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How to Write a Communications Plan using our Annual Communications Plan Template

You’ve been weathering the storm for months now with no idea what’s coming next. It’s tempting to give in to the thought that you simply can’t plan your communications right now. After all, what’s the point? Everything you had planned for this year went totally off-course, and you feel like you’re in survival mode. Of course, that’s all on top of the typical challenges you face year to year in communications.

What if we told you that planning is exactly what you need right now?

You can list every reason why you don’t need to plan for next year, but even when everything is uncertain, it’s all the more reason to have a plan. Isn’t it better to create something and adapt it than to have nothing to follow? Was it not Shakespeare himself who said, “‘Tis better to have planned and lost, than never to have planned at all?” (Or something like that, right?)

Plans allow you to clearly lay out what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it. Or, in other words, your strategy and tactics—and you have to have both in planning. If you focus on tactics without connecting it to an overall communication strategy, you waste time and energy pursuing tactics that aren’t returning enough organizational value.

The leadership in your organization must see how your communication goals help reach the organization’s strategic goals.

Plans should be shared with your boss(es), key stakeholders (including board members or committees), and team members from other departments. Your communications plan provides a correlation between communications goals and overall organizational goals. This shows the true value of communications as a revenue-generator and not just a cost. I cannot emphasize this enough: the leadership in your organization must see how your communication goals help reach the organization’s strategic goals. That’s why an organization invests in marketing and communications: to see a return. Make sure they see it!

A written plan keeps you on track, helps you say “no” to unexpected diversions, and helps you make the case for your budget.

Now, what if we told you we had a free template to help you build an effective communications plan?

Our Annual Communications Plan Template is free to download. It’s the first step to developing your team’s action plan with measurable business objectives.

Welcome to your new roadmap for whatever’s to come.

Mighty Citizen’s Annual Communications Plan Template

A communications plan template is divided into five main sections:

  1. The Executive Summary
  2. The Organization
  3. Market Analysis
  4. Audiences
  5. Goals

To guide you through this free template (and because we can’t actually share examples from our clients’ plans), we’ll refer to a fictitious association—the International Association of Mighty Citizens (IAMC). This association does not exist anywhere but in our minds. However, it gives us a great variety of examples.

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1) The Executive Summary

The executive summary is a short, summarized version of your communications plan. Most executives don’t have time to read your full communications plan, so this is meant to give them the full picture without all of the details. This can be shared with leadership inside your organization and also with any board or committee members, as needed. The main objective is to briefly list and describe:

  • Key dates, anniversaries, or milestones
  • Initiatives your organization will focus on over the year
  • Overarching goals

It’s important that your Executive Summary is written LAST. Fill out the full template and then come back and add your executive summary. You’ll tear your hair out trying to do it any other way.

2) The Organization

This is where you talk about who you are and what value you provide. This section includes:

Organizational overview:

This is a high-level overview of your company or organization. If someone unfamiliar with your organization were to read this, what would they need to know? When were you established? How are you structured? Etc.

Vision statement:

What will the world look like when you work is done?

Mission statement:

What you do every day to accomplish your vision?

Hopefully, you already have your vision and mission statements defined. If you do, copy and paste those here. You don’t need to re-write them unless they are due for an update.

Products/services:

What products and/or services do you provide? Provide a list along with the key deliverables for each. For example purposes, at our fictitious IAMC we offer these products and services:

Product/ServiceDeliverable
MembershipAccess to member content and community
CertificationsCertificates, accreditation
EducationSessions, publications, journals
EventsConferences, webinars, networking
AdvocacyLegislative support, reporting
FoundationResearch, scholarships

The way you list your products and services here should be the way they’re referenced everywhere. One of the goals of this list is to align the entire organization around the same nomenclature. Use this language on your website, in your internal meetings, in promotional materials, etc. For example, if you have Advocacy, call it Advocacy everywhere. Not “Advocacy” in some places and “Legislative Efforts” in others.

Communications personnel:

How is your communications team structured? What are team members responsible for? Are communications personnel within the same department or spread across the organization? Do you get support from other departments or roles? Give an overview here and then list each team member below with key responsibilities.

In the IAMC, we have a team of five:

TitleResponsibilities
VP of CommunicationsStrategic leadership, oversee budget and plan, PR
Director of MarketingOversee campaigns and ad spend, report data
Director of DevelopmentBring opportunity, build relationships
Marketing ManagerWork with technology, content, and campaign creation
Digital Marketing ManagerWork with digital, content, and campaign creation

Budget:

How much will your organization spend on communications efforts this year? This is simply a statement on your expected communications spend and you should link to your budget spreadsheet if you have one.

3) Market Analysis

When writing your communication plan, there’s nothing more important than understanding your target audience(s).

Industry Research and Trends:

Do you have any current market research? If not, do you need to collect some? What are the upcoming trends/challenges facing your industry? You can find this information by asking your audiences, consulting industry partners (like associations), analyzing available and proven research, and by reading industry blogs and resources.

Market Position:

In this section, you’ll evaluate your current market position and the metrics you use to define it. What are the metrics you use to compare yourself to your competitors? Do you compare yourself nationally? Regionally? Locally?

Unique Value Proposition:

You’ll identify your unique value proposition. This is the thing that your organization does exclusively or better than anyone else.

Competitors:

The last part of your market analysis is an evaluation of the competition. What are they doing well? What are their weaknesses? Remember, your competitors aren’t just others in the same industry, it can be anyone. You could have products that compete with for-profit companies, for example. Knowing the competition helps you fill in the gaps for your organization.

4) Audiences

In the Audience section, you’ll define your current audience demographics and the different ways you segment your audiences.

For some audience segments, you may want to build communication objectives and key messages just for them. Your messaging depends on their specific needs.

Using IAMC as an example, our communications planning could incorporate segments for different states of membership (prospective, current, lapsed, etc.) or could include other types of audiences like attendees, volunteers, donors, legislators, product purchasers, etc. For each, we’d note the specific challenges they face. What are they trying to do when they engage with us? What gets in their way?

This section is also the perfect place to evaluate your communication channels. What media do your audiences and target “customers” engage with? Where can you find them? How can you reach them? What channels have been successful for you in the past? Consider channels like social media, email marketing, direct mail, and others.

5) Goals

It might seem strange identifying your strategic communications goals at the end of your communication plan—but it’s for a good reason. You need to really think through your organization, your place in the market, and your audiences before you can set realistic and strategic goals.

Goals

Think big here—what are the top 3 initiatives you need to do this year to get closer to your vision? These goals should be strategic and ladder up to your organization’s overall goals. In the case of IAMC, we have an overall strategic goal to “Increase revenue by 5% in 2021.” Based on that organizational goal, we established these three communications goals for 2021:

A listing of our 2021 goals: Goal #1 Retain member growth from 2020 Goal #2 Increase engagement through the usage of products and services Goal #3 Increase brand awareness
A listing of our three 2021 goals

Activities

For each goal, what activities do you need to undertake to reach the goal? How will you measure success for each activity? What tactics must you complete for each activity? Here’s a look at the activities around our IAMC example for retaining membership:

A listing of Goal #1 with two activities listed below: Activity #1 Improve the onboarding experience, Activity #2 Increase new member annual meeting attendance
Our first Goal and two of the Activities that fall under it.

In our IAMC example, many members joined in 2020 because we offered needed support on how to handle the Coronavirus. To retain these members, IAMC has to make sure they experience the benefits of membership in the first year. Membership is an emotional decision so we must connect them to the organization, other members, and their local network. Facilitating conversations is key.

Metrics

For each activity, you must establish the metrics of success. How will you know if you have been successful in meeting your objectives?

The listing of the metrics we will use to know we've been successful with each of our two Activities.
The metrics we will use to know we’ve been successful with each of our two Activities.

Set your metrics based on past performance and new insights. There’s usually some data that exists to give you a starting point. Even if you don’t have your own analytics, look for industry benchmarks or ask around to form your best ballpark estimate. If you’re guessing, how will you convince anyone to invest in it?

One thing we’ve learned is to set stretch metrics. Some you’ll hit, some you won’t. That’s ok—they’re there as an added challenge.

Tactics

One you’ve identified your activity and how you’ll measure success, you’ll list the tactics to complete to ensure you’re successful.

A listing of the tactics we'll undertake to accomplish each Activity.
A listing of the tactics we’ll undertake to accomplish each Activity.

From the example, what are the tasks that need to happen in order to “Improve the onboarding experience?” This is an opportunity to get creative. Ask yourself: what is something new we can try here? What have we done before that has led to success and how can we make it even better?

These tactics eventually become all of the tasks you’ll accomplish this year.

Again, you can grab the Annual Communications Plan Template here:

Managing Your Communications Plan

Plan to check the status of your plan at least monthly. Checking in with your plan forces you to ask yourself if you’re where you should be and if any strategic updates need to be made based on business objectives or (let’s be real) curveballs. Every month, monitor your metrics and update your progress. Share your metrics from the communications plan with your internal communication team so everyone is up-to-date on the current communications strategy.

Once a quarter, share the plan and updates with your leadership and full staff. This reminds them on a quarterly basis how your communications department helps reach strategic goals and hits home the value of your work. Besides, the more consistently you report to others, the more likely you are to follow through with your plan. A little self-accountability goes a long way!

Mighty Citizen Can Help

If this all just feels like too much for your team or if you know you need an outside perspective to sell your communications plan to your leadership, please get in touch. We’ve helped our clients with all kinds of marketing and communications strategies.

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