you best achieve your objectives.

Example tactics

  • Start from where people are. Use insight to understand where people are in terms of behaviour change and to target communications that reflect their reality.
  • Always target. Make messages specific and actionable.
  • Be persistent to cut through. Stick to a framework of core messages and repeat to build awareness and understanding.
  • Make action easy. Identify and address the barriers that stop our audiences acting.
  • Integrate to build a consistent experience. Understand how audiences interact with us and build trust through the used of integrated channels & consistent message, tone and service.
  • Show impact to encourage and inspire. Consistently show the difference our audiences are making to prompt other people to act.
  • Learn and test. Continually test messages & assumptions to take account of the changing environment.
  • Widen partnerships. Partner with organisations that can help us reach those who are not heard.
  • People are our brand - use their voice to build trust and confidence in our brand.
  • Invest in sticky content to increase engagement & provide an immersive experience.
  • Invest in diverse brand content to make more connections with audiences and keep them engaged.
  • Stimulate debate by focussing on the questions our audiences want answering.

7. Develop your plan and approach

With a rapidly changing environment, we would suggest taking an agile approach to planning how you will deliver your strategy.

First, size work that is not time-sensitive but needs to happen to achieve your objectives and put this into a pipeline that follows a logical order. Taking this approach means that you can adapt to external pressures while still making progress with high priority improvements.

Secondly, plan out the number of time-sensitive communications projects you need to run.   

Example plan 2020-21

  • April - Campaign One.
  • May - Put in place a new email marketing system.
  • June - Launch Annual Report.
  • July - Map email customer journey and segment audiences.
  • August - Introduce easy email sign-up form.
  • September - Campaign Two.
  • October - Introduce drip email marketing.
  • November - Introduce A/B email testing.
  • December - Review search engine optimisation.
  • January - Campaign Three.
  • February - Introduce new SEO approach.
  • March - Set up and pilot Instagram account.

An agile approach is essential when it comes to delivering communications because the process helps you continually learning from each activity to help maximise the impact of the next.

One model is known as OASIS, where you follow five steps to help bring order and clarity to planning and delivering each communications project.

The five steps you need to create a campaign using OASIS are:

  • Objectives
  • Audience/Insight
  • Strategy/Ideas
  • Implementation
  • Scoring/Evaluation

The idea is to use this process of constant learning to refresh your approach as you go.

8. Deciding what to measure

Do you know how your communications are working now? What things are worth measuring and why? These are questions you should consider when deciding how you will measure whether your tactics are delivering your objectives.

One way to measure your communications is to think about the journey someone takes when they use any service. First, you become aware of service. Then you think about using it. Then you do use it and, if it meets your needs, you then use it repeatedly. You might even become an advocate, telling others about it.

Examples of how you can measure the journey your audience takes

Reach

  • PR reach.
  • Social media reach.
  • Partnership support.

Engagement

  • Social media engagement.
  • Unique website visitors.
  • Increase in direct traffic.
  • New website visitors.
  • Increase in email click or open rates.
  • Content views.
  • Cost per click.

Action

  • Unique advice and information content views.
  • Advice and information contacts via other means.
  • Experiences shared with Healthwatch.
  • Events signed-up.
  • Email marketing sign-ups.
  • Unique views of insight content.

Retention

  • Email list growth and quality.
  • Increase in repeat website users.
  • Increase in repeat actions by the same users.
  • Increase in people wanting to volunteer.

Other factors you should consider

This guide is not exhaustive. There will be other considerations that you might want to articulate as part of your strategy. These considerations include:

Resources:

  • Who will lead on this work?
  • Will delivery be in-house, or will an agency do it?
  • What is the total budget required?
  • Is this funding already in place?

Risks:

  • What are the risks of what you are planning to do?
  • Are these risks likely? And if yes, what would be the impact?
  • What can we do to reduce any impact?
  • What assumptions underlie this strategy and have they been tested?

You might also be interested in

If you found this guide useful, you might also be interested in our guide 'How to plan your communications'.

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