Marketing planning: Is it time to extend horizons past the fog of CV19?

B2B marketing planning has never been an exact science, but it’s never been more problematic than it is in late 2020, with the future never more difficult to foretell. So how are marketers doing it? And what does success look like? That was what we discussed in our latest B2B Marketing Leaders virtual roundtable – run in association with cloud data platform Snowflake.

How can you plan for the future when you have no idea what the future’s going to look like? That’s been the conundrum facing B2B marketers since the onset of lockdown back in March, and one coming into renewed focus as we head into the autumn, with a new financial year looming. Faced with a situation as unprecedented and challenging as CV19, most marketers’ pragmatic reaction was to draw in horizons. In other words, to think about purely about what’s happening and required for the here and now, and possibly the immediate future. Unsurprisingly, in this context, long-term planning was often sacrificed, or at least de-prioritised.

Although there may be near-term end to the pandemic, marketers have made great strides to adjust to the new environment, seizing opportunities and responding to threats. Longer term planning is increasingly creeping back onto the agenda and is becoming critical for both marketing and the wider business alike.

So what level of planning is appropriate for today, and how do you build in sufficient flexibility to respond to a fluid environment? This was the crux of our latest B2B Marketing Leaders virtual roundtable – held in association with cloud data platform Snowflake. It proved to be a very popular session, attended by B2B marketers from a diverse range of companies and backgrounds.

Here are some of the standout points that were made, which were my key takeaways.

1. Conflicted priorities and needy stakeholders

Marketers at corporates at wrestling with dealing with lots of different calls for attention for different product/service lines… and that’s worse in partner run organisations. It’s always been a challenge to be able to discern the signal from the noise, but that’s particularly the case now, with often more limited resources. The focus seems to be shifting to bigger picture, more all-encompassing activities, which is rational but can frustrate individual stakeholders. In such instances, marketers need to be expert political operators and have clear guildelines on how they prioritise or discontinue activities.

2. A renewed focus on measurement

ROI and attribution took second place in the wake of CV19, with everyone just focused on getting on with it, delivering what was practical and triaging or replanning the rest. But for many marketers, that’s coming back into hard focus now. For others, the switch to digital meant a complete reappraisal of expectations as behaviours and response rates changed with the environment. New digital-only campaigns need different methods of measurement as now all leads being created are equal to those generated by physcial events in the past.

3. Planning for post-marketing follow-up

What does the follow up look like? To this end, marketing is having to work hard with sales to help them understand how to follow up. Sometimes this is about full retraining, sometimes it’s about providing the right toolkits and clarifying how to use them. In some instances, marketers have realised that existing data captured is simply not fit-for-purpose, and have been having to employ specialists to work on how to improve quality or provide better flagging for sales.

4.  Unexpected positives from reallocating resources

Most marketers have had some kind of reduction in budget and/or headcount… but most would also acknowledge that this has forced them to think and act more creatively, and that consequently there have been positives. One implication is that it certainly does not necessarily mean doing less – digital is much more cost effective than physical events, and so cost allocation has allowed output to be balanced in many instances, albeit with different implications. Meanwhile, CV19 budget changes have also continued the trend of insourcing, with some marketers removing budget from external agencies and training up the internal team to carry some of this burden. The consequences are not always predictable.

5. People planning concerns

Managing spend and output is just one dimension of planning – many marketers cited concerns about team burnout, suggesting that marketers had been over-delivering in the wake of lockdown, but that this couldn’t continue indefinitely

6. Planning shortcuts can create problems down the track

CV19 has exacerbated the biggest perennial challenge around marketing planning: specifically, paying this sufficient attention, and not diving into the tactics or delivery too soon or without sufficient attention paid. This is always tempting (particularly at a time of crisis) and an easy trap to fall into, but it will come back and bite marketers sooner or later.

7. Transformation can’t stop because of Covid

CV19 has both been an enabler of marketing-led business transformation, and an obstacle to it. Whilst some marketers enthusiastically spoke about ‘being more sales’, others cautioned against losing sight of the longer term picture and the ongoing journey which every organisation is on. 

8. Keep customers and business objectives in your sights

It was widely accepted that the keys to great marketing planning are to remain customer focused, objective focused (what are you trying to achieve?) and aligned with the overall business objectives. It helps enormously to have a board level sponsor for key marketing initiatives – without one, it seems likely that any investment may be called into question.

9. Agile is playing dividends

For those organisations that have embraced them, agile methodologies have been worth their weight in gold, enabling marketers to deliver new initiatives at unprecedented speed, and respond to emerging opportunities and shifting priorities.

10. Planning isn’t going to get any easier, but is more important than ever

Marketers have had to adapt to a more flexible and pragmatic style of planning since lockdown, with long-term prospects difficult to forecast. Although this is easing, the environment remains challenging, and most marketers are expecting this ethos to continue well into the next fiscal year.