How often does your marketing team put together a strategic plan? After 15 years in corporate America I have a pretty good sense for how this goes. If you operate on a calendar year budget cycle, budget talks typically start in October. For those operating on a fiscal year, you probably start around April.
Let’s take a look at the good, bad and ugly in strategic planning for corporate marketing teams.
We’ve all been there. You are incredibly busy and budget planning comes at the worst possible time of the year. As a result, your teams might start putting together their plans a couple of weeks before their budget proposals are due. They absolutely put thought into what their plans are, but it is limited to the amount of brainstorming and research that can be done in a couple of weeks while they still hold down their daily responsibilities. As a result, rather than building a true strategic plan teams are putting together a list of projects and expenses that they believe will justify their budget, rather than what the company really needs to do.
To be successful, we need to put some real time and energy into strategic planning. At a minimum the plan should take 6-8 weeks, which allows time for research, feedback and in-depth brainstorming. Each idea needs to be vetted before it goes into the plan and it’s impossible to do that with 2-3 weeks of planning.
Strategic Planning Only Focuses on the Short-Term
The challenge with this type of planning is that it only focuses on the next 12 months. Teams aren’t taking the time to put together a plan that really takes the company where it wants to be in the next 2 or 3 years. Frankly, many teams don’t have time to think that far ahead. Enterprise level companies have a hard enough time trying to pivot and keep up with the market. To think that we can push innovation and stay ahead with a 12-month plan is shortsighted to say the least. Planning in 12-month cycles means your company can only plan to be reactionary. Do you really think you can meet your goals when you are constantly reacting to what’s already happening in the market?
Teams should be building and modifying plans that focus on the next 36 months. Anything beyond that and the plan will include a lot of vapor. This allows the company to look at what they are building towards and creates room for more proactive initiatives. Further, the team can look and see where they are in achieving the goals for the 12-month plan and whether they are on track for future plans. If projects are finished early they can start laying the groundwork for projects next year or even move those projects up. We wouldn’t build a business plan to focus on only the next 12 months and our marketing plans shouldn’t be any different.
You’re Falling for Too Many Excuses
You may hear excuses that technology and marketing change so fast that planning any further ahead will be useless. To be honest, that is malarkey. Technology will change, channels will change, however core projects shouldn’t be focused on the technology solution, rather they should focus on the business objective. When they move into implementation technology solutions are updated and modified. We’ve found that core projects don’t change, however we may implement them differently based on the options available to us at the time.
If strategic plans focus on a technology solution or a specific channel, you know there is a problem. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if the project will be implemented on Twitter or Facebook. What matters is that you are trying to engage your customers in social platforms. Those platforms may change before the plan is implemented and the plan needs to include room for modifications based on current trends. Tell your teams to stop focusing on the channels and start focusing on the objective. Then define projects that can help achieve the objective with an understanding that technology will change and it may need to be modified before it moves into implementation. A strategic plan must be a living, breathing document.
You Want Case Studies on Successes From Others
I’ve seen it time and time again. Marketers put together a plan and then the CMO asks well who has already done this? Do you have any case studies? Here’s the problem with that approach. Basically, you are asking your team to follow the best practices that everyone is already using. That creates an environment of conformity, not innovation. The big question is, “do you want to be an innovator or a laggard?” There are clear cases of the benefits and financial gains that come to companies that innovate. Just look at the history of Google and Apple. Look at how LinkedIn has impacted companies like Monster and Careerbuilder. Or if you want something smaller, look at how companies like 37 Signals transformed project management, contact management, and file storage.
Don’t be scared to try something new. Instead, put parameters around how innovative ideas will be tested quickly and with a minimal investment. A framework for that is included in the next section.
Projects are Built in Silos and they Fail
Most marketers are putting together large projects in order to justify larger budgets. The idea is that if we have several big initiatives combined with some smaller initiatives it will be easy to justify my budget. Then when the team goes to implement the project they take the idea and what they think should be done and start building. There is a huge flaw in this model of project management. First, we aren’t getting buy-in and feedback from the audience the project is being built to serve. Second, we build something huge and then we hope and pray it will succeed when we roll it out.
Move teams into a lean start up mentality. Tell them to read The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. Have them focus on what they want to learn, how they would measure that they learned it, and what they can build in order to gain the learning. The goal is to build the first prototype in under two hours and put it in front of the target audience for feedback, then take that feedback and build the next iteration. It’s called rapid prototyping and we want teams to innovate and learn quickly. Let’s face it; enterprise level companies need to be more agile. There are no excuses here, just take a look at how Tom Chi used rapid prototyping to develop Google Glass. If Google, the second most valuable company in the U.S, can successfully adopt rapid prototyping so can your marketing team.
Strategic planning is mission-critical. Let’s push marketing teams to think ahead and build plans that are designed to deliver. It’s time to move beyond budget planning and get to mid-term strategic planning. Further, let’s approach projects differently so we can increase our chances of success. When we do that, everyone wins.
What flaws are in your strategic planning process? Are you creating 12 month or 36 month plans? Are you using rapid prototyping and lean methodologies? Leave a comment and join the conversation.