Even as the post-COVID world marches on, the economic reality for businesses has been one of uncertainty and stagnation. The resulting volatility has led more companies to start tightening budgets, a shift that hasn’t spared marketing and communications. In fact, data from Gartner’s CMO Spend and Strategy Survey 2023 found that the average marketing budget has dropped from 9.5 percent of company revenue in 2022 to 9.1 percent in 2023.
For communications and marketing agencies, it’s critical to have a deep understanding of this economic reality when looking at how to best support clients, pitch prospects and build brands. As companies must spend less, we’re increasingly expected to do more: be the owners of the narrative, bring consistency to the story across myriad audiences and execute with impact across paid, earned, and owned channels.
While countless headlines in recent years claimed PR as “dead,” those of us in the industry saw what was actually taking shape: a unique inflection point that has paved the way for a modern approach to communications. While agencies are still often respected by their peers and hired by their clients for earned media expertise and execution, the reality is that the impact of programs and the success of partnerships is felt most strongly by the business when complemented with paid and owned strategies.
The impact of strong, integrated communications builds on itself, too. When brands partner with specialized agencies to execute on one element of a multi-pronged communications program, it’s tremendously hard to cohesively—and, critical in today’s climate, efficiently—pull off. In an age where attention is fleeting, audiences are distributed and time is money, technology companies need one trusted partner to strategize and execute all communications in a truly integrated and effective fashion.
For this reason, agencies that may have built their reputation on a strong backbone of media relations—keep in mind that newsrooms continue to shrink—must expand their portfolio of services to reach these marketing goals and realities. Core to that is designing truly integrated communications programs and having the proper suite of supporting services to expand communications across earned, owned, and paid channels.
Integrated communications requires agency-wide commitment
An integrated communications strategy can drive efficiency and make the most of a company’s marketing budget. But that’s perhaps a short-term benefit that overlooks a greater value: integrated communications is a strategic approach that brings together paid, earned and owned channels to create clarity, consistency and greater impact across channels, instead of a string of disconnected messages and one-off touchpoints. It’s an approach that my own firm, V2 Communications, has adopted to build innovative B2B, healthcare and climate technology clients into market leaders.
As part of our approach, we use each component of the PEO mix to support our clients through every stage of their brand-building journey—from company launch to exit and from product awareness and corporate brand-building to shaping market perceptions. Many brands still know and call us for our earned media expertise and execution, but it’s the clients who complement those programs with paid and owned media strategies that experience greater impact and partner with us for years longer.
For an integrated communications strategy to work, it requires an agency-wide commitment, down to every member of an account team. It requires a cultural shift, one that encourages our professionals to tap into their knowledge of what makes for a compelling experience with a piece of content, not just a good story, and one that rewards well-orchestrated activations across multiple niche channels with the same enthusiasm of front-page media placement. Agencies should embrace the opportunity to help brands realize the benefits and value of an integrated strategy, even when it takes greater education of and justification to dubious internal stakeholders.
When it comes to getting all these pieces of the PEO model unified in support of their narrative goals, tactics are important but it’s equally necessary to break down why, how and when they add value. Ultimately, a strong integrated communications plan that is executed effectively will create awareness of a client’s services but also establish credibility and trust as a recognizable brand.
Putting integrated communications into action
The power of integrated communications is hard to ignore. Take the 30-year-old global enterprise software company whose technology is pivotal to millions of business transactions every day, but whose brand was largely unknown outside of its very technical and specific buyer. When business leadership recognized that the company’s lack of a strong brand reputation was potentially limiting its growth trajectory, it turned to the communications team to help correct the disparity.
To help tell a bigger story that connected to its value proposition and a broader technology audience, the campaign was built around a central theme many could relate to in today’s era: data. The company fielded a survey of IT leaders that focused on the challenges of managing data. The key findings were packaged into a compelling report and timed to be announced with the one-two punch of the release of a new product that addressed said issues. Together, these items became a strong pitch to trade and tech media for earned coverage and were also the source of more than a dozen content assets that spoke to general tech audiences at the top of the funnel and to more discreet buyer audiences needing to address their data issues. The outputs ranged from a series of blogs, infographics and thought pieces, to social media cards, to the subject of episodes on the company’s owned podcast that extended the storytelling. These assets were then amplified on owned and paid channels—brand, executive and employee social channels, LinkedIn advertising, sponsored content and more. What historically likely would been a couple of press releases that resulted in a handful of pieces of coverage instead was elevated to not only a months-long campaign but, more importantly, a multi-pronged engagement strategy that spanned multiple channels and gave the company the brand lift it needed to reach new and more diverse audiences.
This type of approach will be the new normal for brands that want—and need—to stand out and make the most of their storytelling opportunities, and with it, the tide must shift for communications agencies that have built and marketed themselves as media relations powerhouses. The economic uncertainty that drove marketing budgets to shrink and newsrooms to dwindle has made it abundantly clear that change is needed. Integrated communications must be rooted in clients’ business objectives and marketing goals and carefully crafted and executed to elevate visibility and credibility among the stakeholders that matter most, whether those be prospective customers, employees, partners, investors or acquirers.