Crisper air, falling leaves, pumpkin spice everything… fall means a lot of things. But to many marketers, fall means planning season.
We’re jumping into the planning process for many clients, filling our minds with what we can do to take their marketing and their business to the next level with refreshed budgets and a year full of learnings at our backs.
It’s easy to get caught up in the inertia of it all and dive into recommending tactics and budgets based on what was done the year prior and new ideas for the year ahead. Solid as these ideas may be, developing a plan without focus can unwittingly turn your efforts into marketing for marketing’s sake. To avoid this trap and develop a strategic plan that’s going to move the needle in the right way, it’s important to take a step back and ask:
What are we actually trying to achieve?
Starting with business goals and then setting corresponding communications objectives and strategies are critical steps that should never be skipped, no matter how well-versed you are in your business or your client’s or how many learnings are propelling you forward. It will help you focus your plan and serve as a year-round litmus test through which you can run new ideas to ensure you stay focused on reaching the objectives that will have the most impact on the business.
MARKETING WITHOUT FOCUSED OBJECTIVES
Objectives are there for a reason. Merriam-Webster defines “objective” as “something toward which effort is directed.” And marketing plans need objectives. With a litany of tactical choices from digital conversation campaigns to influencer engagement to traditional TV ads, you need a guiding light to help you select and direct your efforts. Sounds simple, and a lot of the time it is, but when you skip over this critical piece and jump headfirst into tactics, a few things happen:
- You run on assumptions. Your team may be thinking you’re doing one thing, when your client or leadership is thinking another. When you align on objectives in advance – either before planning begins in earnest or before a plan is finalized – it will make for smoother sailing for all involved.
- Your marketing lacks focus. You may have brilliant execution of your tactics using ROI-driving channels, but to what end? Are you sharing the right message with the right audience in the right way that will ensure it resonates? And will that message actually support the goals of the business? Upfront alignment on objectives helps make everything work harder for you because you can make sure everything is designed to do what needs to be done.
- It becomes harder to measure success. When you don’t have an objective other than “awareness” or “sales,” it becomes more difficult to demonstrate the impact of what you execute.
Ultimately, missing the communications objective(s) is missing opportunities to hone and be more impactful with your efforts.
STARTING WITH THE BASICS: THE BUSINESS GOAL
When planning, the first place to start is with the business goal. Whatever the business or brand is attempting to do – whether it’s enter a new market or grow sales among consumers in an existing market – it’s important to know. As marketers, this is often set by others in the business so this step may be as easy as just making sure you find out what it is.
The business goal is the basis for your communications objectives and the starting point for your marketing plan. It’s also the lens through which work and marketing results may be evaluated by leadership or a client. Once you know what the business goals are, you can set to work to arrive at your communications objective that will support the goal or goals, whether directly or indirectly.
HONING THE COMMUNICATIONS OBJECTIVES & STRATEGY
There’s a myth out there that the communications objective is just trying to help reach the business goal through marketing. If the business goal is to drive product sales, the communications goal is to raise awareness of that product and get people to buy them. This is an overly simplified way of looking at it.
To get the most out of your marketing plan, it helps to set communications objectives that are more nuanced and rooted in insights about your target audience(s) and, ideally, things that are measurable. Hand in hand with the communications objective is your strategy. This is the overall approach you will take with your marketing to achieve your objective.
To arrive at these things, think about questions like:
- Who are you trying to reach? Why?
- What current awareness, perceptions and attitudes do those people currently hold? What may be causing that? What is your current reputation?
- What are you trying to get them to think, feel or do? It isn’t always just about creating awareness. Do you want them to change their perception about an issue, view your business in a new light or take a specific action?
- What may prevent you from reaching your objectives? For instance, what is your competition doing?
- How much do you want to do it and by when?
Communications objectives and strategy takes you past a place of just marketing to drive awareness or product sales. They help define what you as a marketer need to do to help a brand and business reach its goals. And when you make them measurable and build in the mechanisms (and budgets) for actually measuring results against objectives in your plan, even better.
Take for example an animal shelter. If its business goal is to increase its operating budget for the upcoming year, then one of the communications goals may be to engage new donors for first-time giving. To do this, the communications strategy may be to reach existing animal lovers who may naturally align with the cause but may not have considered giving before in a campaign focused on the impact of adoption on person and pet to spur widespread giving. All of this is the backbone to the plan, the strategic thought that helps inform the tactics and approach selected. Only then come the tactics, which in this case might include an easy-to-use online donation portal with built-in social sharing functionality, a digital video series and set of TV ads that features stories of adoption that drive people to the online donation portal.
STEPPING BACK BEFORE MOVING FORWARD
Whatever you call it, don’t forget to take time to step back and explore what it is you’re trying to accomplish with marketing and how you will get there. Resist the urge to rinse and repeat existing tactics for a new year. Will you ultimately move forward with much of what you’ve done in the past? Maybe you will, and that’s okay. However, the exercise of pausing to explore why and how you select your tactics and how you execute them is a valuable one that could yield unexpected insights that strengthen your execution and your results.
You may have print and TV ads running every year, but by examining your objectives and strategy, which may shift year-to-year, you can arrive at insights that lead you to more compelling creative and better results. Determining the communications objectives and strategy can be a dedicated piece of the strategic planning process informed by research and analytics, or in other cases it can be as simple as carving out time in a meeting to discuss them. Whatever form it takes, just make sure not to leave these critical pieces behind.