Peter Gilheany: Tailoring your message for specific audiences will help to bring it to life

Charities should target only their relevant audiences, writes our columnist

Peter Gilheany
Peter Gilheany

Many charities that used to get on with their business quietly, sheltered by long-term grant funding, must now compete with others for more precarious and capricious sources of money.

But whether bidding for public sector contracts or encouraging an austerity-battered public to increase their donations, charity communicators should ensure they are addressing four key questions through simple, stand-out communications:

- Is my organisation distinctive from others operating in the same market?

- Are our audiences aware of what we are delivering on their behalf?

- Do our audiences recognise us as relevant to them?

- Can our audiences trust us to make the best use of the money they give us?

The days of woolly propositions and generalist umbrella messages aimed at 'the public' are long gone. Charities that hide behind a wall of everything will quickly become nothing because no one will know precisely what they do. You need to be ruthless about whom you engage and why - efforts to engage with audiences who are not relevant are a waste of time and resources. By contrast, those who speak clearly to the right people about how they are solving a specific problem will win confidence and support, turning awareness into brand engagement and passive audiences into active supporters and advocates.

Here is a simple model to consider for producing communication that matters. It is based on building a factual picture of your charity, so you can quickly decide which of the charity's strengths are worth highlighting and which are not.

Consider the following four areas separately before matching the information produced as a framework for creating messages that matter.

Evidence: what proof points exist showing the impact that the charity is making on behalf of its service users, beneficiaries or other stakeholders? Don't be tempted to overclaim; always look for the proof points that will matter to the different audiences you are seeking to engage.

Interests: what are the target audiences interested in and what is stopping them from getting involved? Spend time talking to the audiences you want to engage, rather than making assumptions about them. This doesn't have to be done through focus groups or surveys: simple one-to-one conversations can make a real difference. Ask a journalist about his or her impressions of your organisation.

Difference: what makes the organisation different from others in the market? Where is the evidence for this and why does it matter to individuals? But don't beat yourself up if you can't find a unique selling point - some simple selling points are a great place to start.

Personality: what tone and style should it adopt in its communications? This is a key part of your brand, but you don't often find it in brand guidelines. It might be personified by an individual such as the chief executive, or simply be an unwritten style that has evolved over time. Try to define it so you can be more systematic and consistent in the tone and style of external communications.

What you should have at the end of that process is the start of a clear organisational positioning, a relevant proposition and a supporting message hierarchy. This can then be brought to life by the development of an integrated communications platform to drive brand awareness and engagement.

Integrated is the key word here - among all the benefits of developing messages that matter, the biggest difference will come from joining up all your communications so they feel as if they come from one organisation.

Peter Gilheany is director of the social change PR agency Forster and a trustee of CharityComms

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