For many companies, coming up with a marketing plan is mainly about evaluating past results, tweaking them, and perhaps get inspiration from competitors, i.e. doing exactly what others do and thus ending up with mediocre results at best.
Likewise, many marketing plans revolve purely around deciding on an agency or ad frequency and then wait for others to come up with ideas – ideas constrained by budgets and bad decision-making by top management.
But at the end of the day, marketing is all about creativity, and creativity is in short supply. Bringing creativity into the planning process is difficult, mainly because you probably have exactly the same people as last year sitting around the table, steeped in group-think and stifled by the decades of experience the CMO or CEO, or worse, company owner, use to justify shooting down any idea that is in any way risky or simply different.
Read also: The Right Role for Marketing
The reason most in-house teams are not creative
As a marketing team, you have exactly three choices when planning ahead:
- (a) beating the same drum and doing what you have done so far
- (b) making incremental changes (based on random choice or actual data) and
- (c) trying something completely new
The reasons why 90% of companies end up with (b) is primarily psychological. If you choose (a), the boss will ask “what am I paying you for, that’s what we did last year”; and if you choose (c) the boss will ask “are you out of your mind? how is this going to work?” Hence most companies never advance in their marketing.
The second reason why companies end up with (b), incremental changes, is that budgets are usually decided before any creative marketing session, leaving little wiggle room to come up with radically new concepts. Managerial roles are constrained, meaning that the same people in the same positions expect to go on with their work in more or less the same manner.
Let’s say you have a small graphic design team, a copywriter, and a digital ad specialist, you are most likely to continue in the new year with something that involves text, graphics, and ads on various platforms. Because if you were to opt for (c), say, video production, you would suddenly need a whole bunch of new talent.
Thus we always end up with tactics rather than a solid strategy. And tactics is no way to do marketing.
We need new ideas!
At every planning meeting, there is a clamor for new ideas which then end up not being implemented.
Let’s take e-mail marketing for example. Do we continue in exactly the same format, do we make small changes (perhaps through A/B testing) to the format of the newsletter, or do we try something radically different, like chatbots?
No matter how long the discussion, the default is always to stick with what we have and try to make incremental changes. Whether they are based on random trial-and-error or actual data analysis, they will probably have a small impact on the bottom line; they will not break the bank, and they won’t jeopardize the job of the e-mail marketing guy. Thus creativity is always left behind.
Read also: Why E-Mail Marketing Is Still A Thing
The key here is the mostly wrong attitude of top management. The CEO-owner wants marketing experts, who can tell him the outcome before we even get started. But marketers are not experts, they cannot predict the outcome of a campaign; they are adventurers and tour guides, storytellers and experimenters.
If top management doesn’t understand this, better marketing decisions are an impossibility.
What doesn’t work
There are a number of “tactics” espoused by leading thinkers, marketers, and management consultants that simply do not bring the desired results in this age of information overload and massive competition for eyeballs and wallets. Let’s look at the most egregious mistakes.
Conventional wisdom: in marketing, i.e. “everybody else does it, so we do it” never works. It’s the default option, the group-think option, and thus the weak option.
That’s because “best practice” is never the best practice. Best practice can at most work as a peripheral inspiration, but should never form the core of your strategy. What works for others doesn’t necessarily work for you. Every situation is different, every team different, every execution of a marketing plan different. Following “best practice”examples hardly ever leads to stellar results.
Thinking out of the box: This is another expression that riles me. It’s great to think out of the box but at the end of the day, we have to work inside the box. We cannot suddenly hire a bunch of people with a completely new skill-set, just because we came up with an idea “outside the box.” We are limited by talent, the budget, time, and everything else that makes up “the box”.
The latest trend: This is also a very dangerous option. Just because something became the latest trend in a similar or even the same industry is no guarantee that it will work for your situation, your country, your language, or your corporation. Think of chatbots, for example: they are a great success in some industries, like airlines, and definitely the latest trend, but for many businesses completely irrelevant.
A few years back everybody hailed the era of video for Facebook marketers … until Facebook changed their algorithm and penalized video because it didn’t lead to meaningful engagement. Out of the blue, Facebook decided that it didn’t want passive viewing of videos – perhaps as part of the effort to combat fake news. Right now we are in the era of voice … I wonder how long that will last.
Numbers: Another no-go. Managers love numbers because they sound convincing, but most figures you read about marketing are simply made up. “If you do this or that, you will get x % more traffic” is a phrase beloved of digital advertising gurus, but it is seldom transferable from one industry to another, or from one company to another, e.g. from multinationals to small businesses.
Managers come up with KPIs such as, “15% more followers on Facebook for this year”, as if purely by making more or better posts one could guarantee such a number. That, incidentally is why I hate KPIs.
The growth of followers depends on the ever-changing price of ads, the amount of posts by the competition, the reputation of the brand, the overall economic situation, trends in social media platform popularity, and many more factors. Trying to meet a KPI is simply pointless, as is chasing after ROI data points: these are all marketing tactics rather than strategies.
Read also: KPIs are for losers. Get rid of them!
How to make better decisions, after all
The key to making better decisions is to understand the exact situation of yourself as a brand and your clients. It means throwing overboard all traditional measures of success and starting with the experience users have with the brand, understanding how that experience changes, and how it is related to purchases.
Again, a real-life example: I once took on a client in the machinery industry who wanted 20% more sales in the coming year, in an industry that was declining, a macroeconomic climate that was stagnating, and strong new competition in the form of two foreign multinationals who had just the year before entered the market. A far better plan would have been to take a close look at the competitor’s machines, talking to customers about their preferences, and examining closely the marketing strategies of the new entrants.
Understanding your situation means data, facts, but also anecdotes and wild guesses. Thus instead of starting with the planning meeting, start with an investigation. Go to where the client is, spend time with the customer, and actually use the product you are trying to sell.
Asking the right questions
Instead of blindly following the advice of experts or chasing meaningless numbers, we should ask the right questions. Those involve questions like
- Where and how do customers come in touch with our product?
- Why do customers show interest in our brand?
- How will customers interact with our brand tomorrow?
- Where does the customer journey break off, and why?
The answer to these questions depends entirely on your situation and the answer is not always to try something radically new. It can be either a) more of the same b) incremental change or c) a completely new approach.
I consulted for a long time for a manufacturer of veterinary supplies who relied for years on the same strategy: a team of salespeople and some television ads. Every marketing meeting revolved on HR decisions (which salesperson to fire, how many to hire), and the planning of this year’s television ad. Sales continued to slide.
Then we asked the right questions:
- Where and how do customers come in touch with the product? Answer: At the vet. They largely ignore the TV ads.
- Why do customers show interest in our brand? – Because a pet is sick or the vet recommended preventative measures.
- How will customers interact with the brand tomorrow? Turns out that was Instagram, where photos of cute cats and dogs are simply everywhere. Until then, the marketing team of that pharma company had never considered a platform like Instagram.
- Why don’t they buy our product? After a number of interviews with pet owners and vets, we found that the buckle on the medical collar was somewhat harder to close than that of a competitor’s product. Since many pet owners are elderly, or children, redesigning the buckle (an easy fix in this case) was far more important than deciding how much money to spend on the TV ad.
This is a very clear example based on hard facts easily deducible from market studies and interviews. During my long career, I invariably found that most marketing teams never bother to ask the right questions, because their bosses are always demanding answers.
What is the customer really after that everyone is overlooking?
This is the most important questions only the most successful companies dare to ask. What it means is looking at your product offering through the eyes of the customer, and not through the narrow vision of your own marketing, R&D or management team.
Which brings us to the most important question we need to ask as marketers: Who truly believes in my brand?
A small number of people who really believe in my product or brand can give the most valuable feedback of all. In other words resonance, not reach, is important. Why do they love the brand with so much passion? Is there a consistent theme why this small group is so supportive? Do they all buy the product because of one particular feature? What is their loyalty based on?
The answers to this question – easily obtained in focus groups or through social media product feedback – will guide you in your marketing planning. If all your key supporters value the design of your products, this is where your marketing has to go. If they rave about a particular feature, then think about how to promote product features over design aspects, and so on.
Why do we do what we do?
Ultimately, we also have to ask ourselves why we do something the way we do it. Why do we do marketing the way we do it? Do we have solid reasons for our approach, or are we just emulating other companies or are we blindly following trends?
Is it because that’s the type of people we have at our office and we can’t change that? Do we use print ads because they work, or because our agency partner keeps selling us on ads because they don’t have a film team? Are we doing Facebook ads because they are effective, or because we read somewhere they are the latest fad? Or because our ad manager only knows Facebook and not Google, etc.
Instead of simply setting a KPI like 15% more followers on Facebook, ask the question “what do we need to increase the attractiveness of our account”, “why are people following our page in the first place” etc.
Understanding why customers do what they do, and why we as a marketing team do what we do, is far more important than any other decision making I have outlined above.
And finally, better marketing decisions come from a greater willingness to experiment. Spending a certain amount on small trials will lead to significantly better outcomes than following best practice or copying competitors. Tactics don’t work in marketing; only strategy does; a strategy that allows for curiosity and creativity throughout the process.