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Angela Sinickas is CEO of Sinickas Communications Inc., an international management consultancy focusing on communication effectiveness research and strategy. She has been measuring the effectiveness of communication since 1981 and is the author of the manual "How to Measure Your Communication Programs."
Interact for Health: What, in your experience, is the most common communications mistake organizations make?
Sinickas: They mistake distributing information with actual communication. Sometimes the messages make sense to the sender but create a completely different understanding in the receivers. Sometimes they use the wrong channel for the distribution based on the content of the message and the audience’s usage of the channel.
Interact for Health: We often measure communications success solely in terms of impressions. How can organizations dig deeper to determine impact and even begin to measure behavior change?
Sinickas: To measure if the audience actually remembers receiving a message, if they understand it and what feelings it created, you have to use a survey. Only a survey can quantify what is going on in people’s heads or hearts. You can also use a survey to connect people’s reception of a message with their behavior. For one client, we asked employees which safe working behaviors they were paying more attention to because of a particular yearlong communication campaign. We also correlated the percentage decrease in each of these types of accidents with our survey results and found that the biggest reductions were for the same behaviors that employees said they were paying the most attention to.
Another way to connect communication with behavior is to use a pilot study to see if a behavior changes more in the locations where you launched a particular campaign versus the places where communication stayed the same.
Interact for Health: What are some low-cost or no-cost ways to evaluate communications campaigns?
Sinickas: The pilot study approach I just mentioned is great because you actually spend less money communicating with a sample of your audience than you would have spent communicating with everyone.
We also often have “accidental pilots” where we broadcast information to everyone, but it isn’t actually passed on to the same extent everywhere. Every time you send out news releases, you have an accidental pilot where you could analyze the impact of the media coverage at no cost. This works best if the PR was intended to influence a behavior: call a number for an appointment, sign up for virtual training, make a donation, etc. After the news release has had time to be shared by media in different markets, compare the numbers for the increase in the desired behavior in the markets with heavy publicity about your message and the markets with virtually no coverage. You can also measure the behavior change upticks based on timing. Check your baseline before you send out a release. Check it after the release. Check it again after you layer on another type of communication, like a direct mail piece or an ad.
Another low-cost technique is to create free word clouds of discussion threads on social media to get a quick analysis of what people are saying.
Interact for Health: It can be a struggle to show the value of communications toward the organization’s overall goals. Can you give an example of when this was done well?
Sinickas: You have to be more granular than “overall goals.” You need to start with a specific initiative of your organization that is intended to change a group’s behavior in a way that moves you closer to achieving a specific goal. The safety campaign I mentioned above is one. When I last worked in a corporation, we tried a different approach to safety communication in half of our locations and just did the same-old, same-old in the other locations. While there was no change in accident rates in our “control group” sites, accidents went down in our pilot locations so much that our vehicle insurance premium was reduced by nearly $1 million, in addition to a host of other cost reductions from lost employee time, overtime paid to employees covering for injured employees, worker’s compensation payments, deductibles on insurance payouts, etc., etc. Just using the easy-to-quantify reduction in the insurance premium, the return on investment for the campaign was well over 1,000%.
Interact for Health: Is there one piece of advice you would share with community-based groups and grassroots organizations to help them improve the effectiveness of their communications?
Sinickas: Do some “soft” research with your audience before you develop your campaign messaging and channel plan. Be sure you understand what is leading to their current behaviors in terms of both knowledge and attitudes. Then probe what new messaging might change those behaviors. Understand which channels are the most credible and accessible to them. Then, when you believe you have developed the right approach, pretest it with another sample of your audience so you can fine tune it before you have your expensive launch.
Interact for Health: Social media has reshaped the way we communicate. How has communications measurement been impacted by the move to social? What other changes should we anticipate?
Sinickas: First, I think communicators need to understand where social channels best fit in their campaigns. They’re not great for improving a large audience’s knowledge because a relatively small percentage rely on social for gaining factual knowledge. Social channels are best for shaping opinions about the knowledge portion of your campaign because, for the most part, people trust their peers. Many aspects of social media are easily measured, but we should focus on metrics that indicate that not only if people saw something there (opens or click-throughs that we sometimes call “vanity metrics”), but that it reached their minds or hearts. The more meaningful metrics would be: How many shared a message with others or upvoted it? Those metrics indicate that they not only saw it, but it reached them in an important way.
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