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Message Testing: The Foundation of a Successful Communications Strategy

This article also appeared in PR News.

When our clients ask our team to help them grow their membership or reach a new audience, we usually begin with message testing. It’s a critical part of the process for a solid communications strategy. Unfortunately, it is often skipped due to tight deadlines or limited budgets. But message testing can be as simple as reviewing a core message platform with a small sample of people, or as involved as hosting multiple focus groups with your target audience. However it’s done, it should help you understand how to effectively communicate with your core audience, identify any crucial flashpoints or key issues that your campaign may stumble upon, and help you get buy-in from leadership on the current or new messages that you plan to use.

Our team at The Reis Group ensures that every campaign begins with sound messaging. Here are three reasons why you should consider doing message testing before launching your next campaign.

Communicate Effectively

Whether we like it or not, we all fall prey to our own biases. Our experiences will inevitably color the kinds of messages we write and the means by which we communicate them. But messages shouldn’t be developed by an isolated group of people who don’t have direct insight into the experiences of the target audience. Those real-life experiences are critical in determining the true perspective and needs of your campaign targets. For instance, as a healthcare communications agency in Washington, D.C., we work on many campaigns to reach physicians. We are a team of communications professionals, but none of us have been to medical school. In creating campaign materials that will resonate with physicians, it’s important that we get input on the messaging that will speak most authentically to them and address the key issues that they really care about. And when writing for the general public, there are specific best practices around testing materials that can help ensure your resources are accessible and understandable for a more general audience.

Identify Issues Ahead of Time

Message testing will also help you determine which points will resonate most strongly and which will fall flat. It opens the door for conversations to identify issues you may not have even considered. Maybe the message platform you thought was solid, is missing a critical issue that your target audience is focused on at the moment?

Perhaps there are certain words or phrases that have a variety of meanings for various groups you want to reach. As shown in this recent poll conducted by the nonpartisan de Beaumont Foundation around the COVID-19 pandemic – words matter. Whatever language you use, it needs to quickly engage the broadest audience possible. And you won’t know what those words, phrases, and meanings are to various people until you speak to them. We are often surprised at the nuanced language or unintentional omissions that are very important to people and can make or break an effective message platform. More importantly, this part of the process can help you identify flaws with your current messages that may require you to take a step back, analyze the areas where you are hearing consistent feedback, and decide where to make changes before continuing with your testing. Taking this iterative approach ensures you are improving on your key points and that you are getting to a place of consensus before your testing phase ends.

Get Buy-in from Leadership

Testing gives you the support you need to defend changes to an organization’s long-standing messages. It can also help in convincing leadership to adopt the new messages in any public-facing speaking opportunities. But leaders must be brought along in the process – from start to finish. As many public relations practitioners know, it can be challenging to get leaders to avoid reverting back to the old points when you’ve given them new ones. But when they are brought along in the process, understand the methodology of how the messages are tested, see the feedback from their target audience, and understand the importance of the changes to the messaging, they will be more likely to accept it and even enthusiastically put it into practice.

Message testing is a valuable and essential part of any communications strategy. Ensuring this step is a part of the planning process can make the difference between an effective communications campaign and one that doesn’t deliver.

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