What is a Marketing Communications Audit? Should you consider one?
A Communications Audit is the process of evaluating your company’s current marketing materials and program in order to define criteria on which to base future efforts. It is to the marketing communications arena what a “business audit” is to a firm’s finances, management and operations—a complete overview.
A marketing communications audit provides a focus and insight that nearly always results in better planning and stronger concepts. In addition, it provides both MCG and your company with a point of reference from which to judge the value of future efforts. It is a rational, systematic and analytical process, with the primary target being the bottom line, not necessarily aesthetics.
A good audit will help to assure the validity of large-scale projects. It can also be a valuable marketing tool. Simply, it is a means by which to qualify and quantify the value of your marketing communications efforts.
In today’s crowded and noisy multi-national marketplace, the importance of the overall image created by an organization’s many communications efforts is recognized by most executives. Despite this, however, even the most sophisticated organizations face three problems. Change, decentralization and time are constantly at odds with the goal of ensuring continuity and effectiveness.
Change. It will come as no secret that today’s business world changes rapidly. To maintain competitiveness in this difficult environment, many organizations have been compelled to downsize, reengineer and restructure. In the process of formulating new operations plans—of attempting to do more with less—the continuity of marketing communications often falls victim. The cohesiveness necessary to provide maximum efficiency and impact is lost.
Decentralization. Another effect of today’s competitive pressures is the decentralization of many functions. While less structure and more freedom works to encourage innovation in organizations, it can also wreak havoc with communications effectiveness. Lack of coordination can produce anything from temporary customer confusion, right through to permanent loss of an invaluable trademark and brand equity.
Time. Despite recognition of the importance of protecting an organization’s marketplace image through consistent marketing communications, periodic evaluations are often put off. Sometimes more pressing issues keep executives from focusing on the task, in which case awareness of the benefits needs to be raised. Other times there are budget
pressures, in which case a good rationale must be presented for the allocation of scarce funds.
The first step, crucial in all audits, is gathering and reviewing as many of your company materials as possible. A worksheet indicates the more common and important items we consider. We add to or subtract from this list depending upon the extent of the audit and the budget available.
The objective is to determine which items are being used, and to assess their quality and consistency as objectively as possible. Only by putting everything side-by-side in one place will omissions, quality lapses and inconsistencies be readily apparent.
One good location for doing this is the wall of a conference room or similar location. For smaller audits, or where portability is important, we may use one or more foam-core panels.
Whatever the location, we arrange the materials by category. For three-dimensional items (e.g., signage) and electronic media (e.g., web pages), we use photos and hard-copy printouts.
Once all the materials have been posted, we study and evaluate them. First we identify the strategy or primary selling point for each piece—price, style, speed, convenience, performance, technology, etc. Then we compare it to others for consistency and quality.
Using a worksheet we rate each piece on a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high) by its consistency with other materials and its overall quality. Although this exercise is subjective, quantifying our opinions makes it less so. To further reduce subjectivity, we ask one or two of our staff members to also rate the pieces and average the results. We use the following criteria when doing the rating.
Criteria for consistency rating:
Is the strategy or primary selling point the same as other pieces?… does it look like it comes from the same company?… are style and the use of colors, type and paper consistent?… does it perform a specific function in synch with other items?… are trademarks used properly?
Criteria for quality rating:
Is the piece complimentary to the company/product it represents?… is information communicated easily and persuasively?… can we determine its objective, and do we think it meets it?… could we improve upon the strategy with the same budget?… could we improve upon the creativity?
When we’re done, we cover or remove all the your company’s material in preparation for evaluating competitive material.
In Step 2, we gather as much material produced by your company’s major competitors as possible. We do as much independent research as need and budget allow. We scan trade magazines. We visit dealers and/or retailers. We ask dealer salespeople for their opinions on the relative merits of your company’s and your competitors’ products. We pick up literature and take pictures of signs and displays.
When we have all the appropriate competitive material, we rate it the same way as the your company’s material. And we do this without referring to your company’s material or ratings.
Using the worksheet for rating individual items makes it immediately apparent which items need improvement—ones that are not adding to or actually subtracting from communications effectiveness. And, of course, knowledge of a problem is the necessary first step in addressing it.
Even more important, the audit worksheet provides a way to evaluate overall effectiveness. We add up the points in each column, then divide by the number of pieces rated in the column. The result is a numerically rated evaluation of the your company’s, and your competitors’, materials.
Although the audit ratings are based on subjective judgments, the consistent methodology used makes comparative evaluations valid. And since both quality and consistency are expressed numerically, it is easy to determine relative effectiveness.
Using the rating system indicated on the worksheet (1 to 5), we consider any overall evaluation higher than 4.0 as excellent; 3.5 to 4.0 are good evaluations; those 3.0 to 3.5 are marginal; from 2.5 to 3.0 indicates a situation that needs much improvement; and under 2.5 is a situation badly hurting business.
Activities and Plans
We now have a numerical rating of your company (and competitors’) material, and a short summation of important findings. While our outsider’s perspective is more objective than if you did your own evaluation; it does lack insider knowledge. To make the audit even more valid, it helps for us to get an inside-the-organization perspective of how our
findings relate to specific activities and plans.
This usually requires reviewing our findings in light of the organization’s business or marketing plan(s). For example, a low rating on an employee newsletter could be significant if a merger, downsizing or other morale-affecting activity is likely. Otherwise it may not be. Likewise, low ratings on product ads are far more significant if sales are falling then if they are booming.
If the further information (e.g. business plans) is deemed proprietary or confidential, we’re done. We submit a final report. If not, we continue on to Step 5.
Every organization has a business plan, although in some smaller ones it often resides in the head of the boss. In larger organizations it is usually a formal and often extensive document. Either way, in order to temper our audit findings with practicality it is important to discuss business plans with the persons who are knowledgeable about them.
All organizations also have distinct cultures, formed by their founders’ personalities, histories, industries, and current management style. Meeting with selected executives is a way to tap into this culture and to consider its ramifications on our audit recommendations.
And since there is so much subjectivity in communications choices and creativity, it is also important to consider the personal likes, dislikes and idiosyncrasies of those who will have responsibility for implementing changes. Only half a dozen or fewer interviews are usually necessary; enough to get differing viewpoints, but not so many as to run the risk
of excessive redundancy. Nearly always included on the interview list are: the director of marketing communications, vice president of marketing, chief financial officer, head of investor relations, and when possible the organization’s President or CEO. Audits for larger organizations often include members of other constituencies, such as employees and even customers.
Because an audit of marketing communications can be as simple or extensive as budgets and needs dictate, MCG recommends it to virtually any company. However conducted and however extensive, the result of a good marketing communications audit is more clearly defined objectives, focused strategies, organized and prioritized tactics, and a criteria for creative development.