Earlier this month, I was honored to participate in the Public Affairs Council’s 2023 Advocacy Conference, presenting Paid Media and Digital Advertising in An Age of Restrictions. This topic is both timely and increasingly complex, as communications professionals continue to struggle with a fractured communications landscape, coupled with uncertainty about potential policy regulations and platform restrictions.
Instead of focusing on existing and potential restrictions, or policy changes such as a domestic ban on TikTok or changes to Section 230, my presentation focused on how communicators can build resilient campaigns that will continue to deliver success no matter the policy landscape. This is a critical learning for communications professionals so they can continue integrating their clients' messages into relevant conversations and engage and educate target audiences in a meaningful way.
As the philosopher Heraclitus said, “The only thing that is constant is change.” I encouraged conference attendees to embrace this ethos and focus on seven tenets that will ensure they aren’t caught flat-footed and risk failure due to a lack of strategic and tactical campaign resiliency:
- Be Proactive, NOT Reactive: You cannot make friends and influence people in the middle of a crisis, so don’t wait until the storm hits to get your message in front of key audiences. Tell your company or industry story early and often to shape the narrative around critical issues before troubles arise. This doesn’t have to mean big-budget paid media efforts — a steady drumbeat of messages through paid, earned, and owned channels will keep your message top-of-mind with key audiences.
- Don’t Always “Ask” Audiences to Take Action: Online communications are about establishing a relationship with your audience and your actions should reflect this fact. Just like in real life, you can’t just talk to your friends when you need help moving or need to borrow some money. If you did, they wouldn’t be your friends for very long. Instead, you share stories they’ll enjoy and ask how they’re doing. Online communications are no different. Make sure you are engaging your audiences in multiple ways. Share relevant stories, ask their opinions, and when the time is right, the request for action – donations, emails to Congress, etc. – will come naturally.
- Focus on Multiple Audiences: Any audience you are trying to influence gets its news from a number of sources, not all of them online. Your outreach strategies and tactics need to account for this. Make sure you are establishing a clear message and then tailoring it to best resonate with key audiences such as the media, policymakers/regulators, and your employees. This will help ensure both your target audience(s) and those who influence them are seeing your message.
- Leverage Multiple Platforms – Appropriately: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket (i.e., one channel), and conversely, don’t fall victim to the belief you need to be on every social network. Limiting outreach to one channel puts campaigns at the mercy of shifts in policy and platform restrictions. On the other hand, focusing on too many platforms can force you to create one post and then share it identically across all your channels. Neither approach is good. Instead, it’s important to select the appropriate channels and use them correctly. This means tailoring your message and assets to fit the channel. For example, a strong imagery focus works best on Instagram, while a business-centric message would work better on LinkedIn. One of my favorite sayings is, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” and this is especially true with online communications. If you don’t use your channels correctly or frequently, your audience will atrophy, engagement rates will decrease, and reaching your audiences will get harder and harder.
- Establish Clear, Relevant Key Performance Indicators (KPIs): Too many campaigns are focused on “vanity metrics” like impressions or social community size. These efforts don’t paint the most accurate picture of your campaign’s success. For example, a social community with 100,000 members but only a 1% engagement rate isn’t reaching as many people as a community with 30,000 members and a 5% engagement rate. Campaigns should target engagement metrics that reflect the percentage of your audience that is reading, sharing, clicking, and watching your message. These “cost per” indicators include click-through rate (CTR), cost per acquisition/action (CPA), and even the bounce rate on your landing page. Focusing on these numbers will provide a better indication of which content is resonating and what your audience is engaging with, as opposed to large, raw numbers.
- Don’t Rely Solely on Paid Social Advertising: In the same way that campaigns should target multiple audiences, your campaigns should also make use of multiple channels – not just paid social ads. Before starting a campaign, make sure you understand where your target audiences consume information and meet them there. This can include banner and pre-roll ads on top-tier news sites, audio ads via relevant podcasts, and/or content partnerships to align your message with a trusted news brand. Another great option is paid search ads, which allow you to deliver your message to an audience that is actively looking for your information. This guidance applies to non-paid efforts as well — don’t limit yourself to organic social media or earned media. Instead, find the best ways to ensure your message is reaching the right audiences.
- Don’t Silo Your Metrics and Data: Silos belong on farms, not in communications efforts. All your efforts should work in harmony to maximize performance. To make the most of your engagement data, you must ensure metrics are shared campaign-wide, not kept in one segment. These insights can help improve your team’s efforts whether online or offline, paid or organic, by guiding adjustments to messages and tactics. For example, if a certain message is driving increased engagement through paid efforts, sharing this information with the earned media team may help them leverage the same message in their reporter outreach.
These seven tenets provide a solid foundation for weathering an increasingly uncertain digital landscape. As the digital and paid media environment continues to change, following these principles will ensure your campaigns continue to deliver strong results.