The Long Road to Online Communications Planning

A new discipline has begun to weave its way into agencies and client marketing organizations: communications planning. Like most things in the business world, it’s a term with way too many definitions, many conflicting and some confusing. Although many elements of this practice have been in place for a long time, communications planning (or, more colloquially, “comms planning”) is becoming absolutely critical, especially for a marketing team’s senior members.

What is comms planning? It’s developing a single plan outlining how you’ll use an existing communications infrastructure to achieve business and advertising goals. This means utilizing individual media channels in ways that are appropriate and effective rather than redundant. When comms planning is well executed, each media channel serves a unique purpose, simultaneously moving the consumer along a chain of messages and down a sales funnel.

As media channels become increasingly fragmented, we must have some understanding of what the communications infrastructure looks like. To rehash a common advertising-world complaint, things were a lot easier when there were three TV channels and a dozen national magazines. In those days, comms planning didn’t exist. It didn’t have to.

Today, the communications infrastructure is far bigger and more chaotic. The only real way to generate any sort of reasonable view of this wild space is to start with the consumer and build out. Since you can no longer ask, “What channels are available?” you must ask, “How does demographic segment X get informed and entertained?”

The Online Component

For online marketers, the challenge of comms planning has two very distinct aspects: media type and media integration. This is yet another case of a campaign’s online component (and the people who manage it) having to work harder than any other team. Ever been on a campaign where the online work had to be accurately measured and tracked, while TV spots where placed randomly and measured by gut feeling and voodoo? Well, comms planning is pretty much the same thing.

Let’s take it piece by piece. The first element of online comms planning is an understanding of media type. There was a time when “interactive media” meant Web sites and banners. To understand interactive media, you merely needed a good sense of a site’s demographics and behaviors.

Today, interactive media is just as fragmented as the rest of the media infrastructure. Not only are there new devices that display digital content (e.g., iPods, smart phones, and IP-enabled TVs), but there are wholly new experiences, such as social networks and immersive games.

A smart comms planner isn’t really able to say, “We’re going to use interactive to do this particular task,” or “We’re going to use interactive to communicate in this particular way.” Consider social networks such as Facebook. A marketing strategy for Facebook now includes development of applications (a new sort of beast), which mashes up advertising and functionality. Some Facebook apps, developed as ads, resemble actual products.

You must more finely understand the interactive medium’s nuanced spaces. You can’t just look at the space monolithically and come to a single determination about how to use it. In fact, there isn’t really even an “it” when you talk about the interactive space.

The second element is media integration. In many ways, comms planning is about integration. Most campaigns have elements that hang together spread across many different media. This happens at both a creative and a strategic level. At the creative level, you leverage assets across various media: the actor in the TV commercial shoots some extra footage to be used on the Web site and the audio is extracted for the radio spot.

Interactive media, however, is most frequently, and most appropriately, used to tie all these elements together. Remember the car commercials from a few years back that asked the viewer to do a Google search as the call to action? The Internet is, essentially, universal and is viewed as the way brands can get consumers to take another action, after exposure to the message.

Online comms planning takes this into consideration. The right way to do comms planning for online recognizes that the brand’s online presence is the common, persistent element in the communications mix. The Web site/Facebook app/downloadable white paper is always there, while other channels come and go in the swirling media mix.

Which means that nearly all roads lead online.

Making It Work

Online must work harder, but that’s because it’s the key player. The comms planning process brings that fact to the fore. The easiest way to integrate a campaign is to simply stick a URL on everything, from billboard to package. But the key thing (and why this is called “planning,” not “executing”) is to ensure interactive media really does serve a powerful purpose: bringing the consumer closer to conversion.

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