How well does your business communicate?

By Renata Mathewson, Maple Marketing

Marketing, communications, advertising, promotions, publicity – do you know the difference? They’re all unique, yet for most businesses they serve the purpose of raising brand awareness and increasing revenue.

Here we look at one of these, communications, in more detail. It is something that all businesses do, but very few actually plan in any strategic way. Most well-run companies have a written marketing plan, and this will include plans for advertising. But when it comes to communications, many businesses work in a more reactive rather than proactive manner.

First off, what exactly is communications? Its etymology or historical meanings include “to share, divide out, impart” and “to make common”.

So the point of communications, then, is to bring together your business and your audience (stakeholders, clients, prospects, etc) through the sharing or imparting of information.

Communications – more than just your brochures

Business owners quite often think of their communications as their website, brochures and email newsletters. But the list of possible communications is much more extensive. It can also include your:

  • company overview
  • presentations
  • annual report
  • advertising (print, radio, television, outdoor, online)
  • media releases
  • social media profiles
  • product catalogues
  • blog
  • direct mail
  • staff newsletter
  • advertorials
  • memos
  • editorials, articles
  • job descriptions
  • tender submissions
  • operations manual
  • proposals
  • email signatures

The list goes on, and some of these are for internal use and some are for external audiences. The point is that there are so many ways a business communicates with its stakeholders that it is important to use a communications plan to ensure that the different messages sent out are clear and consistent.

The beginnings of a good communications plan

Many people begin with thinking of all the things they want to say about the business, and all the products or services they want to promote. They then plan, esign and produce marketing and communications materials around these. What ends up happening is they have brochures and other materials that they end up trying to use up before they go out of date.

Think instead about working from a different starting point. To make your communications materials truly customer-centric, first identify who your business audience is. Who is it that you need to communicate with to grow the business? Your audience can include:

  • stakeholders, both internal and external
  • owners, management, employees, staff candidates, board of directors, shareholders
  • customers, prospects, clients, ex-clients, suppliers, strategic partners

Once you identify who you need to communicate with, the next step is to clarify your purpose. And your purpose won’t be the same for each audience segment. In general, most communications materials are intended to inform, educate, entertain, enlighten, provide ongoing news and information. But more specifically, ask:

    What do your prospects and clients want and need to know in order to do business with you?

    What do suppliers need to know in order to renew their contract with you?

    What do shareholders need to know in order to invest with you?

    What do employees and candidates want to know about the business to build loyalty?

Beginning with questions like these forces you to step outside of the business and think objectively about what content to include in your brochures, website, company overview, newsletters, etc. You need to think carefully about what information your audience needs and wants (not just what you want to tell them). Many businesses make the mistake of shaping their communications around what they want to tell about the company and its offerings, without taking the client’s perspective. Unfortunately, then, many companies use too much “we” copy in their communications.

You can make some assumptions about what you think people need and want to know. Or you can start listening. The next time you have a meeting with a prospect or the next time you greet a new customer on the phone or in your shop, make note of the first three questions they ask. This will tell you what they need to know before beginning a relationship with you and the business. I refer to it as the Yellow Pages test. When you look up a supplier in the Yellow Pages, or cold call a new business, what do you ask? What do you initially need to know?

If I was looking for a photographer I’d want to know whether they did portraits or commercial work, whether they shot in a studio or on location, and I’d want to know how they structure their costs. If I was looking for an accountant I’d want to know what their experience with SMEs was, whether I’d have to go to their offices or they’d visit mine, and I’d want to know how they structure their costs. If I was looking for a copywriter I’d want to know what sort of expertise they had, what clients they had worked with, and I’d want to know how they structure their costs. You see a pattern starting to emerge here. But these are only the questions a prospective client would have. The questions are different, of course, if the audience is an investor, lender, employee, candidate, supplier, etc.

Where do you begin to spread your message?

Once you’ve established who you want to communicate with and what they need to know (audience and purpose), you need to work out how to reach them. What are the touch points they have with your business? Do they have a face-to-face relationship with the business? Do they subscribe to a regular newsletter? Do they interact online through your website, blog or social media sites? For prospective clients, do you know what they are reading, watching, listening to, surfing?

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that a company brochure will serve all your purposes. One size does not fit all. Now that it is so much easier to reach different audience segments with online marketing, it is easier than ever to gauge what communications are cutting through and working and to test and measure different messages and offers.

A very simple and basic way to put some strategic planning around your communications is to create a plan based on what we’ve talked about above. Plot out your audience, purpose and other relevant details. It can look something like this – as an example we’ve used a footwear retailer and some of its possible target audience segments:

Audience Purpose Message Media/channel Timing
parents need footwear for their children for school we sell good quality shoes that meet the requirements of most, if not all, local primary schools web, advertising, flyers, catalogues, school newsletters school holidays, just before new school terms start
athletes need quality sports shoes

we sell a wide range of sports footwear including running shoes, rugby boots, basketball and netball shoes, cycling shoes, etc

website, catalogue, team sponsorships, field signage

at the start of each sports season

staff

internal communication informing of company restructure

we’ll be expanding and opening 10 new stores next year

staff meetings, intranet, internal memos, training manuals

date to be set, before public announcement

candidates new employees needed

due to positive growth, we’ll be opening 10 new stores next year and are looking for the right people to join our growing business

recruitment websites, newspapers, social media sites

ongoing, at the end of university exams

Often people think they communicate well when they clearly explain what they offer or sell. But effective communication is about much more, and it’s a two-way process. It starts with knowing who your audience is and what they need or want to know – not just what you want to tell them.

Once you begin to look at your business through the eyes of your clients and stakeholders, all of a sudden your marketing and communications become much more relevant and targeted. You should also find that they will become much more cost-effective as you begin to realise your business growth objectives in a strategic, planned way.

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