Plan like a digital marketing planning strategist

Ever wondered how to plan like a digital marketing planning strategist? This post covers effective planning processes and how to apply them...

Ever wondered how to plan like a digital marketing planning strategist? This post covers effective planning processes and how to apply them to your digital strategy. The key areas covered in this post are:

  • The planning process
  • The phased approach
  • Goals
  • Objectives and strategies
  • Action plans
  • Controls
  • People
  • Budgeting and forecasting

I can assume you are interested in a strategic approach to digital marketing and that is impossible without having strong planning techniques in place. Building a plan involves similar techniques to building a house. We need to understand what we are trying to build, we need solid foundations, we need to know the intricate measurements and details of the brickwork and walls, the costs, timelines and skills of our builders.

digital marketing planning strategist
Image Credit: pixabay

Having a plan is essential if we want our house to meet our goal. A strategy without a plan is simply an idea. Putting a plan in place for the build and delivery of your digital marketing strategy is no different and so this post looks at how we build a plan that clearly lays out the delivery of our strategy.

digital marketing planning

In order to deliver our digital marketing strategy we need to understand three things:

  1. Where are we now?
  2. Where do we want to get to?
  3. How do we get there?

Digital marketing has created its own challenges here. Many digital channels can be switched on and off in real time and at a low cost and so are sometimes added into marketing campaigns and plans at the last minute. The power of effective planning, however, is in the early thinking, co-ordination and integration of the key elements of your strategy without planning, your strategy is at serious risk of failing. Without effective planning you can spend twice as much time, money and resource trying to fix problems and find solutions, you can demotivate your people and even find yourself having to pay suppliers to help you when that should not have been needed.

In extreme cases this can even lead to budgets being used up too quickly, staff resignations and your overall strategy being seriously compromised. A good digital marketing planning process is essential.

Digital marketing strategist: The planning process

Pablo Picasso once said, ‘Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success.’ Whilst it is fairly unlikely that he was talking about digital marketing, it is certainly a point that applies here. The starting point and the key to success with planning is to have a process in place and to stick to that process.

There are several planning models that can be used for effective planning and in this section we look at two core methods: vision-based planning and real-time planning.

Digital marketing strategist: Vision-based planning

Definition: the process of creating a vision and following a clear six-stage process of delivering against it.

This method is probably the most common form of strategic planning. There are six phases to this model, beginning with creating a vision and ending with analysis and evolution where needed. This method takes you from a starting point through to a final result which may remain fluid. It is an excellent way of organizing the delivery of your strategy and helps to guide your thinking during the strategy development process. It is, however, more structured than some organizations would be willing to implement and more rigid than the real-time planning model we look at below. It also works on a future to present time frame, ie there are specific goals to be achieved by a specific point in time and this may not be relevant to every plan.

Let’s look at the six digital marketing planning stages:


  1. Identify your vision statement.
  2. Produce your mission statement.
  3. Establish your primary goals.
  4. Create specific objectives and strategies to reach each goal.
  5. Implement action plans to fulfil each strategy.
  6. Put the action plans into effect, evaluate and evolve.

Digital marketing strategist: Example A – an FMCG retailer

  1. To be everyone’s favourite place to buy doughnuts.
  2. We provide the tastiest doughnuts in the United States to anyone, anywhere, at any time.
  3. Improve brand awareness.
  4. Create a social media strategy.
  5. Build a viral-video marketing campaign.
  6. Build the campaign, select target audience, budget, launch, test and measure.

Digital marketing strategist: Example B – a B2B service provider

  1. To be Europe’s number one IT support services supplier.
  2. We offer the fastest and most reliable competitive IT support across Europe.
  3. Gain word-of-mouth promotion.
  4. Create a member-get-member scheme.
  5. Build a personalized e-mail contact and content strategy.
  6. Build the campaign, select target audience, budget, launch, test and measure.

Digital Marketing Planning: Mission statement

There is often confusion between vision and mission statements. The easiest way to remember the difference is that your vision statement is an expression of your desired future state, whereas the mission statement expresses your current state. With this differentiation in mind we can look at the two examples above and begin to see a clear difference. Creating this mission is important for your business but just as important for your digital strategy. Knowing what you are trying to achieve now alongside the future vision begins to clearly lay out a path that the rest of your planning process can follow.

Digital marketing planning: Real-time planning

Definition: a plan that retains fluidity to your planning process to ensure your plans are malleable to the circumstances.

The real-time model is effectively a ‘casual’ version of the vision-based model. This model is notable for its lack of structure and, some may even argue, its lack of a model, which is a fairly odd way to start an explanation of a planning model when we have already discussed the importance of structure. The reason this was developed, however, is because the modern world changes at pace and so building a formalized five-year plan is considered by some to be an outdated concept. The world in five years’ time is likely to be very different from now, so how can such a long-term plan still be as relevant as when it was finalized? The real-time model therefore keeps the planning process ‘alive’ as an ongoing piece of work. It is never formally documented and so evolves continuously. It is reviewed at regular intervals, for example monthly board meetings, and therefore develops alongside real-time issues and developments within and external to the company.

The advantage is therefore that your strategy stays highly relevant and can change quickly to meet current insights. There are, however, two primary disadvantages to this approach and both ultimately come back to the lack of documentation. The first is that there is no document to share with your business. It can be extremely difficult to articulate your strategy to the wider business in this situation and so can create confusion and lack of synergy if your communication is not excellent. One way to address this is to ensure that the project lead or equivalent for the delivery of your strategy develops and manages an internal communications plan. This could involve e-mails to key stakeholders, steering group meetings, regular update seminars, internal desk drops or even launch events. The extent of this is down to the size and culture of your organization but you should never assume that people will know how the project is progressing so great communication is essential.

Second, there is no fully formed document to share externally. Should investors or other external stakeholders wish to understand your strategy it would not look very professional only to be able to articulate this verbally from what was discussed at the last meeting. This can be tackled by ensuring that the core principles and stages of the plan are documented and the flexible elements are regularly updated and version controlled.

That is not to say that there is no structure here at all. A process of planning what the goals are and how the business aims to achieve them is still followed in a similar style to the vision-based approach we mentioned above, but you do not need to stick so rigidly to these goals for a set period of time and so are more able to retain the flexibility that this process demands. For example, the doughnut company we mentioned above would still go through the same six steps to create their plan but this may not then be documented and may evolve just a few weeks later. Should your competition launch a viral video campaign, you would change your social media plans to adapt to these digital marketing challenge and perhaps create a video-based advertising campaign for YouTube that will both reach a different audience and reduce the gains your competitor makes from their video campaign.

Vision-based versus real-time example

A company decides that it wants to grow its digital footprint.

Digital marketing planning: Vision-based approach

The company in question would conduct research into consumer needs and behaviours, competitor offerings and technology. An audit of the current capability would be completed and a strategy would begin to be formed. This would involve committing resources in terms of people, time and money into the work streams necessary to deliver the strategy. This would then be laid out for the following three to five years in order to ensure that those resources were ring-fenced. Perhaps the front end and back end of a website need development and so do a number of apps, so this is all planned together and committed together. Agencies and contractors may be hired to deliver this over the next 24 to 36 months. Deviating from this plan in the first two to three years would therefore involve significant loss of investment and complexity. It may also cause confusion. The end result is likely to be as per the plan and this would be a success. If, however, technology has significantly changed in that period, as we have seen many times in the past over a short period of time (the launches of the iPhone or social media, for example), then this end result may no longer be relevant.

Digital marketing planning: Real-time planning approach

The company would again research and audit to establish the beginning state and desired result. Steps would then be put into place to begin moving towards this end result. This may include appointing an agency, but keeping their brief fluid and ensuring that their contract is not a long-term commitment. The goals would be based on working towards delivering the next step in the journey but perhaps not laying down any significant commitments at the early stages for what may or may not happen in year three. Decisions are made at the points that action is needed rather than a long time in advance. Should a new technology launch, or behaviours change, this plan is able to adapt to those. Therefore the back end of the website may be developed first, as it is less susceptible to consumer behavioural needs. The front end may not be scoped until the back-end work is nearing release. The apps may be the last element, as the mobile market continues to change at significant pace. This means a great deal more focus on the project from the senior leadership team, perhaps less ability to plan ahead for cost savings and a greater need for excellent communication, but it does mean that the end result is likely to be highly relevant when launched rather than risking seeming outdated.

Here is a useful comparison of the above two scenarios:
Stage 1: goal – establish opportunity:
  • Vision-based: research consumers and market, internal audit, resource commitment.
  • Real-time: research consumers and market, internal audit, resource commitment.
  • The difference: no difference here. Both methods begin by understanding the current position, challenge and opportunity.
Stage 2: begin development of strategy:
  • Vision-based: structure the strategy and prepare the formal document.
  • Real-time: begin test and learn.
  • The difference: the vision-based approach now spends several months beginning to structure the proposal, add supporting data, creating pillars, gaining commitment from stakeholders and producing detailed financial forecasts. The real-time approach creates a loose plan and begins to test some of the assumptions in a scientific manner to shape the development on the plan.
Stage 3: finalize strategy:
  • Vision-based: commit budget and finalize full five-year plan.
  • Real-time: plan for one to three years.
  • The difference: the vision-based approach would result in the above planning process being committed and bought into by all senior stakeholders. This would then become part of the business strategy. The real-time process would also need buy-in from the senior team but would be more fluid and have less of a time commitment.
Stage 4: delivery:
  • Vision-based: work to plan with very limited deviation.
  • Real-time: continue to evolve and change direction as needed.
  • The difference: as the work begins there is a very clear path for the vision-based strategy to follow. The milestones must all be met and this allows full visibility of progress and clear resource management. The real-time approach has a clear beginning but must now be managed closely to create a path and direction as the strategy evolves based on the learnings, internal and external factors.
Stage 5: result:
  • Vision-based: delivered as per plan but possibly now out of date and a new strategy is needed.
  • Real-time: delivered in an evolved state, which can continue within minimal work but at a higher cost.
  • The difference: the vision-based approach should accomplish its end goal and if not then the project has failed. However, if the environment has changed then the result may not be as strong as first expected and changing course can be expensive and difficult. The real-time approach should result in a more contemporary result but the path may have been more expensive and resource intensive due to the continuous reviewing and evolution of the plan.

The phased approach

Before we get on to steps three to five of the vision-based planning process it is worth quickly discussing phased planning. This refers to splitting your strategy into key development phases. These phases can be categorized into calendar-based, theme-based and business-based phasing, dependent on your strategy. There are other phasing approaches but these are some of the most common.

Calendar-based phasing

This approach is as simple as it sounds. Phasing your plan to match your calendar is one method. You could start in January, aim to have your vision completed by February, establish your goals in March etc. This type of approach is common when there is no specific delivery date in mind, no essential milestone dates or your strategy is not integrated with any other pieces of work. That does not mean that the deadlines are any less important, but you can be a little more flexible with setting those deadlines at the start of the planning process.

Theme-based phasing

Theme-based phasing is used when your strategy has specific themes that would be logical to deliver together. For example, there may be specific customer experience elements that would be powerful to be delivered together such as a new training programme and online chat technology. There could be complementary marketing channel strategies that would be far more powerful if released together, such as direct mail and e-mail.

Business-based phasing

This phasing method is focused on aligning your strategic plan with the overall business goals. Your company’s strategic plan is likely to be made of key strategic pillars, which may in turn be delivering projects and change programmes. This may be less formalized in a smaller business but there will still be key areas of focus, and funding will be directed towards those. The business-based phasing approach means aligning the key parts of your plan with these pillars. This is a path of least resistance and will resonate with many senior stakeholders, but it can compromise the ideal timeline for your strategy.

Now we can come back to look at stages three to five mentioned in the vision-based planning process above. These are goals, objectives and strategies, and action plans.

Goals

Goals are high-level statements about what you need to achieve in order to deliver against your vision. Goals tend to be long term and therefore set out the underlying elements of your vision. They bring your vision statement to life by moving it towards a practical reality.

Goals need to be structured to meet a set of criteria. I call these the 4 Rs:
  • Relevant: does it fit with your vision?
  • Resonating: does it fit with your business’s values and goals?
  • Responsive: is it adaptable and flexible so that it can change if needed?
  • Recognizable: is it easily understandable?
Some example goals are:
  • increase sales;
  • improve profitability;
  • provide best-in-class customer service;
  • deliver a world-class digital experience;
  • hire the best talent;
  • become the thought leader;
  • gain market share.
You should aim to set a limited number of goals that focus on the key aims of your strategy and fit with the strategic pillars of your business. They also need to be integrated so that they fit together without any conflicting elements. Your business strategy will have goals and each goal will have objectives, strategies and action plans below it. Some of these strategies may in turn have goals that have their own objectives and so through a waterfall effect the goals of your organization are delivered.

Your goals are unique in the planning process in that they require the least detail but the most thought. If your goals are not thought through then the river will be flowing in the wrong direction. How you go about meeting your goal of ‘increase sales’ is not something that the goal itself is concerned with. You do not need to focus on the ‘how’ at this stage, simply the ‘what’. Your objectives and strategies will deal with how these goals are met, as we will see below. Whilst goals should be grounded in reality they do not need to be specific or be the result of thorough research. They therefore do not need to be entirely realistic. It may sound counter-intuitive to have a goal that cannot be met, but an aspirational goal can drive your business forward faster than a realistic one.

digital marketing proposal

That said, there is a careful balance between being aspirational and being so unrealistic that you demotivate your people, which can compromise the delivery of your goal, especially if unrealistic goals are set regularly. If, for example, your sales goal for the year is 20 per cent above the previous year and the company has never achieved more than 10–15 per cent then this is aspirational. It feels achievable if everyone works hard and you have some luck on your side. This may stretch the team to work towards this, especially if they are incentivized to do this. If you miss the 20 per cent target but still achieve 17.5 per cent then this is still the best result your business has ever seen and a good outcome. If, however, you set the target at 40 per cent the following year and 60 per cent the year after, whilst reducing investment in the business, cancelling bonuses and reducing the workforce, then your people will begin to believe that the targets are unrealistic and this will seriously demotivate and have a negative impact on productivity. They may also openly criticize the management, which can lead to severe cultural issues and even resignations all of which will in turn affect the delivery of your goal.

Objectives and strategies

Your objectives and strategies are where you start to build specific plans that create a journey for your overall strategy. Once these are in place we can create action plans that demonstrate the detail of how we deliver them.

Objectives

Your objectives are specific, quantifiable and time-based. They are the steps or milestones that you need to take towards meeting your ultimate goal. Many businesses use a SMART approach to creating objectives. SMART is simply a mnemonic that helps us to ensure that the objectives are well thought through and ultimately will serve their purpose. The SMART method has a number of interpretations but the ‘SMART’ box below outlines one of the more common ones.

SMART:

Specific: no matter who were to look at your action plan it should be absolutely clear what needs to be achieved for the action plan to be met. There must be no ambiguity. Using the five ‘W’ questions can help here again, there are differing interpretations of the five (or sometimes six) ‘W’ questions but below are those that I find the most useful:
  • Who: who will be involved in achieving the action plan?
  • Where: is a specific location involved?
  • What: what exactly needs to be achieved?
  • Why: what is this action plan going to achieve?
  • When: what is the deadline and any milestones along the way?
Measurable: how will you know when you have met your action plan? It is vital that there is a clear measure so that everyone involved knows when the action plan has been hit and there is no confusion. This also allows you to understand how much progress you are making towards meeting your action plan.

Attainable: setting action plans that are realistic is crucially important. If your action plans are not attainable then you can never meet them, which ultimately means you can never reach your goals. There is no harm in setting a stretching action plan – and indeed getting the balance between too stretching and too easy is important here. Setting an action plan that does not have this balance right can also cause demotivation amongst the team working on it.

Relevant: the action plan needs to be relevant to your goal. Having an action plan that does not tie in with the wider work is not only irrelevant but also a distraction from achieving your goal. Think back to the five Ws above and consider whether each of these are relevant.

Time-based: this is where the sixth ‘W’ comes in: ‘When’. Your action plan needs a time frame and also specific milestones. As with any piece of work, having a deadline gives the action plan a much greater chance of being delivered.

If we were to take our goal of increasing sales we might create one of the following objectives: 1) increase sales of batteries through the online channel by 10 per cent to 100,000 units by the end of the sales year; 2) increase room bookings by 55 per cent to achieve 55 per cent capacity by this time next year. These give us a target to hit and a deadline to hit it by. There is no ambiguity and it could even be more specific by breaking down into a series of objectives around the different products being sold.

If we were to take the example of the doughnut company mentioned above, their SMART objectives could be:
  • To be everyone’s favourite place to buy doughnuts: increase footfall by 25 per cent by end of year.
  • We provide the tastiest doughnuts in the United States to anyone, anywhere, at any time: customer satisfaction levels on food quality at least 98 per cent for full year.
  • Improve brand awareness: search queries up 20 per cent within six months.
  • Create a social media strategy: improve engagement on Facebook by 100 per cent by December.
  • Build a viral-video marketing campaign: 1 million views in a three month campaign period.
So now we know exactly what we have to do and by when we have a simple flow. Meeting our action plans means that our strategies will deliver. If all of our strategies deliver then we will hit our goal. If all of our goals deliver then we will deliver against our mission, which is the ultimate action plan.

Strategies

The word ‘strategy’ in this sense refers to the specific things that we will do to meet our objective. Your strategies are the plans that spell out how you will achieve your objectives. When goals are fairly broad, strategies must be much more focused. This is where we demonstrate what we are going to do and from this we create our action plans. Without strategies your work so far will have been for nothing. Going back to our sales goal we know that we need to increase sales. In itself that does not help us a lot. Our objectives have given us something specific that we need to achieve but we still do not fully understand what we need to do to achieve that. Our strategy needs to look at the key work streams we need to implement to achieve our 100,000 sales.

What we need to do at this stage is start to look at the levers we can pull to achieve the desired outcome. For this strategy the outcome is increased sales, so what levers can we pull to achieve this? Well, let’s break down the full sales funnel:
  • Awareness: are consumers aware of us and our products?
  • Consideration: do consumers find our brand and products appealing?
  • Findable: can consumers find us if they want to?
  • Informative: do consumers get the information they need from us to make a decision?
  • Ease of use: is it easy for consumers to buy from us?
We should have a strong understanding of all of these factors from the research and insight work that we reviewed. Each of these areas has its own internal levers, for example:
  • Awareness: above-the-line marketing spend, PR.
  • Consideration: proposition, brand values.
  • Findable: marketing activity.
  • Informative: content.
  • Ease of use: user experience, customer service, conversion funnels.
These specific areas are direct contributors to the sales objective that we are trying to build our strategies for, but there are also indirect contributors. For example, customer service. Whilst providing great service to existing customers does not directly create sales it does create higher retention rates, greater repeat business, more cross-sell opportunity and word-of-mouth promotion. Each of these will directly result in increased sales and so the indirect levers are also vitally important to consider and can often be the difference between exceeding and missing objectives. From these areas we can now build strategies such as:
  • increase display advertising across highly targeted sites (awareness);
  • develop a market-leading digital proposition (consideration);
  • make significant SEO improvements (findable);
  • develop a content strategy (informative);
  • improve our conversion rate (ease of use).
Each of these strategies will need a level of detail below it to dictate how it is delivered. These are called our action plans.

Action plans

Action plans clearly define the specific pieces of work that will be done within each of the above strategies. These must not be confused with the planning processes mentioned above, or the wider use of the word ‘plan’ in this post. Ultimately this is where your strategy will succeed or fail. Action plans are where your goals, objectives and strategies come together into the hard work. At this stage, more so than any other, the detail is crucial. Planning how the work will be done, ensuring nothing is missed, working with key stakeholders, checking the legal and regulatory frameworks are in place, ensuring budgets are planned and managed accurately, selecting and managing your agencies and many more factors will be crucial to success here.

Rather than cover all of this here we instead look at tactical delivery of the strategy. In order to create the action plan we need to review what specific tactical actions we are going to take to meet the strategy. To bring this to life we can focus on one of the strategies above that are contributing to our ‘increase sales’ goal. Let’s look at ‘Make significant SEO improvements’.

SEO can be broken down into three core areas: technical implementation, content and links. When looking at how you build your action plan for this strategy you would need to consider all three areas:

Technical implementation
  • URL structure: is it optimized for the products we are looking to sell?
  • Code: does it need cleaning, are there any errors such as broken links?
  • Experience: is our site responsive? Will it be a great experience for all of our visitors?
Content
  • Topic: are we producing content that covers the key areas that consumers care about?
  • Keyword: are we talking about the specific terms that people are searching for?
  • Social: is our content proving to be engaging socially?
  • Fresh: is our content of the moment?
Links
  • Profile: is our link profile clean?
  • Baiting: do we have an ethically sound link strategy such as link baiting rather than link buying?

10 steps to an effective action plan

  1. Know your strategy.
  2. Understand the bigger picture – your goals.
  3. Be specific.
  4. Create a written plan.
  5. Create deadlines and milestones.
  6. Ensure it is measurable.
  7. Don’t compromise.
  8. Build in known factors.
  9. Be clear.
  10. Be thorough.

Controls

The above processes are very effective ways to ensure that you meet your overall business mission, but all of these are ineffective if they are not implemented and run correctly. I have seen many businesses that are excellent at this from top to bottom, but also some that are very good at the theory but fail to hit their action plans due to lack of clarity, poor communication or a fall down in the process. There are some clear disciplines and controls to have in place when building and delivering a plan that are crucial to success and they are no less important than any of the other parts of the planning process.

The most important of these controls is to implement a documented, management approach, assuming of course that you are not operating a real-time planning process (as mentioned above). This is where the Gantt chart comes in. Using a Gantt chart to clearly illustrate the progress of each of the action plans, and therefore the strategies, gives a clear reference point at any moment for how progress is being made towards meeting the objectives and therefore goals of the business. This covers the deadline and milestone elements of the strategies. Also, implementing reporting and measurement is vital to allow monthly, weekly or even daily progress reports against the objectives.

Reviews

Reviews are also crucial to success. A standard approach here is to implement a quarterly review, but this should be structured to fit with your strategy and business and so quarterly may not always be the appropriate time frame. These reviews should cover how each action plan is progressing against the milestones and whether targets are being met. From these reviews the strategies should be evolved. This could be the implementation of new action plans to replace failing ones, the restructure of strategies or teams or even the increase in targets due to unexpected success to date.

Risk management

Risk management is another important control. Your business and your industry will have its own risk positioning, which will be dependent on a number of factors such as regulation. A full understanding of this dictates the plans that you produce and how you take action on them throughout their delivery. Constructing a risk matrix is a useful method of visualizing the risks that your strategies will encounter. You should familiarize yourself with the risk management techniques relevant to your company and industry.

online marketing plan

Contingency planning

Contingency planning is an important control to have in place. With all the best strategists, planners and best practice methods in place there still will be unforeseen factors. Macro-economic factors such as recessions are a good example of this. You cannot fully predict what will happen, so having plans in place to allow you to be flexible and implement plan B when something goes wrong is crucial. In order to build contingency plans effectively you should think through what the top 10 most likely impacts could be and how your plan might need to evolve to deal with them. This does not involve the creation of 10 new plans but simply a realistic alternative that can be built on if the situation occurs. Some examples of this are:

  • A new competitor enters the market with significant impact.
  • New technology is launched that our consumers would prefer to use.
  • The global economy enters recession.
  • There is a serious negative PR story about our business.
  • New regulation is brought into force that restricts our operations.

People

A business is nothing without its people. A crucial part of planning is getting the right people working on delivering your plan. There are two key areas to consider here: skill set and resource. Do we have enough people and who should look after which part of the process?

Skill set

This really starts at the top. It is not a simple matter of ensuring that your social media experts are implanting social media correctly, it is more important to ensure that your strategists and planners are experienced and have the right mindset for the role. If this early part of the process is not conducted correctly then the rest of the strategies and action plans will be heading in the wrong direction no matter how well they are executed. For the implementation you need experts who understand their own channels but who also have an understanding of the other channels and the wider strategy. Whilst you can implement a marketing strategy with individuals working in silos, this creates a long list of issues that can be seriously detrimental to your strategy, so having people who are good communicators and leading them to behave as one team is crucial.

This brings us to the leaders themselves. For this role you must have an individual who understands each and every area of the strategy. They do not need to be a paid search expert, a research guru or a PR genius, but they absolutely have to understand what each channel and element of the strategy does, how it works and how they should fit together. Without this, the guidance will not be there for the experts who are delivering the action plans. Without guidance there is nowhere to turn for direction and that will lead your action plans off the path to success.

Resource

Quite simply, this refers to the number of hours available for delivery of the action plans. This can be quite complex and it is crucial here that the strategists have a solid understanding of what resource is available to deliver the plans. Many plans fall down due to an unrealistic expectation of the number of hours available in a team.

A good process here is to begin by allocating time to existing processes or ‘business as usual’ (BAU) work. For example, a team of 20 marketers may consist of one director, three senior managers, six managers and 10 executives. They work 40 hours a week. Everyone in that team has some admin to do every week such as expenses, invoicing, time management etc. The managers also have people management responsibilities such as signing off holidays, running reviews, recruiting etc. Senior managers will also have strategic plans to write, business projects to be involved with, budgets to plan, contracts to negotiate etc. The director will also have the overall department strategy, board meetings, pay reviews and other strategic projects. If we were to allocate this time at the start we would see that where we had 40 hours per week × 20 staff = 800 hours a week, we now have 35 hours a week × 20 staff = 700 hour a week. Simply through the standard BAU we have lost 100 hours a week.

We then have to look at the work that goes on within marketing that forms the foundation of keeping the department running. This may include website updates, paid search optimization, sending weekly e-mails, copywriting and uploading to the content management system (CMS) to keep our content fresh and much more. This may well take another 300 hours per week for our team, leaving us with 400 hours. We need to factor in that individuals in the team will have holiday and some sick leave, which will lose us 25 days per person on holiday and 5 days per person on sick leave during the year. This is 30 × 20 days per year = 600 days. That results in 11.5 days a week or 92 hours. So now we have just 308 hours left.

This is all hypothetical of course, but you can see how we could plan for 800 hours a week when we actually have around 300 hours a week of available resource. This kind of detailed planning is essential if you are to create realistic action plans that are deliverable.

Budgeting and forecasting

Last, but certainly not least, is the budgeting and forecasting process. This is a crucial area of planning, for obvious reasons, and there are some important techniques that can be used to ensure this process is as smooth and accurate as possible. This section deals specifically with media budgeting rather than departmental budgeting. We will therefore not be considering the running of our department, including items such as salaries, expenses, IT costs etc. We are purely concerning ourselves with budgeting our marketing spend, including items such as media costs and agency fees. Digital marketing is an area that is very transparent. Where some marketing channels may not be able to directly attribute sales or revenue, digital channels generally can. As such budgeting and forecasting accuracy expectations are high, so using solid techniques to enable you to establish this accuracy is key.

Master budget

This is a document that is often used within business to establish a budget for the coming period based on previous results. This is a static document and it would never be adjusted, no matter what results are actually seen. You therefore report against this as your master budget and, ultimately, you will be judged at the end of the year on performance against it. To produce this you will need to review historic performance of all of the key metrics such as conversion rates, engagement rates and response rates. Understanding how they have performed historically, and the trend you have seen over the previous period, will inform your view as to what to expect over the coming period. You also need to consider known macro factors such as seasonal changes, competition and regulation.

It should be noted that you can create your master budget based purely on aspirational goals if you choose, but this is likely to be inaccurate, difficult to measure against and not given credence by external parties such as analysts and investors.

Forecasting

Your forecast is a more fluid version of your budget and should be reassessed regularly. Monthly forecasts are fairly standard, especially within digital marketing where updated market and business performance can be considered in close to real time. There are several different techniques that can be used for forecasting but the most common, and the one we look at here, is the trend-based model. This technique looks at your budget alongside a 13-month rolling performance. This provides a view of your month-on-month performance and your year-on-year performance whilst showing any trends within the data and your goals from your budget. This is a fairly robust technique as it builds on solid data to make predictions. What this model does not cover, however, is any known future events.

For example, if we were to forecast our sales from paid search for August 2018 we would look back at the period from August 2016 to July 2017. We could see from this how we performed last year and see any trends since that date right up until the previous month. We can build into this our own knowledge of what has happened and we can make some predictions about August this year. But what if we know that we are repricing our products mid-month or there will be a new competitor product launching? The model does not take account for that. We therefore need to add a second element to this model.

This second element is to review the known future. If we know that a competitor is launching a new product then we need to model the effect we think that will have on our paid search channel. Have they done this before? Has someone else done something similar before? Will they promote it on paid search? Are they well known to our consumers? Are they direct competition or will we actually be less affected than we first thought? Looking at our data and making assumptions is key to being able to model this into our forecast and therefore have an accurate view of the future.

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