Through an arrangement with TechSoup, PND is pleased to offer a series of articles about the effective use of technology by nonprofits.

3 Steps to Building Your Communications Strategy in the Digital Era

3 Steps to Building Your Communications Strategy in the Digital Era

Building an effective communications strategy can be a daunting undertaking. Whether your nonprofit is well-established or just getting started, communications frameworks are shifting rapidly, a shift fueled by the ever-expanding world of Internet-connected devices (also known as the Internet of Things). Behind this digital backdrop is a new breed of broadcasters facilitating the emergence of a plethora of diverse voices. All of which is leading nonprofits to ask, How can our message be heard amid the digital din and chatter?

Good question.

Let's unpack it a bit, starting with your organization, your mission, your people, your constituents, and the great story you want to tell. Let's think about all of them, together.

Figure Out Your Story

Every nonprofit has a great story to tell. Having cut my teeth in the for-profit world, I marvel at the ease with which nonprofits, every single one of them, can find a great story to tell. In the for-profit world, where most organizations aren't mission driven, crafting a story can be challenging and can result in an external narrative that falls flat. A few catchy slogans and a million-dollar ad spend often will fix that. But it's a good bet your nonprofit doesn't have a million dollars to spend. What it does have is expertise. And your story should reflect and embody that expertise.

Remember your roots. One of the first things you should do is revisit your organization's roots. What caused it to take flight? Most nonprofits are started out of a founder's sincere desire to be of service and help other people. Your story should honor that legacy and give credit where credit is due, which includes current leadership, your volunteers, staff, stakeholders, and constituents. 

Decide how, why, and with whom you should share your story. Now you just have to figure out how, why, and with whom you should share the story of your organization. Don't worry: the heavy lifting was done when you excavated the vision and passion behind your mission and reframed it in the context of the work you're doing now.

In other words, nonprofits have it easy when it comes to crafting a communications strategy. It's all about authenticity, being clear about who your stakeholders and constituents are, and crafting a message (or messages) that resonates with them.

Do a Communications Audit

Next, take a deep dive into your current communications activities. What do you have in place already? Do you have brand guidelines? Even if they're rudimentary, that's a start. If not, you'll want to take the time to figure out what your brand stands for. Begin with the mission and then start to weave it into the various components of your brand.

Here's a communications strategy starter list:

  • Survey — Ask your constituents questions so as to get a feel for who they are and what they need from you. How can you help and serve them best?
  • Brand message — What does your brand represent?
  • Key messaging — What are the personas (user categories, audience segments) and what do you want to say to them?

Develop Your Marketing Narratives

Marketing narratives are messages that connect with your audience in an emotional way. As such, a marketing narrative is one of the key tools for developing a digital communications strategy. I recommend developing an internal narrative for employees and internal stakeholders, and an external narrative for external audiences. Here are the questions I like to ask when crafting both types of narratives.

Internal narrative. Interview internal stakeholders, department heads, and staff to understand how they feel about your mission and brand. Be sure to measure sentiment as you do this. Questions to ask include: How much do you care about our mission? How well have we weaved it into our activities? Are staff full invested in the mission and do they feel empowered to act on it? Are they comfortable with the promises implied by our brand? Understanding current sentiment inside an organization is key to developing an effective communications strategy.

At the same time, be sure to recognize the internal archetypes and personas used to communicate your mission to the world. These can include "the boss," "the expert," "the techie," and "the guardian of the flame." Each should have its own narrative that takes into account the nuances of that roll or persona.

Next, identify the common thread that unites them. Along the way, you may discover that your internal culture is in need of repair or strengthening. That's okay. The goal is to align your internal narrative(s) with your external narrative. Doing the work to align the two will help you build a powerful foundation for a communications strategy that elevates your story above the noise and message clutter.

External narrative. 

There are two ways to craft this message:

  • By the numbers — How many people have you served? How many countries are you in? Numbers are critical to demonstrating your impact.
  • With a story — Start with a story that captures the expertise and competence behind your mission. Next, collect success stories from those you have served and use all the channels at your disposal (website, email/enewsletters, social media, personal networks) to demonstrate your organization's impact. Show, don't tell. Being able to demonstrate that your organization delivers the goods is a great way to secure support and engagement from volunteers, stakeholders, and donors.

Once your communications strategy is solidified, you'll need a plan to guide your interactions with your audiences. At the very least, be sure to use Google Analytics to capture interactions and engagement on your website. And be sure to establish a baseline for all your metrics, including social media.

Don't get discouraged: If you can manage to put in place one or two things from the list above, you're moving in the right direction. And be sure to stay tuned for part 2 in this series!

Janice Burney is TechSoup's senior director of global marketing, strategy, communications, and customer experience. In that role, she leads TechSoup's daily marketing operations and oversees marketing initiatives across the TechSoup Global Network.