Strategy and planning is our core business. But it is rarely an easy ride. Something I have pondered about in the past is Why is developing digital strategy is so damn difficult? Having just finished a significant piece of strategy development work I thought it might be worthwhile sharing some of the things I have learnt along the way about strategy and planning.
You might recognise some of these? You probably have something to add. You might disagree with everything I am saying! Whichever applies I would love to hear from you.
One – take a big breath
There is no easy way to get to grips with an entirely new problem, business or sector. It requires full and complete immersion. In fact some planners call it that. So, when the client says ‘yes’, take a big breath. You are going in. Deep.
Two – apply a planning model
Planning models and frameworks are an essential part of your toolkit. There are many. Not the sort of thing you find in the management consultancy section in airport bookshops … a proper marketing planning framework. But remember, each client and each problem is different. The real skill is applying the right model in the right way.
Three – find a way to make it doable
With all those ifs, buts and maybes flying around your head sometimes it’s difficult to find a way forward. What you need, during those occasionally dark times, is a solution that feels ‘doable’. It might not be the right one but it will give you enough direction and something to critique that it will help you on your way to finding the right solution.
Four – involve others
Two, three, four … more heads are better than one. Those people that work in and to the business will understand the business better than you. Don’t forget it. Involve them in the process. Not only will the final outcome be a better one but it will be one that people are bought into. That’s really important.
Five – direction is more important than perfection
Moving forward with something that is 75% right is better than deliberating for too long and coming up with something that is 90% right. Create a strategy and delivery approach that supports ongoing optimsation and improvement. Test and Learn. Fail better fail faster. Doesn’t matter what call it.
Six – deal with the unknown
We expect to have all the knowledge and insight we need at our fingertips to help us make the right strategic decisions. Wake up! In the real world (yes, even the data driven one we all talk about) it is likely you will have to deal with some significant gaps. Fill those gaps where you can and address the ones you can’t ‘moving forward’.
Seven – it’s never finished
So, don’t even try. Create clear expectations and a defined set of deliverables but be honest with yourself and your client. Any strategy will develop over time. There’s nothing wrong with having a list of issues that represent a work in progress. Don’t write big documents that sit on the shelf and nobody reads.
Eight – think delivery
Make it simple enough to deliver. Then make it simpler again. Work with the resources you have and create an appropriate set of priorities. Phases and staged delivery is good. A successful strategy should help the business put the right things at the top of the to-do list.
Nine – change is everything
Strategy provides the basis for change. Change can be uncomfortable. Developing strategy very quickly becomes change management. Take account of that. The successfully implementation of your strategy depends on it.
Ten – it’s all encompassing
One blog each month. That’s all. So, what happened to April?
I’m not a fan of sweet fizzy drinks but if you have not seen this and you are even slightly interested in the evolving and critical role that content plays in digital marketing you should take a look at these two videos from Coca Cola.
The videos introduce what Coca Cola call the move from ‘creative excellence’ to ‘content excellence’ and describe the role and evolution of different types of storytelling … and the bit on research is also really interesting.
This stuff is applicable to almost any content related challenge.
Whatever the brand. Whatever the industry.
I’d love to see how they drive cultural change across the organisation to support what the videos are saying. I guess that’s one of the reasons they made them!
Despite what you might think of their products this is great stuff.
Strategy and planning is our core business. We work with a diverse range of clients from travel through online retail to charity to undertake this type of work. We’ve been doing this for some time now and without trying to blow our own trumpet too much we think we’re getting pretty good at it. In fact one of the things I really like about working on strategy and planning is that, whilst it is wrapped in a clear process and the application of an appropriate framework, coming up with a successful end result is one that relies on a nice blend of the logical and creative. It’s left and right hand brain stuff.
So why is it so damn difficult? Working on strategy and planning is never an easy ride … and it shouldn’t be. It should be about understanding change, challenging perceived wisdoms and taking a critical look at the way you do things. Don’t expect it to be simple. Here are some of the reasons why. We think that taking these on board from the outset helps everyone involved in the process.
Digital really is different
Success across digital channels relies on a lot of the same things that success across more traditional channels does. Things like understanding your audience, a clear approach to segmentation and targeting and a robust approach to measurement still apply. But digital is different and it does require a different mindset. Digital channels are always on. Increasingly it is about understating networks rather than understanding media. Taking a more agile approach where test and learn rules is critical to success. Those with a more traditional marketing background need to get to grips with where it is different and where it is similar. More importantly planning needs to drive integration across multiple channels and that represents a significant challenge.
The outcome and implications might be uncomfortable
Digital marketing is increasingly becoming more about mouse clicks than media spend. It is also about thinking creatively and being smart. Perhaps ironically, as digital channels continue to develop it is more about people than technology. That puts greater demands on those people involved in delivering strategy and the associated tactical plan. This applies to both your in house and agency team. It can require different people with different skills and experience who are organised in a different way. Those kinds of changes have some uncomfortable realities around them. Senior management must be up to speed and on board if these kind of things can be addressed successfully.
You might not trust what we are saying
No more have I experienced the process that is often described as ‘forming, storming, norming and performing’ than when I have worked with new clients around planning and strategy. The starting point is that we will never understand a client’s business like they understand their business. We say that from the outset. But we do understand digital and marketing and we do bring a process into play that can and does facilitate the better understanding of the opportunities that exist. What is true however, is that after starting out with a shared ‘lets change the world’ vision, we will probably enter muddy waters when you don’t entirely buy into and trust what we are telling you. The best thing I can say is that if you hang in there the useful tension that is created will drive a positive outcome. In each and every planning exercise I have undertaken it has done exactly that.
One thing for sure is that the success or otherwise of any strategy and planning process comes down to the people involved and how they work together to address the issues that arise. Like anything it helps if you are honest and open about some of the challenges you are likely to face from the beginning.
There are probably more than three reasons … but then I can only count to three. This is, like a lot of our work, a work in progress so comments and thoughts are entirely welcome.
Once upon a time I used to sit next to and work with a bunch of ‘proper’ software developers. I was aware of the waterfall method as applied to software development. A sequential process and one characterised by a fixed specification and longer development cycles. More recently I became interested in the Agile Manifesto and how we could apply that to our marketing planning and the implementation and ongoing optimisation of the campaigns we run. Over the last couple of years and almost without realising it we have been changing the way we approach things and that change represents the application of a more agile marketing method.
Why change and change from what?
I remember a time – not that long ago – when we used to develop a plan for the year, stick to it, measure it and improve it. But things changed.
Even in the corporate world increasing levels of uncertainty meant we were starting to deal with today much more than we ever had in the past. We are still dealing with that uncertainty and stability feels unobtainable – especially in the current economic climate. Survival mode seems to have become modus operandi.
At the same time we started working for smaller businesses – those turning over between £5 and £10 million. We became acutely aware that whilst they needed to understand how they achieved their longer term objectives they also needed to understand (right away) what they needed to do today, tomorrow and next week.
The rise of digital brought with it new opportunities and new ways of doing things. Measurement and ongoing optimisation can start the minute a campaign goes live. Test and learn is everything. “Give it a go and see what happens” became a viable approach to planning.
Which agile principles can be applied to marketing?
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools Responding to change over following a plan
He suggests some additional ideals that might apply to an agile marketing manifesto;
Intimate customer tribes over impersonal mass markets
Testing and data over opinions and conventions
Numerous small experiments over a few large bets
Engagement and transparency over official posturing
How does the agile marketer behave?
If you read our blog you’ll pick up on my “it’s all about the people” approach. In my mind Frank Days’ post Sex and the Agile Marketer is absolutely bang on. He compares a new breed of marketer to what he calls the ‘Waterfall Marketer’. It’s well worth a read. I bet you can spot the Waterfall Marketers in your organisation … but hopefully you can spot a few agile ones too!
Making the move towards a more agile approach
You probably already are. The pace of change is such that no one knows the answers anymore. As individuals we are all learning by doing. The trick is applying this approach more broadly and creating an environment which supports individual needs while at the same time ensures teams are constantly appraising what they are doing and adjusting things accordingly.
Practical advice that we certainly sign up to includes that provided in Marketbright’s post on the Agile Marketing Method. Specifically if you are managing marketing programmes and teams that includes;
Move from longer plans to six week “sprints”.
Have daily 15 minute “sprint meetings”. Bit like a Hill Street Blues morning roll call. Ask each person what they are working on, how things are going, and what if anything is preventing them from getting their job done.
Track your team’s commitments and understand the capacity you have and the “velocity” you can achieve i.e. how much stuff you can get done over what timescales. Make team production more predictable, reliable and repeatable.
Embrace change based on testing and actual campaign metrics.
Let people add new items to the list. Leave the room in your project planning meetings to help accommodate last minute adjustments.
The end result should be that your organisation is learning by doing. Not only are you getting things done right now but the planning process you are running alongside that means that you are driving ongoing improvements more quickly and making incremental steps towards a better future in an increasingly uncertain and changing environment.
I remember recently seeing something like this on twitter, ‘When I don’t tweet I don’t get any work. When I do tweet I don’t get any work done’
Blogging is a bit like that and I have woefully disregarded our blog for more than a few weeks now. My head has been well and truly in the “do”. Do as in “doing”, not do as in “do do”. Sound familiar? Well here are some thoughts on how to keep ahead of the always on and everyone is a publisher game … or maybe just cope when you are not.
Prior planning and preparation prevents piss poor performance. Do they actually say that in the British Army? I imagine they probably do and, guess what, they are right. There is a lot of truth in the post Seven reasons why your blog sucks and what to do about it. Have you got a plan?
Of course that is a bit like your Mum asking you where you saw it last when you have lost something. A bit annoying. The other thing you can do is give yourself a helping hand and become better at curating content. For starters try the three things mentioned in the post How to use content curation to add value to your own website.
So, what about when you are really struggling? Well hopefully you’ll stumble across something that really resonates with you and some of the things you are working on. Close to the bottom of the list maybe but there’s even value in recycling good content across your own network.
Here’s a good example. We are talking to a bunch of people around paid search and how we might use the channel differently. Less as a direct channel and more of a brand channel. The video describes it better, ‘A Peer branding campaign. A media buy that is not a media buy. A way of tying Converse directly to consumer interest’. When God made Americans he must have had videos and presentations like this in mind. Neat!
Start by formulating some real clarity around existing content within the organisation. There’s no escaping it, an audit on some scale will need to take place to establish what content is a genuine asset, what content is performing well and what existing content can potentially be re-purposed for a new channel.
Understanding the current patterns of content production
Start with some key questions. How is content currently planned and produced? What resources are being spent on production? Where are the content creation specialisms within the organisation?
Defining business and user goals
Users want useful and engaging content, they also want it to be easy to find and share. The business wants to raise awareness and engagement across key products and services – and ultimately sell more stuff. It also wants to wrap it’s products and services in a brand position, point of view and tone of voice.
The challenge of defining a workable content strategy is to mesh these foundations together and make them the foundation of the strategy. Beyond that there’s getting organizational buy-in, creating an editorial board, implementing work flow process and creating content production guidelines. Easy pips!
Developing a content strategy is potentially a really rewarding digital journey, one that if planned and executed well could put the organisation in a great place. Working more collaboratively with a renewed sense of purpose.
It’s that time of year when you tend to look forwards. What will the year bring? How will it compare to last year? Is it going to be a good summer? This time last year I wrote about 10 digital marketing trends to watch out for in 2010 and I’ve just gone back and re-read them. Strikingly it occurred to me that whilst most of what had been written about had indeed been a feature of 2010 most of it was still very much applicable this year.
Take that last point. You need to figure out how it all applies to your business – where to invest, where to test and what deserves a rest. It feels like there is a common sense approach to doing digital. Focus on your core business and what works but at the same time continue to allocate some resource to test and learn. Focus on data and drive actionable insights that help you improve what you are doing. Above all be agile.
We’ve been talking about fundamental and revolutionary change for a while now. Yep, web 2.0 and everything that is social was certainly that. But now? There’s still loads of learning to be done and each day brings something new in terms of the toolset at our disposal but what about the principles? Aren’t we figuring those out? At the same time we are also realizing that some of those principles that represented good marketing in our traditional world still represent good marketing in our digital world.
Integration. We really are thinking about multichannel now and we are even starting to define multichannel roles within the organisations we work in. Those organisations are starting to think beyond the big idea, tone of voice and creative execution. They are starting to figure out how to deliver integrated marketing campaigns across multiple channels. Words like conversation, engagement, participation and sharing are becoming part of every marketers vocabulary.
It’s often simple and unifying approaches that help you find solutions to complex problems. Delivering integrated marketing campaigns can feel like one of those problems. So bring it back to the basics. The building blocks – content, distribution, platforms, people and measurement. Developing a content strategy across your owned, earned and bought media that delivers specific objectives across the customer journey is perhaps one of those unifying approaches.
Focus on your core business. Apply well-understood marketing principles. Join things up and find simple unifying approaches to tackle complex problems. Is digital marketing growing up? Feels like it might be.