Planning for change: how to create a marketing plan flexible enough for 2021

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never wanted psychic powers (or maybe just a good, old-fashioned crystal ball) as much as I do right now. The events of 2020 changed so many things, and for many of us the personal and professional lives we lead are not only still in a state of flux, but look set to stay that way for some, if not all, of the year ahead.

Whether Covid-19 has presented new opportunities or pressing challenges for your business, we’ve all had to adapt to new ways of doing things, including your customers and prospects - which may make marketing to them feel more complex this year.

For marketers who have unrelenting targets and want to make the most of 2021, the ongoing uncertainty might feel frustrating. It can be tempting to throw strategy out of the window and focus on quick-wins and clever tactics. But short-termism is never going to deliver the same results as a well-honed plan based on long term objectives. Now is the time to try to create a plan for the year ahead that will make the most of your resources and capitalise on every opportunity - and this year only a flexible plan will work.

What do you know?

So, where to begin? The best place to start when making any plan is always with the things that you do know, and in this case the list will usually include your overarching objectives. While your business objectives - and therefore your marketing objectives - might have shifted slightly thanks to the chaos of 2020, you should hopefully now be in a position to define them for the year ahead. And define them you most definitely should; as this provides a solid framework from which you can hang everything else.

An important tip here: if you’re not 100% confident that your objectives remain realistic in a changed marketplace, it’s time to go back to your customer data. Time dedicated to checking in on customer activity and engagement will be time well spent, so don’t be tempted to skip this step for the sake of getting started on execution a little earlier. And as well as crunching numbers and looking for trends, remember to call on your sales, customer-service and other front-line teams for their perspective. It could be the most valuable bit of employee comms you do all year; providing you with fresh insight and giving them a chance to feel connected and have their say.

Develop a two-speed strategy

Once reviewed and redefined, your overarching objectives will provide a constant reference point for your 2021 marketing activity,  helping you to create meaningful messaging, develop strong customer value propositions and map out a baseline journey of customer communication  - from where there can be adjustment and revision as needed in response to marketplace events or new insight.

In effect, this is the first step towards the development of a two-speed marketing strategy. Working from your overarching objectives without setting tactics in stone will give you direction, purpose and a sense of certainty, but with flexibility built in - the perfect choice marketing strategy for 2021 and all that it may bring.

Take stock of your tools

If we return again to the things we do know, about where we are right now and what the year ahead looks like, we know that for the moment in-person events, direct mail and other more traditional marketing channels are either impossible or offering little return, while digital marketing is where it’s at. But we also know that digital fatigue is setting in. So if 2021 is the year of flexibility, it’s also the year when you need to make sure your digital content really rocks. Put simply, this means creating relevant, timely, engaging content and putting it in all the right places at the right time (with the right budget behind it, where appropriate). So the next question to ask is, do you have the tools at your disposal to get this right?

If the answer is no, it’s time to get your digital ducks in a row. All of the best laid plans in the world will never come to fruition unless you have the resources and capabilities to execute them. Begin with a thorough audit of your tech stack; does everything you already have help you meet your objectives? If not, why are you holding on to it? Automation is a marketer’s best friend, it allows you to focus on the strategic and creative elements of your role that only a human can do, so are there any tasks you would like to streamline with technology? It’s likely that the tools do exist if you know where to look for them. By rationalising your tech stack and filling any gaps, you could save both money and time - as well as making everyday life a little easier.

Boost your team’s star power

A similar process can be applied to your team talent. If you’re not making the most of someone’s capabilities, can they be upskilled or better utilised? And are there any gaps you would like to plug with extra brain power? Agility is about so much more than flexible processes, it’s also about doing away with hierarchy and giving people the room to do their job to the best of their ability, so make sure you get everyone on-board with more agile ways of working and that you’re giving your teams the knowledge and space to perform. One important to thing remember here is that you don’t always have to invest in a new employee to expand your resources - in fact, using an agency to conduct audits, assess and deploy martech, or fulfil marketing functions such as campaign planning, creative execution or even social media management, could provide a more flexible way of getting the results you need.

For those of us who are used to putting a solid plan in place 12 months in advance, 2020 taught us valuable lessons about finding flexibility - and in 2021, it’s time to put them into practice. A more fluid plan atop a rock-solid strategy will stand your business in good stead for success this year - so trust in what you know, because it will help you get ready for what you don’t know (yet).

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