SWOT analysis is widely used in strategic planning and can be a powerful tool in assessing your relative position. SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats relating to an organization, department, product, brand or service. It is most effective when you have defined the problem or concern that needs to be addressed and ideally have also developed your goal statement or intended end state for the project. In this way it helps to give clarity between where you are and where you want to be. Therefore, make the most of SWOT analysis for communication planning.
SWOT analysis is best undertaken by a cross-functional team of 6-8 people who can provide a range of perspectives, especially people from areas relevant to the issue or problem for which you are preparing a communication plan. Therefore, in addition to communicators, you should include people who are broadly in tune with communication such people from your marketing branch, your PR firm, your market researcher, a representative from operations and HR etc.
SWOT analysis is quite simple in principle, and you should keep the process simple – avoid complexity and over-analysis. but you need to beware of the danger of being tempted to merely compile a list rather than thinking about what is really important about the parts of that list in achieving the goal of the project. You may also be drawn into presenting the resulting SWOT lists uncritically and without clear prioritization so that, for example, weak opportunities may appear to balance strong threats.
A SWOT summary can be useful for strategy development in a communication project or program as well as in an annual communication plan. It is especially useful for deciding the key points in your messaging.
You can use specialized software to show the SWOT lists graphically, which can help you to clarify the factors being considered.
- A strength is a resource or capacity that can be used effectively to achieve the project objective. To identify strengths, ask: “What are our advantages in this situation?”, “What do we do well?” or “What do other people see as our strength here?” Obviously you would want to build on your organization’s perceived strengths in your communication activities.
- A weakness is a limitation, fault or defect in the particular product, service or issue that may be the reason for your communication plan. To identify weaknesses, ask: “What could we improve in this?”, “What do we do badly?”, or “What should we avoid?” Other areas of the organization may be able to resolve the problem caused by the weak point if, for instance, it is a financial, operational or marketing matter, in order to minimize its impact without you actually needing to communicate about it. If it does need a communication tactic, then you can tailor all or part of a communication plan, particularly the messaging, to minimize the weakness, or at least have a communication response in place if it is raised against you by opponents.
- An opportunity is a favorable situation in your project or organization’s environment, often a trend or a change of some kind or an overlooked need that increases the relevance or effectiveness of the project in question. Ask the question: Are we capitalizing sufficiently on opportunities. You can highlight opportunities in your communication strategic thinking and implementation.
- A threat is a danger or menace in your project or organization’s environment. Often threats are ignored until they become major problems. Threats can be identified by looking at the obstacles faced, initiatives by competitors, changing technology and changing demand or technical requirements for your products or services. As with a weakness, other areas may be able to act to counteract the problem without needing a communication response. If it does need a communication response, you should assess the likelihood and extent of the risk or threat so that if it does emerge, you are able to quickly implement a communication response.
It is all very well to work out your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, but what do you actually do with these insights? SWOT analysis is not much value unless you actually use the key factors identified to contribute to your communication plan. To keep all this manageable, the factors should be prioritized. You could note the top three factors from each of the four quadrants to form a total of list of 12 factors, and then reduce the total list to the top 5-6 factors that would have a bearing on your communication strategy. Be careful to evaluate which factors are the strongest and focus on them. As noted earlier, don’t get drawn into presenting the SWOT lists without clear prioritization so that, for example, weak opportunities may appear to balance strong threats.
Prioritize your SWOT follow-up
Since resources are always limited, you can’t afford to follow up every SWOT item, so you need to attend to the most important – prioritize them. The SWOT factors could be prioritized by urgency, importance, strategic advantage, cost, lead-time for completion, duration of actions, etc.
One strategy is to cross-link the four quadrants of factors to identify how strengths can be used to take advantage of opportunities and to tackle threats. Similarly, the weaknesses can be examined to ensure they don’t compound the threats or stop your organization from exploiting the opportunities relating to the project. In this way you can use SWOT analysis for communication planning results.
Be aware of these SWOT pitfalls
Take care to stay aware of several potential pitfalls in the SWOT analysis of your organization or your department;
- Too much internal focus. Don’t assess your strengths and weaknesses in a lengthy list. Some issues are more important than others, so give priority consideration to the key issues, and when trends might change and interact, and why. As part of this, you are entitled to question past assumptions. A weak point is to take a vantage point of looking from today’s perspective, which can bias our perception of reality.
- Be careful not to label an item with a value judgment in which your current strategy is the reference point. Your current strategy may not have the long-term core strength based on its past success. When you evaluate external opportunities and threats, use neutral language such as asking what external forces or issues could impact your organization’s business performance. Each could have a good, bad or neutral impact, depending on how your organization responds to it, eg consider trying a new tactic or making a major change to your business model.
- A weakness of SWOT analysis is that it reduces complex strategic issues to lists of items that are hard to assess in isolation. Overcome this by looking at connections among the various listed items for their potential future influence. Consider what actions today may create new options for tomorrow.
In a 2022 Medium article, strategic adviser Svyatoslav Biryulin says that executives can rarely bring to mind new ideas and new opportunities on command in a brainstorm session, so he sends the executives to customers instead: “Immersion in customers’ experiences is always interesting and fruitful for them, and sometimes awakening.”
Finally, in a 2021 Medium article, eminent former business professor Roger Martin recommends this alternative approach:
Start by defining the strategy problem you are seeking to solve. That is, what is the gap between your aspirations and the outcomes you are seeking. Then specify the form of the solution by way of a ‘how might we’ question. That is, how might we eliminate the identified gap that we currently face. Then imagine possibilities of WTP/HTW [‘Where to play/How to win’] choices that have the potential of answering the how might we question to eliminate the gap between aspirations and outcomes. Then for each possibility, ask what would have to be true (WWHTBT) for it to produce the desired outcome. Then identify which WWHTBT elements you feel are least likely to be true, and therefore are the barriers to you choosing to go forward with that possibility.
Then and only then, when you have precise understanding of both the question you are seeking to answer and the standard of proof you require, design specific tests for the elements that are critical to your choice. Your patience will be rewarded with analyses that are far more precise and produce much more compelling results.
Food for thought.
My articles on this topic:
- “Ask key questions for best solutions in communication campaigns.”
- “Use SWOT and PESTLE analysis for communication planning.”
- “Use VUCA analysis for better issue management.”
My ebooks on developing successful communication plans offer you a generous number of helpful, practical insights. Tremendous value – just like having your own comms coach immediately at your side!