The Six Pillars of Impactful Communications

Marketing can be challenging and complicated, whether you’re working for a Fortune 500 company with huge budgets or communicating essential messages for a non-profit organization. In October 2020, I wrote an article titled “The 3 Pillars of Marketing That Works” to bring clarity to marketing efforts at that time. My objective was to articulate the core elements or pillars of a successful marketing campaign in a simple way. Since then, I have learned a lot, and I have expanded my list by adding three more key pillars, which I think are inferred in my previous article and provide more clarity. As you work to enhance your organization’s marketing and communications team structure, improve team collaboration processes, and increase marketing effectiveness, look for these six pillars.

1) Research and insights: In order to effectively communicate with someone, one must understand the context, background, place, and any number of other variables involved with, or impacting, a user-experience, communication or interaction. As humans, we do much of this instinctively. 

In the business world, we might call this “knowing your market” or industry. The most common mistake organizations make is to use “focus group of one” approach, or drive communication strategy based on the expert opinion of the “highest paid person in the room”. 

Effective communication, and effective marketing campaigns, require deeper understanding of the issue, people, and context around which one is communicating; needs, challenges, cultural trends, demographics, and more. 

There is research that suggests that familiarity increases the likelihood of engaging in open and free conversations. A study published in the journal “Communication Research” found that people were more likely to engage in self-disclosure with close friends than with acquaintances. The researchers suggested that this might be because close friends have earned trust that encourages self-disclosure.

Organizations would be well served investing intentionally in research or polling in order to acquire an accurate, data-driven and deeper understanding of their market and segment needs in order to communicate in a way that builds trust and inspires deeper engagement. Assumptions are the killer of effective communication and marketing. 

2) Clear and well-defined objectives: In situations where there is a clear and close connection between marketing efforts and revenue generation, objectives tend to be easier to identify and define. But in the case of non-profits or advocacy organizations where there can be multiple audiences and objectives are often intangible or about changing hearts and minds, establishing clear and well defined objectives can be much more challenging.

Each organization is going to be different. The more tactical the work, the easier it seems to be to establish clear objectives. The more strategic oriented, or the more varied the categories in which an organization is operating under, the more complex and challenging it is to establish clear and well-defined communications or marketing objectives. 

Like a house of cards, if this first layer is not set firmly, it weakens the rest of the organization’s marketing or communications effort and can have significant consequences. 

From a leadership perspective, without clear and specific objectives, the marketing team will struggle with lack of focus and motivation. This leads to wasted resources, inefficient processes, and reduced output capacity. Symptoms of poor objective clarity or definition could include:

  • Inefficient resource allocation: If the marketing objectives are vague or undefined, it can be difficult for a marketing team to allocate resources effectively. They may not know which marketing channels to prioritize in the mix, which target audience to focus on, or which marketing tactics to use, resulting in a scattered and inconsistent marketing campaign.
  • Low engagement and conversion rates: Poorly defined marketing objectives leads to marketing messages that are unclear, generic, or irrelevant to the target audience. This will inevitably result in low engagement rates, low conversion rates, and a low return on investment (ROI).
  • Missed opportunities: Without clear marketing objectives, the marketing team may miss opportunities to capitalize on emerging trends, reach new audiences, or innovate in their marketing approach.
  • Lack of accountability: If the marketing objectives are not well-defined, it can be difficult or nearly impossible to measure the success of a marketing campaign. This means it’s difficult to hold team members accountable for their performance, or lack of. This, again, impacts motivation, as marketers wonder if their efforts even matter and it makes managing people that much more difficult. 

Ultimately, lack of well defined objectives will hurt the organization, and cause erosion in brand value over a period of time, even when the organization is successful otherwise.

Define the specific audience most likely able to deliver on objectives: Establishing objectives then makes it significantly easier to clearly define the right target audience, based on the market research and other insights acquired. From understanding what segments are already saturated, to identifying what segments provide the most significant growth opportunities, investing in audience identification and segmentation significantly increases the chances for success. It sounds like a no-brainer, yet its no surprise when so many organizations want to reach “everyone” with their message, or allow the channel or tactic to define it’s own target audience.

Without clearly knowing if you’re reaching the right audience, you risk making wrong assumptions about why a communications or marketing effort succeeded or failed. Without having a clear picture of who your target audience is, the best messaging will fall flat, your awareness or brand reach will continue to sink, and your communications efforts will increase in cost. But worst of all, you and your team will have a hard time being able to identify why.

Define the message and storytelling that will inspire action: In the Fogg Behavior Model, Dr. BJ Fogg, a behavior scientist and psychologist at Stanford University, proposes that any response or behavior an organization seeks (click, donate, share, pray, learn more, etc) is achieved through a mix of MOTIVATION, ABILITY, and TRIGGER. 

Here’s a summary of each element in that model:

  • Motivation: Your audience is more likely to engage in a behavior if they are motivated to do so. This is common sense human nature. Motivation can come from a variety of sources, including personal goals, social norms, religious values, and emotions. While perhaps an oversimplification, according to the Fogg Behavior Model, there are three key motivators that can drive behavior change: sensation (seeking pleasure and avoiding pain), anticipation (looking forward to future outcomes), and belonging (wanting to fit in with a particular group or community). Thinking too highly of the value of your product, service or message puts an organization at risk of overestimating their audience’s motivation to engage with your message.
  • Ability: Your target audience is more likely to engage in a behavior if they perceive it as easy to do and have the practical ability to respond at the moment. Ability can be influenced by factors such as time, money, physical effort, and mental resources. The Fogg Behavior Model proposes that there are six factors that can increase ability: time, money, physical effort, brain cycles (mental effort), social deviance (how much the behavior differs from social norms), and non-routine (how familiar or habitual the behavior is). 
  • Triggers: Triggers are cues that prompt a person to engage in a behavior. According to the Fogg Behavior Model, there are two types of triggers: spark triggers and action triggers. Spark triggers are designed to motivate people to engage in a behavior, while action triggers are designed to make the behavior easier to do. Triggers can come from a variety of sources, including environmental cues, social norms, moral values, and personal habits.

By considering motivation, ability, and triggers, the Fogg Behavior Model provides a framework for understanding how behavior change occurs and how to design interventions that can facilitate it. By increasing motivation, decreasing barriers to behavior, and providing effective triggers, organizations can increase the likelihood that people will engage in a desired behavior.

Fogg Behavior Model ©

Clearly, the Fogg Behavior Model warrants consideration across all the elements of a communications or marketing effort. Motivation and trigger are caused by both the copy/messaging and potentially by the channel/format (a video is more emotive than a banner ad, as an example). Depending on the message, and how hard its going to be to motivate the audience, communicators should consider the appropriate channel mix for effective response.

Define the channel mix: If you have clear objectives, know your audience, and understand what is the important message or story you want to deliver, a communicator can then research and identify the best channels to find the target audience and invite them to engage or respond. This is often where  research and insights can provide insight on the audience channel preferences. The number of channel options and opportunities have exponentially grown over the recent years. So, while this means there are more cost-effective ways to reach your target audiences, it also means there are also more risk of marketing waste — spending dollars on communications and marketing efforts that don’t reach your intended audience. 

Location is (Still) Everything

The biggest mistake I see both non-profit organizations and corporations making is over-investing in social platforms in their overall channel mix and over-estimating the value these platforms have towards reaching their communication objectives. Social media platforms and conventional wisdom have propagated the lie that the Internet makes the world flat and reduces friction by erasing the impact of the physical world organization’s ability to reach, message and engage their audiences. Wharton professor and marketing expert David R. Bell argues that the way we use the Internet, and therefore how we receive messages, is still largely impacted  by the physical world we inhabit. While Dr Bell is mostly focused on consumer and retail interactions, I would propose it also applies to non-profit advocacy communications and engagement.

“Anyone can go online and buy a pair of jeans—but the likelihood that we will do so depends to a significant degree on where we live. The presence of stores nearby, trendy and friendly neighbors, and local sales taxes, among other factors, play a critical role in our decision making when it comes to buying online. Our willingness to search for and consume information also depends on where we live and whom we live next to.

In Location Is (Still) Everything, Bell offers a fascinating, in-depth look at online commerce and retailing through his years of research, investing, and advising experience. His unique GRAVITY framework is a powerful and practical tool that uses fundamental human behaviors and location-based conditions to explain how the real and virtual worlds intersect — and what Internet sellers must do in order to succeed. Entrepreneurs, managers, students, and investors will all benefit from understanding how and why we use the Internet to search, shop, and sell.”

It would serve communicators well to reach outside of their own industry and best practices, and study the solutions that retail and other commerce industries have identified and developed in response to the challenges of marketing in a rapidly evolving and noisy digital age.

Metrics of success: The final step in an effective marketing or communications effort is establishing the ability to measure whether objectives are being reached within a marketing or communication effort. My observation is that the main reason so many organizations struggle to measure well is because the above 5 pillars have not been clearly defined.

When there are impactful insights, clearly defined objectives, well-defined and identifiable audience, a clear and actionable message, and a carefully considered strategic channel mix, measuring effectiveness and impact becomes significantly easier.

Key performance indicators certainly need to include tactical measurements that can be optimized for improved performance, but the important thing is to make sure these all roll up to impact the strategic objectives. Otherwise, tactical measurements amount to nothing more than a vanity metric. 

Lack of clarity or focus on any of these pillars will result in confusion across a communications or marketing team, misalignment and conflicts around messaging, and therefore reduce clarity around the key objectives. As a result, even a well designed process may break down, and teams may experience unintentional relational friction, siloing, and lack of teamwork.

The consequences of missing one of the above steps are significant, and communication leaders can waste time trying to solve organizational problems or process gaps that are easier to identify and solve when the above 6 pillars are in place. 

The above 6 pillars are likely not all-inclusive. But in my experience, the more the above 6 pillars are strengthened within a communications and marketing effort, the more effective the team becomes. The benefits and value to an organization could be huge in improved team morale, stronger collaboration, greater output, more effective campaigns, and improved and measurable ROI. 

What I wrote in 2010 still applies today;

“Most marketing tactics are measurable and effective if you take the time and effort to clarify your target audience and deliver the right message in alignment with clear objectives. So, embrace the rapidly accelerating digital transformation, and certainly embrace the number of digital apps, channels and platforms creating a more even marketing playing field–but do so without losing sight of these 3 [now 6] important marketing campaign pillars that will help you deliver measurable business results. “

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