We can’t control what happens to us. We can only control how we react.

In business as in life, often the trends or events that have the greatest impact are those that happen outside of our walls. As a digital marketing agency, events like the 2008 recession, the rise of marketing technology, or the latest Google algorithm change have had a much longer-lasting effect on our approach to marketing than many of the initiatives we’ve set into motion.

Marketing in 2017 is a discipline of rapid iteration. And rapid iteration doesn’t lend itself very well to rigidly set 12-month plans. Which is why 2017 is the year we are officially announcing the death of the 12-month marketing plan.

Why 12-month Marketing Plans are Dead

Look: we all understand the importance of budgeting for the fiscal year ahead. And you can’t very well budget without a plan across which you intend to spend that budget.

But way too often, marketing departments are pigeonholed into dumping their marketing budgets into channels and tactics that prove themselves to be ineffective, without any ability to change course until the next budgeting cycle.

Black hat, low-quality link-building might have seemed like a good investment to companies in November 2011 when marketing budgets were finalized, but it sure wasn’t when Google’s Penguin algorithm rolled out in April 2012 and sites benefitting from spammy links started incurring serious penalties from the search engine behemoth.

If you’ve spent any time in marketing, I’m sure you’ve faced some version of this challenge:

  • The website you knew was irreparably broken, but that you had no way of fixing for the next ten months
  • The paid advertising campaign you couldn’t turn off that succeeded only in hemorrhaging cash
  • The 12-month retainer with the SEO agency that provided monthly reports full of useless data and a bunch of “results” that contributed $0 to your bottom line
  • The trade show strategy that failed to generate an iota of attributable revenue after the first two shows, with another five still left to go

If any sort of change is made to the marketing plan, it generally involves a reduction in budget and initiatives. Instead of budgeting for innovation (which includes the risk of failure), organizations try to play it safe by defaulting to shutting everything down when things don’t go according to plan. And nothing short of an acquisition, merger, PR disaster, or leadership change is going to change this approach before the next budgeting cycle begins.

We cannot be forced to sit and wait a year before we have the opportunity to pivot from an ineffective or outdated strategy. But if we’re going to kill the 12-month marketing plan, then we need to make certain we replace it with something that marries long-term goal-setting with real-time iteration.

The Modern Marketing Plan, Plain and Simple

There are a lot of ways to create a more flexible marketing strategy. One is to integrate a fully-functioning agile methodology into your marketing efforts. We’ve previously written about the benefits of agile marketing, and for organizations willing to commit to this kind of intra-organizational disruption, the approach offers unprecedented accountability and complete freedom to turn on a dime on a moment’s notice.

But we recognize that for many organizations, agile marketing is too far a swing of the pendulum, and it can make it difficult to navigate long-term goal-setting or forecasting.

So rather than adding to the headache that is leading a marketing department in 2017, we have a more straightforward, three-step strategy for creating an efficient, effective, and modern marketing strategy:

  1. Tie annual marketing KPIs to annual business goals
  2. Embrace innovation and flexibility in your marketing budget
  3. Use 90-day cycles to evaluate and reset your marketing plan

1. Tie annual marketing KPIs to annual business goals

This step is straightforward, but easily forgotten. Every single annual marketing departmental objective should tie directly to an annual business goal. If your organization plans to grow revenues by 25% or 200%, then you should be able to determine how many marketing- or sales-qualified leads you need to generate in order to hit that mark, and use that as your key performance indicator (KPI). Orphaned marketing objectives, or KPIs with no specific ties to the goals your organization intends to accomplish in the year ahead, should be removed from the equation altogether – there’s nothing worse than spending eight months on an initiative when you have no way of knowing how it relates to the business at large.

2. Embrace innovation and flexibility in your marketing budget

Because operating budgets are set with the fiscal year in mind, your marketing budget has to have flexibility built into it. We’ve already discussed how enterprise organizations are allocating 11% of their annual marketing budgets to innovation, and why organizations of all sizes should consider doing the same.

In addition to a dedicated innovation budget, your marketing department must have the flexibility to shift its spend to reflect real-time results. It’s fine to create an annual marketing budget by forecasting how much you think you are going to spend on technology, advertising, talent, and marketing channels over the year ahead, but those estimates cannot become constraints that prevent you from diverging when new opportunities arise or existing initiatives prove fruitless.

3. Use 90-day cycles to evaluate and reset your marketing plan

From experience in working alongside our clients, we’ve found the 90-day cycle to be the best method of evaluating an “annual” marketing plan. Ninety days is almost always enough time to generate results that will help you determine the effectiveness of the strategies you have adopted, which strategies need to be optimized, and which need to be pulled altogether.

That doesn’t always mean that strategies can be easily fit into a single 90-day window. If you determine you need to launch an entirely new website, you’re likely going to have to spend at least one quarter developing it before you can devote the next 90 days to launching it and analyzing the results.

It also certainly doesn’t mean you should only measure performance on a quarterly basis. If you’re directly responsible for managing digital advertising, email marketing, or site-wide conversion-rate testing, you should be spending time every day optimizing performance based on real-time results (or purchasing technologies that can make these changes for you). Similarly, you should never go longer than 30 days without a serious review of your site traffic and lead generation dashboards, with several cursory reviews scattered throughout the month.

Instead, 90 days is the maximum amount of time you should wait before your department reevaluates its marketing plan and determines how they’re going to modify it for the following 90 days. In effect, the 12-month marketing plan you draft every fall transforms into a series of four, 3-month marketing plans, all of which share common annual objectives and a common annual operating budget. Every 90-day cycle is able to build on the cycle that preceded it, because your team is empowered and prepared to course correct regularly.

The Modern Marketing Plan, Enacted

Once you’ve structured (or restructured) your marketing plan to adhere to these three steps, everything should be able to follow suit with relative ease, including your relationship with partners and technologies outside your organization.

As an outsourced partner to our clients’ internal marketing departments, we use 90-day cycles to evaluate the shared strategy driving all of our marketing efforts, using the results of these efforts to inform how that strategy needs to evolve over the next three months. This holds us accountable for the actions we take and ensures our clients never find themselves in the dark about what’s happening with their marketing.

Similarly, the rise of SaaS and cloud computing as the primary methods of distributing marketing and sales technology means that in many cases, you’re now able to discard platforms that are unable to demonstrate a time-to-value of less than 90 days long before they have the opportunity to become unnecessary shelfware.

The additional benefit of this approach to marketing planning is that you can retroactively apply it to a plan that has already been adopted, so long as leadership provides the runway to be able to do so. So if you’re reading this post in January while implementing a 12-month marketing plan you finalized in November, it’s definitely not too late to change course.

Just don’t get stuck with a plan that’s failing. Otherwise, your 12-month marketing plan may not be the only part of your organization that dies in 2017.

Want to learn more about how we’ve structured our marketing plan to fit the modern approach to marketing? Email me at [email protected], and I will send you the framework that drives every plan our marketing team launches.

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Aaron Harrison

Aaron Harrison’s background wasn’t originally in marketing, but his love for problem-solving and human understanding has made him uniquely qualified for the industry. A curious, wondering soul, Aaron channels his love for adventure and change through his approach to modern marketing.

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