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Demystifying SMART Goals

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Using SMART (Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Results-focused, Time-based) goals and objectives can help a communication initiative go from vague and nebulous to clear and concise. It’s a type of goal setting that many are familiar with, but not everyone masters on their first try. To make it easier to construct one, I developed the grid below to diagram parts of the goal to include.

To create your goal, adapt one of the options under each column and string them together. The following is a closer look at considerations for each column outlined in the grid.

  • Column 1: Start with a verb. You either want more of a good thing or less of a bad thing. If you’re already at the right level, use a verb for maintaining that level.
  • Column 2: Add an object of the verb for what you want to act on. Ultimately, you should have a goal for changing your audience’s behavior, because that has a bottom-line impact. Then set communication objectives for the messaging on knowledge and attitudes needed to change that behavior.
    • For messaging, determine what aspect you want to improve: get more people interested in the topic, feel they understand it better or actually recall a particular fact correctly.
    • If your goal is to improve a channel of communication for that messaging to reach your audience, decide whether the problem is that not enough people can access it, it’s not useful enough to them, or if not enough people who have access are choosing to use it.
  • Column 3: Quantify the amount of improvement desired, either as an absolute number or as a percentage. If you already know your baseline, you can state it as a specific amount. If you don’t, state it as a percentage better than the current level, and then later establish what that level is.
  • Column 4: Add a specific date. As an alternative, link your communication date to an uncertain final date for another event. For example, you could have a communication objective to be accomplished by one month before the opening of a new facility or by the time a survey is repeated.

Measurement Approaches

Of all the SMART goal elements, measurability is the hardest to state. The secret is to think about how you would measure success before you begin a new initiative. Two of the most common approaches are:

  • Gathering observable, objective data. These are numbers that have already been collected or can be easily gathered. A few examples include:
    • Collecting online usage data (page views, click-throughs, shares, retweets, etc.), which is something most communicators already access to determine audience engagement
    • Using Microsoft Word to calculate the reading grade level of copy you’ve written to ensure it matches the understanding level of your audience
    • Measuring the amount of content you are generating on different messages to ensure sure you’re distributing enough information and ultimately improving your audience’s understanding of those topics
    • Getting access to audience behavior data that is already collected by other organizational functions (such as sales, subscriptions, HR enrollments, donations, safety, quality, productivity and call center metrics), to track how it changes as you communicate
  • Survey data. This is the only way to measure changes in attitudes and knowledge, or anything related to audience perceptions. While you might see an agency provide percentages of earned media that was positive or negative, that doesn’t always mean your audience sees it the same way. What is positive for your organization might be seen as negative by the public if their social or ecological values conflict with your organization’s goals. Stay tapped into survey data for a better reflection of how your initiatives are performing with key audiences.

Comparison Frameworks

To demonstrate how much impact your communication had on changing an audience behavior, you need to be able to compare knowledge, attitudes and behaviors of audience members who have and have not been exposed to your communication interventions. Some framework options include:

  • Timing: Create a chart showing the levels of what you’re measuring over time. Indicate on the chart the dates of communication launches. If you see sharp spikes of improvements starting immediately after your communication, that indicates the amount of your impact, as long as no other major intervention occurred at the same time. When you set a target amount for improvement, one technique is to measure your own average performance over the past year, such as number of viewers for a CEO’s quarterly webcast. That annual average becomes your baseline. Your target for the next year’s average can be based on the single best-viewed webcast from the past year. If you can achieve that at least once with your own audience, you can replicate that performance more consistently in the future if you identify what led to the earlier success.
  • Pilot/control groups: Launch your initiative with only some audience segments to see if the outcomes are better with those exposed to your communication. Both groups need to start out as mirror images of each other in terms of demographics, psychographics and starting levels of what you’re trying to change. We often have “accidental pilots” when we intend a communication for an entire stakeholder group, but it doesn’t reach them all. This happens with earned media; some markets end up with heavy coverage and others with virtually none. That’s a perfect opportunity to see if audience behaviors improve sharply in the heavy-coverage markets but stay flat in others. We see a similar result when some managers withhold a communication message or channel from their employees. The target improvement level for your entire audience can be the result you achieve with your pilot group.
  • A/B testing: Launch two different versions of a communication to see which performs better. For instance, send emails with different subject lines or a newsletter with different headlines for the main story to small samples of your audience. Send whichever one results in greater open or click-through rates to the rest of the audience. Or use different phone numbers or URLs in two versions of a brochure or ad to see which approach pulls in more responses. The target improvement level can be the percentage difference between the better- and worse-performing subject lines, or headlines applied to all emails or newsletters over a year.

A Blend of Art and Science

Some communicators worry that all this measurement may block creativity. On the contrary, conducting audience research before developing a plan and measuring progress that the research-based plan is working simply provide a structure within which the creativity is more likely to be successful. The framework and approaches outlined here are just a few options to get started and put you on the path to making SMART choices for your programs.

Angela Sinickas, ABC, IABC Fellow

Angela Sinickas, ABC, is CEO of Sinickas Communications, Inc., an international management consultancy focusing on communication effectiveness research and strategy. She has been measuring the effectiveness of communication since 1981. Her prolific publications and speaking engagements in 32 countries have made her name synonymous with measuring the business impact of organizational communication. She is the author of the manual “How to Measure Your Communication Programs,” and has been a regular columnist for the magazine Strategic Communication Management and on the editorial boards of two professional journals. Angela’s work has been recognized with 21 Gold Quill awards from IABC, six of them for measurement, two of them for her web site, www.sinicom.com, and one for her Measurement Works newsletter. She was named a Fellow of IABC in 2008.

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