A push towards stronger audience focus increasingly feels like an unstoppable force in the sector.
In our recent soundings with charity comms team leaders, several cited a stronger audience focus as the driver for a team re-structure. Others shared insights around how to achieve this through team culture and different ways of working.
There is no doubt that these changes sit on a wide spectrum, with charities at many different stages of development, but the direction of travel is clear.
Here’s how some charities are approaching this goal:
Achieving audience focus through structural change
More integrated organisational structures
In line with other sectors, there is a general trend towards centralising comms functions under a single, senior reporting line, with an estimated 70% of charities now having comms representation on the executive team.
Executive search firm Taylor Bennett has also seen more charities bringing comms and advocacy functions together to align stakeholder engagement under one strategic lead. In our own soundings, we are seeing more fundraising and marketing teams coming together.
The Children’s Society has been proactively exploring how to integrate all of its external facing functions, including bringing together teams from three divisions into one directorate. This is leading towards greater consistency across interactions with the charity’s audiences and in overall brand experience.
“Brand is perception, and perception is built through every touch-point in people’s experience.” (Joe Jenkins, Children’s Society)
Teams built around the audience journey
Two charities have gone further, structuring teams around different stages of the audience engagement funnel that is described in Who Cares?.
Prostate Cancer UK explored communications team models in the commercial sector, before introducing a new structure in 2020. This new model clustered comms, digital, marketing, customer data/insight and CX staff into three multi-disciplinary teams under three objectives: Attention, Inspire and Reinforce. The changes cluster the different expertise required at each stage of the audience journey around a shared goal. They have also led to fewer functional silos and a flatter structure, more conducive to agile working.
Save the Children UK has also organised its fundraising and marketing functions into four new teams focusing on different aspects of the customer journey: Awareness, Acquisition, Loyalty and Peak Moments.
“When we used to be organised in traditional functions, there were issues. Despite being good at planning and integrated activity, and a desire to be audience-centric, ultimately we were competing with one another.” (Gemma Sherrington, SCF)
Creating an audience-focused culture: team approaches, skills and mindset
For those working in less integrated structures, a lot can still be achieved. Our own work has shown us how audience focus depends above all on approaches to planning and evaluation, and the skills and mindset of the people in your team.
Integrated planning approaches
Matrix working (assembling a diverse group of specialists from different departments around a specific project or goal) can be an effective route towards stronger integration regardless of structure. Matrix teams are a powerful way of marshalling activity around high impact campaigns or cross-organisational initiatives. They can lead to more audience-focused outputs than those created through a more disjointed planning approach.
In our work with the Health Foundation comms team, we have seen how they strengthened their strategic role and brought together cross-functional teams under major priorities to great effect.
“Our matrix teams work closely with policy and practice experts on major priorities, helping to advise and shape their work programmes and develop approaches from a much earlier stage. It’s more motivating for the team to be able to influence at this level. It means we’re closer to the content and work as strategic partners rather than operating purely as a service function.” (Sam Fletcher, The Health Foundation)
Boosting skills in audience focus
Many charities are investing in staff with the skills to respond to the needs of their audiences, raising understanding and buy-in across their organisations about what can be achieved when you deploy research insights and data effectively. For example, Prostate Cancer UK has a specialist team with skills that include customer journey management, audience insights and CRM technology.
“We’ve identified the top five challenges that our audience insight and data can help us solve, and we’re coaching colleagues in how to use customer data to inform their work.” (Ali Day, Prostate Cancer UK)
An audience-focused mindset
There are also more informal means of building closer connections with your audiences. The Children’s Society has created a manifesto which asks all its staff to communicate in a way that is relevant, authentic and honest.
Other comms team leaders have emphasised how important it is that staff develop a personal understanding of their audiences, finding ways to listen to grassroots experiences or hear from volunteers in the field. The more they can connect to the cause, they argue, the more authentic and relevant the communications will be.
“We work with young people from a range of backgrounds and identities, in particular young people of colour, trans young people and young people with disabilities; it’s really important that what we do reflects them and not just in a tokenistic way – we need their perspective to help us do what we do.” (Matt Horwood, akt)
It appears that the pandemic has brought things to a head for some, with charities revisiting their core purpose, and comms leaders recalibrating activities around the changing circumstances of their audiences.
“Their world has changed so much, and there’s been such a shift in digital adoption. We have to go ‘back to basics’ and ask ourselves: ‘what do they need from our communications right now?’.” (Ali Day, Prostate Cancer UK)
For those charities that are leading the way in audience focus, the crisis has highlighted how deep these audience connections can go, and just how valuable they are.
Next in the series, we look at the new roles and skills emerging in comms teams, and what some teams are achieving through agile working.