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A New Year’s revolution: Why now is the time to audit your marketing (and how to do it)

Photo of pile of old, old paper maps of cities.

I spent a few years of my early career working in an organization chock full of pension actuaries; if you ever need a good actuary joke, just ask. Here’s one:

Q:  “How many actuaries does it take to change a light bulb?”
A:  “I don’t know. How many did it take last year?”

There’s a truism in there: We can model scenarios for the future based on data and experience from the past to try to achieve a predictable result, all other things being equal. If it worked last year, it should work again this year.

Or … so we tend to believe. And in the past that kind of thinking wasn’t far off when it came to marketing tactics. For much of the latter 20th century, markets, demographics and media platforms were relatively stable and predictable year over year. Broadcast TV was king; radio was for repetition and narrower targeting; print was powerful for both paid and earned media messaging.

Change is the new constant
But you don’t have to look far to realize that the landscape has transformed dramatically in the first years of the new century. Here at the end of 2018 it’s easy to forget that YouTube, Hulu and Netflix’s streaming services aren’t even teenagers yet — so completely have they redefined what we think of as “TV.” Newspapers that were once considered stalwarts of the mediascape are no longer in print, from New York’s Village Voice to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

It’s not just the media outlets and platforms that have changed. New marketing technologies have enabled hypersegmenting down to the individual level, using data, analytics and automation to engage potential and existing customers at every step of the customer journey. These technologies enable a level of precision, measurability and return-on-investment transparency that was once just a dream for marketers and the brands they support.

At the same time, disruptive companies are shaking up markets across every industry through the use of cloud technology, e-commerce, product customization, and fundamentally new operating, subscription and service models. Companies large and small, local and global are having to make significant, continuous adjustments to their positioning, product-service portfolio, and go-to-market strategy and tactics as they respond to market changes, competitive pressures, and internal talent and resource imperatives.

And then there’s the marketplace itself. Every day, audiences are changing their consumption, purchasing and loyalty habits as new social, economic, technological and political realities evolve with increasing momentum.

Doing the same thing and expecting the same results: a new definition of insanity?
All of this results in an increasingly frenetic dance between brands and their audiences — a push and pull that demands constant creativity, agility and sheer energy to manage without tripping up.

Yet too often we see organizations taking the same approach year after year when it comes to their marketing: Past results disproportionately bias decisions about future priorities. They rent the same billboards, buy the same ad packages, run the same creative, send out press releases to the same news outlets. This increasingly looks like a dangerous approach when it comes to brand, marketing, communication and advertising.

Fact is, it is harder than ever to replicate last year’s results using last year’s approach. Do the same thing several years in a row and you risk … well, then not doing anything at all … if your customers get wooed away by your competition.

Channels grow while others wither; influencers rise and fade as fast as the trends they observe; new rules and processes bend or break the way we were delivering and managing advertising and social media; where, how, and how long audiences invest their attention changes in an equally dynamic manner.

A new approach for a new year
For a radically different approach, look to the strategy and finance world and the concept of “zero-based budgeting.” The basic idea is that when it comes to planning for the future, it can often be more efficient and effective to start with a blank slate than with last year’s spreadsheets.

“Zero-based budgeting is a powerful tool for any company, whatever its orientation,” notes the global management consulting firm McKinsey in an article spelling out some myths and truths about the approach. “Even if the organization’s primary focus is on growth, profit, or talent retention … eliminating unproductive costs allows the company to be redirected to more productive areas.”

While McKinsey is mostly focused in that article on supply chain, distribution, human capital and other operational activities, the concept applies equally — if not even more powerfully — to your marketing spend and strategy.

Keep in mind that doing this well is far more nuanced than simply building from scratch. And obviously you will find that some past approaches to marketing continue to work well for you. The point isn’t to change everything. Rather it is to carefully question everything — both old and new — in an effort to build a strategy and tactical mix that increases your impact.

5 steps to a successful marketing audit
So, what should those with responsibility for their organizations’ brand, marketing, communication, advertising and sales enablement be doing? When helping clients audit their marketing strategies and tactics we break it down like this:

1.   Review your business strategy, with an emphasis on specific go-to-market campaigns.
As obvious as this sounds, take the time to review — ideally with your leadership — where the business is headed and where revenue, profit and growth are expected to come from. Just as the business shifts its strategy, so should your marketing plan evolve and change. Sometimes, changes are incremental and minor. Other times, a major course correction may be required. Don’t assume; ask.

2.   Audit your marketing effectiveness.
Once you understand where the business is headed, you can now turn to assessing your existing marketing strategy. There are numerous templates and approaches such as this one from Hubspot.

Do you have a clear picture of which investments are performing and which are under-performing? While not everything is measurable in quantitative terms (though, increasingly, it should be), you can still apply a qualitative lens to those elements of your plan that seem to be delivering and those that you are less sure of. Review past campaigns through a “no-blame postmortem” lens. Think of website traffic and conversions, SEM and SEO. What campaign creative is performing, and what isn’t? Determine what your cost of conversion and cost of sale are for different products / services; then map them against your profitability targets. How smart are your goals and objectives, and how are you planning to get better at measuring them as market conditions and your own organization’s performance dictate?

Assess where and how your efforts are most effectively enhancing your reputation at a brand level — all the way to post-purchase and ongoing customer relationship efforts and their impacts. Is your positioning and messaging still right for your audiences and market segments? Is your brand — from visual identity to core promise, positioning and tone of voice — still a fit for your purpose?

Lastly but importantly, what are your competitors doing that seems to be working? And can you look to adjacent or other kinds of businesses to spot ways to innovate?

3.   Revisit what’s happening with media platforms and channels, martech / adtech, etc.
Invest some time reading all those articles you flagged and saved and never got around to. And take some time to read thought leadership, trade press and other resources to get a feel for where things are headed and what might be working for others that can inspire your own exploration and innovation.

As part of this effort, take a moment to reflect on your biases that come from past experiences. Do you avoid Instagram advertising because you had a past campaign that failed to generate good results? Ask yourself if past failures were due to execution problems, immaturity of the tactic / platform, or a true (and enduring) mismatch of tactic and goal. Have technologies or platforms matured in a way that could potentially impact results in a positive way now? Have your audience demographics, markets, products or pricing shifted in ways that would better fit the approach of a campaign or tactic that previously failed?

4.   Lock yourself in a room with a blank whiteboard.
Now comes the fun part (hopefully). With all this data and perspective in mind, take some time to imagine new ways of achieving your marketing goals. Undertake a “start / stop / continue” exercise aimed at refining and remixing your blend of marketing tactics. Don’t get bogged down in prioritization or budgeting; that comes later. Instead, map out where you’d ideally like to see each tactic impacting your customer’s journey from awareness through evaluation to purchase to loyalty; and figure out how you’re going to fill any empty spaces on that map.

Along the way you should engage other employees, stakeholders and even (if possible) customers in this process. We’ve seen time and again that an outside perspective can often inspire the best “eureka” moments of all.

The result of this effort should give you a literal road map to guide your detailed planning, while also — hopefully — setting the stage for buy-in from others in the company.

5.   Finally, go through your budget, line by line.
In full view of the above, revisit your budget in the cold light of day. You will probably identify a number of “legacy” spend lines that you can significantly cut or eliminate altogether. Chances are you will free up resources that can be better focused on higher priorities. You’ll also probably identify tactics that deserve additional investment. Don’t be afraid to place some bets on ideas you generated above, and treat them as pilots or proofs of concept.

Make sure to bake in metrics / KPIs for success, along with measurement tactics to ensure that a year from now you know whether your adjustments have paid off. And don’t forget to review not just cash expenditures but also the allocation of talent resources. Your people are — or should be — your most valuable marketing asset of all; make sure they are engaged and focused on the right priorities and initiatives with clear, achievable goals and the resources they need to succeed.

Change it all. Or, change nothing.
Truthfully, performing an annual marketing audit is of immense value even if you make little or no change to your plan and operations. It can validate your thinking and reinforce your confidence. More likely, it will generate a few tangible tweaks and enhancements that will result in more effective performance of your marketing spend.