Strategic marketing vs. marketing as a service

Marketing is an interesting discipline in today’s world. In some companies, the team ends up relegated to service status, playing a reactive role in supporting sales. I’ve started referring to it as marketing as a service, or MaaS, since everything as a service is all the rage these days. For larger organizations, I’m not a huge fan of this approach since there’s usually significant investment to salaries of qualified individuals who understand the business strategy and build plans that help move it forward.

Relegating those people to reactive roles isn’t the best way to get a return on that investment, though there are times it can make sense. Sadly, this structure means marketing doesn’t have the impact it could if it was given a place at the table to have more strategic influence in the business.

Why should marketing be a driver of strategy?

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This may be an oversimplification to some, but marketing can’t effectively communicate to market what your organization has to offer if it’s always jumping every time sales or a senior executive says jump. When this happens, it’s a possible sign that there’s a lack of understanding or respect for the true impact marketing can have in helping businesses grow.

Instead, broadly speaking, marketing needs to develop messaging, validate it with the appropriate input from other departments and then manage how that message is disseminated so it’s compelling, cohesive and consistent.

But it can’t just be compelling. It has to be compelling to the right audience and meet them where they are. The cohesiveness and consistency should flow through pre- and post-sales touch points, a gargantuan effort that requires working cross-functionally across most of the organization. Marketers have to become adept jugglers of objectives, audience and message to inspire action.

If your marketing is fluff, you’re doing it wrong

Someone once made the argument to me that we should be getting subject matter experts (SMEs) to write content instead of marketing so the content isn’t fluff. My experience with marketers is that the good ones become experts in their particular discipline (content, product marketing, digital marketing) and they work hard to learn as much as humanly possible about the industry as well.

The marketing team that works together well is its own SME. We combine the message we need to communicate with valuable thought leadership to create compelling, useful content. Any team that can’t do this without constant oversight and involvement from SMEs outside of marketing is offloading their job to others. This may sound harsh, but it’s much harder to take something written through a different lens and make it marketable. It’s easier to get SMEs to validate content that was written for marketing purposes.

The marketing team isn’t fluff either

I alluded to the lack of understanding of marketing’s role earlier. We have a reputation of being the fun, social, wine-drinking folks who spend all their time taking selfies and tweeting, but this not-entirely-wrong-but-rather-superficial view doesn’t account for the hard work we’re celebrating on these occasions. It also doesn’t recognize the continuous learning good marketers do to maintain a depth of knowledge about business, marketing trends, best practices, and what’s going on in our industry of focus.

Marketing, despite popular belief, is  not exclusively a lead-gen machine. Generating a high volume of leads isn’t the goal. Generating high-quality leads isn’t even necessarily the goal. After all, there needs to be a robust process in place to leverage leads that come in. If the infrastructure and process aren’t there, that may be the priority over generating leads in the first place. This is why choosing the right marketing approach and activities is a natural extension of knowing what you want to accomplish. Then marketing can and should have a powerful impact on business results.

The challenge? Many marketing orgs are still reporting on leads generated but since that isn’t a metric that shows on the financials (thank goodness), it’s important for the work of marketing to be tied to revenue in reporting to reflect their true importance to the business. Speaking the language of revenue can get us there.

The most important question a marketer can ask

I firmly believe we have to ask why. Always. If there isn’t a clear purpose, especially with out-of-the-blue, one-off requests, the activity doesn’t pass the smell test in my book. Yes, there will be occasional times when you do a thing just because. But if that’s the status quo, there probably isn’t much strategic marketing going on. Here are a few answers to the “why” question that need further exploration:

  • Sales needs it. (Why? What’s the business case for doing it if it’s not in the plan? Is there a critical gap in our existing content/collateral that needs to be addressed?)

  • We’ve always done it. (Why? Do you know it works? What results did you get from it before? Any leads? Sales? Show data that support the decision.)

  • Exec X asked for it. (Why? What’s the impact of doing it and diverting resources from the plan? If something has to be dropped or delayed, is Exec X okay with that?)

I’m not saying the answer is no when marketing is asked to go off plan. But the answer shouldn’t automatically be a resounding yes. We have to be flexible and provide support, but we can’t lose sight of the work we have to do to achieve our goals in support of the business objectives because we’re accountable for the goals we set, even if we spend all our time in a reactive state. And we need to make data-driven decisions rather than relying on instinct whenever possible.

The fun part of marketing

Working in a team that practices strategic marketing is this perfect blend of creativity (coming up with all the ideas), strategy (building plans that lead to results), execution (getting stuff done and delivered), and learning (business, marketing, and industry). It’s a machine that runs so beautifully when you bring the right people together. And we love when a executing a plan generates the results we expect. That’s well worth celebrating. For the business that has a strategically-minded marketing team, they’ll see the benefits of those people and their contributions in the bottom line.

Making a plan to get where you want to go faster

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When I was in university, I decided to take my first solo road trip from my hometown, Tallahassee, to Orlando, Florida. It was a mere four-ish hours away and I had made the trip many times before. I just wasn’t in the driver’s seat. I also didn’t pay any attention to how we got there (or back). Driving down to Orlando, I had my handy printout of MapQuest directions to get me to Disney World where I was meeting a friend for a day spent at the happiest place on earth. After about 12 hours of exploring 3 parks, it was time for me to head back home. (Yes, I planned a day trip to Disney - as you do when you’re that young and energetic.)

This is when my planning failed me: I didn’t print out directions from Orlando to Tallahassee. And, since I had to go find a gas station before I hit the highway, I ended up quite lost in a not-so-lovely part of town back in the days before smartphones and consumer GPS. I don’t remember how I finally found the highway I needed, but I managed to get there eventually. I also made it back home safely and even went to work the next day, though I did go in late.

Planning starts with knowing your destination

I went to Orlando kind of impulsively. I didn’t have any money (poor college student). I was getting free admission from my friend whose uncle worked for Disney. I thought it was a good idea to drive down and return home in a single day, even after my friend sensibly offered me a couch to sleep on. To this day, I have no idea what my reasons were for going other than just wanting to.

Planning starts with establishing your goals so you can break down the steps it takes to accomplish them. But it’s not as straightforward as simply making a list of things you want to do. There are some questions you’ll want to consider so you start with realistic goals:

  • Why do you want to do each of these things?

  • Have you considered whether this is the right plan for your target market?

  • How do these goals fit into the larger business plan and goals?

  • Are the goals you’ve set measurable?

  • Do you have the resources to accomplish these goals?

Good questions, aren’t they? It’s tempting to get a great idea, see the goal and jump into action. But taking a step back and seeing the big picture can keep you from moving ahead with something that isn’t going to serve you well in the long term.

Outline the steps to get to your destination

The entire time I drove around Orlando after the parks closed, I wanted to kick myself for not making a better plan. I knew exactly where I wanted to end up but I had no clue what my exact steps were to get started on my way. That can be a paralyzing feeling when you have a big goal you want to achieve. Or you may end up driving in circles, going in every direction that isn’t the right one.

You can avoid this chaos by mapping out your plan so you know exactly where you are and you can more accurately track your progress. And it’s usually easier to start with the end goal and work your way back to the beginning. This process can help you gain further clarity around the resources you’ll need so you can make tweaks as needed.

Don’t forget to think about how you’re going to measure

You’ve set goals, but you need to know before you start how you’re going to measure the effectiveness of your efforts. If you don’t establish the metrics in advance, it can be challenging to get an accurate picture of how your plan has performed. And in marketing, measurement needs to be considered throughout execution to ensure the chosen tactics are set up properly to provide the data you need.

Expect the unexpected and be ready to react

Wouldn’t it be great if things always went to plan? I’ve heard that half of marketing effort should be spent on planning though I’ve never experienced that and I don’t know if it’s actually realistic. Having a plan is important but we can’t get bogged down by the planning process or get so married to the plan that we can’t adapt when it’s required. No plan should ever be etched in stone. That’s a sure way to frustration.

Enjoy the process of doing great work

Doing a day trip for the purpose of spending the day at Disney open to close wasn’t my smartest idea, but it was an adventure I don’t regret. I learned a lot from the experience, particularly the value of having a comprehensive plan that accounts for every step of the journey. Not having a plan could have robbed me of all the enjoyment of the trip, but I managed to figure it out and things worked out. Knowing that it could have gone very differently has been a good motivator for me to avoid the mistake of winging it on the wrong things.

What are your favourite advantages to making a plan?

The allure of a blank page

Recently, someone in a writing group I’m in posted this:

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If you've ever stared at a blank page in a planner, notebook, calendar, or journal with a feeling of anticipation but not knowing where to start, then you get it too. 

With the start of a New Year, the potential that exists stretching out in the days ahead feels so great. There's a feeling of anticipation and motivation when you flip the calendar over to January 1 each year. 

I don't think I've had a year yet where the blank page won. I'm not really sure how to live in such a way that I don't make a notable mark in life, even if it's merely an indention on the paper.  

This year I feel greater anticipation than ever. 2015 was a transformative year for me (I've co-opted that word from several friends who have indicated similar feelings). How do you go through a year of transformation and not feel great anticipation in the future?

I'm excited. Really good things are happening and I hope your year is going just as well for you. If you aren't quite there yet, maybe it will help to reflect on 2015 and plan for 2016. I bet you have a lot more going for you than you realize. Sometimes we just need a little more time and a nudge to see it.

My words in this space may come sporadically for the first few months, though I'm going to try to maintain a weekly schedule. With my schedule already full for the first three months, it may not happen every week. But I hope you'll hang around with me even during the times of silence.

Because the page isn't winning - I'm just working in a different book for a moment.