How to build a messaging matrix?

Have you ever wanted to explain your brand strategy in a way that it would really resonate with different customer groups? Or provide much-needed information and encourage cooperative behaviours of your employees? Or communicate well-constructed, informative, and reassuring messages to your investors? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then your company could benefit greatly from having a messaging matrix.

A messaging matrix is a tool that serves as the backbone of your corporate communications. Finding the strategically-fit messages for your key audiences requires distilling lots of data and connecting many dots, which can be likened to solving a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle. That said, there is a method to the madness. It is my hope that this scientifically-sound, step-by-step, how-to guide would help you build a rock-solid messaging matrix for your brand.

Before you start, mind your surroundings.

First, let’s address the elephant in the room: Most of us are not very effective communicators. Often, a large chunk of what we say doesn’t get heard. Most of that waste can be attributed to a systemic problem, which insidiously undermines the effectiveness of our communications efforts. And to solve it, first, we need to acknowledge it.

We live in a busy world. Modern life is so hectic that psychologists found travellers tackling peak-hour congestion suffer greater anxiety than fighter pilots or riot police facing angry mobs of protesters. You may be wondering what this has to do with your messaging matrix. Well, because, according to the Mental Noise Theory, when people are upset, anxious or experiencing stress, their brain’s ability to capture and process information is reduced by 80 percent! Eight. Zero. Simply put -as far as communications go- we don’t live under normal circumstances. On the contrary, we live in a perpetual state of mental and emotional emergency, which has grave implications for your corporate communications.

According to the Mental Noise Theory, when people are upset, anxious or experiencing stress, their brain’s ability to capture and process information is reduced by 80 percent.

No longer, you cannot create any message and realistically expect people to hear it, let alone being persuaded by it. Your words need to be so concise, so precise, and so consistent that they would cut through the mental noise, which is the purview of the discipline named Risk and Crisis Communication. That’s why you need to incorporate the principles and wisdom of Risk and Crisis Communication into your messaging. Now without further ado, let’s start building a matrix -piece by piece- in six steps.

Step #1: Identify your stakeholders

Your first task must be to identify your stakeholders. This is a relatively simple -but mechanic- process. The key here is to widen your horizon, not focusing solely on your buyers. At the end of the day, your company’s reputation extends far beyond your customer base.

You can start by creating categories of interested or affected parties. At this stage, a two-by-two matrix would help. Put Value on the vertical axis and Importance on the horizontal. As you would agree, some of your stakeholders receive value, while others deliver it. Likewise, some of your stakeholders are indispensable for your existence, whereas others merely contribute to your success.

Next, assign names to these categories: Commercial (upper right), organizational (lower right), community & influencers (upper left), and collaborators (lower left.)

screen-shot-2016-12-21-at-9-05-27-am

Now, use the laundry list below to identify all of your constituencies within each quadrant. At this stage, though, don’t worry about prioritization. Just make sure that you have included all of your stakeholders. Here, your goal should be to be thorough. Identifying the key ones is the topic of the next step. Select all that apply.

Commercial (Primary stakeholders who receive value)

  • Current customers (If possible write down different segments)
  • Potential customers

Organizational (Primary stakeholders who provide value)

  • Employees
  • Potential recruits
  • Senior management
  • Board of Directors

Community & influencers (Secondary stakeholders who receive value)

  • Local community
  • NGOs
  • Advocacy groups
  • Shareholders
  • Opinion leaders
  • Industry analysts
  • Potential investors
  • Analysts
  • Creditors
  • Donors
  • Media
  • Professional associations
  • Regulators
  • Academia

Collaborators (Secondary stakeholders who provide value)

  • Volunteers
  • Suppliers
  • Distributors – vendors
  • Partners
  • Strategic alliances
  • Unions

Finally, identify your key stakeholders. To do that, you can use another two-by-two matrix called the Power/Interest Grid. This exercise will allow you to determine your most critical constituencies. Place your stakeholders under one of the following four quadrants. If possible, limit yourself to ten interested or affected parties:

  • High-power, high-interest stakeholders: These are your key stakeholders, whom you should manage and engage. They are the bulls-eye of your communication efforts.
  • Low-power, high-interest stakeholders: Keep these constituencies well informed. Usually, these parties -in addition to those that are in the first group- make it to the messaging matrix.
  • High-power, low-interest stakeholders: This group needs to be satisfied, yet not over-communicated. They are not particularly interested in your company. They may or may not be included in your messaging matrix.
  • Low-power, low-interest stakeholders: These are the stakeholders that need to be monitored. You can keep communicate and efforts to a minimum.

screen-shot-2016-12-21-at-9-12-21-am

Now that you have the list of your key stakeholders, you can move to the second step, in which you will define yours stakeholders.

Step #2 – Define your stakeholders

Your next task is to get a better understanding of some of your key stakeholders. Here, your focus should be on your customers and -if need be- to your employees. For the sake of this exercise, we are not interested in institutional stakeholders such as regulators, media, academia, etc.

The primary goal is to humanize your buyers. In other words, you are going to turn them into personas. “Is this necessary?” you might ask. The answer is no. But it is highly recommended. Here is why.

The primary goal is to humanize your buyers. In other words, you are going to turn them into personas.

By understanding your customers’ shared pain points, you can craft more relevant messages. By discovering their goals, wishes, and dreams, you can find the appropriate tone of voice. And by analyzing their demographic and biographic information, you can allocate your resources more efficiently.

Persona creation is a fun exercise. There are many ways of doing it, but arguably the most straightforward version is that of HubSpot’s persona development template, which you can download from here.

Look at different segments of your customer base and try to identify common behaviour patterns. Most organizations have multiple buyer personas. You could have as few as one, or as many as five. Don’t limit yourself to a particular number. In the meantime choose quality over quantity. The result should look something like this:

screen-shot-2016-12-21-at-9-27-02-am

To reiterate, the road to highly effective messaging goes through creating semi-fictional stakeholder personas. While persona creation is more typical for humanizing buyer segments, you can also use it to categorize your employees. As mentioned above, this exercise is not intended for institutional stakeholders such as regulators or media. Now, you are ready for the next step, which is identifying the questions of your stakeholders.

Step #3: Identifying stakeholder questions

Dr. Vincent T. Covello, the world-renown expert in crisis, conflict, change, and risk communications, states that it is possible to predict 95 percent of the questions that stakeholders will actually ask. He adds that the list of stakeholder issues and concerns are typically generated through research, media analysis, reviews of historical stakeholder feedback, interviews with experts, and focus groups.

It is possible to predict 95 percent of the questions that stakeholders will actually ask.

Fortunately, by creating buyer personas we have already made considerable progress on that front. You should have a pretty good idea about the needs and wants of your customers. So let’s focus on the parties for whom we did not create a persona.

As you may recall, we left out institutional stakeholders such as media, academia, and investors. Luckily -with the help of a bit of Google search- we can create a generic list of what stakeholders want. For instance, here are the five biggest concerns for shareholders. You can use the following terms to search general stakeholder questions:

  • “Most frequently asked questions by XYZ.”
  • “What do XYZ really want to hear.”
  • “What are the biggest concerns of XYZ.”
  • “Questions that may be asked by XYZ.”
  • “What do XYZ want to hear.”

Next, run the list of concerns and questions by your colleagues, who are in close contact with those stakeholders. Ask them three questions:

  1. “Are we missing anything important?”
  2. “Which questions do not apply and should be removed from this list?”
  3. “How would you prioritize stakeholders’ concerns?”

Now that you know the most pressing concerns of each stakeholder group -buyers and institutions alike- you can proceed to the next stage.

Step 4: Developing key messages

Before you start crafting your key messages, let’s remember that when stressed out, people lose 80% of their cognitive abilities. That’s why for your messages to be persuasive, you need to take the theories and principles of Risk and Crisis Communication to heart. According to the subject-matter expert Dr. Covello, there are four principles to which our messages should adhere.

  1. Rule of 3: In high-stress situations, people can process only three messages at a time. That’s why you should have no more than three messages per stakeholder.
  2. Rule of 27/9/3: For each stakeholder category, you should have three messages (or less) that have 27 words (or less) in total. As a rule of thumb, you should be able to read all three messages in less than nine seconds.
  3. Rule of AGL-4: During high-stress situations, messages should be at the average grade level of the intended audience minus four (AGL-4.) That is to say, if your average employee is a high school graduate, then you should construct messages to be understood by a primary school graduate.
  4. Rule of Negative Dominance: Research shows that during emotionally charged situations, people focus more on the negative messages than the positive ones. That’s why avoid negative words when possible, or balance every negative message with three positive ones. Also do not use words such as no, not, never, nothing, none.

To sum, you should have three messages per stakeholder, each having nine words or less. Your messages should be so clear that people with four years of less education from average stakeholders of yours should be able to understand it. And finally, you should avoid negativity at all cost.

You should have three messages per stakeholder, each having nine words or less. Your messages should be so clear that people with four years of less education from average stakeholders of yours should be able to understand it. And finally, you should avoid negativity at all cost.

With the above principles in mind, now you can focus on your content. Story-based communications strategist Cindy Atlee says that there are four things a message can do:

1. Descriptor messages can INFORM
2. Differentiator messages can PROMOTE
3. Connector messages can INSPIRE
4. Motivator messages can ACTIVATE

Following Atlee’s wisdom, you can select the appropriate type of messages for each interested party. For instance, your shareholders might be more interested in descriptor messages containing facts and data. (e.g. Our growth rate beats the industry average.) Your customers might be more open to hearing benefit driven differentiator messages. (Use our service and reduce employee churn.) Your staff might respond better to inspiring messages. (e.g. We believe every employee has a unique gift.) Finally, your volunteers and community might want to hear motivator messages that engage. (e.g. Together we are curing canine cancer.) Obviously, every organization has a different dynamic. Therefore, the type of messages might be completely different in your case. Regardless, the four categories would remain unchanged.

Now that you are done with your key messages, provide three proofs for every core message, again, by following the 27/9/3 rule. The supporting information should be strictly fact-based. No matter how relevant and noticeable your messages are, in the absence of factual information, your credibility could be tarnished. We will come back to this issue later on.

No matter how relevant and noticeable your messages are, in the absence of factual information, your credibility could be tarnished.

Once you have written down three short, positive, and clear messages per stakeholder -and backed them up with proof points- validate your work by people, who could act as a surrogate for key stakeholders. Upon calibrating your messages, move to the fifth step.

Step 5: Building the messaging matrix

While there is no consensus on how to create a messaging matrix, we recommended using the template below.

Start by writing the name of the key stakeholder on the top. Next, go back to your notes and find out their key concern. What keeps them stay awake at night? What is their biggest pain point? Write that down in a concise and precise way. After all, you are not preparing the messaging matrix only for yourself. Multiple spokespersons could use this document, and they might not have in-depth knowledge about your key stakeholders like you do. If you want everyone to speak with one voice -which is one of the primary objectives of this exercise- then, make everything as clear as day.

You are not preparing the messaging matrix only for yourself. Multiple spokespersons could use this document, and they might not have in-depth knowledge about your key stakeholders like you do.

Next, write down your three key messages, which you have developed at the fourth step. Double check if they all follow the four principles of crisis communications that we discussed above.

Finally, next to each message, write down your proof points, which should adhere to the rule of 27/9/3. To make things even easier on the reader, you can put headlines or a keyword for your proof points.

Repeat these steps for each constituency to complete your messaging matrix. The result should look something like this. Now, we are ready for the final step.

screen-shot-2016-12-21-at-9-21-47-am

Step 6: Delivering your messages

As you have already seen, building a messaging matrix requires quite a bit of effort. Time, analytical thinking, and collaboration are needed to find the strategically-fit messages. That said, creating the document is only half of the battle. The rubber meets the road when you start communicating those messages. The last step is all about giving proper direction to the users so that they can effectively convey your messages.

Aristotle believed that achieving persuasion requires the existence of three elements: a credible speaker (ethos), an emotion-stirring speech (pathos) and logically-sound arguments (logos.) Let’s back up his wisdom with scientific principles.

1- The source of trust: Normally, the more competent and expert a person, the more we trust him/her. Think about a doctor, a police officer, or anyone in professional uniform. During stressful situations, though, the perception of empathy and care overtakes expertise. As seen in the chart below, expertise becomes a minor determinant.  Risk communications experts state that during crises, people judge the messenger before the message. Listeners form their first impression in as little as nine seconds.

What this means is that the effectiveness of your message is determined long before your spokesperson opens his/her mouth. Likewise, the persuasiveness of your website is determined long before a visitor starts reading your copy. If you want your messages to hit home, then you must create an aura of empathy, honesty, and commitment, while paying attention to details.

2- Telling stories and using visual aids: Dr. Jennifer Aaker, the renown marketing expert, says that stories are remembered up to 22 times more than facts alone. She adds, “When people think of advocating for their ideas, they think of convincing arguments based on data, facts, and figures. However, studies show that if you share a story, people are often more likely to be persuaded. And when data and story are used together, audiences are moved both intellectually and emotionally. When telling a story, you take the listener on a journey, moving them from one perspective to another. In this way, a story is a powerful tool for engendering confidence in you and your vision” Therefore -when possible- wrapping factual information in concise and precise stories could drastically increase the impact of your messages.

Likewise, neuro research shows that our brain processes images 60 times faster in comparison to words. That’s why using visual aids, showing -not just telling- could significantly increase the emotional impact of your content.

3- Citing experts: As a rule of thumb, whenever you make a claim, cite the work of subject matter experts. For instance, which of the following two arguments do you find more persuasive?

  1. Man spends more on Cyber Monday and Black Friday than women.
  2. According to American Marketing Association, man spends %69 more on Cyber Monday and Black Friday than women.

As seen above, supporting your messages by citing third parties will make your messages more logically sound, thus increasing their persuasiveness. Adding the following three scientific principles at the beginning of your messaging matrix should be useful. Even better, you can use infographics to make sure that your messages stick with the spokespersons.

Final thoughts

So, there you have it: a step-by-step guide to building a messaging matrix. Before wrapping up, let’s remember the key points:

  1. We live in a world, in which we are always stressed out. As a result, methods of communication that would work under normal circumstances no longer apply. That’s why your messaging matrix should respect the principles of risk communications.
  2. The first step is to identify, categorize your stakeholders and determine the key ones.
  3. The second step is to define each stakeholder, and build personas for those non-institutional ones.
  4. The third step is to figure out stakeholder questions as 95% of them are predictable.
  5. The fourth step is to develop key messages by adhering to risk communication principles.
  6. The fifth step is to put everything together by using a messaging matrix template.
  7. And the final step is to inform or train the spokespersons about how to deliver messages.

Adding the following three scientific principles at the beginning -or end- of your messaging matrix should be useful.

It is my hope that this step-by-step guide to building a messaging matrix will help you increase the persuasiveness of your communications. I am curious to hearing your thoughts. Have you used this methodology? Did it work? Please leave your feedback below. And if you like this guide, feel free to share it with your colleagues.

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