With the holiday season in full force, it can be easy to focus all of our attention on the stretch run, looking forward to some time off spent with family. Some companies even have an annual “shutdown” for the last week or two of the year, taking advantage of the holidays to take a break and save operations costs.
Regardless whether you plan to take time off or not, the middle of December is no time to check out completely. 2015 will be here before you know it. Are you ready for the new year yet?
A great plan is only as good as the time and effort you put into it. If you want to get it right, it’s a bit late to start building it right after the year has already started. At that point, you’ll already be under the microscope to get the plan moving. How do you know what to measure with out a plan? How do you know if you are pushing out the right initiatives in the first place? And how long will the executives give you to get your act together?
Start now, and the list of items below will help you stay focused as you work on your inbound marketing strategy for the new year.
Get Your Budget in Order: Figure Out How Much You Need
Budget can be a real chicken-or-egg situation – do you build a plan first and request budget accordingly, or should you know generally how much money you need / will have, then build a plan to match it?
Every organization works differently, especially across the wide range of company types and sizes. A small consulting company many have more money to spend on marketing than a large, low margin manufacturer or retailer.
Regardless of your company size, business model, industry, or approach to spending in general, I always recommend going in with an idea of what you need financially first. You don’t need to have a final budget in place to plan according to expected spend. If you know you will have something in the range of $1M or $10K (+/- n%), you can build out a strategy that will land somewhere in that ballpark. Later, when it comes time to discuss exact amounts, you will have a better idea of what that money will buy, and how it might benefit the business.
So no matter which approach your organization takes to planning budget and spending, have a range in mind. Even if it’s worst case (the least money available) contrasted with best possible case (the highest you can imagine having), that will give you a range within which to start planning out activities proactively. You can make tradeoffs later when you know what your actual number is, or you can lobby for more if you have additional, more costly ideas that will really move the needle.
Assess What Is Working
Once you have an idea of what your budget range might be, take a step back to evaluate everything that you are already doing. If there is anything on the list that remains there merely because “that’s how we’ve always done it,” reconsider that stance.
Measurement is a funny thing. It can tell you whether or not a new project is paying off, sure. But it can also dismantle sacred cow activities that are no longer needed, when applied properly.
To truly assess what is working, start by auditing everything that costs money, time, or effort. When you perform the audit, leave no stone unturned. Don’t forget – even if an activity just costs time on an employee’s behalf, it is costing you money by way of their salary and benefits, and the opportunity costs of not deploying that person on more lucrative activities (assuming those exist).
Once you have a master list of existing activities, figure out how you want to evaluate them. You can use any of an number of systems to evaluate success. Is it an impact vs. effort matrix? Maybe a cost benefit analysis? Or even investing in awareness and branding for the future?
Many companies make all of their decisions based on a strict ROI model. For them, only activities that have proven ROI make the cut. While that probably works well for defending the decision, it can lead to overly myopic decision making. Don’t forget that the customer life cycle starts before someone converts into a lead. Skipping the demand generation part of the sales process could very well neuter your lead gen efforts from the start.
Once you settle on a scoring or evaluation system, take a very critical look at every single area of marketing. For obviously failing strategies, bid them farewell. Then you will have the time and budget to add in all of those new ideas you’ve been kicking around, theoretically. Good job filtering the list.
Prioritize Your List of Potential Marketing Activities
Okay, so now you’ve got a budget in place and have figured out which of your existing activities and programs to continue. What other objectives would you like to tackle in the new year? How can content marketing, social media, SEO, and other inbound marketing tactics collectively help you reach those goals?
At this point, create a master list of all potential strategies, campaigns, promotions, and related actions. You want to include everything that made it above the cut line in the previous step, plus new initiatives that you feel strongly will help you succeed at marketing.
Now is the time to order the list according to most important. What does most important mean? That is a question every business must answer for themselves. Do you prefer to find new areas of focus or prioritize proven campaigns higher? Have your metrics been good but just above acceptable? Are there programs that just crush it year over year?
You should have a good idea of how to prioritize from the start. I have always found it useful to have planning meetings when a large marketing team is involved. That way, everyone can take part in sorting out priorities as a team. It helps keep everyone on task and behind the decisions.
One tip to keep in mind here – don’t eliminate a new idea just because you are short on people. If you have budget, there are ways around that problem. You want to figure out how you can best push the envelope, and the prioritization will only come into play when you are forced to make tradeoffs down the road. Know clearly what you can live without, and move those to the bottom of the prioritization list.
Here is where we really start to envision how much of the priority list we might actually be able to tackle in house. Depending on how many people you have in marketing and how the group is structured, this could go in one of multiple ways.
Some groups have fluid roles and can shuffle responsibilities according to the plan. Those teams will find the resource alignment part of this exercise easy.
In other companies, there will be official structures of specialized teams who each take on their own discipline, e.g. public relations, email marketing and automation, search marketing, and creative services. In these cases, resources could become a limiting factor on truly pursuing the priority list you’ve now built.
So do what you can to align existing resources, even if it pushes someone out of their comfort zone. In some cases, you may even need to bring on new skillsets to accomplish your goals. Don’t be afraid to consider significant changes if it is the right move for the business.
Start Shopping for External Inbound Marketing Help
In most companies, it’s not so easy to shuffle roles and responsibilities around liberally. In fact, you might not even have all of the skills needed to step up your inbound marketing game in the first place. And if you are like many large companies with whom I’ve worked, getting a new position approved could take weeks or months.
When you find yourself in this situation, don’t despair. There is always help by way of external agencies and contractors.
No matter whether you have a plan in place to hire smart inbound marketers, or if you simply don’t have the patience to ramp up new folks because of your own full plate of work, outsourcing to smart people who know their stuff is a viable and intelligent decision.
When you bring on new full time employees, you have to foot overhead for the hiring, interviewing, offering, onboarding, training, mentoring, and other activities. Then, you have a monthly sunk cost of salary and benefits to account for, so you will need to be sure they are kept busy with work on a full time basis.
Agencies and freelancers, on the other hand, are available for as much or as little as you need. Only need 10 hours per month? No problem at all. Plus, you get the added benefit of a domain expert in their area of inbound marketing, someone who works with a variety of industries, company types, and company sizes. How much is that sort of ongoing experience worth to you in efficiency and money savings?
So sure, align resources when you can. But don’t be afraid to reap the benefits of bringing in external inbound marketing help if you need it. That’s why they are out there and ready to work with you.
Finalize Your Inbound Marketing Plan Early
Throughout all of these steps, you should be documenting all of the analysis and decision making as input points to your overall plan. If you start on the above steps now, you should be able to have your inbound marketing plan in place by the first week of 2015 without concern.
One of the best parts of a “plan” is that nothing is set in stone. Just because you have a plan in place, it doesn’t mean you cannot adjust to changes in budget, priorities, or industry dynamics as the year progresses. In fact, that’s exactly what you should be doing anyway.
We have worked with companies who never actually document a plan, because it is never officially written down and agreed upon. These businesses tend to be the most reactive and least in control of their destiny. By getting your plan in place early, you force yourself and your team to stay disciplined in the early days of the year, when initiating testing of new ideas is the most important. That way, you know for a fact that you are altering course with enough information to know that you are not reacting in knee jerk fashion.
What’s that worth to you? For most of us, it’s inbound marketing planning gold.
Smart marketing organizations are investing in inbound marketing in 2015. Don’t wait until the last minute to start planning if you can help it. The sooner you get a plan in place, the faster you can ramp up activities in the new year. Have you already started your plan for 2015? If not, why not?
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