How to Develop a Communication Strategy


What is a communication strategy?

A communication strategy is the critical piece bridging the situation analysis and the implementation of a social and behavior change communication (SBCC) program. It is a written plan that details how an SBCC program will reach its vision, given the current situation. Effective communication strategies use a systematic process and behavioral theory to design and implement communication activities that encourage sustainable social and behavior change.

Most communication strategies include the following elements:

  • Brief summary of the situation analysis
  • Audience segmentation
  • Program theory to inform strategy development
  • Communication objectives
  • Approaches for achieving objectives
  • Positioning for the desired change
  • Benefits and messages to encourage desired change
  • Communication channels to disseminate messages
  • Implementation plan
  • Monitoring and evaluation plan
  • Budgets

Many of the elements of the communication strategy have their own How-to Guide in this collection and should be reviewed during the development of the communication strategy.

Why develop a communication strategy?

A communication strategy guides an entire program or intervention. It sets the tone and direction so that all communication activities, products and materials work in harmony to achieve the desired change. Strategic activities and materials are more likely to promote change. A communication strategy also enables stakeholders and partners to provide input and agree upon the best way forward so that actions are unified. With an agreed-upon communication strategy, staff and partners have a map they can refer to through the various program development stages.

Who should develop a communication strategy?

The program team, including program managers and communication specialists, should work closely with relevant stakeholders and partners to develop the communication strategy. Participation of individuals and groups directly affected by the problem is critical. Their active involvement from the start can help increase program impact and lead to long-term sustainability. The number of people involved in developing a communication strategy will depend on the purpose of the strategy (for example, a marketing strategy for a single product might require fewer people while a comprehensive national strategy for increasing demand would involve more people) and the format used for developing it (for example, a participatory workshop would involve more people while a core working group consulting with stakeholders would involve fewer people).

When should a communication strategy be developed?

The communication strategy should be developed after the analyses (situation, audience and program) have been conducted. The strategy should be final before creating materials or activities and implementing the program.

Learning Objectives

After completing the activities in the communication strategy guide, the team will:

  • Determine how their program wants to engage stakeholders and partners in strategy development
  • Apply communication strategy best principles to develop their own strategy
  • Identify roles and responsibilities for implementing their communication strategy

Estimated Time Needed

Developing a communication strategy can take from a few weeks to a few months, depending on the scope of the strategy and whether formative research has already been completed. The number of stakeholders involved, the methods used to engage stakeholders a



Step 1: Determine Method for Engaging Stakeholders and Partners

There are several ways to engage stakeholders and partners in developing a communication strategy. This step is important not only to have valuable, wider input, but also to ensure that stakeholders and partners feel consulted and have ownership of the strategy. One of the most common methods is to hold a participatory stakeholder workshop where program staff and stakeholders jointly develop each piece of the strategy. See the stakeholder workshop guide for detailed guidance on how to carry out a workshop. Other methods include conducting stakeholder interviews, establishing core working groups that consult with stakeholders after key pieces are developed, or engaging stakeholders to review and approve the strategy post-development. (See the Resources section for guidance on other engagement methods.)

Whatever method the team chooses, the following steps outline the content that should be developed for the strategy.

Step 2: Write a Brief Summary of Analyses

For a communication strategy to be effective, the team needs to have a firm understanding of all of the factors that may have an impact on communication efforts. Review the situation, audience and program analyses the team conducted and write a brief summary of their findings. Include information on:

  • Nature and extent of the problem (extent and severity, desired behaviors)
  • Potential audiences (characteristics, barriers and facilitators to change)
  • Available resources (financial, human capital,)
  • Communication environment (availability and use of communication channels, what other organizations are doing)
  • Areas for programmatic improvement (if program already exists) or focus (if program is just beginning)

This summary will form the foundation of the strategy and guide all communication efforts. Give copies of the summary to all of the stakeholders involved in the strategy development. It is helpful to do this before holding a workshop so that everybody has a similar understanding of the context.

Step 3: Select a Theory

SBCC programs are more effective when they are based on social and behavioral science theories. A program theory provides a map for looking at the problem, designing interventions and evaluating program success. Based on results from the analyses, select a theory that will guide the strategy development.

There are many theories used in social and behavior change. Review the theories included in the Resources section to gain an in-depth understanding of the common theories. Then, consider the type of change the program is promoting. Is it more individual or social/structural in nature? Narrow the list of possible theories by the type of change the program will promote. The figure below shows where four commonly used behavior and social change theories fall on the individual to structural continuum.

Continue narrowing the list by considering audience and contextual factors, such as:

Is the change a single or repeated event?Getting a vasectomy is a one-time event, while exercising regularly is a repeated event
Are there special circumstances like emergencies?Epidemics like avian influenza or disasters like an earthquake
How does the audience view the change?The audience agrees that reducing the number of sexual partners is desirable; the audience believes that sleeping under bed nets is a hassle
How easy is the change?Trying a condom once may be easy while using a condom every time one has sexual intercourse is difficult
Does the change require support or social approval?Quitting smoking can require support; delaying marriage age often requires social approval

Find one or more theories that fit the program’s needs, based on understanding of the problem, the environment and the audience. Do not be afraid to combine theories to predict how the intended audience will change through exposure to the SBCC program.

Step 4: Select Audiences

While the situation and audience analyses identified potential audiences for the program, it is during the development of the communication strategy that final decisions are made as to the priority and influencing audiences. Review the situation and audience analyses, paying particular attention to the audience characteristics and barriers to change described in the summary (Step 2). Next, segment those potential audiences into groups with similar needs, preferences and characteristics. See the audience segmentation guide for more detailed instruction on segmenting the potential audiences.

From these segments, determine the priority audience. To select the priority audience, it can be helpful to ask the questions in the table below. Generally, the group with the highest rank is the best choice for a primary audience.

How many people are in this group?
Is addressing this group crucial to achieving program objectives?1 2 3 4 5(Least crucial) (Most crucial)
Is the group most affected/at risk?1 2 3 4 5(Least affected) (Most affected)
How likely will this group be to change within the timeframe of the SBCC program?1 2 3 4 5(Least likely) (Most likely)
Does the SBCC program have the resources to focus on this group?1 2 3 4 5(Sufficient resources) (Insufficient)
Rank (total from boxes above)

Next, identify the influencing audiences. To select influencing audiences, ask which audiences strongly influence the priority audience, both directly and indirectly.

Once the strategy team has decided on a priority audience and its influencing audiences, develop audience profiles for each. The profiles should bring the selected audiences to life by telling the story of an imagined individual from the audience. Include information on the audience’s behaviors, motivations, emotions, values, attitudes, occupation, age, religion, sex and where they live. See the audience analysis guide for more guidance on developing profiles.

Step 5: Develop Communication Objectives

Communication objectives clearly and concisely state the intended impact of communication efforts. They answer the question, “What can communication do to help reach the vision given the key constraint?” (See the root cause analysis guide for information on identifying the key constraint.) Communication objectives should focus on addressing the key constraint, or biggest communication challenges, the team identified (refer to the Brief Summary of Analyses the team prepared.

Review the vision or overall objective set for the campaign (for example, an increase in family planning (FP) uptake) to be sure communication objectives contribute to that vision. Then, based on the key constraint for each audience segment, determine what needs to change. The program may need to change behaviors, skills, knowledge, policies, norms or attitudes. Another way to look at it is to ask, “What do we want our audience to know/feel/do in response to the campaign?” It can be helpful to look at ideational factors to determine what needs to change such as those identified in the graphic below:

In the communication objectives worksheet, fill in each audience segment, their key constraints and the desired change.

Objective ComponentExplanationExample
Audience segmentWho needs to make the change?Married women, currently not using FP, have one child, desire to have more children later.
Key constraintWhat is the biggest thing keeping the audience from making the change?These women believe that nobody else uses FP and worry about what the community would think if they used FP.
Desired changeWhat does the audience need to change/do?Believe that others in the community use and approve of FP.

Next, determine how much change the program expects to see. This should be a numerical or percentage change. Review research to find the current level or status of behaviors. State the current and desired level, for example, “an increase from 50 percent to 80 percent.” Add this to the “how much change” column of the worksheet.

Objective ComponentExplanationExample
Audience segmentWho needs to make the change?Married women, currently not using FP, have one child, desire to have more children later.
Key constraintWhat is the biggest thing keeping the audience form making the change?These women believe that nobody else uses FP and worry about what the community would think if they used FP.
Desired changeWhat does the audience need to change/do?Believe that others in the community use and approve of FP.
How much changeHow much change does the program expect to see?Increase the percentage of audience members who believe that other community members practice and approve of FP from 10 percent to 35 percent.

Last, set the time frame for the expected change. This could be months or years. State the beginning and end dates. Add this information to the “time” column of the worksheet.

Objective ComponentExplanationExample
Audience segmentWho needs to make the change?Married women, currently not using FP, have one child, desire to have more children later.
Key constraintWhat is the biggest thing keeping the audience form making the change?These women believe that nobody else uses FP and worry about what the community would think if they used FP.
Desired changeWhat does the audience need to change/do?Believe that others in the community use and approve of FP.
How much changeHow much change does the program expect to see?Increase the percentage of audience members who believe that other community members practice and approve of FP from 10 percent to 35 percent.
TimeWhat is the time frame for the change?February 2016-December 2016
Remember, communication objectives should follow SMART criteria!Specific, Measurable, Appropriate, Realistic, Time-bound.

Step 6: Select Strategic Approaches

Decide how the program will accomplish its communication objectives by selecting strategic approaches. Typically, several approaches will be used, either in a phased manner or at the same time. Examples of approaches include (see the Field Guide and Implementation Kit for an in-depth look at these approaches):

AdvocacyBranding focusCenterpieceCommunity-based mediaCommunity mobilization
CounselingDistance learningGeographic focusInfluencersInterpersonal communication
Mass mediaMid mediaNew mediaProduct-orientedService-oriented

Review the summary for information about audience needs/preferences and the communication environment. Make a list of approaches that would reach audiences and accomplish communication objectives. Consider the following when selecting approaches:

  • Complexity, sensitivity and magnitude of the problem being addressed
  • Effectiveness of the suggested approach for the problem being addressed
  • Literacy levels among audiences
  • Desired reach
  • Cost of approach
  • Age, media and digital access, and other relevant audience characteristics
  • Theories selected

Use the Strategic Approaches template to list potential approaches, their advantages and disadvantages, resources available and any other comments. Then, rank the approaches based on that information. Select the top approaches, considering what mix of approaches will reach a large proportion of the audiences effectively and efficiently. For example:

Strategic ApproachDescriptionAdvantagesDisadvantagesResources AvailableCommentsRank (5 high)
Use social networksIdentify key women in the community who can advocate for FP methods in their networks.Helps women see that there are others who approve of and use FP methods.Finding advocates can be difficult and time-consuming. Women may not be ready to advocate yet.Previously worked with some women’s groups.Not realistic since women are not ready to advocate.2
Entertainment Education centerpiece TV programEmphasize advantages of FP through an entertaining format, supported by messages from other channels.Establishes role models. High reach. Makes FP use credible.Expensive. May only increase intention to act.Have the budget necessary.Need to effectively use other support channels for it to be successful.4

Step 7: Decide on Positioning

Decide how the program will position the desired changes (as outlined in the objectives) so that they stand out. Positioning determines how the audience perceives the changes they are being asked to make by presenting a clear benefit and an attractive image of the change. (See the positioning guide for more detailed information.)

Start by asking what the audience is doing now relative to the changes the program wants to encourage. For example, instead of using modern contraceptives, is the audience using traditional FP or not practicing it at all? Knowing what the audience is doing helps identify the competition for the behaviors, services or products the program wants to promote. Then ask why? For example, why is the audience using withdrawal method instead of modern contraceptives?

Think about what sets the program’s behaviors, services or products apart from the competition. For example, modern contraceptives are more effective than withdrawal and give the woman more control over her own fertility, which may appeal to both women and men. Write down the unique differences of the program practices. Briefly review the audience’s characteristics and needs. Then, brainstorm what benefits the program’s behaviors, services or products could offer the audience, in comparison to the audience’s current practices and needs. These must match the audience’s needs and desires.

Create a positioning statement that names the behavior, product or service; the unique difference that sets it apart; and the benefit.

Example positioning statement: Modern contraceptives are the only FP method that provide peace of mind and allow a couple to have worry-free sex.

Step 8: Identify Key Benefits and Support Points

Identify several benefits the audience will receive from making the change the program is promoting. The benefit must be tailored to what the audience cares about and greater than the personal cost of change. It helps to imagine the audience saying, “How will this help me?”

Create a benefit statement using the following format: “if you [adopt x behavior, buy x product or use x service]…then you will [benefit in this way]…” It is best to develop at least three alternative benefits and pretest them with the audience to see which benefit resonates most with them. After pretesting, select the best benefit – this is the promise the program makes to the audience.

Example benefit statement for urban girls ages 15-19: If you use modern FP methods, then you will be able to complete your education as you planned.

Develop support points – or reasons why the audience should believe the promise the program is making. These can be in the form of facts, testimonials, celebrity or opinion leader endorsements, comparisons or guarantees. The kind of support point used will depend on what will appeal and be credible to the audience.

Example support points:

  • Testimonial: A testimonial from a young woman who used modern FP methods and had the money and time to complete her degree.
  • Facts: Young women using modern FP methods are three times more likely to hold a college degree.

Step 9: Draft Key Message Points

For each audience, outline the core information – key message points – that should be conveyed in all messages and activities, by all partners implementing the strategy. These key message points will be delivered in different ways depending on the approach. Keep in mind, key message points are not the same as the final creative messages delivered via the various approaches and channels. They are the main ideas that should be included in the final creative messages.

Example key message points:

  • Implants are quickly reversible and do not affect return to fertility.
  • Talk to your partner about intrauterine devices, a safe, long-lasting method.

Ask the question, “What key information should be communicated in every activity and material?” Then, for each audience, fill out the key message points box in the Key Message Points template. (See the message design guide for more information on developing messages.)

Step 10: Select Channels

Decide which communication channels will best reach the audience. It is effective to use a variety of channels, keeping in mind that there is no one perfect channel. There are four broad categories of channels:

1. Interpersonal

2. Community-based

3. Mass media

4. Digital and social media

Many communication strategies identify a lead channel and supporting channels. Select a mix of channels that makes sense for the strategy, taking into consideration:

  • Strengths and limitations of each channel
  • Planned approaches
  • Audience habits and channel preferences
  • Communication environment
  • Program and communication objectives
  • Fit between messages and channels
  • Available resources

Typically, a communication strategy identifies the mix of channels that will be used, but does not go into great detail about how and when each channel will be used. A channel mix plan with more details can be developed later.

Step 11: Outline Activities

With the approaches and channels selected, the team can outline activities that will lead to achieving the objectives. Activities should be specific and related to each channel. Some examples may include: developing a counseling guide, producing a radio serial drama, conducting community folk dramas, developing an app, designing a web site or holding community discussion groups.

For example, if the team chose to use a centerpiece approach with entertainment education as the core focus, they may have the following channels and activities:

TV (lead channel)Develop TV serial dramaProduce and air TV spots supporting drama
Community drama (support channel)Train folk drama troupesConduct community folk dramas
Community mobilization (support channel)Develop community discussion guidesHold community viewing groupsAdvocate for support from community leaders
Print (support channel)Produce print materials for community discussionsDevelop bus hoardings

Complete the Activities template with the channels and related activities.

Step 12: Develop an Implementation Plan

The implementation plan details the who, what, when and how much of the communication strategy. It covers partner roles and responsibilities, activities, timeline and budget considerations.

To determine roles and responsibilities, first consider what competencies and skills are necessary to achieving the objectives and approaches outlined in the strategy (for example, community mobilization, materials design or training). Then, ask which partners and staff have those competencies and determine who will be responsible for each area.

CompetencySkillsWho has the skills?
ResearchDevelop indicators, evaluationPrivate company X, Lead organization
Creative designRadio spots, print materialsPrivate company Y, partner X
TrainingFacilitation, CounselingLead organization (in house)

Outline how implementation will be coordinated among partners.

Next, review the activities planned (step 11) and compare them to partner and staff competencies. Assign responsibility for each activity. Then, establish a timeline for the activities, including key phases and links with other activities that fall outside the strategy. Fill out the Roles and Responsibilities template.

Create design document for TV serial dramaLead organization, creative firm10/1/16
Produce TV serial dramaCreative firm12/15/16
Pretest dramaLead organization with women’s cooperative1/10/17

Step 13: Draft a Budget

Look at the broad categories or competencies for the strategy. Brainstorm possible costs for each category. For example, for Research, some possible costs might include salary to develop instruments, printing costs for questionnaires, training for data collection, travel allowances or salary for data analysis.

Estimate the amount of funding needed for each main category and create a draft budget using the Budget template. The budget created for the strategy must be flexible as needs and activities change. Be sure to determine what resources partners will contribute.

Step 14: Develop a Monitoring and Evaluation Plan

It is important to develop a monitoring and evaluation plan before the program begins. During the development of the strategy, create a draft plan that includes communication indicators, methods for monitoring and evaluation, and tools that will be used to track progress and evaluate effects. A smaller taskforce can detail and finalize the plan after all partners agree on the draft. Refer to the monitoring and evaluation plan guide for detailed instructions on developing a plan.


Roles and Responsibilities Template

Competencies Template

Key Message Points Template

Communication Objectives Template

Strategic Approaches Template

Activities Template

Activity-based Budget Template


NURHI Demand Creation Strategy

Sample Audience Profile

Illustrative Communication Strategy for Prevention and Control of Malaria during Pregnancy

Sample Audience Segmentation Table

Sample Channel and Material Selection

Communication Strategy for the Reduction of Teen Pregnancy, Sierra Leone 2015-2019

Tips & Recommendations

  • Message design cuts across all strategic approaches. Messages must thus reinforce each other across these approaches. When all approaches communicate the same key message points, effectiveness increases.
  • All messages, regardless of how they are delivered or by whom, should consistently contain the same core information.
  • Benefits are subjective to the audience. Be careful to avoid promising benefits that you (the programmers) are interested in! Benefits must speak to the audience and be something that they care about.
  • Involve key stakeholders from the beginning and ensure their meaningful participation.

Lessons Learned

  • Effective communication objectives focus on the key constraints to reaching the shared vision. Strategies focused on milestones must work harder because they do not get rid of the barriers to reaching the vision.
  • Positioning helps a program differentiate their target behaviors from the competition. It shows how those behaviors are unique and better.
  • To develop benefits that resonate with the audience requires a deep understanding of the audience. Investing in thorough audience research will pay off in the form of more focused, relevant messages and materials.
  • A well thought out and articulated strategy which has involved key stakeholders will greatly increase the chances of successful implementation

Glossary & Concepts

  • Stakeholders are those who are affected by, have a direct interest in or are somehow involved with the health problem.
  • Partners are other organizations that are working to advance the same health or social issue. Partners could include various government ministries; local non-governmental, community, or civic organizations; international non-governmental organizations; foundations; and private sector companies.
  • The priority audience refers to a group of people whose behavior must change in order to improve the health situation. It is the most important group to address because they have the power to make changes the SBCC program calls for. These may be the people who are directly affected by the challenge or who are most at risk for the challenge. Or it may be the people who are best able to address the challenge or who can make decisions on behalf of those affected.
  • Influencing audiences are those who influence the primary audience either directly or indirectly. Influencing audiences can include family members and people in the community, such as service providers, community leaders and teachers, but can also include people who shape social norms, influence policies or influence how people think about the challenge.
  • A theory explains or predicts an event or situation, using systematic observation and inference. A program theory is a program’s explanation of why it thinks its intended audience acts the way it does and its assumptions on how it will behave or change through exposure to the SBCC program.
  • Centerpiece puts an entertainment education vehicle as the anchor in a communication strategy. Everything else revolves around the program.
  • Influencer-driven strategies use advocacy to get influential people to promote a behavior, norm, service or product.
  • Strategic approaches are the way a communication intervention is packaged or framed into a single program, campaign, or platform. It holds together the different interventions, channels, and materials and combines them into one program. They describe how the program will achieve its communication objectives.
  • Positioning is a way to make an issue, such as breastfeeding, occupy a particular space in the audience’s mind. It is a way to make the issue stand out, and how the program wants people to see and feel about the issue.
  • A positioning statement is one sentence that captures what the program’s behavior, product or service stands for in the mind of the audience.
  • Support points are information that supports the key benefit. They tell the audience why they should believe that they will actually receive the promised benefit. Support points can be in the form of facts, testimonials, celebrity or opinion leader endorsements, comparisons or guarantees.
  • Key message points outline the core information that will be conveyed in all messages and activities. They are the basis of the actual messages.
  • Interpersonal communication interventions are those that involve person-to-person or small group interaction and exchange. Examples include counseling, peer education, hotlines, parent-child, teacher-student or spousal communication, and support groups.
  • Digital or social media are digitized content – such as video, text, images, and audio – that can be transmitted over Internet, computer, or mobile networks. Examples include websites, vlogs, blogs, social networking sites, online games, eLearning, software, and applications.
  • Community-based interventions are those that are designed for/with and carried out in communities. These could include local theatre, songs, community radio or television, community events, community dialogue, community mobilization or advocacy, outreach, or sports.
  • Mass media is any means of communication that reaches a large amount of people. Examples include television, radio, newspapers, movies, magazines, and the Internet.

Resources and References


Theory Picker

Behavioral Change Models

Theory at a Glance: A Guide for Health Promotion Practice

Learning Package for SBCC Practitioner’s Handbook

Writing a Communication Strategy for Development Programmes: A Guideline for Programme Managers and Communication Officers

Communication Strategy: A Best Practice Guide to Developing Communication Campaigns

Designing a Social and Behavior Change Communication Strategy


Banner Photo: © 2009 Enriqueta Valdez-Curiel, Courtesy of Photoshare