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What are External Communications?

External communications refers to any time that you are speaking to your target audiences about your work—encompassing everything from public relations and event appearances to social media and email marketing. With an ever-growing list of communications channels and tactics, developing an external communications plan will keep your efforts focused and centered on your goals. 

Why is external communications important? 

In order to meet your social enterprise’s goals, you will need to connect with your target audiences and move them to take to action. That’s where external communications comes in. Devising an external communications plan that aligns with your organizational goals will help you reach your target audiences where they are, present them with information that resonates, and move them to take action. 

Self-Assessment Checklist

Does your social enterprise have…
  • Communications goals that correspond to your organizational goals?
  • Defined target audiences for your external communications?
  • A presence on a few communications channels that are relevant to your target audiences and move you toward your communications goals?
  • A content strategy and/or editorial calendar? 

External Communications Planning: Start Here

Step 1: Identify Communications Goals & Strategies That Support Your Organization’s Goals

Reflect on your organization’s overarching goals – the ones that will help your business, employee success program, leadership and talent, and/or fundraising efforts flourish. Which of these might be supported by communications efforts? For each goal, write out a supporting external communications goal and/or strategy. This will keep your efforts focused and impactful.

Here are two examples: 

  • If your organization’s goal for the year is to expand your online customer base, a corresponding external communications goal might be to update your website and increase web traffic. 
  • If your organization’s goal is to increase individual giving, a corresponding external communications goal might be to find and engage new supporters for your cause. 

Step 2: Define Your Target Audiences

In order to conduct effective and efficient external communications, you must be clear on who you are trying to reach. Determine who your target audience is for each communications goal. This could include customers, potential employees, institutional funders, local policymakers, or others. 

Include as much detail as you can about these people, as it will help drive your external communications planning. Things like where they live, what their behaviors are, what they need, and what motivates them can be helpful. It might also be helpful to draft a “persona” for each of your audiences. This is a fictional description of a person in this audience that serves as a helpful reminder and visualization for your team (more information on creating these personas and examples here).

Step 3: Select Your Channels & Tactics

Once you know who you are trying to reach and what you’d like them to do, you can determine where you should focus your external communications efforts to reach them. It’s time to select your communications channels and tactics.

There are an ever-expanding number of channels to choose from, so select and focus on the ones where you’ll be able to find and speak to your audience(s) and where you can commit the resources to do a good job. You won’t be able to reach everyone you need to on one channel alone, but you can be strategic and focus your attention on a handful that will give you the best results for your time. 

Some channels you might consider include:

  • Website
  • Email marketing
  • Social media
  • Digital advertising
  • Print advertising
  • Brochures, flyers, and postcards
  • Direct mail 
  • Conferences and events 

For the examples shared in Step 1: 

  • If your communications goal is to increase potential customer traffic to your website, you might consider social media, digital advertising, and email marketing as appropriate channels. 
  • If your communications goal is to find and engage potential donors, you might consider public relations, social media, and events as appropriate channels.

Step 5: Create Your Content

You know who you need to move to action, where you’ll reach them, and what action you’d like them to take – now it’s time to create the content to do that. Utilizing your core brand messages, draft and repurpose existing content for each channel and goal. A key component of your content strategy should be repurposing – consider how a blog post might be edited into a post for social media, or how an email announcement might be turned into a direct mail piece. 

Visit our guides on Marketing Assets, Storytelling, Social Media, and Website for additional content ideas and best practices. 

Owned vs. Earned vs. Paid Media

Owned Media – Channels that Your Business Has Full Control Over

This will likely be the first step in your external communications planning. Your “owned media” includes the channels that you have full control over and cost no additional money to share content on. This includes your:

  • Website
  • Email Newsletter
  • Social Media 

Earned Media – Channels Where Other Entities Share Your Content

You have the least amount of control over these communications, which can give them extra credibility with your audiences. This is the outcome of your public relations efforts and includes: 

  • Print, Digital, Radio, and Television Coverage

Paid Media – Channels Where Your Business Can Pay to Reach Your Audience

Once you have well-established owned media channel, you might begin pursuing paid media strategies, which can include: 

  • Social Media
  • Google Ads
  • Newspaper, Radio, and TV Advertising

Advertising: Online & Print

Depending on your communications goals and budget, you might consider print and digital advertising. With a well-defined audience, advertising allows you to be extremely targeted in your external communications efforts. 

Advertising Options for Getting Started:

  • Social Media Ads
    • With everything from “boosting” individual social media posts of importance, to running campaigns that produce leads, traffic, or engagement – the major social media platforms offer a variety of advertising possibilities. They also offer robust targeting options that enable you to build a custom audience aligned with your social enterprise’s identified audiences.
  • Print Advertising
    • If you’re seeking to reach local customers, placing advertisements in your local newspaper might be an effective strategy. They will likely offer options to advertise in their print sections, digital editions, or even their emails to subscribers. 
  • Search Ads
    • These are ads that will display on search engine results, most commonly on Google. See the Additional Reading & Resources section below for more information on Google Ads Grants for nonprofit social enterprises. 

What to Consider Before Choosing Advertising: 

  • Choose the right moment. General awareness-raising advertisements can become costly and it is harder to measure their impact. Tie your advertising efforts to a specific campaign or key time period (like holiday sales) for your social enterprise. 
  • Set goals and indicators of success. Have clear goals for your advertising in mind that will help you measure your return on investment. That will enable you to monitor progress, adjust your content throughout the campaign, and then determine if it is the right strategy for your social enterprise in the future.  
  • Have a clear, defined audience in mind. In order to leverage the benefits of advertising and keep your costs manageable, it’s vital to have a specific, well-defined audience in mind. This will help you determine where to advertise, who to target (if you’re utilizing social media ads), and what content to include. 
  • Give yourself enough time. Social media and search ads will take time to produce results, so spread your budget out over several weeks or several months to give yourself time to track progress and adjust. For advertising in local newspapers and blogs, you might need to work well in advance to time your placement for a key moment or newspaper issue. 

Best Practices & Tips

  • Keep it consistent and on brand. By staying true to your brand guidelines, you’ll ensure that all of your external communications feel consistent for your audiences. If they follow you on social media, receive your email marketing, and see your ad in the local paper, these should all look and feel cohesive. 
  • Create an editorial calendar. To keep your team aligned on what content will be shared across each of your communications calendars, consider creating an editorial calendar. There’s no one perfect template – try out different iterations and find what works best for your team. Find Templates & Examples here. (Note: these are free templates but do require email submission to access.)

Getting it Done

Resources to Execute Your External Communications Efforts In-House
  • Email Marketing Tools
  • Social Media Scheduling, Monitoring, and Analytics Tools
    • Analytics: Youtube, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and TikTok provide free analytics within their platforms. Twitter offers analytics to paying, verified accounts.
    • Scheduling: Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn provide the option to schedule content within their platforms. 
    • Monitoring: For additional capabilities, including monitoring of social media conversations and topics, and advanced analytics, you might consider:
  • Media Monitoring Tools
  • Google Ads Grants: Nonprofits with a Google for Nonprofits account are eligible to access up to $10,000 per month in search ads on Google. Once enrolled in the ad grants program, Google and other organizations like TechSoup provide resources and tools to help you leverage the grant. 
  • Canva: This online design platform offers free memberships for nonprofits that allow up to 10 individual users. For-profit enterprises can purchase individual premium subscriptions. Canva offers thousands of templates for social media graphics, newsletter headers, digital and print advertisements, and more.
Outside Resources to Consider
  • If you believe your business or leadership would benefit from earned media, you might consider hiring a public relations agency or consultant to support you in identifying stories, choosing media outlets to approach, and pitching your news to the press. Public relations professionals bring a wealth of knowledge about how the industry operates, and often personal connections, that can increase your success. 
  • If you’d like to pursue paid digital advertising, you can start small on your own with most social media platforms’ in-app tools. If you’d like assistance in identifying who to target and what makes an effective ad, you might consider hiring a paid media strategist – either from a communications agency or an independent consultant. 
  • If you’re exploring paid print advertising, you might consider hiring a graphic designer to design the ad and/or a copywriter so that you’re getting the most for your investment. 

Additional Reading & Resources

About Christiano Comms

Sarah Christiano is an experienced marketing and communications professional committed to using the power of storytelling for positive social change. From digital marketing strategy and execution to content creation and copywriting, Sarah partners with her clients to propel their missions forward through strong and strategic communications.