Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Value of Conducting a Communications Audit

In some instances, usually larger organizations, communications audits can even aim to get the pulse of what employees or members of an association generally feel about the efforts made to communicate with them.

For example, if your organization is above 50 employees, are you aware of your employees' overall impression is of the direction of the company? If you're a non-profit that's looking to make a difference in fundraising dollars or motivate
government, what impressions do the public or your members hold of your executives or even your image?

Failing to grasp whether your communications and PR are in touch with a brand image will likely mean a publicity campaign will be off it's mark. If your marketing collateral isn't the right tool for the job of creating new sales opportunities, then it doesn't matter how pretty it is, or how much it cost to produce. It just won't get the job done efficiently.

You're Only As Good As Your Tools

And a communications audit can tell you just how good your tools are. Before going into any campaign or even a communications plan, I've recommended organizations review these important pieces of their brand and the public relations efforts:

First: Conduct interviews with your staff to review current challenges, perceptions, and infrastructure in place to accommodate effective membership and external communication

Second: Development of a membership or customer survey

In these instances, Action Strategies usually undertakes the mailing, follow up, and tabulation of results to determine satisfaction and overall perception. It's usually recommended that at least 25% of your base should be surveyed. Your top twenty media outlets, target publics and/or key government contacts of relevance to your issues, (creating a random list) need to be interviewed on their perceptions and the effectiveness of your communications to them.

Third, I believe it is essential for a complete audit of your internal and promotional materials (web, print, etc.) be conducted to ensure consistency with your brand.

While these cover the basis http://www.blogger.com/img/gl.spell.gif of a communications audit, they should not be considered exclusive. Like any marketing or PR campaign, there are rare times when a cookie cutter approach can be applied. Over the years, I've developed an approach that is more in depth and thorough. I invite you to drop me a line and leave your comments here for others to see as well.

Happy auditing!

Mark Buzan is the owner of Action Strategies, a public affairs & marketing communications consultancy. You can subscribe now to his monthly PR & marketing tips newsletter by visiting www.actionstrategies.ca and dropping down the newsletter menu.

This Website Sucks! How to turn your website into a brand builder.

By Tara O'Doherty
Principal, User Experience Practice

Yes, it is true that the Canadian digital marketing field has evolved greatly over the last five years, but we are still two-to-three years behind the US and Europe on the creation of usable and profitable interactive environments. Why is this the case? Two reasons - first, we are not optimizing our user experiences and secondly, usability integration as a method & process are still being perceived as expendable in Canada.

The good news is that there are two guiding principles that one can integrate in order to guarantee a successful and usable interactive experience. These guidelines are applicable for all interactive environments - whether it is an intranet, IVR, ITV, or mobile environment.

Success Guideline #1: Ensure that all of your development cycles, no matter how big or small, include the expertise of a true User Experience Expert (a.k.a. Usability Expert).

Now, don't panic, this is not going to cost you a fortune nor will it eat up your schedule. There are a variety of methods that your usability professional may recommend - and to be honest usability testing is not always the right answer. User experience methods include, but are not limited to: requirements gathering, persona/usage scenario development, user interface structure development (information architecture and wireframes), heuristic evaluations (a.k.a. Expert Usability Reviews), in-situ (field studies), and usability tests.

The key learning from this first guildeline is to understand that a true Usability Professional is not also a creative designer nor a programmer, or my personal favorite - someone who went to one Jakob Nielsen seminar last spring. Contrary to popular belief, usability is not 'common sense' - it's a science. Frankly, for one to be considered an expert in the usability field one must have several years (ideally 5+) experience behind them, specifically in user experience (usability) methodology and implementation, several redesigns & optimizations under their belt, and ideally a scholastic background to support their years of experience. Anything less and you'll be wasting money, time, and in the end risking your potential success. After all, you would not hire an interior designer to take the place of an architect when building a new home, would you?

Success Guideline #2: Enlist the aid of interactive wireframes and iterative usability tests every time to ensure that you eliminate potential usability issues prior to build.

So now that you have an expert who can predict human behavior and manipulate it to meet your business and communication goals (the true reason behind why you should hire a usability professional). you need to ensure that 80% of your audience can accomplish their primary tasks (use cases) at least 85% of the time.

How does one do this? Simply put, you follow an iterative design and development process that is user-centric.

What is iterative design? The concept of iterative design centers around the idea that design of a product/service/application should be done in repeated cycles where, in each cycle, the design is elaborated, refined, and validated by users/potential users, and the results of validation at each cycle feed into the design focus of the next cycle.

An iterative approach is imperative to your success as the number one reason most interactive environments are not running as efficiently and effectively as possible is that they lack a solid strategic structure and they are not being validated with potential users prior to launch. We in the field highly suggest you validate any and all User Interface (UI) Structures (information architecture, nomenclature, interaction design etc) before creative design or programming. Remember - 80% of usability (or lack there of) comes directly from the UI structure itself.

Insider Tip: Today most of us "in the know" have reaped the rewards of something quicker, smarter, and more cost effective then paper-based Visio wireframes. Update your iterative process by integrating rapid prototyping UX software - in the right hands, you'll be able to cut your UX development time, costs, and potential usability bottlenecks by up to 70%. It's also the only way to truly validate shopping carts and interactive forms/applications.

Every company with an interactive environment or application should be identifying and eliminating the usability bottlenecks prior to creative development and coding.

Ted Woodbery, Executive Director of MEdia Net over at Cingular Wireless in the US is a true believer in the process: "Given our tight development timelines, iterative user experience is mandatory to ensure we have enhancements to mobile products like MEdia Net and Cingular Video right before they are taken to market. These tests allow us to confirm with customers that our interfaces are intuitive and easy to navigate. If issues are discovered, fixes can be tested until the UI is ready to launch".

There is no time like the present to implement the iterative process. Interactive environments that are easy to use will reduce customer service costs, increase ROI, and increase overall brand perception. My recommendation for all Canadian companies would be to first benchmark their current usability success levels (efficiency, effectiveness, and user satisfaction) by running a usability test utilizing NIST (National Institute for Standards in Technology) and ISO (International Standards Organization) Standards. Once you know what is working and what is not working for your users, you can introduce the learnings from this article to optimize your environment in order to decrease user frustration and raise your success levels substantially.

Mark Buzan is the owner of Action Strategies, a public affairs & marketing communications consultancy. You can subscribe now to his monthly PR & marketing tips newsletter by visiting www.actionstrategies.ca and dropping down the newsletter menu.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Senate proving to be more and more influential

Had any doubts about the role of the Senate? Let the example of the current legislative gridlock leave no more doubt.

Already, the voyage of the federal accountability act has been longer and bumpier than the government had hoped. When it was first tabled in April, the Conservatives were counting on swift passage through both houses. They had run a campaign focused on cleaning up the way government does business and bringing in more accountability for politicians and bureaucrats, and the act was their central action plan.

But after moving quickly through the Commons in 72 days, the legislation stalled at the Senate for nearly five months. The Conservatives accused the Liberals of foot-dragging in their own self-interest.

Liberal Senators said their colleagues in the House were too terrified by public opinion to raise legitimate objections about poorly framed legislation. MPs of all stripes rushed to back a major bill that affected dozens of federal statutes, and senators said they wanted to take their time to make it right.

Any thoughts? Is this likely to be indicative of more recognition of the Senate in lobbying efforts.

Mark Buzan is the owner of Action Strategies, a public affairs & marketing communications consultancy. You can subscribe now to his monthly public affairs newsletter by visiting www.action-strategies.ca and dropping down the newsletter menu.

The Auditor General and the Environment

When most politicos hear of the Auditor General, they think of the annual report given on the state of the government's finances. Yet, there's another perhaps less known role most Canadians may not know of when it comes to the AG. It seems the AG now accepts submissions from ordinary Canadians and environmental NGOs. The environmental petitions process is a formal way for Canadians to bring concerns about the environment and sustainable development to the attention of federal ministers, and obtain a timely response.

The environmental petitions process was created as a result of a 1995 amendment to the Auditor General Act. On behalf of the Auditor General of Canada, the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development manages the petitions process and monitors responses by making sure that the questions and issues that Canadians raise are answered by federal ministers.

The Commissioner reports annually to Parliament, and each report contains a chapter on environmental petitions. The chapter reports on petitions activities from the previous year and often contains audits of selected petition responses on topics as diverse as genetically engineered fish, military dumpsites off Canada’s Atlantic coast, insurance for nuclear operators, and guidelines for listing species at risk.

In my view, where this seems to be of most application is in accordance with new opportunites for environmental ENGOs (environmental NGOs). If native bands or pressure groups want to call the government accountable on environmental initiatives, a petition to the Auditor General to investigate could be very embarrasing.

With Kyoto a constant sore point for the current government and criticism of their Clean Air Act mounting, could the use of this process increase as well? Time will tell. It will be incumbent on industry, associations and ENGOs to monitor the Auditor General's Office more carefully. They will need to be vigilant with any hired lobbyists to ensure they are covering all potential bases. Equally important, government relations plans will need to review where the AG fits into overall efforts.

For more information on the environmental petition process, visit the Commissioner of the Environment Process website.

Mark Buzan is the owner of Action Strategies, a public affairs & marketing communications consultancy. You can subscribe now to his monthly public affairs newsletter by visiting www.action-strategies.ca and dropping down the newsletter menu.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Think you know your clientele and market? Are you sure about that...

Regrettably, when it comes to marketing, so many businesses fall victim to the sin of over confidence in what they believe their customers want, what they think, and what the competition is up to. The results can be different from one enterprise to the next but if left unchecked for too long, it often means leaving money on the table by letting pass many great opportunities for client loyalty and new revenue sources. The truth comes back to what I have often repeated time and time again: ''If you fail to plan, You plan to fail''.

I maintain that for a company to remain dynamic, it is essential for it to do a serious soul searching every few years. A SWOT analysis needs to be done to review what has changed since the company was started. Are the marketing efforts used currently and in the past still effective? What's happening in the lives of your target market that could potentially involve a change in their buying habits? Can you honestly say you know the answer to that beyond a question of a doubt?

The bottom line is that being in business is a dicey venture even in the best of times. Reviewing or completing a marketing plan is not something that should be reserved solely for new businesses. Every business needs to look inwardly from time to time. The investment of time and money now in preparation for 2007 may seem like a distraction from every day business but isn't a little self-reassurance worth it?

Any thoughts?


Mark Buzan is the owner of Action Strategies, a public affairs & marketing communications consultancy. Action Strategies has recently expanded its services into professional podcasting for clients looking to leverage electronic PR opportunities for greater publicity. You can subscribe now to his monthly PR & marketing tips newsletter by visiting www.actionstrategies.ca and dropping down the newsletter menu.

Can't get media coverage? Use Technology.

From satellite radio to blogging, from podcasts to internet marketing and RSS; technology is ever more pervasive not only in our lives but also in public relations. New techniques are being used to subvert sending messages through third parties (i.e the media) and get them directly to where we want them: the public. Moreover, these techniques are able to avoid broadcasting in favour of narrowcasting. Narrowcasting is the practice of carefully identifying a target audience and crafting a message that speaks directly to it. Unlike broadcasting, its focus and target is much more specific.

Many professionals I come across are concerned (with good reason) with how they can get the biggest bang for their publicity buck. More and more, I'm advising clients and prospects to consider new technology routes in PR as a means of reaching their most desired targets. What are these routes? Let's review some of the options.

Satellite & Internet Radio

Have you heard of XM Radio? As a growing phenomena, more and more North Americans are buying those nifty portable radios that offer hundreds of specialized stations on subjects and genres ranging from the mainstream to the wacky. Are you a bluegrass fan? With Satellite radio, you can subscribe to a station that serves up nothing but bluegrass music and interviews on bluegrass music. Does your business offer combined personal and business motivation strategies? Why not consider getting your message pitched to the producer of the station focusing on personal motivation? Believe it or not, such stations exist and they have a following of a dedicated audience!

In terms of internet radio, there are hundreds of opportunities to become a guest on a show or even host your very own one! One instance of interest for entrepreneurs is EntrepreneurRadio.com. The website is an active radio station with numerous shows from which web visitors can regularly tune in. For a small fee, you can even pitch your own show concept. The popularity of this medium of narrowcasting is even attracting the interest of advertisers looking to sell wares that in a traditional broadcasting medium, might lose out on effect. With Internet Radio, one is not pushing a message out to a general public that may or may not have an interest in your services.

Podcasts, blogging, and RSS

Wow! Don't get blown away with the techie terminology. Here's a breakdown. Podcasts are the newest line of services Action Strategies has broken into. Basically, podcasts are an offshoot of internet radio but they have one important difference: they have the portability of being downloaded anywhere and anytime. Unlike internet radio or regular audio files, podcasts can be stored in one's iPod or music player. They can also be searchable on the internet via search engines. More information on podcasts will be following in subsequent blog postings.

In terms of blogging and RSS, the two are concepts that go hand in hand. As many are aware (especially as you are currently reading a blog), blogs a regular journals that allow readers to leave feedback and opinions. In terms of PR, blogging is a gold mine in terms of gaining immediate feedback from your target publics, assuming you have a critical mass of regular readers. RSS however, augments the experience of the blog reader.

RSS (Real Simple Syndication) allows an interested party to subscribe to a news feed through readily available and often free software called RSS readers. The benefit of RSS enabling your blog or website is that your interested publics can now have updates or notices of updates to your web message sent to them directly by email or through their RSS reader. No longer will they need to remember to visit your website on a regular basis. The result? More familiarity with your message! With the overflow of information most face on a daily basis, people have less and less time to visit umpteen numbers of websites. Your RSS feed directly to your audience provides an uninteresting means of reminding them of what you're up to.

The bottom line

You need to view your publicity efforts in a three dimensional aspect. Media relations is an excellent vehicle for publicity but it should never be viewed as the sole vehicle towards your objectives.


Mark Buzan is the owner of Action Strategies, a public affairs & marketing communications consultancy. Action Strategies has recently expanded its services into professional podcasting for clients looking to leverage electronic PR opportunities for greater publicity. You can subscribe now to his monthly PR & marketing tips newsletter by visiting www.actionstrategies.ca and dropping down the newsletter menu.