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Creating a Message Map that is True to your Brand

By Andrew Tiedemann

brand-messageI am frequently surprised by the number of communications programs that lack both a message map and an annual communications plan. As some wise person once said, if you do not know where you are going, then how will you know if you’ve gotten there.

In this post, I am going to focus on creating a message map.

Each of our institutions truly has a distinctive story to tell and identifying what our message pillars are can be done relatively quickly.

Few organizations have just one key storyline, so instead think of the three to five primary messages that define the experience students, alumni, faculty, and staff have at your school and what differentiates you from your competition.

To identify your message pillars, gather key members of your enrollment, alumni relations, development, and communications and marketing staff together for a 90-minute brainstorming session. Have no more than 12 people in this meeting. If you need to hold the meeting more than once, do that.

Ask the following questions:

  • If we had to use just one word to describe the student experience at our school, what would it be?
  • If we had to use just one word to describe our student body, what it would be?
  • If we had to use just one word to describe our alumni, what it would be?
  • If our school were a person, how would you describe their personality?
  • Can we summarize our strategic plan into three to five easily understood objectives?

Repeat the process with following groups, but again include no more than 12 people in each:

  • Current students.
  • Student government members, RA’s, and admission ambassadors if you have them.
  • Athletes and coaches if athletics are a key component to your school’s culture.
  • Recent graduates who are no more than 10 years out (Note: This group will give you messaging that truly reflects today’s experience, including negative impressions that can be very helpful in their own way.)
  • Your head of school or president along with key members of the administration. (Note: This group is more likely to provide messages that reflect what they hope the school to be, so more aspirational than reflective of today’s reality.)
  • Members of your governing boards.

Armed with this information, in collaboration with your colleagues identified in the first group of participants from enrollment, alumni relations, development, and communications and marketing, you should have what you need to create a message map.

Message maps are living documents that can and should be updated over time. Based on the qualitative data from your focus groups, your team can create a chart that includes the following:

Each of your message pillars. Examples might be that your school is best characterized as intellectually rigorous; creative; inclusive; compassionate; supportive; and so on.

A 60 second narrative that is connected to each message pillar. When someone asks you where you work or to describe your school, these are the extended versions of your pillars.

Proof points. These are three to five facts that support the narrative and the message pillar.

Using this map, you are your colleagues across advancement are now armed to seek out and tell the stories that support your message pillars.

For example, let’s say one of your pillars is “innovative.” You may rarely use the word on its own. Instead, tell the story in social media, via a video, and through your news channels about the faculty member who has created a new app that enables students to apply for internships in industry. Let your facts, proof points, and stories deliver your messages.

Moving through the year, whether in social media, owned media, or earned media, everyone can be sure to tell the stories that raise awareness among your key audiences about who your community truly is.

— Andy Tiedemann

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