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Month after month there’s increasing data showing us that marketing people don’t plan or measure enough. Our own Smart Insights survey broadcast to 40,000 marketers saw 69% admitting that there is no digital marketing strategy in their current role. It’s the same story here where only 46% have a content marketing strategy and this in-depth McKinsey study.

It appears that we’re quick to dive into solutions, new techniques, tactics and channels – but we lack the over-arching strategic thinking necessary to optimize for success. The good news is, this is a choice, and we can make different choices.

CEOs don’t trust marketing

Worse, a recent survey by Fournaise Group in London highlights that senior executives don’t believe the marketing function demonstrates objective commercial thinking, with 73% of CEOs stating “marketers lack business credibility and the ability to generate sufficient growth”. 80% of CEOs simply don’t trust marketers at all, while 91% do trust CIOs and CFOs. Ouch. Though is it a surprise if the marketing function is, in some volume, admitting it lacks the necessary plans and strategy?

The three challenges

We’ve been discussing it within our own organization and have realized what we believe are the three common challenges:

1. Commercial Disconnect – Marketers need to take responsibility for the very evident commercial disconnect with senior executives. It’s not good enough to think that the ultimate decision makers do not understand marketing in their organization, that this is their issue. It may well be, and yet it’s crucial that this is bridged and that perspectives are shared, if only to keep your job.

2. Distraction, hoopla and hyperbole – the ever-evolving world of marketing, due in large to technology and a now very connected consumer, brings with it new marketing opportunities on a monthly basis. Too many “next big things”, promises and chasing what’s shiny and new introduces a real paradox of choice. Yet, it’s not the new that should concern us, it’s what matters to the customer. And of course, a rigorous evidence based trial and testing for opportunities that are relevant – ‘lean marketing’ we might say.

3. Lack of imagination and innovation. Marketing is about imagination, creating new ways to deliver a value to the customer, to earn disproportionate attention over trying to steal it with short-termism and promotionally led thinking. It’s sad to see so few case studies where our industry can hail genuine visionary or intuitive thinking. For such a creative profession, where’s the volume of innovation that’s most evident in start-ups or conversely the super brands?

Seven keys to success in 2014?

It’s a fairly simple answer if not a big commitment. It’s certainly not a question of complexity or difficulty. It is hard work, commitment, persistence, focus and requiring time from your team. Here are seven ideas we hope can help:

1. Create a plan that integrates digital marketing

Of course this is the start of it. Without a plan we’ll fill our time with what we like, want, think our boss wants or with reactions to external factors. There are many models, such as PR Smith’s SOSTAC, to act as planning frameworks. Planning in silos, especially channel planning integrated after the event is sure to serve a disconnected team.

Appreciate that there is also no one plan in isolation if you want to align a team and business. A summarized hierarchy of plans that translate and inform business objectives (upwards) as well as the highly tactical business-as-usual marketing will galvanize a team (downwards), and getting a business to have a shared vision and understanding is surely the secret to success?

2. Develop a consistent and relevant brand story

A best-in-sector approach to marketing means that a considered hierarchy of messages are consistent across all brand touch-points, that all content shares a common story, that all platforms work hard to at least support a common online value proposition. The maturing of this mission is more than consistently branded content, that’s obvious, it’s about consumer touch-points and mapping brand communications in a relevant way, thinking about the customer first and not what you want to say.

There are a myriad of models to enable the creation of a brand that knows what it is, who it serves and where it’s going. The Business Model Generation canvas is one such model, one that also serves to connect the brand, to marketing and the wider business.

3. Create value: design marketing that serves someone

I initially called this point ‘Customer focus’, but I realize that in 2014 we need to be more specific. Knowing and focusing on your audience is obvious, what isn’t obvious is designing your marketing to actually serve your customers. With the proliferation of branded content, there’s significant noise in your market and a likelihood of you creating any kind of meaningful cut-through is going to be difficult. Even where you have access to email, the increasingly time-starved consumer has a simple question – why should they care? Answer this for them by designing branded content and communications that serve them, not you. Start by understanding where your brand motivations overlap with those of your customer – what are the pain points or unmet needs?

It’s not all serious, more often than not your marketing, in the form of branded content, can exist to entertain, educate, inspire or convince. Our ‘Content Matrix’ is designed to remind of this and offer ideas and inspiration.

4. Plan to innovate and re-imagine

A number of brands do excellent work using the 70-20-10 model use by Coca-Cola, the goal is simply to recognize that marketing innovation has a longer term horizon where testing new ideas (the figure 10 in 70-20-10) is useful to inform the eventual day-to-day marketing (the figure 70). This plan to imagine and evolve is how Dell or Red Bull realize projects such as Stratos, and how Lynx (Axe in some countries) integrate their creative so well across multiple channels. It takes real imagination though; the award winning Dove Real Beauty campaign shows us this challenge as well as the potential reward.

5. Set manageable objectives and KPIs

A simple but crucial difference lies between goals and objectives, whereas goals are broad aspirations of success, objectives are specific. If you want to manage expectations then objectives must be measurable, specific and time-bound and where possible have relatable KPIs to manage specific channels, see below. Make no mistake though, plans that anchor only to KPIs can only ever facilitate marginal improvements in that channel or from a fixed perspective – they need to anchor to bigger objectives too if your aim is to integrate your marketing and drive compounded benefits.

6. Set and maintain a strategy (the most important step!)

Strategy sets apart the planning minded from the doing minded, leaders from followers and super successful from, well, the average. Strategy creates direction and differentiation from competitors instead of ‘group-think’, it offers context for ideas and imagination, it frees people to own and think for themselves and connects marketing to commercials. It is that important.

Taking the time and space to think about how those goals will be met is not easy. Data and insights will offer ways to interpret and define opportunity; it cannot pave the way. I believe this is why strategy is ignored – it’s hard work and there is little harder than deciding what you will stop doing. One of the most useful models is ANSOFF, and to get a team thinking about strategy in this way can offer a real eureka moment – illustrating why strategy is so important, especially for teams with limited and potentially liberated resources.

7. Optimise, optimize, optimize…

Great, you have plan, a strategy even – and you’re not done, you never are – so celebrate it – it’s why someone of your immense talent has a job! Employing an agile or lean methodology enables you to improve regularly instead of leaving weeks, months or years between improvements.

Do you have a test and learn culture? If not, is it time to adopt one. Here’s a simple model:

Take strategic planning seriously

The take-away here is to take marketing planning seriously, as an important business function, if you in turn want to be taken seriously at the boardroom table. Our seven keys to success are here only to inspire thinking where you already know you’re weakest. Without doubt the most important challenge to overcome is the disconnect with senior management by creating a marketing strategy, it enables marketing to speak a business language, to be understood and respected, and to galvanize a team.

What do you think – what would you question or add to our list?