A strategy is an informed set of decisions about how to get from where your business is now to where it wants to be in the future.
There’s no single right way to produce a strategy. The level of detail and approach will vary based on the complexity and size of the business. Nevertheless, the framework I find most helping as a starting point is:
Look in: understand the current state of the business
Look out: understanding what best-practice looks like
Synthesis and create: What are 3-5 decisions you’ll make to win and what activities will you undertake
Roadmap: Sequence activities and document on a roadmap
01 Looking in
The better you understand the current state of your business, including your objectives, target audience and capabilities, the more informed your strategic decisions and plan will be.
This means taking more time at the outset to collect and consider everything needed to make good strategic decisions.
The level of effort required for this phase of developing a marketing strategy will vary based on the complexity of the business, level of risk, and experience creating strategies that win.
Set business and marketing goals
The best place to start is determining your business goals. For some business these will come with a considered plan, but for many this will simply be a financial objective. For example, “We want to increase revenue by $X million in three years.”
If your business lacks a detailed plan it’s your responsibility to work out how it will achieve this objective. The three ways you can do this is by creating a new market, gaining market share within an existing market, or both. Most business will need to gain market share, which means your driving marketing goal is to have a greater portion of your addressable market choose your business rather than your competitors.
You next need to think about whether that means increasing the volume of customers, the value of customers or both. The answer will depend on what product or service your selling. Most businesses will lean towards doing both, but how you weight your decision is important.
To decide you can consider your business’ ability to scale. For a business selling subscriptions, the clear decision is volume. The reason is that it doesn’t cost more to service 100,000 customers than 100 customers. The reverse is true for a service-based business, such as a law firms, which bill based on time and materials used. Bringing on a greater volume of clients requires more staff, a bigger office and other costs. It makes more sense to aim to prioritise growing the value of clients, which will result in greater profit.
The next step is creating a rough business model for how what needs to happen to reach your goals. That might be something like increasing market share by x% for y number of customers at an average value of $z. Easy.
Decide what must be true to achieve your goals
Now you know what the success looks like and what the high-level plan for what needs to happen to achieve your goal, it’s time to think about how to get there.
There’s no single way to do this. I like to find three to five things that need to be true for the business to realise its goals. Doing this creates a logical step between goals and strategic decisions, which is easy for non-marketing specialists to understand. I also find he helps keep everyone involved in the strategy on specific problems to solve. Before going down that path however, we need more information.
Some questions you might ask are:
- Why do customers choose us now?
- Why do customers choose competitors rather than us?
- What have we done to acquire, retain and grow customer lifetime value?
- What worked well and what didn’t?
- Why did certain marketing activities work well or not?
- So on and so forth...
The intention is to understand why the current state of the business is what it is, for better or worse. Your answers will inform questions about what needs to be true to achieve your marketing goals.
For example, people might choose your competitors because they didn’t know your business exists. You can then say that in order to achieve your goals more people within your target market need to be aware your business exists. We’ll later reframe this as a challenge or opportunity that may result in a strategic decision to increase brand awareness by increasing your share of voice from x% to y%.
Finally, list all of your key findings as a challenge or opportunities to refer back to later.
Assess current state capabilities
Before thinking about what you need to deliver a strategy, it’s good to take stock of what you have. If you’re missing a particular capability – let’s say content – and you need that to deliver your strategy, then adding the capability becomes an important dependency.
Brand is a good place to start. And I don’t mean the logo. A well-defined brand framework should include your brand purpose, proposition, and market positioning. Within this is framework is the big idea the propels your business forwards. For example, if the big idea driving fintech company’s brand is trust then that should be the cornerstone of their marketing strategy. On the chance your company hasn’t clearly defined its brand then this needs to go onto the list of challenge and opportunities.
This will vary depending on your business. Things you want to know are budget allocation, how effective are your processes (incl. how well do departments and teams work with one another), what do leaders believe the company should do in the future, do they believe in marketing, what do they see as the biggest challenges to growth, where are the biggest pain points. Also, what has the business done before that did and didn’t work well. Where you uncover potential challenges and opportunities then add them to your list.
Like business, it’s important to take stock of what skills your people have. If your marketing team is just you, or missing essential skills, then delivering your strategy will mean hiring more people or outsourcing. With respect to marketing, I’d jot down the core skills involved and use this as a baseline to assess what skills we have in house. These might include, strategy, brand, content, SEO, social media, advertising, event management, direct marketing, customer relationship management, sales, analytics, digital to name a few.
As above, you need to understand what you have to know what gaps need to be filled to deliver your strategy (or constraints need to be accounted for). The process might be simpler for small business, but for those a little bigger there’s value in assessing your marketing technology stack. I’ve found the most effective method is to document your business goals, then the jobs that need to be done to achieve said goals, followed by the technology needed to do those jobs. This will likely draw out where there are gaps or opportunities to be more efficient or effective.
It’s easy to skip past this stuff and jump to solution mode. The problem is that not giving enough thought to your capabilities can result in poorly informed strategic decisions or worse, an inability to deliver and otherwise good plan.
Audience understanding and insight
Your business will ideally already have a documented understanding about their audience. Where they don’t, I like to include persona building as part of the brand strategy (as if you want to influence people’s perception of your business then it’s good to know who those people are).
In any case, you should be getting as much insight as possible about who they are, what they are about, how they use media, what problem you’re solving for them, and what’s most important when making a decision relating to your category.
As above, add anything noteworthy to your list of challenges and opportunities.
Recapping and next steps
The first phase of the strategy process has been looking in. At the end of this stage you will have:
Defined your business goals
Defined your marketing goals
Listed what needs to be true for that to happen
Assessed current state internal capabilities
- Started a list of challenges and opportunities facing your business
The second phase will shift to looking out at macro trends, market trends, competitors and best practices before identifying strategy themes and decisions.
02. Looking out
Informed strategic decisions should be based on emerging trends and best practices within a given category.
This includes looking at emerging trends across the business and technology landscape, as well as those specific to your category. You also want to look at a handful of brands doing amazing things and drawing our lessons relevant for your business.
At the end of third stage, you ought to have added to your list of challenges and opportunities.
Emerging trends review
What are the big trends impacting your category and document key themes for your business? These tend to be big topics such as democratisation of data, personalisation, automation, social commerce, or fragmentation of a category (such as tertiary education).
In addition to good old fashion desktop research, think about reaching out to experts in relevant areas to get their insights.
Leading edge review
Research 3-5 businesses that are in the same or parallel categories and doing well. Seek to understand what they’re doing, why it’s working, and what lessons there are for your business.
Document key themes for your business
I like to draw out and document 8-10 of the most relevant themes. If the business I’m working for advertises online, I’d include a theme about the changing privacy landscape and end of 3rd party cookies. I might also look to include themes related to changing consumer behaviour, emerging technology, or patterns my competitors might be using well.
Finalise list of challenges and opportunities
Having looked in and outside of the business, it’s time to finalise your list of challenges and opportunities. For me this often means culling lower value opportunities or reframing two or three similar points into one. Asides from making sure your strategic decisions are well informed, you’re also making it easier for business leaders to approve your strategy. Strategic decisions will largely be in response to your challenges and opportunities so getting this last right is important.
Your ability to deliver a successful strategy is dependent on your ability to get stakeholder buy in. The best way to do this is include them in the process. I like to present our challenges and opportunities to stakeholders before moving onto the strategy itself. My intention being to give everyone a chance to discuss (argue) about what challenges and opportunities are most important to the business. What I’m looking for when presenting is agreement, not consensus.
03. Synthesis and create your strategy
Now it’s time to make some decisions and document your strategy. The output from this stage is a strategy on a page.
Review what you need to achieve. This may be something that’s documented in your business strategy, or it may be specific marketing goals.
What needs to be true to achieve your goals?
Asking the question gives me clarity and helps me focus on what’s most important. The follow up question is how might we make those things true?
A strategy doesn’t need a vision to be a good strategy. It is however good to have one as a communications tool, so everyone knows what they’re working towards. A good place to start is to think about how your business differentiates itself. If your difference is the experience you provide, a vision might be to create a seamless customer experience. It’s simple, aspirational, and a north star pointing the way forward.
As mentioned in the introduction, a strategy is an informed set of decisions about how to win. Strategic actions are those decision. Suffice to say, this is the single most important step in the strategy process.
There’s no rule on the number of decisions you can make, but I recommend 3-5. The biggest mistake I see is strategy that’s been subject to committee and includes 8+ strategic actions. The reason is we need a strategy when we can’t do everything and must make choice. Too many strategic actions are akin to saying you’ll do everything, so why bother with a strategy at all.
With regards to framing your actions, the goal should be to keep them high level. These are decisions, not tactics. For example, your actions might be something like, develop sustainable capability, unearth innovative opportunities for growth, diversify revenue streams etc. They shouldn’t not be are things like, do advertising, get more likes on Facebook, buy X software etc.
I usually approach this process by listing everything I can think of. I’ll often do this collaboratively with key stakeholders as it’s great to pressure test and refine decisions. We can then refine ideas, prioritise them, and gut check whether these are the right decisions. Once you make your decisions, given them a headline and brief description.
Congrats, you did a strategy.
Now you’ve made your strategic decisions, it’s time to determine what activities need to be delivered to achieve your goals.
The first step is to document the activities needing to be completed over the period of the strategy – three years is a good place to start. I usually do this collaboratively with subject matter experts wherever possible. Starting with a big list of activities is recommended. It’s easier to trim a list than trying to add to it later.
Once you’re happy with the list it’s time to sequence your activities. Notice how I said sequence and not prioritise? This is an important distinction as there are often lower priority initiatives that are dependencies for high priority work. Likewise, showing quick wins is important to the long-term success of any strategy. Sequencing a few activities that will function as quick wins in the first 3-6 months is important, irrespective of their value or perceived priority.
Once you’ve got your list of activities, map them out as a Gannt chart. You’ll also need to better define each activities and determine what’s required to deliver. I like to define what an
Gut check activities
Is the activity linked to a strategy?
Is it clear how this activity enables a seamless branded experience to our donors?
Is it clear how this activity help us meet our fundraising targets?
Is there a clear goal this activity aims to achieve?
Are there defined KPIs this activity aims to achieve?
Is there a clear plan this activity supports?
Is it clear what needs to be tracked with regard to the activity?
Are there supporter insights than will enhance this activity?
Are there competitor insights that will enhance this activity?
What works well with regard to strategy?
What could be better with regard to strategy?
05. Budget and next steps
It’s time to talk money. Build the business cases for your first phase of activity. The process for doing so in every organisation is different, but most will require you to show a positive return on any investment. The easiest way to do so is showing the link from activities through to the people, process and systems needed to deliver.