Marketers are often being confronted with the challenge to set up a communication plan. It has to be written in function of the next year, because you’re new at your job, to create order in the current planning chaos, to get your team to work towards the same goals, or to streamline a new marketing project.
Unfortunately, a lot of marketers are struggling with professionally setting up a communication plan. That's a pity, because it probably is the most important piece in the marketing department.
In this article, I will set up a practical plan, step-by-step, to create the perfect communication plan, and maintain it. In every step, I will show you an example from an Excel document and a digital communication planner. After reading this article, your view on communication planning will have changed, and you will be all set to start! Ready?
Note: the article is written from the point-of-view of setting up a complete plan with the incorporation of continuous projects (website, social media, PR,...) and temporary projects (product launch, campaign, events,...). Are you focused on one project, for which you have to write a communication plan? The article is still of great use. You can skip step 1, because your plan only has one project.
At the end of this article, you will find a link to a free Excel template to adopt the described structure right away.
A communication plan is built around communication projects. If the plan is the tree, the projects are the branches that carry the whole structure. Common examples of projects: website, social media, email marketing, content marketing, PR, events, trade shows, advertising, sponsoring, marketing tools, media campaigns of a product launch that needs to be communicated towards your audience.
What projects can be implemented in your communication plan? Important: start off with 'broad' projects. These are projects that have enough channels, moments, tasks, costs, invoices or notes. Later on I will dig deeper in these terms. 'Social media' is a great project, but 'Instagram' is too limited. Set up an organized list of around 20 projects.
The next task is to divide these projects in to logical groups. Every 'digital' project can be put in the group 'Digital marketing', every event in 'Events', every trade show in the group 'Trade shows' and every campaign in the group 'Campaigns'. The last thing to do: make an orderly document in which you can work later on. This can be an Excel document, or a digital communication planner. In the article I will use both as a practical example.
You now have a list of projects that we will translate into a project schedule in this step. Determine the timing you want to see for each project in the plan. For example, a trade show can have a timing of March 20th till March 25th, a campaign can run in week 38, a customer event could have one day in the planning or a product launch will take 3 months. But ... there will also be projects that run continuously such as the website, social media, PR or marketing tools. They will have a full year as timing.
For the time being, focus on the timing that should be visible in the 'macro planning'. That will soon be one A4 or A3 format on which all projects are listed, including the timing in which they are running. For the fair that runs from March 20th till March 25th, you will have to plan a number of tasks and actions in advance and afterwards, but we will deal with that later. Make sure you have an overview at this stage. Because that gives you peace of mind.
Are the timings assigned? Great. You're now ready to allocate a budget to each project. This is also a good test to see if your project structure is logical. In a later phase you will have to allocate the costs and invoices per project.
In this step we will make the communication calendar (more) complete with channels. Every good project needs a multichannel or omnichannel approach to be successful. For example, you might promote a trade show participation multimedia via the channels website, e-newsletter, email signature, LinkedIn, internal communication and sales promotion. And a campaign to a certain target group will be conducted via website, retargeting, Google Ads, social media ads, social media posts, news articles, PR, TV spots, radio spots, posters and POS advertising.
The structure of the channels may vary for each project, but may be copied for similar projects. This way, the same channels could always be used for every fair or media campaign.
Your communication calendar now suddenly looks a lot more complete. Now you see a year/month/week horizontally and a long list of projects and channels vertically.
We will now work on the missing horizontal component in the communication calendar: the moments when the communication is scheduled per channel. When drawing your communication plan, you will already know a lot of moments: the e-newsletter is sent out every first Thursday of the month, the radio spots for a campaign are booked on specific dates, the flow for the website content (news items, blogs, whitepapers, ...) was determined at a weekly rhythm or you have a retro planning for a customer event.
The result is a microplanning in which all projects, all channels used per project and all moments per channel are made transparent. This view of communication planning seems obvious, but is lacking in so many marketing departments. The reason? Every marketer is working with his/her partial planning so that there never is a global overview.
Important: make sure that this microplanning is drawn up in one document. Never scatter them over different planning documents because then you lose the overview and adjustments to the calendar are not communicated to all those involved. This is the moment when the use of a stand-alone Excel file becomes critical, especially in a team with several marketers. Stepping to a cloud version (e.g. Google Sheets) or a digital marketing planner is then urgent.
A lot of marketers think that the communication plan is now finished and they start working with it. No way! Read on and discover how you are going to turn your communication calendar (because that's what you now have) into a plan.
Imagine a marketing meeting where one or more projects are discussed ... The communication calendar appears on the screen for each project and the meeting starts. The questions 'Who will do what by when' and 'Can you take on that task?' will undoubtedly arise. So there will be a component 'task planning' in the communication plan. You have 2 options: you leave each marketer free to plan his/her tasks or you agree to centralize the task planning within the agreed project structure.
Let's take the first option as our starting point. Every marketer will now plan tasks within a certain comfort zone. For one, this is a notebook, for someone else, an Excel list and for a third, a tasks app (such as Wünderlist) is ideal. This option does not prevent a project from being implemented correctly. However, it has many important disadvantages. What do you do if there is a discussion about the ownership of a task? Where does a marketing manager see the global picture in terms of tasks within each project? How do we develop checklists for recurring projects?
You guessed it: my preference is for one central document that centralizes all tasks within the structure of the communication plan. A plan in Excel can then be given an extra 'Tasks' tab with a list of tasks per project. Each task is then assigned an owner, a deadline and (optionally) a status. In a digital marketing planner this function is standard.
If you don't know where you want to go, every strategy or plan is workable. And that's not the purpose of your communication plan, right? That tells us how we're going from A (today) to B (December 31st?), with which projects, via which channels and at which times we're going to do that and who's responsible for which tasks. But also where we want to land with the plan, what we want to achieve, where we want to grow and when the champaign can be uncorked (and the bonus has been received ;-)).
In plain human language, KPIs are simply called objectives. But admit it, KPIs sound more fun, don't they? OK, time to name your KPIs. Attention: start back at your project structure!
For example, a B2B marketer could name the following KPIs:
For B2C marketing, projects and objectives can be quite different because marketing is much more about omnichannel communication. A B2C marketer could then formulate the following objectives:
This may seem like a lot of work, but once your KPI machine is ready, you have a fantastic dashboard to measure the quality of your marketing and communication investments. The management will also attach a lot of value to the figures from this KPI dashboard. Tip: start by measuring a number of KPIs and build out the list step-by-step. A lot of marketers are choking up in their enthusiasm and don't keep it up. What a shame.
Finally: for Excel dashboards, you will always have to fill in the figures manually. I advise you to do this on a monthly basis in the beginning. Users of digital communication planners have the advantage that they can read quite a lot of KPI data automatically.
Marketers do stuff. That's why I'm only putting this step in seventh place. Because you are also supposed to be thinkers or strategists. So immerse yourself fully in the operations of your communication plan, but at a certain moment, take the time for reflection:
This information often stays in the mind of the marketer(s). Move it to the plan as soon as possible. This way you empty your head and make space for other communication challenges. Extra bonus: you also make it available to your colleagues and your management. If the communication strategy becomes transparent and divisible, you take a step forward as a marketer.
So make sure that you are not just a pure performer. Think along, experiment, launch ideas, plan and innovate within your communication planning. And write the information down in the same document or on the same platform in which you build the plan. Do not shred them into countless Office documents. Does the management ask you to present your communication strategy or to report it? Then a centrally written communication strategy saves you a lot of time.
Marketing and budgeting go hand in hand. Often conflictual, but they can't do without each other. Budgeting and cost management therefore belong in every modern communication plan. Not for you? Then you may not be able to answer the following crucial budget questions directly:
These are just three main budgetary questions, which should be answered immediately by every marketing manager. Which means that the information must be immediately available. In the communication plan of course. "Oh, but the accounting can give me these figures quickly, can't they?". Fast is already a challenge. But above all: in what format and structure do you get the figures? Certainly in an accounting logic, which makes accountants happy but gives you a headache. And certainly not in your project structure logic. So you'll have to work on the puzzle and have numbers too much or too few because they (for accounting purposes) are logically not booked as a marketing cost. But maybe they do belong to your budget.
A good start when approving every marketing cost (signing the invoice - whether digitally or not) is to note it down under the project that you decide belongs there. Does a sign company send an invoice for the lettering of yard cloths? Then you could assign it to the right construction project within your plan. Accounting will normally book it at a general cost. Do you get the invoice from your digital agency for the online ads they manage? Ask them to split up the invoice according to your project logic. And note down the partial costs immediately under the right project.
Do you spontaneously think of an Excel file when you read this? Possibly. In the example below you can see how budgeting fits perfectly into an Excel communication plan. The question is whether you can keep up with this when a lot of invoices are received. Then it can be useful to be able to make a quick input or to link the invoicing to the accounting package. A digital communication planner offers the possibility for this.
You read it in the introduction to this article: a communication plan is often a necessity and a basis to get a marketing team on the same wavelength. This should be done in order for your team not to be built around many mini-communication plans, from chaotic to incomplete to relatively structured. Whether you are alone, with 2 or 3, with 15 in different subteams or with 30 in an international environment: the communication plan is the place where all the information flows together, the hub from which everything is controlled and the oasis where the marketing team leader finds overview and insight.
An ideal communication plan should therefore meet the following team criteria:
Can you get all this done? Then you have the 'nec plus ultra' when it comes to communication planning. It can't get better than this. That's why above the list is also 'An ideal communication plan'. However: know that this is not a utopia at all. You need to get the following 3 things in order:
If you can do this, you can work sustainably on building and implementing your plan. I can guarantee: this makes a world of difference. If you are a CMO, Marketing Director or Marketing Manager of different marketers then you simply have no other choice. Unless you like to wallow yourself in chaos and ignorance. But you're not like that, right?
As a dessert in this step: your marketing meetings will be shorter and better from now on if the entire team is on the same line and works within the same structure. The data is centralized and is only one mouse click away when it comes on the agenda. Fantastic right?
A lot of stakeholders are floating around in marketing: general or commercial management, sales colleagues, customer service employees, external marketing agencies or freelancers are all some common parties who are interested in the information from the communication plan or who want to participate actively. It is an excellent starting point if the plan contains centralized information. This way you can quickly click on stakeholders.
However, Excel lovers are on the slippery slope here, because you may not want to share your entire plan with anyone else. Or perhaps you only need a part of the marketing plan for reporting? Then you need to be quite proficient in spreadsheets or partial rights to cloud services from Google or Microsoft to share the right information with the right person. Digital communication planners have specific solutions for this.
In practice, the communication plan reporting is done in 3 ways:
This last step is one of my showpieces when I guide marketers or marketing teams in setting up and implementing their plan. I've seen enough marketers that don't get the respect they deserve because they don't, hardly or badly report within the organization.
There you go. This was my vision on the ideal communication plan. No rocket science or abracadabra, but pure necessity and reality for the marketer who wants results, organization, trust and respect within the organization.
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