Is Your Customer Confused? A Communications Audit Can Help.
Why an annual communications audit is necessary to ensure the consistency of your brand and its messaging
It’s tax time and mention of the term “audit” strikes fear in the hearts of anyone. However, I want to talk about a good kind of audit—one that will help you maintain a consistent brand image and save you money.
What is a communications audit?
It sounds complicated, but its basically a review of all of the materials that reflect your brand. This can include your website, printed collateral, stationery, email signatures, and even your YouTube channel. The purpose is to evaluate your materials (along with your competitors’) and make recommendations for ways they can be improved, better coordinated, and made more cost effective.
An effective communications audit will:
Ensure brand consistency. It is often difficult (especially in larger organizations) to provide brand oversight when individual departments have control over the production of materials. This may sound shocking, but not everyone follows those brand standards that you invested thousands of dollars into developing! To avoid customer confusion, you should ensure that all of your materials look like they are coming from the same company and that your messaging is consistent. An audit will reveal how strictly your brand standards are being enforced.
Save money. An audit will often uncover materials that are no longer being used or shouldn’t be in circulation. For example, did you invest in updating your product catalog, but the old versions are still being distributed to customers? An audit is a great way to purge outdated materials and make sure everyone is equipped with the proper tools. When was the last time you examined your production costs? Are you still offset printing letterhead that could be printed digitally for half the cost? Are you still paying hosting fees for inactive websites? An audit will reveal areas where you can increase value and decrease unnecessary expenses.
Increase impact. You may have materials that are no longer effective. Are you placing ads in publications that your prospects don’t read? Would your printed promotion generate more responses if it directed viewers to a microsite? Is your email newsletter getting great open and click rates? An audit will point out small changes that can provide a bigger return on your initiatives.
Point out dangers. Do you have valuable intellectual property that is not protected? Do you have a Crisis Communications Plan in place to respond to a PR nightmare and protect your company’s reputation? Lack of coordination and oversight can result in the loss of a valuable trademark or customer. An audit provides a moment to examine the risks associated with your business and develop strategies to mitigate them.
Help plan next steps. If you to want to ramp up your marketing initiatives to bring in more customers, the first step in planning is looking at what you already have, then deciding what should come next.
Here are some practical examples of how a communications audit can uncover important information:
Multiple creative departments: Do you operate in a large organization with multiple in-house creative departments? Do you ever collaborate? Usually the answer to the second question is “No.” It is not uncommon for materials from one department to look completely different than materials being produced in another department within the same organization. This is an excellent way to create confusion among your constituents. If your organization has brand standards, make sure your internal departments are following them and take time during the year to collaborate to make sure everyone is on the same page. If your organization does not have brand standards, it’s probably time to consider working with a design firm to create them.
Outsourced creative: Has your company ever outsourced creative work to multiple designers or design firms? When the work was assigned, were brand standards provided along with samples of what is currently being produced? Was there a quality control process in place to make sure all of the work coming from different contractors was consistent? This is easier to do when the work is kept in-house, but when you use outsourced talent, extra effort is necessary to manage the consistency of your materials. A little guidance and collaboration up front can make this completely painless!
Mergers and acquisitions: It is difficult enough to keep an “eye” on everything and manage consistency in a very large organization. When you add multiple brands to the mix, it further complicates things. When these new brands joined your family, did you take a look at their assets and how they fit in with yours? Are your customers now confused about who handles which product lines, or even if a certain product comes from your company? How do you make sure that as you add or absorb other brands and product lines into your portfolio that you maintain consistency and avoid customer confusion?
Age: When materials have been around for a while, they can become “out of sight, out of mind.” Did you redesign your logo and implement a new brand last year, but you’re still using that same brochure from 7 years ago? Did your office move in 2012, but your business cards and brochures still have your old address and phone numbers? Have you added new products and services that are not listed on your website? If you answered “Yes” to any of these questions, it’s time for an update! Pull all of your old materials and see if the content is current and the visuals accurately reflect your brand. Remember, a confused customer is not likely to make a purchase! It would be a shame to lose business simply because a prospect can’t get in touch with you, or to miss out on the sale of a service that your current client could have bought from you instead of your competitor—IF they knew you offered the same thing.
Where Do I Begin?
A communications audit does not have to be a daunting process! You can choose to cover all of your materials at once, or you can take it slow and start with a selected area. For example, instead of tackling everything you’re currently producing, you can focus on just ads or printed collateral.
While it doesn’t have to take forever, you still must be willing to take the time to do it right. A cursory glance just won’t do! Laying out all of your materials at once will reveal insights that you wouldn’t otherwise see. Don’t just focus on visual consistency, but consistency in messaging as well. Read through the content on your website and in your marketing collateral. Look carefully at what you’re putting out there for your customers. Is your messaging clear and consistent across media?
A typical communications audit consists of the following steps:
- Materials Review: Thoroughly examine and evaluate all of your materials and make notes of what can be improved.
- Competitors’ Review: Look at your competitors’ materials. Are they outshining you? Are they making the purchasing process easier?
- Interviewing: Solicit suggestions from your employees and sales reps. What do they need to be better equipped to close the deal? What are customers saying about you?
- Reporting: Generate a report of the findings and next steps.
- Presentation: Share it with those who are responsible for the materials discussed.
Whether you conduct a basic audit on your own or hire a design firm to do it for you, these are the basic steps that should occur. The depth of the evaluation and extent of the report will be as basic or comprehensive as the time you are willing to invest.
I recommend conducting a basic communications audit annually, just to keep things on track. It can be conducted internally or with the help of a communications firm. For example, you can start the review on your own and then bring your materials to a firm who can evaluate and plan solutions to the problems you uncovered.
A comprehensive communications audit is more appropriate when a merger, acquisition, or rebrand occurs. It can also be the most useful for companies that have been around for a long time but have never looked at its materials. For a comprehensive audit, you should work with a communications firm who has the experience and expertise to know what to look for and provide the best evaluation and recommendations.
It’s Worth It!
Although it is important to protect the visual consistency of your communications, the focus of this process is not really about style and aesthetics. The most important thing is ensuring consistency and effectiveness and avoiding customer confusion. You invest a lot of time and effort into your brand and messaging. Don’t waste it by allowing basic things to slip through the cracks. Follow these tips to impress your prospects and keep your existing clients and customers happy.
Need help with a communications audit? Did you conduct one on your own and find some things that need fixing? Get in touch. We’ll be glad to walk through your findings, or conduct an audit for you.