As the longest year ever draws to a close, our thoughts turn to 2021 and how we might be able to establish some semblance of a plan to tackle it. But if the turbulent times we’re in have taught us anything, it’s that we shouldn’t be too attached to our plans.
For marketers, even if the pandemic recedes, the next year will still bring a slew of unknown after effects. Will the increase in e-commerce activity continue, or will there be a resurgence of in-store visits once people feel safe leaving their homes? How might social media’s role in our lives change as restrictions evolve and new platforms emerge?
Travel, education, consulting, communication, office life — all of these and more will feel the impact of 2020 long after we gleefully burn our calendars on December 31. So how should marketing professionals be planning? By taking a cue from truly agile marketers and embracing more lightweight, iterative planning approaches.
Here’s how to set yourself up for maximum agility.
More Iteration, Less Detail
First, let’s talk about what’s inside the plans themselves. Agile marketers are always iterating — meaning they look for opportunities to release something small, yet still valuable and useful, and then adjust based on how it performs. To achieve that, they stop placing big bets on huge campaigns.
They also acknowledge that we typically plan at the point of maximum ignorance, meaning marketers spend a lot of time crafting annual plans at the start of the year, only to have them destroyed in the first quarter.
So instead of hyper-detailed documents, you’ll see something more focused on a test-and-learn cycle in an agile marketing plan. The focus shifts away from detailed deliverables and due dates and toward desired outcomes. Work is aligned both to overarching organizational goals and customer-centric value delivery.
The objectives of agile planning are to provide:
- Enough detail to begin work with confidence, combined with a high degree of flexibility around later stages of work to allow for responsiveness.
- Clear directional criteria for both success (so you can put more resources into the effort) and failure (so you can rapidly iterate away from it).
- The desired outcomes for the work, ideally aligned to core marketing objectives. Work that doesn’t clearly ladder up to marketing’s ultimate goals shouldn’t take up capacity.
If you’re struggling to imagine how this works without 150 slides of planning documents, Boardview.io offers a useful criteria list.
A focus on those agile planning objectives, with help from a template like Boardview.io’s, allows you to get an idea of what's coming up without getting bogged down in excessive planning. You can easily document the work on a single card in a digital tool (like Trello, Miro, Mural), and then prioritize them against one another too. You’ll end up with a lovely list of high-priority initiatives in a ranked list as your output. It’s more than enough for people to begin work, but not so prescriptive that it precludes agility.
And when the next crazy event comes around, or a project turns into an unexpected success, it’s far easier to adjust a simple outline than it is to redo an entire Gantt chart and accompanying project plan.
Of course, as work begins you’ll likely create more detailed documentation to guide the execution, but that needn’t happen until the work really gets underway. Excessive planning months prior to the first step is simply wasted time, especially in our current hyper-volatile environment.
Fund Objectives, Not Functions
After you create your agile planning documents, it’s time for the always enjoyable task of budgeting for them. But if you’re looking at plans knowing they’re likely to change, you should approach your budget with the same attitude.
You should have an initial budget as well as an estimate of what additional funds might be needed in the case of a successful first round of work. This kind of “just in time” budgeting allows you to do an initial round of allocation based on work taking place in the first, and maybe second, quarters, but projects slated for later months will need to wait for their funding. It’s quite possible early projects will fail and not need additional funds; others may succeed and have an additional budget allocated to their expansion.
You should exercise agility in funding as well as planning. Ultimately, locking money into a particular channel or function is anti-agile, because it prevents you from responding fully to incoming data. For instance, a year ago few marketers were budgeting for TikTok, but now it’s everywhere. A year ago most marketers had huge event-related budgets, but much of that shifted during lockdown.
We’d like to think these are extreme examples, but the fact is this is the kind of volatility that is becoming normal. If you want to be able to really exercise agility, then your budgets can’t be tied to functions, channels, or projects that may slip into irrelevance. Money needs to flow easily between objectives, based on what’s working and what isn’t.
Organize Around Your Customers
Plans and budgets are, of course, only as good as the people executing them, so it’s important to consider what teams look like during the course of agile annual planning.
Ideally, agile marketing organizations create teams that are organized around the customer rather than on products or functions. Their success is measured on their ability to deliver value to a segment, persona, or stage of the customer journey — whatever the chosen organizing principle is.
As with dynamic budgeting, this approach allows you to focus efforts in a way that consistently delivers value to your customers. In a functionally organized marketing department, you might have an email team that’s measured on how many emails they send, along with success metrics such as open and click-through rates. Regardless of whether email is the right channel for delighting various customer segments, this team’s leaders will advocate for using email. They’re incentivized to do so.
Then each quarter the email team pats themselves on the back for sending “the right number” of emails each month or for increasing their open rates, even if certain customers would have responded much better to social media marketing.
Instead, you should strive to build a cross-functional marketing team whose goal is to deliver work that provides value to their customers (and, of course, hits the targets identified in the lightweight plan). Maybe it’s email, maybe it’s web, maybe it’s drone delivery — the team will do what’s best for their customer.
Visualize the Plan in Action
Finally, as work begins on the agile plan, it’s important to continue the trend of agility in the way you track it. Typically, this means far less emphasis on perfect PowerPoint slides, and far more time spent managing backlogs and updating Kanban boards.
Backlogs, or strictly prioritized to-do lists, change order based on emerging priorities. The most important activities last month (or even last week) are almost certainly not the same ones we want to focus on now, and the order of the list should reflect that.
Similarly, a visually clear tool like a Kanban board (whose most simple form includes columns for “to do,” “doing,” and “done”), allows people outside a team or project to readily understand what’s going on without subjecting its members to endless status meetings.
Each customer-centric team should have their own backlog and board so they can own the execution of their initiatives.
Is Your Marketing Plan Agile Enough?
Long ago and far away, we might have been able to convince ourselves that sufficiently rigorous planning would insulate our marketing efforts from forces beyond our control. It wasn’t ever really true.
But in 2021, rigid and hyper-detailed plans can actually be a liability. If we spend too much time crafting and clinging to them even as they become obsolete, we risk all our marketing efforts becoming irrelevant. Agile planning and execution are no longer optional: They’re the only ways to successfully move forward.