> Are You Succeeding?
Are we there yet? That can be a hard question to answer if your partnership has not clearly defined what “there” is and built in the milestones to check progress along the way.
Each of the communications objectives that comprise your strategic communications plan will have its own definition of success. As you accrue successes by completing communications objectives, you’ll have ready-made milestones to chart your progress. The challenge here is how to define “success” clearly and incorporate these measures into your communication objectives.
Your partnership efforts will likely fall into one of four general areas: systems change, programs, education, and advocacy. A great deal of information is available about evaluating programs. The areas of education and advocacy rely largely on communications, which can and must be evaluated as well.
Many models and theories have been advanced to help us understand communications. One element they all share is that communication is a process linking the message sender to an audience, which receives the message and has some kind of response, which can be interpreted as a message back to the original sender. When both parties are responding back and forth, they are engaged in a communications process.
Stages of Readiness in a Communications Relationship
The communications process can be seen as a series of stages that build a relationship between the sender and the audience. A good way to measure communications results is to examine this process as three distinct stages:
These stages follow a logical, natural sequence. First plant the seed. Then nurture the growth. Then watch the flower bloom.
A common mistake made by many organizations is to ask for flowers without first planting the seed and nurturing growth. It’s unlikely that your audience will take the action suggested by your partnership until that audience adopts and embraces your issue; and it’s unlikely they will care about your issue until you’ve introduced it to them in a way they understand. This is one reason it’s so important to research and know the audience you’re trying to communicate with.
As you craft a communications objective, you’ll want to match your definition of success with where you and that particular audience are in the communications process. On this issue with this audience, what stage are you in? Your definition of success will be whether you completed this stage and are ready to move on to the next objective.
Here we see another advantage of the communications objective approach: Because you’ve defined your success as part of the objective —and tailored your communications efforts to the right stage for your audience— your measurement tool can determine very precisely whether you should proceed with this audience. If not, you need to back up and regroup, figure out a better approach, and craft a new communications objective to complete this stage. Spot-checking your progress with each objective allows you to make corrections on the fly. This will prevent wasted effort and can save your partnership a tremendous amount of time and money.
Your communications objective will define what constitutes success for that particular objective. Now it’s up to your own practical judgment and creativity to decide how you’ll measure whether success has been achieved. Remember that this is knowledge you’re seeking for your own purposes —a good measurement instrument is whatever it takes to help you judge if you’ve succeeded. Here are some ideas to get you started.
In Stage 1 your definition of success is: Does your audience understand the issue? In a one-on-one meeting or small group, you can follow your audience’s verbal cues and body language to judge this.
It might be helpful to have a second person with you to watch and confirm your judgment. In a large group, you might ask your audience to fill out a questionnaire after you explain your issue. If they get the answers right, they understand the issue and are ready for the next stage.
Depending on your audience and the communications vehicle you’ve chosen, you can have a lot of fun with measurement. You can ask audience members to explain the issue to each other, or ask for their ideas about how they might adopt and embrace the issue. Any measurement tool will work if it demonstrates who and how many in your audience understand the issue and are ready for the next stage.
In Stage 2 your definition of success is: Has your audience adopted and embraced the issue? This is often a judgment call on your part and difficult to quantify.
Maybe you know the audience is mentioning the issue positively to peers or staff members. Requests for more information or more meetings are a solid indicator. Do you hear your language being used by them? Sometimes the audience extends a straightforward endorsement or offer of support. Or you can just ask: How important is this issue important to you, or to your organization?
In Stage 3, your definition of success is ready-made and transparent: Did your audience take the action you requested? As an agent for social change, your partnership will often use communications to prompt audiences to take various actions.
Depending on your resources and the kinds of information you think would be helpful, you can try to dig deeper and learn more: What was the average response time? What specifically persuaded this audience to act? How can you incorporate what you’ve learned into your other communications objectives?
A Final Note
Remember that every successful communication is a potential asset to your partnership. Some audiences will never advance with you beyond the first stage of the communications process. Your issue is just not their issue—but you’ve succeeded in getting them to understand something that’s important to your partnership.
In the future this audience, or this part of the audience, is well-positioned to explain your issue to others and might well join with you as events evolve or on another issue. Every successful communication—even ones that don’t lead directly to action—should be noted, celebrated and stored for future use.