When we think of the word “pivot” in this day and age, a few things might come to mind: A solid first-round Wordle guess? The maelstrom of sudden moves marketers had to make in 2020? Ross Geller’s couch maneuver up the stairs?
As much as we’d enjoy discussing trendy word game strategies and indisputably the best sitcom of the 1990s/early 2000s, we’re obviously here to talk about pivoting when it comes to marketing planning.
Although it certainly wasn’t a new concept, it’s safe to say “pivoting” became the unofficial marketing buzzword of the pandemic. Now, it’s clear that pivoting is far more than just a buzzword of the past—it’s an invaluable skill for marketers to embrace going forward.
Why? To paraphrase a 19th century military quotation, it’s that very few plans will survive contact with the enemy.
(For more, check out our “Plan Smart. Pivot Fast.” campaign, sharing frameworks, best practices, and real stories of marketing planning survival.)
When you look at successful marketing shifts that happened before 2020, it’s clear that the concept of continuous, non-static planning has always been around.
Traditionally, the notion of pivoting has followed this type of pattern: Companies enter a market with a specific business model, it doesn’t pan out as expected, they’re forced to pivot, and they become successful in the end (ideally). Take Slack, for example. What started as a tool in the gaming industry in 2013 is now a business communications giant, scooped up by Salesforce in a multibillion-dollar deal in 2021.
The last few years, however, have shined a light on the need for greater flexibility and fluidity in marketing (albeit, in sudden and dramatic fashion).
Where do we go from here for a solid marketing strategy for the coming year? Well, for one, don’t expect things to stop changing.
Think of how much our supply chain is still facing everyday disruptions. As a direct result of supply-chain shortages, one of our major retail customers is using our platform to write sophisticated marketing campaigns to specifically address product availability in stores. This means they have to have a constant, real-time view into planning—there’s no room for one-and-done plans.
When things keep changing, the need is speed, according to our CMO, Jim Williams.
“The fastest to market wins. That’s the macro trend—that everything is accelerating,” he says. “The faster you can do business, the better.”
Speed is surely important. But while you’re pushing out new plans as fast as you can, make sure they’re connected to your overall strategy in the first place. Without that, you’re likely to be engaged in the dreaded “random acts of marketing,” or plans without a purpose.
To fix that, make sure you have a set structure in place—namely, a hierarchy that still leaves room for flexibility when things do change. Whatever your naming conventions—plan, program, campaign, and tactic, for example—you can quickly measure apples to apples across your plans.
If you establish how every component of your planning hierarchy correlates to overall marketing strategy, you create a shared language for your planning process. This anchor point enables marketers to create plans and know they’re pointing toward strategy—i.e., no random acts of marketing!
Let’s go back to the flexibility factor. When things change and you’re forced to pivot, you need the right infrastructure to do so.
Many organizations are still using an inflexible system of disparate marketing tools—PowerPoints, spreadsheets, and the like (also known as “freeware”). If you don’t have a modern marketing infrastructure enabling visibility into what’s going on in real time, it can be difficult to react to changes in a timely manner.
Sure, freeware is a fine choice for many smaller marketing organizations out there. But when you’re dealing with serious complexity—say, thousands of marketers working across the globe in different currencies, geographies, and business units—the idea that the fastest to market wins becomes a major understatement. Before you can contemplate your change, you have to be able to see what you’re doing in the first place.
Importantly, on the finance side, when you don’t know where your marketing budget is being spent, how do you know how much you can spend on a new pivot?
“It’s difficult to align plans and budgets when you’re operating in spreadsheets,” notes Jim. “The holy grail of marketing for the past 15 years has been determining ROI. But to determine ROI in real time, you have to have your financial system connected to your execution system.”
This is where your marketing operations system, containing your aforementioned planning hierarchy and connected finances, takes center stage.
“You need to have some kind of marketing operating system that combines real-time data with the ability to actually execute in real time and make changes in real time,” he explains. “If you’re an enterprise company that doesn’t have that in place and you’re relying on freeware to keep teams aligned to strategy, plans, and tactics, you’re going to have a difficult time reacting quickly to market conditions.”
Going forward, as you continue to grapple with changing marketing plans, it’s important to think about your marketing operations system from a productivity standpoint.
For the past 15 years or so, marketing ops has typically been focused on using tools for operational marketing campaigns. But things have been changing.
For one, we’re increasingly seeing a new, more strategic approach to marketing ops take place. Sometimes it’s a senior marketing ops leader or team, and sometimes it’s the new role of marketing chief of staff, whose job is to connect marketing strategy to what’s actually happening on the ground to execution.
The end goal is productivity: When you’re forced to pivot, how can you most efficiently collaborate across your marketing organization?
Having spoken to customers in senior marketing ops roles—focused on connecting plans to performance to productivity—Jim says marketing operations is “not just about configuring a marketing automation tool or deploying a new personalization application.”
We’ve assembled an assortment of resources from experts to practitioners to help you look at improving your own planning processes.
If you think you have some insightful approaches to planning with agility, we’d love to interview you for our blog series. Please drop us a line!
Rather, he says, “It’s actually about developing a system that governs how the business of marketing is done effectively and efficiently.”
Marketing planning and budgeting is hard enough. You shouldn’t have to make it harder with archaic tools.
“Think about the ‘why’ of the business. That cascades into marketing,” says Jim.