The million-dollar question: how do I know my comms is working?

How can you tell if your communications activity is adding strategic value and not just adding to the noise? Liz Carlile has four key questions that will give you your answer.  

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Insight by 
Liz Carlile
Liz Carlile is IIED's director of communications
20 November 2019
Two women in an African landscape: one with a camera filming another with a microphone

Involving communities: participatory video with smallholder farmers, Barge Damm Burkina Faso. It's vital to develop creative, carefully targeted content for your audience (Photo: Barbara Adoph/GWI West Africa/IIED)

I was asked that question again the other day: “How do I know my comms is working for me and really adding value?”

I’d been giving a talk at a strategic communications workshop for non-profits at the 20th anniversary meeting of RedLAC in Mexico – a network of 25 environmental funds working across Latin America and the Caribbean. Colleagues from Asia also joined the event as well as a number of funds from CAFÉ (Consortium of African Funds for the Environment).

It’s a great question of course. In fact, it’s the question. And it’s entirely valid – born from legitimate concern that communications activity is strategic and doesn’t just add noise.

But it is also an easy challenge from the sceptics among us. As comms professionals we must be able to give some answers – so here goes.

More than metrics

There are the usual metrics – media mentions, web downloads, blog responses, Twitter followings etc. But are metrics enough? I would say no – they’re the easy bit.

We can all gather this data. We can compare it with previous years, or previous campaigns. We can compare it with our competitors’ data. It’s valuable, and we rely on it to help tell the story of our work – where we are seen, who we connect to and what they think of us. So, yes, important and useful. But by no means the only way to know your comms is working. Metrics report on the strategy but they do not drive it.

The toughest part in answering this burning question is around strategic effort – you need to be confident you’re getting the best possible value from your precious resources. This was my questioner’s main concern: was the right amount of effort being directed to the right place for the impact they needed?

Strategic patience

In my experience, people seeking to understand the added value of comms are not always cognisant of the full set of comms activities needed to ensure long-term impact. Good strategic comms work is not just about getting something to happen today. It is also about creating the enabling environment.

This is the more indirect comms activity that builds awareness and trust in your institution, preparing the ground for the moment when your big message needs to be heard and you can capitalise on that trust.

When devising a strategy, I remind myself of the different types of activity that, combined, can nurture this enabling environment – from profile raising and information dissemination to influencing policy and mobilising communities.

Some of this work is direct and immediate – a face-to-face meeting, a briefing targeted at key individuals, small meetings and workshops with chief influencers. Some, more indirect – building trust and supportive networks, building reputation and brand recognition. This activity is harder to quantify but for sustainable impact over the long term, it’s important to stick at it.

Four questions: the acid test

Are you doubting your communications strategy? Here are four questions to ask yourself that will test whether your comms is adding real value.

  1. Do I know enough about the context? We like to supply information or ideas when we are ready. We are less good at working out when it is needed by the recipient. Horizon scanning and preparation is critical. Are there processes, events, key leveraging moments that you should be targeting? Are you preparing the right kind of information, and using the right channels to target that moment effectively?
  2. Am I building relationships, connecting with and getting to know my stakeholders? There is simply no substitute for systematic audience development. Everyone groans about their CRM database but this is the jewel in the crown: an up-to-date contact database/system is the superhighway to success. Concentrated work to build your lists, and to understand the interests and needs of those you are in touch with, can boost your impact disproportionately – and yet it is often the very last thing we invest in.
  3. Am I developing creative, carefully targeted content? Each piece of content in your impact strategy should be created with a specific aim. It should be tailored to the recipients’ needs and how you want them to respond. Do you want to simply share information, or do you want them to take a specific action? Is what you are giving them really what they need? It is always all about the receiver.
  4. Are my activities working? Here, we’re back to metrics. Prioritising good processes for gathering and analysing metrics across your team is a really good way to challenge your strategy and make sure it is on track. More in-depth engagement – surveys, Twitter polls, webinars, outcome harvesting – provides more in-depth understanding and learning.

So back to that question. There is no easy answer and no silver bullet. But combining a well-articulated strategy and audience plan on the one hand with the evidence from a well devised process for collecting metrics on the other, should sandwich your activities in a way that ensures you are adding value.

Good strategic communications work requires patience, continual detailed analytical thinking and planning, buy-in from your senior leadership team and constant re-evaluation. It needs careful listening and engagement with your stakeholders and fine tuning of your outputs accordingly.

There are no easy wins – results take time – so stay confident and committed to your strategy for long enough to measure progress. Hopefully you will see all your hard work is paying off.

If you would like further information or to discuss, please don’t hesitate to be in touch.

About the author

Liz Carlile ([email protected]) is IIED's director of communications

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