Building Your 2021 Communications Plan
We know, we know. After your 2020 communications plan got upended, you may be hesitant to tackle 2021’s plan. But we’re here to make it easy on you!
You’re full of knowledge about your organization, and you’re brimming with ideas about how to communicate better with your current and prospective members, donors, students, etc. But have you put that wealth of insights on paper?
In this step-by-step session, you’ll discover everything that needs to go into your 2021 communications plan. You’ll learn how to:
- Set goals that bring value
- Define activities and tactics for your goals
- Identify key audiences
- Manage your plan throughout the year (no matter what it brings!)
We’ll also give you a free template for your 2021 communications planning. This session offers real, concrete solutions to the big question: What are we going to do next year?
Jarrett: Alright everyone good afternoon from Austin, Texas. My name is Jarrett Way, I am the marketing manager here at Mighty Citizen and we’re here today for the “Building Your 2021 Communications Plan” Webinar. I want to thank you all for registering and attending today. Before we get started here I just want to go over a few quick housekeeping items. So the first thing is that this webinar today will go for about 45-50 minutes. So we will actually have time at the end for questions. So, during the webinar use the question and answer feature. Just go ahead and submit a question in the questions box. I will be monitoring those throughout the webinar and compiling them for Rachel and Nicole at the end. The second thing is that we’re going to be sending these slides, and a link to the recording of this webinar, to you in the next day or two. Don’t feel pressured to take a bunch of notes at this time, just look for it in your inboxes. At this time I would like to introduce you to Rachel Clemens our chief marketing officer and Nicole Araujo our client engagement director here at Mighty Citizen who will be leading our webinar today.
Rachel: Thank you, Jarrett. Hello everybody, for those of you who might not know, Mighty Citizen is based in Austin, Texas; but I happen to be up in the suburbs of Chicago right now getting help with virtual school from my in-laws. So, we’re kind of scattered. Nicole is joining us from DC and Jarrett’s in Austin today. And I see that you guys are from all over the place—which is super fun and exciting. Including some international locations which are always nice to see. Let’s take a deep breath y’all. It is 2020, it is November, “serenity now” has been my phrase for 2020. I’m sure a lot of you feel the same way. So, we’re going to talk about building our communications plan for 2021. Which might seem pretty daunting—considering how 2020 went, but we’ll talk about why a plan is necessary and a few other things today. To get us prepped for 2021. And really get us feeling good going into the year instead of exhausted.
So, I’m Rachel Clemens. For those of you who don’t know I am the CMO here at Mighty Citizen. I have 20 years of communications experience. My strength is in storytelling and I love content creation—things like that. My weakness, which was very hard to choose, is actually queso. It was either queso, or ice cream, or brisket—always food-related, but I went with queso. Now, I’m going to turn it over to Nicole.
Nicole: Yes, so, I am Nicole Araujo, as Rachel mentioned I am located in the DC metro area. I actually live in Maryland, but I think anyone in this area kind of understands that that’s just an all-encompassing space here. I’m a client engagement director here, I have been working with associations for over 20 years. And I, like Rachel, am not going to give you the full amount on that because it tends to make me feel a little bit older. My strength is communication. I absolutely love people—I love face-to-face communication, it is where I excel and 2020 is a killer for me because I am missing that terribly. So, when Rachel was asking what my weakness is I have to say that it’s a double-edged sword. Communication is my strength and it’s also my weakness. Succinct has never been a word ever used to describe me. Some may say that I can make a short story long. So, if through this presentation you notice Rachel kind of nudging me along, you will understand why. But it does make me who I am.
Rachel: That’s right Nicole, we wouldn’t have you any other way. And I forgot to mention—for those of you who may not be familiar with Mighty Citizen—we are a branding, digital, and marketing agency for mission-driven organizations. So, that’s primarily non-profits, associations, higher education, and government. So, we help our clients increase their revenue and boost their awareness to better their communities. We’re going to talk today about Comms plans, but certainly, we work in all kinds of communication spaces.
The challenges we face
We face a lot of challenges in creating and distributing communications for mission-driven organizations. You know, 2020 is the perfect example of how we face current events. 2020 gave us a pandemic and it increased focus on social justice and an election that continues to create chaos and how we communicate. We’ve had to shift priorities, we’ve had to change the work styles that we live in. I mean, a lot of us are now working from home, we’ve closed offices, we’ve had to let go of staff, or in some cases, increase staff. The pandemic is a perfect example of all of this. A lot of times we also face really hard governance challenges. I have yet to meet a mission-driven organization that has a really easy governance process. Sometimes there are too many cooks in the kitchen, or you just can’t get things approved. We have to prove ourselves time and time again. And then there is this overload of information. Personally, I’m overloaded with information, I wake up every morning to an email box with hundreds of emails. We also are sending those emails as well. So, are we overloading our audiences? And there are so many different ways that we can communicate.
We communicate through direct mail. Our website is the main hub of how people learn about us. We use social media, we want our attendees to come to our meetings. We use magazines, and if that wasn’t enough we give them surveys. We ask for them to do research, we send out press releases, we have videos, and podcasts, and emails of newsletters, and as if this wasn’t enough—this isn’t even a complete list.
By the end, you’ll be able to:
Yeah, it’s a lot of noise right now. We want to talk about how we can use our communications to cut through that noise and make a plan for how to do that in 2021. So, what we’re going to talk about today is understanding how to “own” the communications plan. That means who owns it, what that looks like, and what that ownership means for the long haul. We’re also going to talk about what should be included in your 2021 communications plan. So, we’re going to walk through each step of the plan and talk about what to put in there so that you’re showing what you’re going to do next year and also the value of what you’re going to do next year. We’ll talk about how to manage the plan on an ongoing basis so that it stays relevant—to both you and your marketing team, but also to your leadership team. And then we also are going to share a communications plan template with you at mightycitizen.com/commsplan You can go grab that now if you want to, it’s not necessary, but if you want to see the pieces of the plan as we’re moving through them feel free to do that. Some of you may have downloaded that already because we did share it in a previous email. So, if you already have it—it is the same plan.
I don’t need a written plan
So, I’m going to start by asking this in the chat—how many of you do not have a written communications plan for 2021, and if you don’t have one why not? And while you are doing that I will tell you a little bit about what we see when we come in to work with clients. So a lot of them do not have a written communications plan and the reasons are very varied. One is that—we’re a small organization. “I’m a team of one, and as one person I already know what’s happening, I don’t need to write down a plan.” Sometimes it is—things change so fast if I created a plan it would be obsolete in a week. I could never keep up with an actual plan. Another is—I don’t have time, and so I don’t create one. I seem from you guys—small staff, you’re working on one now, limited capacity, no full-time communications person, and you need staff buy-in. And we’re going to talk about how to get staff buy-in today. “We have, but we never follow it past a couple of months,” we’ll be talking about that today too. So, for all of these excuses today we’re going to say, no no no—you get a plan, and you get a plan, everyone is getting a plan today. Nicole and I are playing the part of Oprah and we’re all getting plans.
Why plans are must-haves
So, let’s talk about why they are must-haves. This may be preaching to the choir a bit, but there might be some new things here about the value of them.
Strategy vs Tactics
One thing is that they force you to focus on strategy vs tactics. You want to think of strategy as what you’re going to do, and the tactics as how you’re going to do it. The strategy is what you are going to accomplish. You want to focus on strategy because if you only focus on tactics, and tasks, and activities without connecting it to strategy, you’re going to waste time and energy pursuing tactics that aren’t necessarily returning organizational value. You’re going to hear this over and over again—the important thing about a communications plan is showing the value of communications. We’ll talk more about that.
It also helps you to set goals. So of course, if you don’t know what you’re trying to do you won’t know if you’ve gotten there. It will help you show the value of communications. So you’re going to share this plan with higher-ups in your organization and the plan shows how your communications help reach your organizational goals.
Help show the value of communications
Within many of our organizations, we have strategic plans. We know what we’re trying to do as a whole organization for 2021—so you want to show how communications are helping to achieve those overarching goals for your association, or your non-profit, or your university—wherever you work. Communications is helping you reach those overarching goals and it’s really important because that shows the value. It’s easier to invest in communications when we see how it affects the overarching organizational needs.
Explain why you’re doing what you’re doing
Plans help you explain why you’re doing what you’re doing. So you’re going to share these, we will give you a method of sharing these with the higher-ups, and getting their buy-in so that you can more easily say “no.”
Help you say “no”
We know what happens—we create a plan, six months later somebody comes to us and says “hey we have this new idea we want to do X,Y, and Z.” When you have a plan it’s easier to say, “ok, that sounds great. Do you remember six months ago when we all agreed with this plan? I understand things can change, and they can shift, and we need to be flexible; what are we not going to do in this plan in order to make space for this new idea?” Because typically, unless you are getting new resources, new ideas are very taxing. So you want to make sure that you’re able to have those conversations with people who have bought-in to the communications plan. Nicole: And Rachel uses this one on me an awful lot. So, in our dynamic, I am a little bit more tactical and she is very much more strategic—she forces me to think with that strategic mind, but she uses this “no” factor quite a lot. She does say “yes” a lot too. But it really does help to say, “wait a minute, here are our goals, is what you’re asking me to do right now really relevant to that?” Rachel: Exactly, Nicole and I make a good team because she likes tactics and I like strategy—so she’ll come with a great idea and I’ll say “why are we doing that?”
Help you build a budget
They help you build a budget. We’re going to take a look at budgets in a minute. But if you don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish, how will you know what to budget for?
Get the team moving in sync
And then lastly, they keep the team moving in sync. So, plans are really great when you do have a team—for making sure that you are all moving in the same direction.
Ownership of the Plan
Alright, so let’s talk about ownership of the plan. Typically, the plan is led by the most senior communications staff member on your team. So, if you get a team of multiple people, it is your senior-most person who will lead this. Sometimes your comms team of one, and so you are the de-facto leader of your comms plan. And so, while they lead this, and often draft it, they are going to be the one to do that initial drafting—getting the plan together. Having said that, you want to solicit ideas from the rest of your team as well. We have found, I have been doing this for 20-something years, Jarrett has been doing this for less years—so Jarrett can be a little more plugged-in in certain places than I am. So, I value getting his opinion on our marketing plan as well. So make sure you are getting ideas from other team members too. We keep a running log of ideas. This is actually also really helpful, for working with Nicole who is more on the relationship/sales side of things, and so when she has an idea we send her (and anyone else who has ideas) to our marketing ideas spreadsheet. And they can put in their idea, and then they have columns labeled “yes,” “maybe,” and “no.” And so, roughly about once a quarter, we come and we review the ideas, and we say, “do we need to surface any of these up?” Do they fit in with goals we already had, do we need to give anything attention for any given reason? And so you will see that the idea is listed, and then there are initials in there. So, the J, the N, and the R, the Jarrett, Nicole, and Rachel—we’re weighing in on these ideas and basically score them or give them emphasis. So some things are a quick “no,” you will see the “no” on this one is the geofencing digital targeting. We did not have an in-person conference this year so we were not going to do that. So, some things are easy and some things take a little time and negotiation. Nicole: And I absolutely love this document. Because I have morning coffees with the association community, I am at events, and whenever I hear an idea or something that they’re struggling with that I know our team can create a quick article, or it can be a topic for our next webinar, I love that I have a place that I can just throw it in there and it gets evaluated. And sometimes, Rachel and the team can shift around priorities for content—depending on what’s best to serve our industry. So, it does kind of keep us on the front. Rachel: Yeah, and that may be a good spot to add that we build our communications plan for a year, but our content is built quarterly. So, we’re not building out—we kind of have an idea of important content moments throughout the year, but our content is more flexible. We have more flexibility with that than we might have with our overarching goals. Ok, so once you have the draft going you’re going to share it with your full communications team for feedback. Then, you’re going to share it with your bosses, but it depends on your position who these people are, it can be leadership, it can be your executive director, your CEO, it could be committees (if you have communications and marketing committees on your board), it could be your board members, but you want to share it up the chain. So that they know how communications are going to help them reach their overarching goals. We’ll take a closer look at this later. So, just keep in mind that this audience can be slightly different, but make sure that you are sharing it with them and that they see buy-in. We’ll talk a little bit more about what this looks like.
What goes into a communication plan?
Nicole: Alright, so what goes into a communications plan? Well, John Graham has said that if you’ve seen one association, you’ve seen one association. And that is certainly true in the association space. I also feel like it is extremely relevant in the non-profit, higher education, and government space. You all are very unique organizations. And while you have similar challenges in the realm of communications, you also have very unique nuances. And it’s important you understand your best practices, but more importantly, to understand your audiences and understand their needs and your industry needs. In order to create a communications plan that is going to be effective and speak to them. So it’s a little bit of both, but we are going to help you do just that. So, as you know, Rachel and I are part of Mighty Citizen. And we can’t share our client’s strategic plans with you so we were kicking around ideas on how to make this more of an interactive way to showcase examples as part of our session. So we created the fictitious International Association of Mighty Citizens. And yes, you have to do the power pose. It’s really just to give you an example that you can relate to as we go through this communications plan template. Also, it was just fun. The fact is, we work with mission-driven organizations, and we know that there is a ton of mighty citizens on this call so we’re really happy to be here with you.
So, for all of our campaigns, we go through a checklist. And I’m thankful for Rachel because this kind of stuff makes me think more strategically. All of our campaigns have to have an organizational summary, a market analysis, the audience—clearly defined, and goals. And Rachel is going to take you through that organizational summary.
Rachel: Yeah, so now we’re in the meat and potatoes of our comms plan. For those of you that may have downloaded the comms plan template, you’re going to see that this is the order that that template. And the first section of that is an organizational summary. So, the first piece in your organizational summary is an executive summary of the communications plan. What that is is a short and succinct view of the plan for any executives that are reading it. So, your comms plan can end up being 15 pages. When you share that with the higher-ups they don’t want to read 15 pages, they don’t have time for that, they really don’t need to know the tactics and the activities, and the other things that are in the plan. What they do want to know is overarchingly what are you going to do. So, it will often include key milestones—so if you’ve got an anniversary coming up you might mention that and something to do around that, it might also definitely mention your goals. We’ll take a look at a little example of this a bit later. You will write this last. If you were to write your executive summary first you would kind of sit there and spin your wheels for a while. So, you’ll see that it’s listed first in the comms plan, but we are going to skip that and do all the other pieces, then come back. And that’s going to be so much easier, once you’ve been embedded in the comms plan draft.
You’re also going to include your vision statement—so what will the world look like when your work is done. And also, your mission statement, what are you doing every day to accomplish your vision? Most of you likely had your vision and mission statements already. They are kind of key to our organizations. You do not need to re-write those here unless they need a real visit. But just feel free to—this is an easy part—feel free to copy and paste those into your comms plan. And the reason they’re here is to remind us that this is what we’re doing. This is why it matters, every single day.
I also want you to create a list of your products and services. So, what do you offer to your audiences and what are those things called? This is really important for getting everyone in your organization as best you can. Calling things the same thing. So, again I will give you an example of this—we’re using our International Association of Mighty Citizens as our reference point. So, because we are an association, our product and service list might look like this—we’d have membership, we’d have certifications, education, events, and meetings, we’d have advocacy, and we’d have a foundation. And so you can see that I list the product/service and then I also list the deliverables that go hand in hand with that. So, it’s a quick snapshot of your products and services and what they’re called. For example, some organizations might want to call advocacy “legislative efforts” if that’s what you call it—totally fine, just make sure you list it as legislative efforts and that that is what it is called on your website and marketing materials. One goal of the product/service is to list everything and to make sure they are still the same things. That you will continue to have one of your services or your products, but also so that people are calling them the same thing.
Next up, is listing your communications personnel. So, in our fictitious association, we have a team of five. (We do not have a team of five now, but when you’re being fictitious, why not give yourself a bigger team?) So, in our team we have Communications and Development under the same umbrella—and so you see we have a VP of Communications that oversees everything and their responsibilities are strategic leadership, and overseeing the budget, and the plan, and PR. We also have directors of marketing and a director of development that sit underneath that person. And then, we have marketing managers and digital marketing managers. So, this is really an accountability chart—it’s saying who is on our team, and here is what they are ultimately responsible for. If you are planning to hire in 2021—first of all good for you, second of all you might list here Upcoming Digital Marketing Manager and what they will do and how that will be different from who you currently have on your team.
Let’s talk about budget. So, it’s 2020 and unfortunately, we know that a lot of us have really seen our budget stall. So, according to Marketing Week, “90% of marketing budgets are delayed or in review.” So, a lot of us have been in review for a while—it’s not that they’ve cut our budget, but they’ve stalled our budget. Some of us have definitely seen cuts. This same industry leader also says, “44% of marketers are reducing budget in the 2nd half of 2020.” Of course, we’re almost at the end of 2020, probably a lot of you have seen this. For other organizations, when you’re cutting back budget, you may also be seeing some additional engagement—depending on what’s happening. Some associations have seen an uptick in numbers because they are providing real value and content to their industry right now. Some non-profits might be seeing an increase in donors because of who you serve and how that ties into what’s happening and current events. But for most of us, we’re seeing our budgets get cut. Smart organizations, and those that are able (not just smart but also able), are actually increasing their marketing spend right now because their competitors (and we all have competitors of some form or another) are scaling back. So, for some of us our competitors, or our peers in some ways, are scaling back their efforts right now because they have been hit hard in 2020. And if that’s happening and you are able, that is a good time to push your marketing and communications a little more because you can gain brand share or brand awareness during that time. When there is a little less noise from competitors. So, I’m going to share with you guys a quote from Peter Drucker, if you’re not familiar with him he is a pioneer from the 20th century in business leading. I highly recommend you look him up, but he has this quote that says, “The business enterprise has two—and only two—basic functions: marketing and innovation.” He says, “Marketing and innovation produce results, all the rest are costs. Marketing is the distinguishing, unique function of the business.” This is probably preaching to the choir a little bit when we talk about the need for budgeting for marketing and communications, but this is really important. A lot of leadership wants to look at marketing, or comms, as a cost. It is not a cost. If it is done correctly, it is an investment in additional revenue and growth. So, if your mindset is it costs money—no, it’s an investment. Just like you would invest in stock and watch it rise, that is what should be happening inside your organization as well. So, this is the mindset we’re going into when we talk about the value of communications and investing.
Nicole: Alright, so we’re going to talk a little bit about market analysis. We cannot stress enough the importance of knowing and understanding your audiences. Has your team done any market research? Does it need to be done? Do you really have a clear picture of what your industry is gonna be facing in the next two years, five years, and ten years? Obviously in 2020, none of us could have faced that so there are always little obstacles that pop up; but having this base knowledge of what your industry is doing is so relevant. And you can find that in several different ways. Obviously audience surveys, stakeholder interviews, focus groups, you can turn to organizations—in the association space, we have ASAE. In the fundraising space, we have the Association of fundraising professionals. They do lots of studies and surveys and they have blogs and resources that we can turn to. There are industry partners, there are also for-profit research companies that often have lots of loaded information on what our marketplace looks like.
What is your market position? Where are you? Where do you sit? Where are you especially compelling? Consumer brands call this market share. But how are you actually measuring that? Are you measuring yourself against organizations locally, nationally, or regionally? Are you looking at statistics—like your organization size, your budget, your number of members, your Google search rankings? How are you determining it? There are so many different ways to compare yourself and to measure it—you have to do what’s best for your organization and then stick to that. What is your unique value proposition? What do you do better than anyone else and how are you showcasing that? And then what about your competition? What do you know? What are they doing well? What are their weaknesses? How can you position yourself against what they are doing really well? When we look at competitors it’s really not necessarily another agency or another association, it’s really anyone or anything that’s pulling the attention away from your audiences. So, in our fictitious example, in the International Association of Mighty Citizens, that could be another agency or industry partner that is providing educational resources. Perhaps it might even be the American Marketing Association. But understanding your competition in all of these different aspects, really allows you to position yourself, and fill in the gaps, and really give insight and direction as to why your audience should choose you. Choose your resources, and your meetings, and continue to engage with your organization.
Mar/Comm teams have a really tough job. I mean I am amazed at the amount of audiences that our mission-driven partners have to actually focus on. Non-profits have donors, but they don’t just have individual donors, they have major gift donors, they have corporations, they have their funders, and their clients, and their volunteers, and their community leaders. And Associations have the same struggle with their membership. Past members, current members, associate members, industry partners, chapters, legislators, volunteers, community leaders. Universities have students, and parents, alumni, donors, faculty & staff, and every one of these organizations has to communicate to the general public as to who they are and why they exist. But how does a Mar/Comm team decide who takes priority? You obviously can’t speak to everyone in the same language, and you have to really target that, but how do you decide who gets the most attention, and what channels you’re going to do that in? And it’s going to change. The fact is that year-to-year you’re going to create this plan and you’re going to have different goals. Like last year, we might have been really focused on our legislative buy-in. We really needed there, there was some tough buy-in we needed to get on capitol hill. That might have been our focus, so our audience shifts. This year, we’ve seen such an uptick in members that we really want to focus on those new members and getting them engaged and keeping them here. So, don’t think that just because you set this plan for this year that the primary audience you are going to target is going to stay the same every single year. You really have to evaluate it.
So, I want to talk a little bit about personas. Personas are concrete representations of your actual audiences. They include demographic information (like age, how long they’ve been in the industry, the role that they play), and it includes psychographic information (why are they engaging with your organization, what are their paying points, what motivates them?) And the reason to actually have them is to determine and understand what your audiences are challenged with, and what they’re choosing to turn to you to fix. How/Why are they engaging with you in these different scenarios? And personas are built off the information in the market research—the surveys, the stakeholder interviews, and the focus groups. You know, when you have a persona you can really create and target a communications plan that is going to speak to your audiences. It is going to be in the places where they are finding their media, in the language that is speaking to them. So, it’s really important. It helps us in understanding how we create our content, when we release it, where we release it. I want to caution you though because you’ve seen the vast amount of audiences that you’re serving. You can’t possibly create a persona for every single one of these different audiences and break it down into the different levels of donors and members and not create a ton of stress for your team. So, really be careful how you slice and dice your audiences. Make sure that you’re going to create personas, and campaigns, and communications, that are going to be beneficial to your organization and create an ROI that works for you. You don’t have to be the end-all, be-all, and speak to everyone in your audience individually. It’s just too taxing to create that copy and to create those different targeted channels.
Rachel: Yes, I would add that you can slice and dice any number of ways and have personas for all those people if you’ve got a great, huge team. Most of the people we work with do not have that capacity. So, I always think I wish I had a persona for that and then I think well, I would have to do something with it, I would have to put it into action. You just have to prioritize.
Nicole: You do. And I also think that personas are really deep. They dig in really deep. They take time to put together. I’m seeing organizations that put them together and then don’t use them. So, make sure that whatever you do create and dedicate the time to, that you actually use them. So, I want to talk a little bit about the two samples that are on the screen. So, for our example purposes, at the International Association of Mighty Citizens, we have Annette. Annette is a persona of a new member—she’s just recently joined, she’s attended one of our webinars, she is just dipping her toe in the water of what’s important to the organization. We’re going to use the information that we create about Annette to create communications for new prospective members. Steven is the dream member. He is highly engaged, he’s been associated with us for years and sat on our board, every single one of his staff members are certified in our products—he’s great. We’re going to use his information to create communications for our current members that we need to increase engagement with and keep that retention level up.
Alright, so now you have your audiences, you’ve defined the long list of audiences, you’ve chosen the five personas that you’re going to target this year, you’re going to put those together. Well, now what we want you to do is create a list of your key current members, donors, or customers—those members that you want to target to increase engagement, to grow them, to get them more involved with your organization, and less likely to drop off. We’re also going to have you list out all of your target prospective members, donors, and customers. You know who these people are. These are the people you run into all the time and say, “why the heck are they not a member? Why haven’t they donated to our cause? They’ve attended three meetings but they’re just not joining. How are we going to engage them?” We actually want you to list those individuals/companies down. And then we’re going to look at channels. We’re going to find out where they are engaging with you. Is it social media? Is it through emails? Is it your newsletter? Is it at your events and your education that you’re putting out there? And then you’re going to decide how you are going to target them and create that communications plan. And your personas are going to help to direct you in that way.
Rachel: Alright, let’s talk about goals. So, I want you to think about your top 3 communications goals. Now these are, what I call, “big hairy goals” —they’re kind of in your face, they’re really strategic and broad. They are also outside of things that you do to keep the wheels turning. So, they are in addition to all the content creation you need to make. We want to limit it to 3 because we don’t want to overcommit and overwhelm our teams. I’m going to give you an example of what 3 goals look like in a minute, and they are big and hairy. And then all the things that we have to do related to those goals fall under them. So it can get really big, really fast. You want to make sure you’re really mindful of how big your team is. You’re going to list these goals in priority order. Inevitably something can change—as we have all learned this year. And so, sometimes what happens is you have to dump a goal or dump something that you previously had. When they are listed in priority order it’s easy to decide (with everyone) which goal we’re going to dump. So, if I’ve already gotten my leadership bought into my plan, it’s easier to say, “we all agree that this was the least priority item so therefore, we’re going to dump that.” Again, they should be broad and strategic. They should also ladder up to your organizational goals. Hopefully by now, you have an idea of what your organization will be trying to do in 2021—whether that is increase revenue, or engagement of some sort, whatever that looks like. Typically your comms plans can ladder up to those, and they should. Because that way you are showing—here is how comms is going to support the organization as a whole. When comms supports the organization as a whole it’s much easier to get buy-in and budget for it—so that’s really important. Some of these will be dictated by your board. Some of them will say, “we need you to do X,Y, and Z this year,” and then some of them you will have some freedom with. And also, sometimes, the things that marketing or communications needs to do are outside of the organization’s goals. So usually, if I have three goals I will say—two of those have got to ladder up, one of those is for marketing only. A lot of times people will say, “why don’t you put goals first in the comms plan? That seems like the most important thing, why wouldn’t you put those first?” And as I start to walk you through this—the idea is that you have given so much thought to your organization, your structure, you’ve given a lot of thought to your market and where you sit in the marketplace. And you’ve given a whole lot of thought to your audiences—your goals start to become pretty clear about what is needed as you move through those exercises. So, this is why they are listed last. We’ve given so much though to our current scenario that by the time we get to goals, it is pretty clear what our goals need to be.
Here’s a quick look at the goals section of the Executive Summary. So, the Executive Summary is about a page, or maybe two (no more than two), that tells your leadership team—here’s what we’re doing in 2021 from a high level. You also want to list your goals in that summary. So, this one says, “we’ll know we’ve been successful if we reach these goals,” and you’re going to see measurable metrics of success in the goals section. Our fictitious International Association of Mighty Citizens has established that our 3 goals for 2021 are to retain our member growth from 2020. Nicole spoke to this, our fictional association has seen our membership rise because we’ve been creating really great content and resources for our industries. We want to increase our engagement through the usage of our products and services. We listed those earlier—we want to send more people to our events, get them certified, so we’re going to do that as well. And then we’re also going to increase our brand awareness. Our association is fairly new so we need to get people aware of our organization. So you see why I say three goals now because those are big, hairy goals. They’re really robust, and they ladder up to our organizational goals. For example, let’s say one of the strategic goals for the International Association of Mighty Citizens in 2021 was to increase our revenue by 5%. Let’s say that is an overarching strategic organization goal—you see how these things ladder up to that. We need to retain our growth we already had in order to maintain our revenue we already had, we need to increase engagement through products and services that we sell, and then by increasing our brand awareness we are more likely to get more members in the door. So you see how that kind of ladders up.
Ok, for each goal in your communications plan you are going to have activities listed under that goal that say, “these are the activities we’re going to undertake in order to reach that goal.” I’m going to give you a great example of this in a moment, but right now think—goals lead to activities. So, here are the things we need to do to reach that goal. Each of those activities has a metric. How will we measure whether our activities were successful? And then we’re also going to have tactics. What tactics need to happen in order to complete these activities? Your tactics eventually become your tasks—all the things you have to do throughout the year. So, here is an example of this (again using our International Association of Mighty Citizens). Our number one goal is to retain our member growth from 2020. Again, this is in priority order so that really is our number one goal. The first activity we’re going to take in order to retain our members is to improve our onboarding experience. We’ve identified that we see people drop off kind of early, their engagement drops off after they become members—so we want to improve our onboarding experience. We will measure that by saying, “we want 80% renewal in year 1.” I like stretch metrics so, I always set a metric for my activities—I like stretch metrics because sometimes your metrics, typically your metrics need to be based on some experience, research, or analysis, meaning when we look at our metric we know that typically our renewal rate is 75%. So, I want to get that up to 80%. I’m basing that on our past renewal rate. Sometimes what happens is you have an activity where you don’t really know what the metrics should be. You haven’t done it before, it’s a new initiative—this is a good opportunity to find out what other people are doing. So, I often will recommend that you Google and see if there are benchmark studies. There are lots of benchmark studies for nonprofits, and associations, and higher ed. So go see what people are seeing from a benchmarking perspective. Ask other people in your industry. So for example, I have a round table—where several of us in the communications space get together and we talk about what’s happening in our businesses. That is really valuable to me and that’s a great focus group. To say, “hey what is everybody else seeing?” Nicole does a coffee talk every morning with the association space. And she can ask them, “what are you guys seeing for this?” So, really look at ways that you can ask other people, or get some data, to set your metrics. Because if you don’t have those metrics based on something factual, it’s really hard to get your people (your decision makers) to invest in them. Ok, stretch metrics. I like stretch metrics—especially for goals where I am basing it off of someone else’s data. So, I’m basing it on benchmarks, I’m not basing it on something we’ve done before. So, they are things where if I’m not quite sure exactly what my metrics should be, I will set a metric and then I will set a stretch metric to say, “if that one was too low (because I wasn’t really sure) I will stretch myself to a 90% renewal rate.” Which is pretty dang high.
And then, tactics. Your tactics are basically what do you need to do in order to improve the onboarding experience? What are some steps you can take in order to do that? So, for us, we identified we need a welcome kit—both digitally and printed. That has clear directions on how to register online and access member’s only content, their Mighty Citizens badge, and their benefit reminder document. What do they need out of the gate? They need this welcome kit. We haven’t been doing this previously, we are going to add this in 2021. We’re also going to do monthly social posts, emails, and postcards showcasing a single benefit. Most of you, have so many things that your organization does—it can be really hard to keep track. And if it’s hard for you to keep track, it’s even harder for your members, donors, or clients to keep track of as well. So, we’re going to make it really easy and just do one benefit per month. We’re also going to do a welcome call from our local Mighty Citizen chapter, and a social media shoutout from national. So again, getting them engaged, seeing some benefits and value right away. We’re also going to review new member activity states, unidentified trends, and contact points for inactive members. So how can you use your data to increase your membership and you onboarding experience.
So that’s a look at how we do tactics. Here is an example of activity 2. So you might have multiple (probably will have multiple) activities that ladder up to your big goal. So our activity 2 is we want to increase new member annual meeting attendance. We know that if we can get our new members engaged in our annual meeting that we are more likely to see them come back again and again. So our metric here is to have 25% of our new members attend. Perhaps we had 15% last year. Certainly virtual events can change this as well. Our stretch metric is 40% of new attendance for members. And then we would list tactics as well. Our first one being we’re going to offer special pricing to new members. And you will go on and on like this for each of your goals and each of your activities.
Nicole: Alright, and I just want to quote from the previous slide, you notice there’s a ton of tactics underneath that strategy so they do go hand-in-hand. And there’s a real important reason to keep those goals succinct and keep them to 3. Limit it.
Rachel: Nicole, I want to add one thing there. So, literally this morning, our sales and marketing teams got together and we started to, what I would call, blue sky. Or brainstorm what we could do in 2021. So, we start with a lot of things. And it’s a mix. We know what our goals are so we have a ton of activities and lists of things we could do. And I see from the chat that a lot of you are one-person organizations, or one person departments. So, what I’m going to do now is I’m going to take that long list, and it’s me and Jarrett on the marketing side of this, and I’m going to take this and I’m going to say, “what, out of all these things we could do, how do we prioritize them?” and then from there, “what can we actually get done?” Because, we will not be able to get done every idea that we have. We will not be able to get done everything listed on our sheet. It’s really important that you come back at it later and prioritize what you can actually do. One thing I’m going to do this year is I’m asking for a new team member in 2021. It’s a hard sell. Things are uncertain, but I’m going to go for it. And one way I’m going to do this is I’m going to turn to our CEO, and I’m going to say, “hey remember that list of all the things we wanted to do? Here’s what I can do with the status quo. Here’s what Jarrett d and I can get done in 2021. If we added a team member, here are the additional things I can get done in 2021.” And then I’m going to have the nerve to ask for some interns on top of that. And I’m going to say, “ if we have Jarrett and I, and an additional person, and two interns here’s what else I can add to that list.” Now, he’s probably not going to go full hog and give me everything; but you know what my additional hire looks better and like a more viable option because it’s going to be the middle option. Not the more expensive option. So, I know you guys are stressing with all the things you have to get done and the fact that you just can’t do it all. And that’s why the plan is so important. Because it actually shows what you can get done. And if they need you to get more done, then you’re going to have that conversation—what are we going to cut or who are we going to add?
Nicole: And Rachel’s team certainly has my backing because half the things in that plan are things I need her to do as well. So I’m all for more staff if we can make it happen.
How to manage the plan
So, I’m going to talk a little bit about how to manage this plan. So, you want to check the status at least monthly. This is not an exercise of let’s build it and forget it. You are most certainly going to check the status monthly to keep everyone in check on moving in the right direction. You’re going to update it on a quarterly basis. So, you’re actually going to go in and make changes. As you look at these things, and as you look at the monthly review and the quarterly review you’re going to shift. I mean, the reality is, that you’re going to have to make changes. And you’re going to have to make things up on the fly—hopefully not to the extent that it is in 2020. I’m going to show you in the next example how we update it here at Mighty Citizen. It’s really important for us—we use Google Docs a lot here, we’re very collaborative in how we operate between teams— but I’m taking you back to that example that Rachel had shown about our goal of retaining member growth from 2020. So, we’re going to fast forward. Let’s say it’s September 30th 2021, we’ve looked at all of the stats, and we’ve hit that first metric. We’re at 85% of new members have renewed. Our plan is working. Now we’re stretching and continuing our reach for that next step. But the question is, what if it is a year like 2020? What if we need to change everything? All of a sudden, we can’t attend—I mean last year 2020 for Mighty Citizen, we were supposed to be in-person attending, exhibiting, speaking at events across the US. And unfortunately, that changed. And we had to all go virtual, just like many of you did. And we had to change how we did things. And instead of us revising our 2020 plan, we started fresh. We said, “ok, look it’s a whole new world right now, we have to look at this with completely fresh eyes.” We don’t throw away that plan, but we have to start fresh from it.
I think it would have been a mess of changes along the way because there were so many shifts in 2020. It’s really important though that you share any of these shifts and changes with your teams. You have to keep everyone moving in the same direction. When we say that we want you to share, we want you to share with executives. And that could be your board, it could be a committee—especially if they are giving you funds in any way shape or form. You want to give them quarterly results. You want to share it with the full staff a few times per year. And this is really essential because you want buy-in from the whole team. And the way that you can get buy-in from the whole team is to communicate the value of the communications team. So, you want to do that a few times a year. Any time we get new staff—if it’s an executive staff member or a communications staff member—we are reviewing the full plan with them so that they can see from the start where we are, what our plans are for this year, where we stand in the status of it. And especially if that’s a new CFO we want to make sure that they know what the communications plan and what the communications team is doing in order to ladder up to those big strategy goals. Now, we don’t want to overcomplicate it. You all have enough to do for sure, so what we suggest is that you give a bite-sized bit of information periodically to the full staff. You give a snack-size to the executives on a quarterly basis, and this snack-size should include ROI, numbers and statistics—this group really likes to see the numbers, so make sure in the metrics you are tracking them so that you can showcase those results. And then for your full communications team you want to give them a full meal. And this is going to be a continuous update status. They have to know, they are your army on the ground and they have to know where you stand, where you need to pivot, where you need to change and keep everything going. If you can create this communications cycle, and you can implement it—everyone is going to be aware of what’s happening with the communications team, with the plan, the success you’ve had, you’re going to showcase your value, and you might even help the organization to work better together. They might understand why all communications have to go through your communications department, or why you have to follow a branding guideline. It’s really important. They might see your value a little bit better.
Summing it all up
Rachel: Alright, so, to wrap it all up—you need a communications plan. I know it’s uncertain. 2021 does not look that much more certain than 2020 did. Hopefully, fingers crossed for everything, we did get some good news yesterday on a vaccine, but you have to have a written communications plan. It’s really hard to know what you’re going to do if you don’t write it down. And, to show value to other people on the team. Don’t overcommit on your goals. I am an overachiever, I think I can do everything, and I have learned over the years that I absolutely cannot. And it is way better to over-perform than under-perform. So, I would try to be really clear about what my team is capable of getting done in the year. Absolutely get buy-in from your team. Not just your team (your communications team) but also from your leadership. That’s really important. Again, we’re trying to put something in place here so that you can show your value. Set clear metrics—we talked about how to get those metrics. Look back at data you’ve got, benchmarking, talk to other people. These are the things you’re tracking to know if you’re being successful, so make sure you have these. Track metrics and report on it quarterly. So again, you’re reporting quarterly to your executive team. I would recommend that you’re reporting monthly to your comms team. So we have a monthly report, we use Google data studio, and it puts it all in there really nicely for us, and I can see everything and I report monthly to my team—my communications team.
Nicole: Hey Rachel, before you move on, I kind of want to add there. We know that our audience is unique—you’re small, you’re large, you’re medium, you have different staff sizes, different budgets and all that. When Rachel said, “you get a plan” I want you to understand—you get a plan. These tools are easy to use and you don’t have to have a complicated system that costs your company $100,000 to make this stuff work. Mighty Citizen is using Google Docs, and we use Sheets to track our ideas, and we communicate with each other. Don’t limit yourself because of some sort of technology lacking. There are basic technologies and skillsets, and we’ve handed them to you here to have a plan—you just have to do the mind work and the creative work to put it into place.
Rachel: Yeah, and that segues nicely into questions. But first, you can get the slides (right this minute) as well as that Annual Communications Plan Template at mightycitizen.com/commsplan go grab that. We will have a recording as well that we will be sharing via email with these items too in the next couple of days. So, I’m going to hand it over to Jarrett for any questions.
Nicole: Can I add one more thing onto that too? So, you know that we’re giving the comms plan here, but (and I don’t know if we can throw it in the chat here) I feel like they run hand-in-hand, especially when we talk about the idea sheet where you’re tracking ideas and you mentioned that content changes quarterly—our editorial calendar is another huge tool that people love to use to really engage and get their content out there in an organized fashion. And it’s easy to use. So, that’s another template you would probably find very useful.
Rachel: That’s a good point Nicole, and actually that editorial content calendar is linked from this url as well. I just forgot to mention that.
Jarrett: Alright, let’s jump into some questions. We have quite a few—first one that’s on the list is “How rigidly should you stick to the plan once you have it in place? Or in other words, how do you build in the inevitable need for change?”
Nicole: That depends on how good my argument is right Rachel?
Rachel: Yeah. So, I’m a really flexible person, I can bend pretty easily. Well, I don’t know I think I married both—Nicole can speak to this more, but I always leave a little bit of room. So, typically what happens is—you know I’m going to look at this list that we made this morning, I’m going to say Jarrett and I can get this, this, and this done, and I’m going to put us at about 85% capacity. Because I know that there’s more stuff that’s coming. I just don’t know what it is. I do the same thing with my budget. I have a miscellaneous item. I’m lucky that my CEO lets me have this—I have a little budget that’s not that much, but every month I know I have a miscellaneous budget too. Because there are going to be things that pop up that I just have to get done. If it’s something big that’s when I turn around and say, “what are we not going to do that we agreed we were going to do? This is what I think we should not do—let’s talk about it.”
Jarrett: Nicholas had a really popular question, and that was, “Any insight on being a one-person team?”
Rachel: Yeah, I saw that question was popular and I tried to answer it previously. I think probably the biggest difficulty with being a one-person team is having time to do everything. And so I think it’s really important to make time to plan. That is the biggest struggle—how do I do planning when I’ve got to get out this email and we’ve got this even next week. You just have to put it on your calendar and you have to block it. This is not something I would always recommend but one trick I’ve learned this year is I put PTO on my calendar knowing that I’m really only going to take a half-day, and then I use that PTO time for essential other work. So, you’ve just gotta get it on your calendar. Block everything else. Tell them you’re out of the office even if you’re working. Find a way to get that planning done. And then with that, you know what you’re expected to do for the year. And then when something else pops up you can have that other conversation.
Jarrett: Rachel, this was a question that I think I’ve heard you get before and Carla wanted to know, “Sometimes you mention marketing plan instead of communications plan—are they the same thing? Are they different? Can you explain?”
Rachel: Yeah, I should have tackled that because we do get that question. In my mind, they’re very similar. It’s hard to have marketing when everything is communications. So, in our world, and in many of our clients’ world that team is the same team. Unless you’re a really big organization and you have a separate marketing department from your comms department, they are typically living in the same space and tasked with the same goals. Same thing with fundraising. I saw somebody say that this would be a really good set-up for a fundraising plan as well. Exactly! A lot of times those two things are very linked if you are in a non-profit. Communications is very much tied into fundraising. So, I lump them together, I think that they’re very similar.
Jarrett: I’ll tell you the questions are flowing in, and we have to do a follow-up thing of some sort, but I think we have time for a couple more. Kristen asked, “I often struggle with how to measure my goals. For example, we often want to expand our brand awareness, but how do you measure or track this growth?”
Rachel: Oh boy, brand awareness is the hardest thing to measure. So, some things I have done—because we, in order to do brand awareness properly, you probably have to do a lot of research, surveys and it can just get really cumbersome. Especially if you’re small. One of the ways that we have measured that is things like downloads. How many people have downloaded our resources? Attendance at our webinars and our conferences. We have seen these skyrocket. Web traffic—how many people are coming to certain sections of our site, or how much is that increasing? Those are not—I measure those things every month, but I measure them because that’s the way I can measure brand awareness. So, I’m doing things to change those and to increase them—but that’s the way that I think is easiest for most people to measure. What does someone being aware of you look like? How do you know they’re aware of you? And then, doing those things that ladder up to that. That might show that.
Nicole: Newsletter sign-ups would be in there too.
Rachel: Newsletter sign-ups that are really good one.
Jarrett: Ok, I think we can get one more in here. Lindsay said, “Rachel, the real-life example you gave of blue sky and planning for 2021, and then proposing additional resources based on that idea list, does that mean the CEO or your boss is a part of the blue skying or how would he/she appreciate those ideas?”
Rachel: Ok, so that’s a very good question. In our scenario, our CEO is part of the blue skying. That will not always be the case. I think the thing there is—let’s say you have a new idea that has never been done before, you’re going to have to do some of that work to figure out what the potential ROI on that is. So again, look at your benchmarking, talk to other people who have done it, what does that look like? The flip-side of that is, a lot of times you’ll find that organizations are doing things because they have always done them—you’ve got a gala that really doesn’t bring in that much money, but everybody says “oh they love the gala, everybody would be so sad if the gala was missing,” well would they? Because they’re not putting money behind it. So look at the other things you’re doing too. I think that’s the flip-side is what are you doing that you don’t have to do? We have a “not going to do” list as part of our 2021 planning that says, “we did this this year and it didn’t really work, or it just wasn’t worth the time that we put into it.” And for us, we’re going to do less content production next year. It’s valuable, but we have some other things that we want to prioritize instead. So, look at what you’re not going to do in order to make the argument for what could be or what you could do.
Jarrett: Awesome. Nicole, Rachel, thank you so much. Everyone please remember that we will be sending out the slides and a recording of this webinar to everyone who registered. And we will also be including a link to a survey/feedback form for the webinar today. And we hope that you will take just a minute to let us know what you think. If you have any questions about what we talked about today you can always email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks everyone for attending, have a good rest of your day.