What makes a communications strategy successful? While the overall goals of any such strategy may not have changed, the way of building it and running it is heavily impacted by the digital revolution. So how does a large, global organisation with multicultural teams, master this fast-changing landscape? 

Let us take the example of a big company we have been working for, a global business-to-business audit and consulting firm. It employs 20,000 highly skilled professionals worldwide. Most of them are on LinkedIn: if you add all their first-degree LinkedIn contacts and remove duplicates, you end up with the impressive figure of 550,000. That is an audience of half-a-million that can be leveraged anytime at a fraction of the cost of traditional media. This is a striking example of the paradigm change we are faced with.

Step 1
Building a strategy that makes sense

Generally speaking, much of what you read about digital communications and social media, via the never-ending flow of advice available on blogs, websites, or LinkedIn, is prescriptive. The main issue is that our world moves too fast for the age-old habit of writing down ponderous tomes and manuals.

But in this new environment, good habits remain the same. First, decide what your goals are. Don’t start from the end and work backwards: neither Facebook, a blog nor an enterprise social network will tell you what you want to achieve. Obviously, your goals stem from your overall communications strategy: a digital communications plan cannot exist per se, or you may very well end up with window-dressing.

Although benchmarking and studying best practices is essential, you need to be familiar with the whole picture. Let’s take an example. One of your team members doesn’t know much about digital in general, but is fluent with Facebook and has lots of ideas taken from other organisations that could be copied and pasted into your own. The problem is that when you’ve got only a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Maybe in your case, instead of using Facebook, a plan involving a blog, Twitter, or a combination of online and offline tactics would work best.

Another scenario: a member of senior management becomes enthused about the latest tool (be it Snapchat, Flipbook, Pinterest or anything else), and wants to know what you can do with it for the company. Depending on the overall strategy, your goals and your resources, this new thing may be of interest, or it may be entirely irrelevant.

Finally, no serious strategy avoids measuring its efficiency. While digital selling and marketing are obviously result-driven, digital communications often lack key performance indicators even though there are in fact many at your disposal. It will be easier to explain to your management that a part of your digital strategy’s ROI is difficult to measure if you have included strong KPIs to assess the results of your actions: not only static data (number of visitors, pageviews, impressions) but also using qualitative metrics, and analysing trends over time.

Step 2
Aligning goals with the company’s business model and DNA

So how do these guiding principles live in the real world? What did we do for that huge consulting firm? We started by asking ourselves what was expected from the digital communications strategy and how it could optimise and nurture the existing overall communications strategy. To answer this question, we went back to the basics of the company’s activity (trade, structure, business model and ecosystem), and compared these key elements to the key trends that we could notice in the digital landscape. It is all about defining audiences, communication goals and key messages and conveying these messages through appropriate tools.

This first step led us to build a strategy based on individuals, with a strong link between personal and corporate branding. Unlike consumer brands, a consulting firm indeed does not sell a product but rather the expertise of its professionals, who are organised as a global integrated partnership.

Then we devised an action plan mixing web publishing and social media and with four main areas (brand recognition and image, influence and thought leadership, employer branding and recruitment, market watch and business development) and a matrix to decide, for example, which social media to use in each one of these areas.

Our approach to measurement originates in a strategic choice favouring quality over quantity. For example, most of the studies, surveys and technical documents that we published are pushed to very specific targets thanks to campaigns on professional social media. The documents themselves are available only to registered visitors, which leads us to design and measure a complete conversion funnel, starting with online promotion (organic and sponsored) and ending up with a limited number of very qualified contacts.

Step 3
Connecting your resources to your strategy 

When it comes to to digital communications, the market watch and knowledge management, for the same reason as mentioned earlier: this world goes too fast. So how do you overcome this?

There are several ways to address this issue, but it is mainly a question of resources. Outsourcing can help, but it’s hard to find an agency that is really good about all the aspects of digital communications, simply because they have exactly the same problem as you in staying abreast of an insane rhythm of innovation and mastering skills that are getting more and more specialised.

Then, as usual, you are at the mercy of what the agency wants to sell. In some cases, they would be happy to help build a nice and shining business case, in order to reflect positively on their own image. And the plan may even work – but is it really what you need from the point of view of overall business goals? And how can you tell, if you’re not strong on everything digital yourself?

The other simple solution is to have this knowledge at hand, within your teams. But then again do you have the appropriate financial resources and organisation to find, hire and manage people with skills as varied as web project management, web design and integration, web hosting, social media marketing, community management, training management, e-marketing, and the endless flow of acronyms – SEO, SMO, CMS, CTR, CPC – and so on?

What we have learned is that it helps to have what the author of The Augmented Management, Dominique Turcq, calls a “basecamp”: a strong team of in-house experts within a Digital team, itself located within the communication team. This works best if these experts are clearly positioned as internal consultants, spending a large part of their time on change management, project management, benchmarking and market watch activities.

Which content management solution? Which social media intelligence tools to deploy? Only a strong team will be able to address the unlimited stream of riddles in all aspects of your digital strategy, from technical to design to change management.

Step 4
Thinking digital always

The type of organization described above may be able to design a robust digital strategy and to maintain its consistency in the long run. However, it will never be enough: concentrating all your digital knowledge in a single team is as 1.0 as it gets. The digital revolution that means that you cannot think in terms of silos, labels and vertical structures. This has two major consequences.

First, your entire communications team must go digital and social. In 2019, a communications team not entirely consisting of digital and social media experts is a square peg in a round hole. For instance, if your PR manager is not 24/7 on Twitter, you’ve got a serious problem to consider.

Second, you need to think of your staff as a key resource that can, and must, be integrated in your digital strategy, acting as early warning assets, information sources and as a test bench. That means scaling social across your whole organisation – and this may well be the most difficult part. 

It also means about making clear that a social world is a world without boundaries: we firmly believe that there is no barrier between, say, influence, employer branding and business development. 

This is where your team of internal experts helps the company as a whole become digital and social. In this particular case, we had a strong asset: a highly trained workforce, with access to social media during their work hours, and familiarity with the concept of networking. This was a great starting point for deploying an ambitious training programme aimed at improving the way the staff understands and uses professional social media. This hands-on workshop format allowed us to train more than 1.000 partners and managers worldwide.

Step 5
Embracing the impact on your company’s organisation 

Social is here to stay, but can you realistically manage it and where does it stop? Is the notion of ‘social media management’ even effective at all?

Calibrating the content that flows from your official corporate social media accounts is simple to fathom – and it may be the only thing you really ‘manage’. What about the rest of the world, which blogs and tweets without waiting for your strategies and guidelines?

The answer might be to think of such a complexity not as a threat but as an asset. Think of it as an ecosystem that includes your in-house digital team, the wider communications team, agencies and freelancers, business teams, the whole staff’s own personal networks, the media, your clients and your prospects.

One of the biggest impacts that the digital revolution has had on conducting communications is the way team members work together. Simply put, silos no longer work. Almost everything marches to the drum of social media and this had led us in the same direction of other corporations, with weekly editorial committee meetings involving communications, marketing and HR teams.

Step 6
Leveraging technology to empower your marketing and communication team 

Traditionally, in order to be able to propose a communications strategy, communicators have asked management and business teams a simple question: what are your business objectives? Internal stakeholders were accustomed to traditional tools.

Digital and social media have introduced a new level of complexity as some – not all – people higher up the food chain feel too old to understand this revolution (which is a pretty false preconception, by the way). This has three major and immediate consequences.

The first is that a communication leader who masters digital strategies gains a whole new status, mostly due to the arcane aspect of digital tools and the complexity of this new world. This can be a blessing, as it may change the communicator’s internal image. It implies, however, that communication teams embrace the change not only in terms of tools and strategies, but also in terms of internal positioning. Being in a spearheading position is rewarding, but is also challenging and requires a resolute and unshakeable faith in one’s ability to spur change within the organisation.

The second consequence is that the difference between using tools and having a strategy becomes more difficult to communicate internally. For example, the prominent place of social media in our lives and in the media means that having a Facebook page may appear to be equal to having a social media strategy. It becomes harder to get your point about strategy across when these new bright and shining tools seem to speak for themselves.

The last, and most disturbing consequence for a communicator is that getting buy-in from top management is very much possible, but getting them onboard as active assets in an integrated digital communication plan becomes much harder than it was with other communication tools.

Step 7
Focusing on content creation

In the world of digital communications, content creation becomes critical as, unlike traditional communication tools, talking about the organisation itself does not tend to generate engagement per se. Not only does the way of writing messages changes in a radical way, but the disappearance of watertight silos and the fact that content marketing tends to invade the traditional corporate communications arena blur the lines between marketing and communications, or between communications and human resources –boundaries that you have policed for so long.

This is why we tend to craft cross-media, added value content programmes which combine day-to-day curation, interviews, surveys and studies, using Twitter as well as websites and e-mailings.

The bright side of this new challenge is that, in a digital ecosystem that reinvents itself at a frantic pace, where tools and solutions move faster than ever, content is what binds everything together.