When I moved to Ottawa in the late 1980s to head up the national capital office of what was then Canada’s largest public relations firm, the Internet was not yet even a gleam in Al Gore’s eye. My mandate was to build the company’s then-non-existent federal government business, and that usually meant large-scale, big-budget, multi-disciplinary communications efforts in support of major policy issues of the day. Unlike the current administration, where virtually all communications efforts are partisan propaganda masquerading as helpful information, the Conservative government at that time seemed to understand that it had to explain what it was doing if it was to secure a social license for what it was doing. And in that pre-Internet age, that meant print. Maybe some radio, possibly TV if it was a really big campaign, but mainly print.
Before I actually won any of those big contracts to develop and implement a six- or seven-figure campaign, I got my foot in the door by conducting audits, or evaluations, of past campaigns. Auditing past efforts required me to compare the outcome of the campaign to the stated objectives, determine whether the material produced had said the right things and whether it had said them to the right audiences.
I quickly found a critical failing common to many of these massive programs, a failing I came to call “communications by warehouse.”
Let me explain what I mean.
The materials themselves would often be brilliant. And why not? Federal government procurement policy of the day emphasised value for money as opposed to a strict lowest-bid-wins approach. Proposals would be scored for their merit, and then those scores would be divided by the cost and the proposal with the best ratio won the work. This allowed the government to actually buy excellence, as opposed to just the cheapest option, and so I was often evaluating communications materials that were truly superb.
Except nobody got to see them.
These beautiful, full-colour, tumble-bilingual brochures and other materials would be designed and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of copies would be produced. But with no distribution strategy for actually getting them in front of their intended audience, they would be shipped by the pallet-load over to a government warehouse in Hull where they would sit until the space they were occupying was needed for the next pallet-load of brilliant-but-never-read communications materials, and then they would be dumped.
Communications by warehouse. It wasn’t a universal phenomenon but it happened often enough to be truly alarming.
When I started writing proposals, I made certain that we had thought all the way through a strategic understanding of what had to be communicated and to whom, and exactly how we were going to do so, including actually getting the materials in front of the intended audience. For example, I wrote the strategy for a quarter-million-dollar national awareness campaign on behalf of soil conservation, the communications component of a $100-million federal-provincial initiative. I then won the contract to implement my strategy. The objective of the campaign was to talk to non-farm audiences about why soil conservation was an important public policy issue and why the government was spending a fair bit of money to tackle it. (Remember what I said about the government recognising it needed a social license to spend public funds?)
One of the pieces we produced was a gorgeous, full-colour poster of a prototypical Canadian farm scene nestled in a pair of hands with the soil slowly leaking out from between the fingers. We needed to get that poster in front of our urban and non-farm target audience. So I forged a partnership with the Royal Bank of Canada, which agreed to display the poster at every branch across Canada during Soil Conservation month. No wasted warehousing of my poster, thank you very much.
Fast forward to today and the Internet equivalent of communications by warehouse remains a distressing reality for an awful lot of communications and marketing efforts I see. I blame social media. It has become far too cheap and far too easy for us to create our own communications channels. We produce great content and then post it to blogs that get no more than a couple of handfuls of eyeballs on any given day. To promote the post, we push the hell out of it on Twitter and Facebook accounts that have equally dismal numbers of followers.
The tree might be falling in the forest but no one is there to hear if it’s making any sound at all.
When I first contemplated starting a blog more than five years ago, I talked about needing an editorial strategy, a production strategy and a distribution strategy. It’s language that I continue to use today.
The editorial strategy sets out what the communications initiative — in our case, our blog — is going to say. Who are we talking to? What do we want them to hear? How is the content going to be developed? By whom? With what frequency? And so on.
The production strategy sets out how the communications piece is going to be produced. In the case of our blog, I didn’t know how one was built, so I had to find someone who could understand my objectives and develop a production strategy that would accomplish them.
Finally, the distribution strategy sets out how we’re going to get our messaging in front of our audience and, in this day and engagement age, how we’re going to encourage participation from that audience. In short, how would we build an audience for our blog? How would we engage our community, building our voice and reputation in it such that members of that community would start to come to our site? In the (lengthy!) period before our own blog readership was anywhere near where we needed it to be, where else could our content be published so that our audience would actually see it and engage with it?
You need to do the same thing for any marketing or communications initiative you implement. Established channels are expensive to access but don’t let budgetary caution handicap your efforts from the outset. Great content is really expensive to create, and it then just sits in a dark warehouse, or moulders away on an equally dark website or social media channel, then you’ve just committed a sin worse than not communicating at all — squandering your marketing budget on ineffective efforts that are never going to produce a return because nobody is ever going to see them.