5 methods to structure a communication plan

The right set-up provides an overview

Peter Desmyttere
December 11, 2019
⏱ 10 min. read

Do you want to make the communication strategy visible to colleagues, management, stakeholders or customers? Then a written communication plan in Word or Powerpoint will not be enough for you. What you need is a 2-dimensional visualization of projects, channels and moments within a certain timeline. This is what most communication plans in Excel look like: a horizontal the timeline at the top (first dimension) and vertically on the left the projects, channels and moments.

When you open Excel to make a communication plan, however, you immediately come across a brain teaser: how do I structure my communication plan in such a way that it is easy to read for myself and for others? After all, there are different ways or methods to structure a communication plan. In this article, I will map out the 5 most commonly used ones for you.


Method 1: the campaign structure

In the retail sector, campaign marketers can be found almost everywhere. They set up, on a broad geographical scale, a multitude of campaigns to attract visitors to the webshop and the stores. Their communication plan consists of various campaigns, which must be visible to all parties involved at a single glance. Below are 2 examples of a campaign approach for communication planning.

Campaign approach
This is the simplest approach to campaign planning. You create a 'Campaigns' project with different channels, each of which maps out a different type of campaign. The moments represent the name, characteristics, and duration of the various campaigns.
Campaign approach
This is a more detailed approach to campaign planning. You set up a separate project for each campaign. The campaign is distributed through the channels in a so-called 'multi-channel' approach. The colored moments provide insights into the duration of the various communication actions within each channel.

 

The main advantages of this method are the speed and ease with which you can make campaigns transparent. Do you have to report one or more campaigns? You can filter them out of this planning in no time at all. Another advantage is the ability to copy campaigns. Does a campaign return after a few months? Then you copy the integral structure, adjust the data of the moments and you're done.

The main disadvantage of this structure is the limited insights into the various media that you have used for the campaigns. For example, do you want to know how many and which e-mailings you have used for the sum of the campaigns during the past year? Then you will have to search and puzzle to find the answer. However, there is a solution for this: the combined planning (see method 5).  

Method 2: the media structure

Do you hardly work in a campaign structure or not at all, but are you constantly working on the planning of media throughout the year? Then you benefit from an Always On structure that starts from the different media that you are going to use to reach your audience. The basis for your communication plan will be the different media types (Content Marketing, Advertising, E-mailings, ...) which in turn will be divided into channels. Within each channel, the different communication moments are then planned on the right dates. Visually, a media approach for a communication plan looks like this:

Media approach
This presentation of the communication plan gives peace of mind and an overview. You see all communication projects neatly together, with a clear subdivision into channels with specific moments.

The advantage of this approach, as mentioned above, is the clear presentation of the communication strategy. Almost every marketer thinks in terms of channels and moments within a certain type of media. This is very recognizable for those who start a visualization of a communication plan. 

The disadvantage is the one-sided view of media. What if you plan certain media within the context of an event or a campaign? Then you are obliged to plan twice (once in the media planning and once in the event planning). For those who work with Excel, this is indeed double work. For those who work with a digital planner, however, this is a child's play. You can read about this later in this article, under method 5.

Method 3: The product structure

Product marketers or Category marketers are guaranteed to start from the product structure when setting up their communication plan. The communication plan should then provide answers to the question "What do we communicate for our different products, product categories or product launches? Does this situation apply to you? Then start your communication planning by grouping your different products into product groups or product categories and consider each product as a communication project. In the next step, you will define a channel structure, which in practice is often the same within each product communication. In the example below you can see that each product has the same basic channels, only the communication moments are specific per channel or per product.

Product approach
This makes product marketers happy, a nice visualization of the communication approach per product or per product category. Pay attention to the repetition of the channel structure, which is very common in a communication plan for product or category marketers.

The advantage of this approach is the clear layout that completely follows the logic of the product portfolio. At a glance, you can see perfectly which media channels you are going to use to promote or launch products. 

The disadvantage of this set-up in terms of communication planning is the somewhat cloudy approach for media marketers. In a marketing team where both media specialists (e.g. online marketer) and product-marketers work together, one of them will have to put his logic behind him. However, a digital marketer will find it annoying to find 'his' or 'her' channels in a tangle of products. Especially when you manage and launch dozens of products as a company. The solution for this is the use of a digital marketing planner (such as Husky). Media marketers can then place a tag - a digital label - on their channels so that they can be filtered out of the large schedule with a single click of the mouse.

Method 4: The event structure

Do you participate in several national or international trade fairs every year? Do you organize your own seminars, congresses or customer events? Then every event is an important project within your communication planning. Each event requires a different approach in terms of channels and communication moments. Typical for event projects in a communication plan is their limited duration. The product approach mentioned above usually has very long durations in terms of communication. An event, on the other hand, only lasts a few months at the most. It is therefore important to find a flexible way to visualize them in a communication plan. 

Event approach
An event is almost always a separate project in a communication plan. Within this plan, the various communication channels are bundled together with important milestones for the event (e.g. stand construction). As soon as the event is finished, it disappears from the planning to an archive. From there, it can be copied quickly and easily when the event is recurring.

Event marketers will find this approach advantageous because of the overview and insight it offers. They can give an instant answer to the question 'How did we put our event on the market?’. Those who work with a digital marketing planner can move a past project to the archive with one mouse click or make a copy at a later stage within the current planning. If you use Excel for the planning, it will be more difficult to do this.

The biggest disadvantage of such an approach is - just like with the product approach -  that the visualization of the separate media channels is less. Again, I can only give one advice: use a digital marketing planner and place tags on the different channels so that e.g. a social media marketer can select 'all social media for all events' with one click.

Method 5: the combined structure

Few marketing teams benefit from just one of the approaches above to set up their communication planning. Let's take the example of a team at a mid-sized retailer with several points of sale and a webshop. You are guaranteed to find campaign marketers, online marketers, CRM marketers, webshop marketers, category marketers and event marketers who propagate the marketing policy together. How on earth do you start a communication plan in which everyone works, communicates and reports smoothly

This example certainly leads to a fragmented communication planning, in which each marketer (or team of marketers) sets up sub-plans within their specialization. Logical when you look at this from the point of view of the specific marketer(s), a nightmare when you are Head of Marketing, CMO or Marketing Director of this retailer. The only thing you want is an integrated communication planning where all disciplines come together.

Those who want to achieve this will have to say goodbye to Excel as a planning tool. The starting point is a digital marketing planner like Husky, where different approaches to communication planning can be combined on one central digital platform. In the example below you see a communication plan that combines 3 different approaches: the campaign overview, the media plan, and the event planning. The campaign marketer can see at a glance the past, current and future campaigns. The media marketer (e.g. the content marketer) immediately sees which content was and is on the schedule. The event marketer can immediately set up, change or consult his/her event planning. And most importantly: the marketing team leader has a unique dashboard with all disciplines combined.

Mixed approach

The biggest challenge for a combined communication planning is to define and manage the relationships between the different approaches. In the example above I have drawn 2 common relationships:

  • a campaign (in the campaign planning) is marketed through different media channels (a multichannel campaign) => in this example the campaign and the media are connected via a tag
  • an event can be promoted via an emailing => the emailing must be visible in 2 different schedules (those of the event marketer and those of the e-mail responsible) => for this you need an 'extra channel' function in your planning; it makes the same moment in 2 different schedules dependent on each other (if you move the moment in one schedule, it will move in the other schedule too)

The functions 'tags' and 'extra channel' are indispensable for those who want to set up a combined planning. It goes without saying that you need a specialized planner like Husky for this. After all, these functions are not available in Excel by default.

Shredded or integrated?

It won't surprise you that I'm a big fan of integrated or combined schedules. With a team of about 3 to 5 marketers, it is the only way to work well together, to plan professionally together and to report efficiently to the management. 

Agreed, it requires the investment in an integrated marketing planner like Husky. But the bonus is huge for those dealing with challenging communication plans:

  • one overview of the entire communication planning (all disciplines or planning methods combined)
  • flexibility for every marketer or marketing team to plan within their logic
  • schedules can be cleverly linked thanks to tags and additional channel functions
  • filters make it possible to close the communication plan on the basis of one or more search functions (e.g. show all planned Google Ads within 2 types of campaigns).

Do tasks belong in a communication plan?

I will conclude this article with what may seem like a crooked question to you. But it is still relevant. The answer is no. In a communication plan I only want to see communication moments, e.g. the emailing for the Halloween campaign will be sent on October 15th. All tasks or to do's that ensure that the emailing is actually sent, belong in a separate task schedule. For those who are considering investing in a digital marketing planner: good news because the task schedule is also linked to the communication schedule.

Summary: to set up a communication plan, one planning method may not be sufficient. Perhaps you will have to use a combination of methods to streamline your team and your planning. You need a digital marketing planner like Husky for this, together with the right processes or agreements within your team. The result is more overview, more insights, and better reporting. Finally, you will have to set up the marketing planner according to your standards and organization and your tasks and communication in the planning will have to be separated from each other on the one hand, but on the other hand, they will be linked to each other.  
 

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