How Successful Leaders Use Both Retail and Wholesale Communications

Posted 02.12.2020

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s presidential primary season. There are any number of reasons to pay attention to primaries, one of which is you can learn a lot about leadership communications strategies and tactics by watching how the candidates do what they do. The most successful ones tend to go both broad and deep with their communications. They send messages to very large groups of people while at the same time try to establish personal connections with individuals.

Sometimes it’s a coffee klatch for a small group and other times it’s a rally for thousands. Sometimes it’s standing for hours taking selfies with a line of supporters and other times it’s giving a big speech to mark out their positions and platform. Sometimes it’s a text message or phone call and sometimes it’s a 30 second television ad on what seems like every commercial break.

Successful candidates are masters of both retail communications (the coffee klatches and selfies) and wholesale communications (the rallies and ad campaigns). Retail and wholesale communications have applications far beyond politics. The distinction definitely has importance for leaders of any kind of movement or large organization.

Here’s a rundown of the similarities and differences between retail and wholesale communications and some ideas to consider as you work out your leadership communications game plan.

Many Channels, One Strategy:  Choosing a retail or a wholesale communications channel depends on the need, the reach and the moment.  Either way, the channels and the approaches within them need to be tied to an overarching strategy. A simple framework for building a communications strategy can rest on three questions that you keep coming back to:

  • What? – What are you trying to accomplish?
  • So What? – Why does it matter and why should people care? (And, by the way, what do they already care about?)
  • Now What? – What do you want people to do next? What do you want them to know or think? How do you want them to feel?

Narrowcasting or Broadcasting? Narrowcasting is another way to think about retail communications. It allows you a lot of opportunity to tailor your “So what?” to individuals or small groups of people with common interests. It gives you the chance to be more nuanced in your messaging. Broadcasting is a wholesale communications approach. It’s delivered through online and offline channels that can reach a lot of people at once. It’s best used for establishing themes and value propositions that can fit on the proverbial bumper sticker. Highly effective communications campaigns use a combination of narrowcasting with key influencers and broadcasting to the larger group.

Simplicity vs. Complexity – Building off the narrowcasting and broadcasting distinction is the need to hit the sweet spot on the spectrum of simplicity vs. complexity in your messaging. As a general rule, simple messaging (again, think bumper stickers) is the way to go when you need to wholesale your communications. You can definitely be more nuanced and complex in your retail communications but be careful not to make the messaging too complex. The human brain can only process a limited amount of ideas at any one time. Make your points for sure, but keep them short and memorable. Simple and familiar analogies help a lot on that last point.

Adjust Your Energy Dial – As a general rule, the bigger the room, the bigger your energy needs to be. This point was driven home to me years ago by a client. My natural energy setting is friendly but low key. I’m not usually going to be the loudest voice in the room. When I was getting started in my career as a speaker 15 years ago, I had a client organization where I spoke to 40 or 50 high potential leaders three or four times a year. Sometimes those sessions went great and other times they were kind of flat and I never really understood why it went one way or the other. After watching me in action a few times over the course of a year, my client contact gave me some incredibly valuable feedback. She said, “I notice that when the group has a lot of energy, you have a lot of energy. And, when the group starts out kind of flat, you’re flat. I need you to lead the energy of the room, not be led by the energy of the room.” That’s something I worked on for several years and I’ve since learned to adjust my energy to lead the people in the room toward a particular outcome. That lesson has a lot of application to effectively using both retail and wholesale communications. The more intimate channels of retail communication usually call for a level of energy projection that is appropriate to the room. You want to hit the sweet spot and not overdo it. In the wholesale communication scenario of much bigger rooms where you can’t make eye contact with everybody there, you almost always need to dial up your energy. The goal in big rooms is not an inauthentic version of you; it’s a bigger version of you.

CTA’s Beat FYI’s – One thing we know for sure about communications in 2020 is that people aren’t going to stay with you very long if you don’t keep them engaged. CTA’s (calls to action) almost always beat FYI’s (you know what that means). Whether you’re using a retail or wholesale communications channel, your messaging needs to be delivered in a way that encourages interaction and/or action between you and the audience, within the audience, from the primary audience to other audiences and especially within the minds of individual audience members. No matter what communications channel you’re using, always be thinking about the Now What? What do you want the audience to know, think, do, feel or believe? What’s your CTA both during and after the communications event?

So, that’s a recap of some my experiences and observations on the ways successful leaders use both retail and wholesale communications. What have I missed? What do you agree or disagree with? What’s one takeaway that you intend to act on?

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