Many marketers are never taught about planning. Although it’s something they may pick up on the job, it’s one of the trickiest things for a marketing leader to truly figure out. It’s the foundation that everything else is built upon, so if you get it wrong, there can (and will) be many cascading consequences. But, if you get it right, you’ve got a really well-aligned team and are on track to hit your targets.
In our most recent webinar from the “Plan, Pivot, & Repeat” series, we invited the best in the industry to geek out about the marketing planning processes—from alignment and communication to how and when to pivot. One thing that rang true for all of our speakers was that, for better or worse, COVID accelerated everything. Marketers were forced to take a step back, reevaluate their current strategy and plans, and then adjust accordingly with the hopes of making the right decisions.
What follows is a list of seven key takeaways from our discussion with guest speakers Cheri Hulse, VP of strategy and research at ON24; Marc McNabb, VP of marketing operations and strategy at Hyland; and Sean Hiss, VP of GTM operations at WEKA.
Watch the discussion here, or keep scrolling to read the key takeaways.
1. Planning needs structure, but tailor planning processes to the size of your organization.
WEKA is a relatively new company, but they’re on a hyper-growth trajectory. Sean says, when he first started, “we had three marketers globally with five salespeople. Six months later, we have 12 marketers and 21 selling teams and are looking to double all of that again in the next six months.” In the beginning, there was a lot of ad hoc happening, and the marketing team was so small that you could talk to the person next to you. This small size made achieving alignment quite easy.
That said, knowing they were heading for a stage of hyper-growth, Sean came in intending to build a structure not just to support the needs of the business today, but to also plan for the future. His goal was to build a strong planning foundation for both hiring and growth.
In comparison, being a larger, more established company with over 170 marketers, Hyland Software has an existing planning process in place. At Hyland, they run an integrated planning process within marketing and across the entire organization.
Marc views planning from three different levels:
- Three-Year Strategy: At this level, Marc and his team at Hyland look to forecast where they think marketing is going as a discipline. They develop a three-year strategy that feeds their annual marketing operational plan. They look at trends around best practices and marketing from analyst firms, IDCs, Forrester, CMO surveys, and their own research to identify where the marketing is changing and where it is heading.
- Annual Planning: Hyland develops a yearly marketing plan or an operational plan aligned to the corporation. Here they build their marketing and go-to-market by audience. They have plan areas that are segmented into industries and audiences. Once those segments have been identified, plan owners are responsible for building out the integrated plans.
- Always on Campaign Planning: Once marketing has their audience based go-to-market segments planned, they move on to their “always-on campaign planning process.” Here they create a 6-month plan prioritizing the campaigns within each segment. They meet quarterly to review this level of planning and are constantly trying to adjust and optimize based on what they see in the market or the company’s performance.
2. Annual planning still has a place in your process, but leave space to pivot.
Sean admits, yes, there still needs to be annual planning, but it should be a massive one-and-done event.
At WEKA, they do a few different things to stay agile, so they can pivot quickly and make changes to their annual marketing plan when needed. One way that they do this is by leaving a portion of the quarter purposely unplanned. By leaving approximately 20% of their plan open, they can be reactive and add campaigns or tactics to their plan instead of having to make changes to things they have already committed to.
Sean and his team also hold monthly cross-functional meetings twice a quarter in addition to their QBRs, where they look at where they are in the plan checkpoint. In these meetings, they’ll take a holistic view of the business and identify what’s working and what’s not. They’ll also look at new opportunities in the market and consider how to pivot to take advantage of them quickly.
3. Pay close attention to your market, it’s your warning bell to signal change.
For Cheri, the leading cause for a need to change the plan is a change in the market. She says, “the changes really come from the outside, I would say the smaller organizations seem to change quickly and have more of a knee jerk reaction to trends in event marketing.”
When Cheri joined ON24 in March of 2020, they had a great, well-thought-out annual marketing plan at the time. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long—two weeks into her tenure the plan had to be thrown out the window due to the massive changes brought on by the pandemic.
With a massive influx in spend and a big shift in their demand type, there were a ton of compounding factors that the ON24 team had to prioritize to take the business in the right direction. Their customer install base needed everything to be shifted to digital, and because all in-person events were being canceled, new companies were coming to them with the need to move things online as well.
Cheri adds, “when you do marketing at a martech company, your job is extraordinarily hard because you have to be the poster child for your company.”
4. Build agility into the marketing planning process.
Hyland has a few different ways they manage the marketing business, one of those being bi-weekly demand ops meetings with the sales teams where they look at leads coming in and campaigns coming up. In these meetings, they are always trying to adjust and optimize on the floor.
In addition to that, the marketing team meets once or twice a quarter to look at performance and how they are doing when it comes to contributing to the sales segments. These meetings act like reviews where Marc and the Hyland team can assess any issues and identify how they might change or update their strategy to address them.
The third piece of this for Hyland is the “always-on campaign planning/reviews” that was mentioned above. Here, plan owners provide briefings on campaigns for their specific audience-based plan area and look at the performance of the campaigns to see if they are meeting their objectives.
5. Use a shared lexicon of marketing language to avoid miscommunication.
Within the marketing organization at ON24, Cheri, a former Forrester and SiriusDecisions analyst, has stressed the importance of this. Cheri says, “having a taxonomy is, of course, important in marketing. The fact that we’ve been able to align on it has been really powerful, and it’s actually part of our onboarding process now to get people versed in the taxonomy we use.”
Sean adds that when he first joined WEKA six months ago, the planning process and approach weren’t where they needed to be. He says, “The key is having people understand why there’s a process, why there’s a template, and why there is a need to codify and formalize things so that we can do more of these uber roll-ups.” His team quickly saw the value in these things and got on board.
6. Invest in running the business of marketing more efficiently.
When asked for one piece of advice to share with marketers, Marc said to invest in making marketing planning better and more efficient. Many marketing teams’ planning is simply done in a spreadsheet or an excel document. Marc says that “since about 2005 from a technology standpoint marketing would invest in better event technology, email technology, digital technologies, but they’d never invest in the technologies to help them run better.”
Sean brings up the point that as marketers, we are used to doing more with less, but that shouldn’t be the case. He says, “advocating for what we need and showing the value of how it can make not only you more productive but the whole organization more productive is a huge thing.”
7. Find ways to get other departments and stakeholders to buy into marketing’s plans.
Plans don’t just live locally with a single person. Sean says you need to “almost over-communicate what the plan is, what the purpose is, and go beyond your functional silos to expand out.”
Cheri’s advice is to start with the most acute business problem and build a plan out of that. If you can convince leadership of a known pain point or challenge and use planning to solve said problem, it becomes a lot easier to get buy-in for larger marketing plans.