3 Steps to a Data-Driven Internal Communications Plan in 2021

Nobody plans to fail. They just fail to plan. As you think about your internal communications plans for 2021, you must first recognize the challenges and changes that occurred in 2020.

Often, a communication audit is recommended before starting any major yearly planning. “Audit” is a scary word because an IRS audit comes to mind: “Someone might discover we did something wrong, and we owe something.”

The purpose of a communications audit is simply to thoroughly examine what was done in the past and to make improvements for the future. The key is getting a handle on both feedback and objective data.

Let’s say you’ve heard some anecdotal complaints such as, “We get too much email,” “No one reads that newsletter” or “We can’t keep track of all the Teams chats.” How do you address these complaints?

Is abandoning email, canceling the newsletter or eliminating chat the right option? The only way you can know for sure is to gather objective data. You don’t want to be the one who makes a wholesale change, like canceling email for intranet posts, only to discover you lost 80 percent of your audience.

Proper planning requires a combination of quantitative and qualitative measures of communications effectiveness, including audience preferences and channel utilization, along with measures like reach, readership and engagement. With these in hand, you can construct a well-informed plan of action.

Here are the three steps you need to take to run a successful communications audit.

Step 1: Get organized.

While your team may already be organized along such lines, it’s better for auditing to use an independent auditor, someone from the outside looking in. While this is not always possible due to resources, you might try teaming internal communicators up to examine each other’s area of control. You might also recruit some IT and HR people to assist, particularly when it comes time to gather data.

There are generally three dimensions to consider and organize before starting your examination.

  1. The message sender
  2. The audience
  3. The communication channels

There is no one-size-fits-all approach. You might think of senders and audiences as communities, and each community should have its own preferred channel for certain types of content.

Let’s talk a little bit more about these categories.

Communication Sender Areas

You don’t realize how many communication areas there are until you have to evaluate or audit them. Pick one or several communication areas to evaluate, and for each communication sender area, you can put together a list of communications and frequency.

Here are some of the most common communication sender areas.

  • Organizational strategy, financial performance, executive communications
  • Brand and business, company news, customer stories
  • HR policies, procedures, training
  • Benefits and compensation
  • Manager, tasks, policy, procedure


For each audience, you can put together a brief survey of which communications senders they find valuable and interesting and, for each, which channel they prefer.

  • Group size
  • Categorization (location, department, role)

Communication Channels

For each channel (by audience), you can pull utilization and frequency data. Here are the most common communication channels:

  • Email
  • Microsoft Teams
  • Intranet
  • Meetings
  • Print publications
  • Physical signs

Step 2: Audit your data and benchmarks.

Nobody ever says, “I don’t know how much money we made last year.” Revenue and expenses are trackable, so you can easily gauge your success based on your objectives. Plus, you can compare your performance to other companies using published benchmarks to gauge relative success. The same can be done for measuring internal communications’ effectiveness.

The good news: There are a lot of things you can measure.

The bad news: There are a lot of things you can measure.

For each communication sender area, you can put together a list of communications and frequency.

For each audience, you can put together a brief survey of which communications senders they find valuable and interesting and, for each, which frequency (how often) and channel they prefer.

For each channel (by audience), you can pull utilization and frequency data.

There are many metrics you could measure depending on your goals. It’s important that you pick the metrics that matter most to your organization. You don’t want to get stuck measuring everything under the sun. That results in confusion and an inability to make improvements or adjustments.

If you have run some specific programs over the last few years, say a change management or executive communication program, or even taking your crisis communications program for 2020 into consideration, you may gather more specific measurement data about those to include in your audit, as they will help inform similar programs in the future.

Here are some specific areas you can measure.

  • Message frequency and volume
  • Email open, read and click rates over time
  • Intranet page views and time-on-page over time
  • Meeting attendance and chat channel participation (as a percent of audience)
  • Corporate video views and duration (compared to video length)
  • Sign-ups or opt-outs

You may also organize these by audiences, as you may see differences or preferences by regions or age-groups.

Step 3: Report and recommend.

Having performed this examination, it’s now time to present an executive summary to report on your findings and make recommendations that inform your plan.

The report serves two purposes:

  1. To provide a summary for executives and leaders. It’s important to only include what is interesting and valuable. Highlight special situations, meaningful changes, and opportunities. Keep the details in the appendix for reference and to address specific questions.
  2. Provide insights and recommendations. Insights need action. While the report will show what you uncovered, it will also need to lay out your ideas for how to address the situations and opportunities identified in the report.

 Most executives could not care less about details like page views and clicks. They want to know if their audience is engaged and their communications are achieving an objective. They want to know if benefits participation is up and by how much.

By way of example, perhaps your audit examination revealed the different ways that executives were engaging their work-from-home audiences, and your data showed a combination of communications would work better. Here, you might show the supporting data behind your recommendation for a Teams video presentation followed-up by a summary email plus a scheduled time to post Q&A on your chat channel.

Results are what matter.

What should be included in the report?

While there isn’t a silver bullet or predefined format, here is what we recommend including in the presentation:

• Summary of project and objectives: A few concise sentences about the purpose of the audit and what you hope to accomplish.

Organizational method and data-driven approach: A visual of your sender, audience and channel structure, and the methods you used to gather qualitative and quantitative data.

• Summary of challenges and opportunities: Three to seven bullet points, potentially for each area and audience.

• Key insights: Call out any interesting results. This is usually done with a sentence summarizing the insight and a few supporting sentences.


a) Present with a tiered scale or rating.

  1. Easy-to-hard implementation degree of difficulty
  2. High-to-low impact
  3. Fast-to-slow time frame (months, quarters)

b) For each recommendation, list what’s required.

  1. Cost of tools and training
  2. Change of practices and procedures
  3. Change of mindset or participation

A communications audit can almost be considered one big “lessons learned” session. And the goals of a communications audit and lessons learned are the same: to learn from our past mistakes and make adjustments to improve.

By approaching planning using data-driven methods, and honestly evaluating your communications strengths and weaknesses, measuring over time and making iterative improvements, you’ll see the impact of your work and have the ability to properly communicate the effectiveness of your program.

Michael DesRochers is co-founder and managing partner for PoliteMail, a provider of email measurement and analytics software for Microsoft Outlook and Exchange. He spent 15 years as CEO of a 75-person team of communications professionals prior to founding PoliteMail.

[Illustration credit: billion photos]

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