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The Problem With Communications Planning

2011 May 11

What is communications planning? I don’t mean to be cheeky, but I would assume that it should have something to do with communicating.

However, it seems clear that communications planning, as practiced, has focused mainly on targeting consumers and very little on communication.  That’s quite an oversight.

In order to fully understand today’s communication environment, marketers need to rediscover media in it’s entirety and go beyond just what shows up in research databases.  The transformation will mean a return to old skills long discarded.

What is Media?

If you work at an agency or a major marketer, you might think you know about media, but you probably don’t.  Media, after all, is not a GRP.  It is also not an ad ad page or a banner.  Neither is it a target group or one of the “good bubbles” in a cluster analysis.

Media is what informs, excites and inspires.  It’s why people will happily spend $20 to be overcharged for popcorn.  It’s what can make driving to work by yourself fun.  It’s the news you trust (or that makes you angry).  It’s TV shows that define eras.  Media, at it’s best, makes our lives lives infinitely more rich and enjoyable.

Of course, a lot of it is also crap.

That’s why very smart, capable and committed people spend their entire careers learning to master the principles of creating it.  Steven Johnson, in his book Why Everything That’s Bad Is Good For You, chronicles how these principles have changed over past decades and it has nothing to do with actors, target groups or even subject matter.

Media User Experience

So what determines media success?  User experience.

Radio programmers run stations on strict “clocks” and formatting rules (e.g. Current, Recurrent and Gold ratios).  Editors focus on cover lines, headlines, reader pacing and story structure.  TV shows have formulas for structuring content.  Websites, although not as well established, have their own usability rules.

Creating media is a craft. Like any craft, there are conventions and innovative geniuses who break old molds by adapting those conventions to a changing marketplace.  At any given point, there is vigorous debate about what rules still apply and which are ripe for change.

If you are a typical communications planner, you’re most likely reaction thus far is most probably:  “That’s nice.  Who cares?”

A Fantastic Case Study?

Not too long ago, I was treated to a case study.  The presenter walked us through how his company analyzed brand performance across a wide array of consumer contact points and their effect on brand market share.  A key insight was that the client’s web site was vastly under-performing the key competitor and they proposed to increase the budget.

It was a dazzling display with true insight and sound reasoning.  Apparently, the client thought so too.  The Marketing Director was so impressed she invited the agency to present to the company’s Board of Directors who were similarly enthralled.

So far so good, right?  Not really.  While the diagnoses was probably right, the prescription was certainly not.  The problem with the web site was not lack of budget, it was simply a crap website.  Even from the small screenshot on the slide I could spot at least five very basic usability mistakes.

In other words, the communication planner was completely unable to evaluate what he was analyzing. It was as if a doctor would properly diagnose a heart attack and then recommend to have your leg amputated.  If the prescription doesn’t cure the disease, what good is it?

Strategy vs. Implementation

When I was a young radio salesman, the buyers knew everything about the stations they were buying ads on – not only the ratings, but  the formats, the personalities, the programming philosophy – anything that could help them understand what would make one likely to succeed and another likely to fail.

As media fragmented, targeting grew in importance.  It wasn’t enough anymore just to craft a message, you had to know a whole lot about who you were reaching.  The right message to the wrong person is a complete waste of time, money and effort.

Media agencies saw the opportunity and grabbed at it.  No longer would they be “gorillas with calculators,” but they would be the ones to steer the strategic ship.  They would call the shots and tell the creative agencies what ads to produce.  In other words, they would become far more than mere “time buyers,” but “communications planners”.

However, in their desire to become respected as strategists, media agencies forgot something important: media itself. Strategy has become severed from implementation. Denied their research databases and software, planners have become completely unable to make basic distinctions between quality and crap media.

The POE Model

As Rishad Tobaccowala explained in this excellent article, we are moving towards a new framework of Paid, Owned and Earned media.

No longer can marketers look at communication solely through the prism of audience ratings and demographics, but must engage consumers through a threefold scheme including spending on paid advertising, owned assets such as packaging and self publishing and “the conversation” taking place in mass and social media.

Clearly, profiling potential customers is necessary, but not sufficient. Not by a long shot.

Communications planners, if they are to become relevant, will need to build skills beyond PowerPoint, Excel and the occasional Google search.  They will have to re-learn what media agencies have long forgotten:  How media is engineered in order to create distinctive user experiences.

Without some expertise in how to craft communication experiences, the POE model will surely fail.

Moving Forward with Engagement

Communication planners are not failing due to a lack of aptitude, but a faulty perspective.  In their quest to move up the professional services food chain, they have become Accidental Cartesians who eschew ground level experience for the lofty world of abstract concepts.

“Implementation,” after all, is just another word for getting things done and there are important things that need doing.  Here are some first steps

Partners not Suppliers: For whatever reason, communications planners seldom meet with media owners, relegating them to the lowered status of “suppliers,” as if they were producing office supplies or toilet paper.

In a prime example of bitter irony, this had led media agencies themselves to be subjected to client procurement departments, as if they are also merely supplying office supplies or toilet paper.

The first step towards more effective communication planning is to reconnect with the true communication experts: editors, broadcast programmers and web developers (as opposed to sales departments).  This used to be a fairly common practice, but today most communication planners wouldn’t be caught dead in a control booth, editorial department or design studio.

That has to change.

Learn First Principles of User Experience: Increasingly, communication planners are being given the opportunity to evaluate owned media, especially web sites.  Clients, however, mostly ignore them for the simple reason that they don’t have the first clue what they are talking about.  They have never created a media product themselves nor do they engage people that do.

By reconnecting with media itself, communication planners can rediscover what has been long lost: true media expertise.  Obviously, any notions of “360 degree” or “holistic” planning are farcical without a basic knowledge of user experience.  Here’s a primer.

Perpetual Beta: One final thing that needs to change is how marketing is developed.  Up to this point, a marketing campaign has been something that you create, put on air and then mostly forget about.  Consumer experiences, however, are ongoing.  They don’t simply stop when a budget period ends.

Marketers need to borrow the notion of perpetual beta, the idea that a product is always a work in progress and never quite finished.  Gmail, for instance, had existed for 5 years and already become the most popular webmail service in the world before it was officially taken out of “beta.”

Clearly, marketers who spend 3 months developing a web site and then walk away will not achieve much.  Ongoing communication development will be a difficult, but necessary, paradigm shift for both clients and their agencies.

Most of all, planners need to realize that communication is not just a strategy, but a craft.  And it is one they need to learn.

– Greg

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Mats permalink
    May 11, 2011

    Greg, to me it seems you are not describing the problem with communications planning (and communications planners) per se, but the problem with bad communications planners. Or, to rephrase it, the problem with communications planning if practiced by people not skilled in the craft.

    But I do agree with you that simply calling yourself a communication planner does not make you one. Just as changing your title from media planner to communication planner does not increase your skill set (but it might boost your confidence). Better then to focus on developing your understanding of communications and media than to focus on your business card title.

  2. May 11, 2011


    That may be true, but I gotta call ’em as I see ’em:-)

    Thanks for your comment.

    – Greg

  3. Mark permalink
    May 15, 2011

    Great post and a topic. I have been hocking about this in regards to SM and healthcare. We need to look at HC in terms of adult learning. People will only learn (seek solutions) to problems they have. The numbers from the recent Pew Research show a lot of adults are using the Internet to seek answers to HC problems.

    SM is a tactic in HC. It is part of a larger educational strategy that includes everything you presented. If you want to inform, excite, and inspire understand the HC problems adults want to solve. Move away from a brand centric model (my brand does this) to a problem centric model. My brand or expertise I have solves these problems you are looking for solutions too.

    If you want to understand the user experience, perform a needs assessment. Identify the gaps between users current knowledge and what they need to know in order to identify strategies and POA to close the gap with SM as one tactic.

  4. May 15, 2011

    Greta points Mark!


    – Greg

  5. Stuart Nicholson permalink
    May 18, 2011

    One of your best pieces, in my view.

  6. May 19, 2011

    And here I thought you were going to give me shit about it:-)

    Thanks Stuart!

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