Ask The Expert: Trista Vincent

How to enhance your company communications?

Trista Vincent is a writer, creative director and communications strategist. She has 18 years of experience in journalism and advertising and a body of award-winning work that spans five continents, numerous brands and most media. Her latest adventures have led her away from global ad agency networks, toward developing strategies for blue chips seeking to become more socially responsible, and B-Corps seeking to become big. Trista holds a BA Journalism from Toronto’s Ryerson University, an MSc Advertising from Dublin’s DIT.

To know more about Trista visit her website.

What are the most indispensable communication channels for a company?

It differs depending on the industry and the business. But whether your company is business-to-business, or business-to-consumer, your owned channels (emails, social and messaging platforms, website) offer the most cost-efficient means to build your brand.

For the most part, how you use the channel and what you put into it is secondary to the channel itself. I giggle when I hear marketers repeating Marshall McLuhan’s maxim “the medium is the message” like they’ve just stumbled upon the Philosopher’s Stone. McLuhan was a pioneer and possibly a prophet, but he was also from a time and place where most families had a newspaper subscription and gathered around a TV with three channels of a Saturday night.

Still, then as now the most powerful communications channel is word of mouth. The creative advertising industry was built on this truth, and it’s what drives social media.

How should a business begin when establishing a communications plan for its business?

Start by getting laser focused on your brand’s purpose. What is it here for? Why does it exist? These are actually more difficult questions to answer than you’d think. In part because they require consensus. And in part because small business stakeholders often confuse their product with their brand. One is functional, the other aspirational. One is about need, the other, desire.

Of late, Purpose has fallen out of favour with advertising types and brand managers. Mostly because Purpose isn’t seen to be cool, it gets confused with social purpose, and it’s all too easy to fall in to the trap of creating po-faced, disingenuous and culturally tone deaf marketing. The thing to remember is that Purpose isn’t about cultural appropriation, or borrowed credibility. It’s about being brave enough to be honest about the role your brand plays in the lives of your consumers, and how it could serve the wider culture. Of course, nobody would have approved an ad that says ‘9 out of 10 dentists recommend Pepsi’. But if those involved in the now infamous Kendal Jenner/Pepsi debacle had embraced the brand as an occasional-use adjunct to good times they might have avoided paying millions of dollars for a film that ended up being a terrible riff on nostalgia for a bygone era where a little petroleum jelly, some lens flare and a multicultural cast of thousands uniting the world with soda pop equaled game-changing marketing.

Media saturation has made the average consumer a lot more savvy and cynical. We’re literate in a way that makes it harder for brands to produce effective content. Today that requires a clear understanding of the brand’s purpose, sensitivity to cultural context, and a degree of humility. If you want to play the role of Propaghandi and use social purpose as a marketing strategy, make sure it’s evidenced by your business model. 

What’s your opinion about digital marking / social media as channels for agribusiness?

Digital platforms are essential for any business. Vis à vis agribusiness specifically, the instantaneousness of digital platforms provide an invaluable means of building networks and sharing local knowledge around ways to increase food security globally. And of course they provide a cost effective way to communicate directly with customers.

That said, until we reach saturation point with global access to broadband, agribusinesses in the developing world should use digital as part of a broader media mix that includes local trade press and radio. Internet usage and smartphone penetration is rising in developing economies, but there’s still a digital divide, most notably between urban and rural populations. Interestingly, those in the developing world with Internet and smartphone access are heavier users of social media than Western consumers. 

What would you recommend to a business seeking to define a target audience and establishing the message to be delivered?

Again, I’ll go back to Purpose. With an understanding of why your brand exists, finding an audience to serve and defining your message is a lot easier. Take InspiraFarms for example: your products satisfy a need to reduce post-harvest losses; your brand satisfies a desire to change the global food industry. It’s no small difference that exponentially increases your audience size and potential customer base. A message that evolves from purpose is authentic to the brand and far more powerful than one that isn’t.

The other insight I’d offer is that most of us don’t know we want something until it’s presented as an option. Data and logic will point to need, but a degree of magic is required to sell us on what we want.

What are the most common mistakes entrepreneurs have when establishing a communication strategy?

Trying to be all things to all people. Shoehorning multiple messages into a single communication. Confusing what you think people want, with what you can honestly, expertly deliver.

How should the success of a communication strategy be measured?

This is an ongoing debate, although it shouldn’t be. The rise of digital media has engendered a cult-like belief in the merit of instant results. Likes and Follows are great—they punch that dopamine button deep in our brains, but they offer short-term sugar highs and little evidence of positive impact on brand awareness or spontaneous recall. Possibly because the smart phone has fried our attention spans. That said, you need to be in social, because that’s where your audience is.

Regardless of the media used, the role of a communications strategy should be to increase brand value, not necessarily sales. Sales are a long-term consequence of brand value, but as any retailer or sucker for a buy-one-get-one-free can tell you, sales and price are inextricably linked. By increasing perceived value, we can reduce price sensitivity and over time, increase sales.

Value is a measure of quality, not quantity. So rather than counting Likes and Shares and followers, look at metrics such as dwell time on your website and actions taken, like volunteering an email address. Also, it’s estimated that over 80% of all social sharing is ‘dark’—meaning it’s shared privately and therefore not measurable.

What final recommendations would you offer to agribusinesses about implementing effective communication strategies?

  1. Invest the time to develop a deep understanding of your desired audience and existing customers: their values; their needs; challenges; how they define success; and how you can support that.
  2. Establish an annual budget and allocate it according to relevant periods for your brand.
  3. Come up with a list of objectives. Set KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and then interrogate them. Ask yourself why they matter and track them over time to desired outcomes: unprompted awareness; referrals; email subscribers; expressions of intent to buy; sales. Some of these are harder to measure than Likes and Shares, but remember—correlation doesn’t mean causation.
  4. Understand the difference between tactical and strategic communications; establish short-term and long-term objectives; recognize that quick fixes or poorly thought out ideas can have a lasting impact on your brand, because digital lives forever.
  5. To that end, seek the help of professionals you can trust. Digital marketing is a bit like the Wild West. There are a lot of shady operators out there capitalising on clients’ lack of time and understanding of technology. So educate yourself. You don’t need to become an expert, just gather enough knowledge to be able to ask the right questions.
  6. Finally, cultivate a network of like-minded colleagues and businesses with a similar mission. Connecting with others who share your brand’s values and vision will increase the reach of your communications, the likelihood they will resonate, and ultimately increase the the value of your brand.