Understanding your current state, defining your desired state, and setting your strategy.
Marketers everywhere are scrambling to set their marketing and digital marketing strategies for the coming year, and encountering obstacles ranging from corporate politics to shifting or disappearing budgets to a lack of appropriate information upon which to base that strategy. Most would welcome a tested approach to help define a strategy in a way that can drive planning and action and get internal support, but first we have to agree on what that strategy is. A budget allocation is not a strategy; neither is a goal a strategy - regardless of how well-defined that goal might be. The strategy is the much-needed plan to get you from your current state to your desired state.
This is an outline of a 12-step plan to help you understand your current state, define your desired state, and plot your strategy to bridge the gap from one to the other for a successful 2012 in digital marketing.
Understanding your current state:
Review past results. In an industry like ours, the past should be viewed primarily as a directional guide because all of the opportunities and channels have morphed in significant ways in the last year. Don't ignore the stats but delve well-beyond them to the important insights about audience behaviors, channel preferences, and other learnings that can be applied to the opportunities present now.
Start with the past year's results (or another appropriate time period) against goals. Look at channel-specific impacts. Identify both the spectacular winning and losing efforts of the past and dissect them to understand why they fell in one camp or the other. Gather all of your stats - site, social media channels, email lists, etc. (including trending data) and dig in. Identify any dips or spikes in activity or performance and explain them.
Review environmental realities and changes. As noted, the world continues to spin while we make our plans and you want your new strategy to be relevant, so take into account any channel or industry changes. Do you have new competitors? New distribution options? New regulations? Supply chain issues? Budget challenges? Bad PR or a failed product launch to overcome? Factor the real world into your planning and identify key opportunities as well as risk factors.
Document competitor activity including any new entrants noting spend, approach (channels, tactics), messaging, assets, and results. Set trackers to follow their progress and try and look for patterns that suggest where they are seeing results.
Look for any changes in your audience. Mine your stats in various channels to establish demos and any trending information you can use. Use your partners to gather behavioral data.
Defining your desired state:
Articulate business goals. The marketing strategy and goals are nonsense if they do not ultimately reflect and support the business goals. Start at the top to understand what business moves and impacts on your organization plans to make for the year and how you can accomplish them. Translate those business goals into specific, quantifiable objectives with timeframes that can help define your optimal marketing strategy.
Articulate channel goals. Review all your options and identify how each channel is best used for your overall marketing goals. The channels and options are not interchangeable and each should have its own set of objectives. Look at how each one can contribute to the overall goals. In a best case, they help and support each other. Some elements of the plan might be great at driving awareness or traffic, while others create an excellent platform for remarketing, for example. Budgets, timeframes, messaging, and other elements should be revised according to your plan needs. Don't forget your offline elements in this mix.
Articulate testing goals. What questions do you want to be able to answer about your audience, products, business, or campaigns this year? Set yourself up for success by structuring those tests to ensure the answers in advance.
Setting your strategy:
Confirm total budget. Unless you live in a fairytale marketing world, this budget is probably handed down to you before you have a chance to set the strategy. If the established budget does not give you the ability to meet your marketing goals, then you must prioritize, clearly communicate the lost opportunities, and set revised goals that make sense within the budget parameters. To make the most of your budget, establish out-clauses that don't tie your hands as you optimize across channels once you start getting results.
Brainstorm initial approaches/tactics and messaging. Allocate budget across goals (not channels!). This is often the step where people start their strategy work - in a room with a white board and not enough information to get the job done well. The tactics that make up your strategy should be the steps that take you from your current to your desired state. Even the best, most innovative ideas may not take you down the path you need. Be sure to continually check back to your defined path while involved in your brainstorming so you won't be tempted off course.
Now that you have a set budget, you need to tie that budget back to your goals - not the channels. Don't forget creative or production budgets, email broadcast fees, talent, stock, or other miscellaneous add-ons.
Allocate budgets for an initial period. It may be tempting to set the strategy for the entire year and wash your hands of the exercise, but in reality the plan is never set in concrete and should be optimized regularly for best results. One way to ensure regular check-ins is to mandate them by planning for an initial period and institutionalizing the regular review. The length of that initial period may depend on the seasonality and other factors specific to your business.
Set project timelines checking assets and resources for the proposed plans. It's reality-check time. You have done your homework and stayed on plan and in budget to define your strategy, but there are still risk factors. Now is the time that strong project management can save the day. Do you have the time, expertise, and resources to execute on your strategy? Double-check with vendor partners on specs and lead times so you don't have any surprises.
Sit on the finished plan for at least a couple of days and then review it with fresh eyes. Have you accounted for mobile, social, email, site impacts, integration with offline elements? New browser updates or devices? In your gut, does this feel like the right way to go or a watered down compromise? Ask someone not involved in the plan production to review the background information and completed plan. An outside consultant can be very helpful here.
Set appropriate internal expectations on results. Make sure everyone's expectations are set on the scale and speed with which you expect to see results. Set official check-in dates with a dashboard that tracks results against stated goals and outlines recommended next steps. This should allow you to continue to march forward toward that desired state without uninformed organizational nervous twitches creating panicked off-plan responses.
Create a concise mission statement for your plan. Use this mission statement to rally the troops, remind everyone of the goals, and to test the new inputs that will invariably come up during the year. If you can't articulate what you want to achieve with this multi-faceted, multi-dimensional plan in a sentence or two, start back up at step No. 1.
Have you started down the strategy road for 2012?
This column was originally published Oct. 19, 2011.
Robin is the CEO and cofounder of NetPlus Marketing Inc., a top 50 interactive agency established in 1996 to focus exclusively on online marketing and advertising best practices. Robin brings innovative strategy and a depth and breadth of marketing experience to the agency's practice and management. As one of the industry's pioneers, she is a driving force behind NetPlus Marketing's ongoing success with a diverse and discerning client base that considers online results critical to their business success.
Robin is a frequent speaker at national industry events, including ClickZ, internet.com, OMMA, Ad:Tech, SES, Online Marketing Summit, and Thunder Lizard conferences and is a sought-after resource for industry and business publications for her insight and advice on such topics as digital strategy, social media marketing, and behavioral targeting.