The challenge of communicating with different actors: is segmentation a good investment for think tanks?

13 August 2014
SERIES Think tanks and communications 26 items

Think tanks are increasingly asking themselves how they can fine tune their communications so as to interact more effectively with the several stakeholders that are part of their field of action: from politicians and bureaucrats, to similar organisations and donors. Moreover, as they re-think about their policy influence efforts they begin to develop a more nuanced and sophisticated approach to the development of their communications strategies.

Under the Think Tank Initiative Policy Engagement ProgramASIES from Guatemala asked me as their facilitator to help them better reflect on how they could enhance how they segment their communications to reach different audiences. To this end, we jointly decided that it would be wise to understand how other think tanks are currently improving the way they do this. We both believed that systematising part of this tacit knowledge would better inform what they can do next as well as help other organisations dealing with similar challenges.

As a result, a brief study was produced through a combination of content development strategies. Besides reading some literature and interviewing nine think tanks mainly from developing countries, I also sought the collaboration of other mentors of the PEC. Susan Koshy, Umar Sheraz and Anaité Vargas joined efforts by suggesting organisations that could be interviewed and also by providing useful comments on the first draft. The results of all this collaboration can be found in this paper: The challenge of communicating with different actors: is segmentation a good investment for think tanks?

We found that many think tanks are reaching a second stage in terms of how their communications has evolved, one that goes beyond concentrating on being visible and recognized by relevant stakeholders. In this second stage, they become more focused on research informing policy, and thus they are willing to try new ways to more effectively reach diverse actors according to their diverse roles, needs and interests in the policy making process. Thus, several institutions begin to reflect on how to better tailor their channels, tools and messages. This is basically what most think tanks think about when discussing and deciding on segmentation.

In order to determine the potential contribution of a good segmentation strategy, it is important to distinguish if segmentation is designed to strengthen one or more types of communications. Indeed, it’s not the same to segment to reach different groups that can contribute to financial resources of the organization (communicating to obtain resources) than segmenting to reach diverse decision makers who play different roles in the policymaking process (communicating for policy influence). Hence, it is not only about reaching diverse types of audiences but also about acknowledging that there are different profiles within one general type of public for which there may be diverse purposes of communications.

Initially, every segmentation strategy requires to establish the main stakeholders that could affect or be affected, in a general way, by the think tank’s overall mission and goals, and more specifically, by its programs and projects ’specific objectives.

In this sense, the interviewees have explained that they use some concrete methodologies to map these actors so as to better reach them. These tools diverge in complexity, frequency and levels of implementation. A common element is that all organisations conceive stakeholder mapping as the first and basic step towards an effective segmentation.

Tools to map stakeholders

However, many of them do not limit this exercise to developing a laundry list of potential stakeholders but instead apply some criteria to categorise and prioritise these groups so as to make effective decisions in terms of communications investment. For example, should we do something with those who have high interest in a policy reform but very little power to influence those who make decisions on it?

The level upon which to apply segmentation is also a key decision. While some organisations define in a generic way the audiences with whom they want to interact (as an overall institution), there are others that do it only at a program and/or project level. In between, there are also institutions that combine an institutional approach with a program or project level approach. This means that they define the types of main actors that they want to reach in a sustainable way through institutional communications products. But their communications unit also provides specific support to the programmes and projects by developing concrete and particular communications products for specific profiles of actors (and sometimes with particular tools with a specific length of duration or frequency).

Any of these ways are viable and have their own advantages. However, when undertaking segmentation only at the project level, some warn that the risk is losing consistency through different messages and actions that each project develops for the same set of stakeholders. Also, communications with certain individuals and organisations might be discontinued when the project ends.

On another hand, applying segmentation solely at the institutional level might derive in missing opportunities to build on new contacts and relationships that emerge or may emerge at the concrete level of projects as well as not being able to address more specific needs related to smaller groups within each stakeholder group.

Probably, the way segmentation is done depends on the organisational culture regarding the decentralization or centralization of responsibilities related to communications, and the role that is given to the communications unit. This is a very important factor to consider in moving forward. In general, a good segmentation can be better achieved when working with a pool of contributors from the organisation, either by taking advantage of their skills (for example those who are excellent public speakers could facilitate an open event), their opportunities (for example an executive that has access to a governor because he or she travels frequently to the same province), and their knowledge/contacts (for example, a research assistant who is highly skilled in writing messages on Twitter).

We will share more findings on how to move from identifying and organising groups of audiences and which specific channels usually work better for different types of audience in a future post. Of course, if you can’t wait, visit the study now! You are welcome to comment, ask, add, etc. as part of this first collaborative effort!