What makes an effective communications plan?

A communications plan gives focus and structure to the numerous aspects of a company’s communications. This article examines the elements of an effective communications plan and how best to implement them.

Managing corporate communications in the pharmaceutical industry was once relatively simple. There was a comparative handful of pertinent trade publications, a few relevant trade shows and absolutely no Internet, websites or social media. By contrast, today there are scores of publications, both physical and electronic, geared to every conceivable market niche. The same is true for trade shows, exhibitions and conferences, with dozens of them going on all over the world at any given moment. And in terms of changing the corporate communications landscape, nothing in our lifetime will surpass the creation of the Internet and the rise of social media as a communications tool.

One thing that hasn’t changed over the years, however, is the value of a strategic, integrated communications plan. A plan gives focus and structure to communications and helps understanding of how the countless pieces the plan now requires all interact. A plan can make communications more efficient, effective and productive.

A survey1 found that 44 per cent of companies asked did not have a formal communications plan and a significant number did not have a crisis plan to handle communications during an emergency. In a day and age when a YouTube video can go viral and change the entire playing field in days, planning ahead is just common business sense.

So what are the elements of an effective communications plan and how can it be implemented?

Market intelligence

The best place to begin is with an objective understanding of the position you hold in the marketplace relative to competitors. Start with a thorough audit of the communications being presented by each key competitor. This should coincide with a comprehensive examination of your own communications materials and activities. Don’t just look at your advertising, website and sales support materials; make sure your message is consistent in your public relations, on your blog, in your annual report, in sales presentations, on your trade show exhibit and in your social media.

To do market intelligence right, undertake primary research, including focus groups or interviews with representatives of all the audiences you need to address. This is the only way to form the unbiased understanding that will enable you to develop relevant goals and objectives.

Setting goals and objectives

Market research often throws up information that guides strategic goals and objectives for communications. You may learn, for example, that a competitor is entering a market area in which you operate, necessitating communications that remind your clients why you’re still the best choice. Or perhaps discovery of an unmet need will uncover a new marketing initiative for your company that will require communications support.

“By valuing specific goals, you can establish the tactics, including the budget, required to achieve them”

It’s important to decide, and enumerate in some detail, what you hope to accomplish through your communications programme. If the goal is to increase leads, how many leads are you looking to capture? If it is building awareness with a new audience or in a new market area, how much awareness are you looking to generate and how will you measure it? By valuing specific goals, you can establish the tactics, including the budget, required to achieve them.

Defining audiences

If you define your audience only as people who are in a position to buy the services or products you sell, you’re approaching the communications plan far too narrowly. Among the important internal and external audiences to be considered are key opinion leaders, secondary buying influences, potential investors, existing employees, potential employees, the local community and the press. Each requires a slightly different spin on your core message, and each may require a unique channel of communication. As you develop your communications plan, you’ll want to be able to describe the target individual in each of these audiences, know what’s important to them and know how best to reach them.

“It is important that everyone involved has a secure understanding of the core messaging that underpins the marketing and communications for your firm”

Because you have both corporate communications goals and objectives with each of your discrete audiences, it is important that everyone involved has a secure understanding of the core messaging that underpins the marketing and communications for your firm. You will need to apply the messaging via different channels (e.g. How should your website differ from your tweets?), to audiences as varied as scientists and financial investors, and still have it cohesive and consistent.

Developing tactics

The modern era of advertising is defined, in part, by the ability to reach broader and more narrowly defined audience niches. But today it is not enough to describe the audience and its interests; the appropriate communications channel must be used to reach that audience.

Print advertising, once a mainstay in the pharmaceutical industry, has been losing ground at an increasing pace to ‘new’ media, but that doesn’t mean it has no value in a communications plan. Some groups, such as C-level executives, may still prefer a physical magazine. Other groups, such as candidates for clinical trials, may never read print media and can only be reached through broadcasting, outdoor or social media. As you evaluate each audience, consider a range of tactics that may reach them:

• Print advertising

• Radio/television

• Outdoor (billboards, bus benches, transit, etc)

• Online advertising (mobile, email ads, banner ads, search engine result pages, blogs, newsletters, etc)

• Direct marketing (direct mail, telemarketing, etc)

• Search engine optimisation

• Content marketing

• Social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, etc)

• Sales presentations

• Sales support materials (sell sheets, brochures, white papers, etc)

• Public relations (press releases, articles, etc)

• Trade shows

• Special events (conference presentations, industry awards, press conferences, etc)

• Corporate philanthropy (donations, volunteering, charitable actions, etc)

Never lose sight of the value of integrating communications across channels. If hosting a webinar on a particular topic to generate sales leads is one of your tactics, support may include posts to your website, direct mail and email marketing, as well as social media. To get even more mileage out of the same content, repurpose it as a white paper, post it on your website and publicise it as available for download through various channels. In the case of a webinar, it is also sensible to offer the webinar host as an interview subject or potential author to the editors of key industry publications.

Measurement and evaluation

Build in ways to measure the effectiveness of initiatives. Some goals, such as increasing the number of leads, sales volume or profitability, are concrete and relatively easy to measure objectively. However, if the goals are about changes in awareness or perception, you will need to conduct a benchmark survey at the beginning and the end of the plan period to effectively measure any differences.

Conclusion

Developing a comprehensive corporate communications plan is no small undertaking, especially for multinational pharmaceutical companies. However, by objective analysis of your position relative to the market, coupled with careful evaluation of strategies and tactics to take your company where it needs to go, you can make the most effective use of your communications budget.

Reference

1. SCORR Marketing’s 2013 Marketing Trends in Drug Development Services Survey.

 

About the author:

Lea Studer is Senior Director of Marketing Communications at SCORR Marketing. She is an accomplished marketing communications professional with more than 20 years of experience. She is an expert in leading effective, award-winning marketing and communication strategies in the global drug development environment. Prior to joining SCORR, Studer worked at MDS Pharma Services, where she directed strategy, design and implementation of marketing and sales materials. At SCORR, a global, full-service marketing firm with expertise in drug development services and health care, Studer leads the communications and digital team and works with clients to establish messaging, media, social media and public relations strategies to effectively and efficiently reach target audiences. In addition, she oversees trade show and event coordination activities for clients.

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