Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Ban The Plan

If there’s a document more frustrating to marketers than a marketing plan, I haven’t seen it. Invariably someone devotes an entire decade to writing a single year’s marketing plan, pours a vial of his blood into the ink like KISS did with its comic books, wraps himself in a nice warm iron maiden and ensconces himself in a project-manager-infested garret, and produces a veritable Great Gatsby of marketing plans that is promptly vilified and ignored by turns, and spends the rest of its days sopping up coffee stains on a few wayward VPs’ desks.

It’s not supposed to be that way.

Marketing plans are not supposed to be DOA. They’re meant to be breathing, vital documents, like Colbie Caillat songs with pie charts. The problem is that everyone has the wrong set of expectations for marketing plans.

I know. I have written marketing plans that read like fiction (don’t say it) and marketing plans that read like schematics, and it really doesn’t matter. People read the wrong things into them and get the wrong things out of them, and frankly, I don’t know how to prevent that from happening. In a world where everyone thinks they’re a marketer, everyone has an idea of what should be in a marketing plan. Invariably, that boils down to: their stuff. And that is not what a marketing plan is there for.

So let me give my few ground rules of marketing plans, both for the people creating the plans and the people consuming them. The people who use them to sop up coffee messes may carry on.

First, for the creators of marketing plans: Stop using the marketing plan to justify your existence.

There are a lot of insecure marketers out there, people who make the lead character in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series look like Terrell Owens. And they view the marketing plan as their manifesto for empire-building, or empire-maintaining, or empire-not-shrinking-too-much. If they read this they’ll see why we need a $5 million budget, and five new hires, and iPads all around, they think, and she’ll have to marry me then! (Whoops; got my marketing-plan fantasies mixed up with my adolescent fantasies involving Traci Ludvik.) But the readers want none of that, especially in a marketing plan. They know why you exist. They’re not quite as dumb as you think in that regard. They want to know where you’ve been, where you’re going, and how you’re going to get there. Do that well enough and you’ll get your booty.

Furthermore, I’m sorry, but if you need any document to justify your existence you’re not doing your job properly. And if your document of choice is the marketing plan, you’re doubly inept.

Second, also for the creators of marketing plans: I don’t have a foolproof formula for creating a marketing plan; marketing-plan time is the season of the witch in most marketing cycles, when all the fools come out to dance beneath the full moon and eat your Life Savers. However, I do have a recipe for a virtuous marketing plan. It may not get you that unicorn, but it will accomplish its job without wasting too much of anyone’s time, leaving you that much more time to properly fashion your unicorn wishes.

The recipe starts by revisiting the brand. Spend a page – no more – and state what the brand is made of, what it does, and how you define it. If you accept the idea that marketing exists to support the brand, this is the only logical way to begin.

Next, outline what you’ve done over the year to support the brand. If you’ve defined the brand well and done your homework, your brand-building efforts should flow logically. State how much you spent in general terms; don’t break it down to the penny. If you feel that’s absolutely necessary, stick it in an appendix.

You may have to break down this section by specific brand attributes. For instance, if you’re in the business of selling educational software and your key brand attributes are product, pricing and service, you’ll probably have to spend time and space discussing how you supported product, promoted pricing and celebrated service. That’s okay, but don’t get carried away.

Just as everything you do in marketing has to support the brand and its key attributes, everything you do in the marketing plan has to support the brand and its attributes. Lose track of the brand and you’re a small boy’s idea of a marketing director, doing stuff simply because it’s cool.

The next section needs to deal with the effectiveness of your efforts. Here’s where you add the measurements – but not too many. Remember, effectiveness has to be measured in context, and in support of the brands and their attributes. The measures of choice are not necessarily the number of click-throughs, the number of awards your ads win, the new places you found to spend money, or the attitudes of core audiences towards your call-center staff.

Many columns ago I defined the key measurements as your budget, your sales goal and your actual sales. I’ll stand by that. I’ll add that many of the best customer-service attributes need to be measured qualitatively, maybe even anecdotally, and Facebook and Twitter can help. But those measurements, such as they are, exist to help explain sales. If you have numbers and illustrations that aren’t directly related to your budget, your sales goal or your actual sales, get them out of there.

And remember once again to place sales in the context of supporting your brand. Sales are the only relevant measure of brand support, but they have to be defined that way in your marketing plan. Otherwise they’re just, you know, sales.

The third section builds off the first two and a half. Because the brand is x, and we did y to support it with results z, next year we’re going to do a, b, c, and d. It has to be that clear and simple. I have been accused of being a sort of Herman Cain of marketing, simplifying complex issues down to the point of incoherence, but I think I’m okay here.

Say what you’re going to do to support the brand based on what you’ve done to support the brand. Throw in sales goals for next year if you’ve got ‘em. This takes marketing out of the we’ll-make-it-up-as-we-go-along paradigm that I love nearly as much as I realize its non-sustainability. It's the only logical approach, and it also makes it loads easier to justify a reasonable budget.

The last necessary component of a marketing plan is the most overlooked, and in some ways the most important. Say what you’re going to do to support the brand the year after next, and the year after that, and the year after the year after that.

I know, I know. I can hear the howls from here. But tell the truth: By doing that, doesn’t the marketing plan seem more like a plan, a real-life process from getting from A to B over time?

Think if other areas of the company only thought in one-year chunks. Suppose your company makes snow-throwers. Engineering might say, “Well, we’re going to make snow plows this year,” one year and, “Oh, we’re going to make snowmobiles,” the next. Packaging might wrap them in bubble wrap one year and the next forget they ever wrapped anything in bubble wrap and put the whole shebang in a packing crate. Or human resources might raise the premiums for the health plan and lower the 401(k) contribution one year, and raise the 401(k) contribution and lower the premiums the next. Only Marketing seems to want to proceed like David Byrne in a bad digital transfer of Stop Making Sense.

I can’t guarantee this recipe for a marketing plan will work, assuming that any marketing plan can truly work. It will cut most of the fuss, feathers, positioning, and politicking, and if you’re as sick as I am of that junk messing with good marketing, then it’s worth a try.

Happy Marketing-Planning. And lay off the turkey. You may be one someday.

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