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Marketing and communications have never been more important within the direct sales industry than they are right now. While good marketing always has been a common thread among successful companies, it’s often been overlooked as a recognized driver, playing second fiddle to compensation plan design, product development, field training and the like.
Today’s direct sales marketing leader has a lot on his or her plate. In a new way, the industry is recognizing the need to deliberately build brands and experiences that stand out to certain market segments. At the same time, our marketing and communications teams still spend large amounts of their time and attention on efforts that support the sales and field development efforts. And, of course, the marketer’s role in the ever-changing digital space is growing exponentially.
Wearing all of these hats can make the planning process a real challenge. I hear from companies regularly who recognize the need to improve their planning process for marketing and communication efforts, but they just don’t know where to start. I hope this process will help you shape your planning process for 2016.
What Is Marketing at My Company?
One of the most basic steps you can take in your planning process is to simply define “marketing.” It’s not an easy term to fully capture with a single sentence. Is it Branding? Advertising? Sales? Communication?
I like to push this question to a new level, and get specific. Ask yourself this question: “What is marketing at my company?”
It’s too easy to let someone else in a different situation at a different company with different circumstances define what marketing should be in our own situation and circumstances. In direct sales, it’s especially easy to look at what other companies are doing, and let them answer the question for us. It’s certainly wise to see what your colleagues are doing at other companies, but you can’t let that be the sole driver for your strategy.
One of the best actions you can take as a marketing leader is clearly defining what marketing is (and what it’s not) at your organization, specifically and realistically. Only then can you create a plan that actually supports what your company will benefit from most and can realistically pull off.
Capture and Collect
Every planning process needs to allow for some dreaming, some creative thinking, some input from others.
But too often we get caught up in a “there’s no such thing as a bad idea” type of session that leads nowhere in the end because of a lack of structure and purpose.
A productive planning session should begin with an objective already defined. Hopefully, your company has clearly established its three to seven overall objectives for the year prior to this planning process. Ask yourself this question: “What can we do to help make those objectives happen?” Spend time alone thinking through this, then present it to your team. At this point, it’s OK to be open to any and all ideas, because those ideas should be in response to the company’s core objectives. Collect and capture each thought without committing to anything.
Filter and Focus
After careful thought, sift through the ideas presented and create three to seven departmental objectives that support the company’s overall objectives.
As you look at all the different ideas, here’s a question to get you started: “What has the best shot of impacting our objectives the most?” Many, if not most, of your collected ideas probably could support your objectives. Your job is to determine what will impact those objectives best. You really haven’t committed to a strategy until you can tell a good idea “no.”
Remember, choose no more than seven core objectives that your department will be committed to. Otherwise, you’re trying to accomplish too much.
Create Your Roadmap
Now let’s move into more practical steps of the planning process.
The marketing and communications team touches every area of the company. In some cases you’re a strategic driver for a project. In many others, you serve a critical support function. So you must keep your hand on the pulse not just for your own team’s objectives, but for meeting expectations for the company overall.
I’m a big believer in well-constructed documents. There’s a certain amount of clarity that comes with getting things on paper in a way that’s logical and clear. Some companies do a great job of creating a comprehensive calendar that captures the major launch dates, project milestones, promotional efforts, events, incentives, etc., in a way that’s easily accessible. Most companies struggle with creating such a document. It’s hard for everyone to be on the same page when “the page” hasn’t even been created. I’m convinced that this is a great opportunity for marketing leaders to step up and drive productivity for both the team and the company overall.
It can be helpful to create a combined Sales and Marketing Roadmap. The point is for you to have a quick visual reference on hand at any time so you can quickly make decisions. It’s also a way to assess what’s possible and what’s not in terms of resources and time, and what’s too much and not enough in terms of communication with your field and your customers.
Here’s a simple process that anyone can use:
- Create a spreadsheet, and know upfront it probably will be fairly large (think 11 inches by 17 inches if you print it).
- Across the top (X axis), list the calendar time periods that make sense for your company. It may be a calendar month, or your pay period.
- Down the side (Y axis), list all the different types of projects. These aren’t specific projects, but rather types of programs. For example, typical items for a direct sales company would include Events, Incentives, Campaigns, Training, Product Marketing or Digital Projects.
- Under each project type, now start adding specific projects that fall into that type. For example, under Events, you would have National Convention, regional events, etc. Under Product Marketing, it may be Product Launches, Promotions or Discontinuations.
- Start dropping in your items with each project. Perhaps start with National Convention (since nearly everything seems to revolve around that anyway). Find where that project type and the date meet, and color that cell in as the launch date. Now, think backward in terms of when your team will need to work on that project, and fill in those cells. For example, if Convention is in June, and you know your team will be working on it a lot starting in February, color in the cells for February through June.
- Repeat for each line item and fill out the roadmap. You should end up with a mix of blank cells and colored. Use different colors as it makes sense to you.
This is a very basic approach, but it works. You are creating a visual tool that, when completed, shows you quickly when stuff is happening and when it’s not. At a glance, you will be able to see when the company may be biting off more than it can chew as you see “too much color” vertically over a given time period. Then maybe you can suggest rethinking timelines for some projects. Most important, you can eyeball when your resources will be most needed, and plan accordingly.
Create Your Resource Grid
The roadmap you’ve created has helped you identify how to best serve your company for the coming year. Now you need to line up your resources to match the workload that’s coming your way.
A Resource Grid is an extension of the roadmap you create. Its purpose is to identify how to use the resources you have, where to increase resources and when to possibly reduce resources. It also should give you a holistic perspective on what lies ahead for your team, where there are areas for margin, and where you risk being overwhelmed.
Below the roadmap portion of your spreadsheet, create a new section. Down the vertical axis, label each cell with a department on your team. For marketing, this may include Creative, Communications, Web Marketing, Product Marketing or PR.
Also, add a space for Extra Resources. We’ll talk more about that in a minute.
Now, using the same date ranges across the top of the spreadsheet, let’s gauge how much work will be required of each department during each time period. It can be helpful to have three levels to measure by: low, normal and high. “Normal” should be what you expect a typical workload to be for that department.
At this point, start filling in cells. You may have a color-coded system where, for example, green is low, yellow is normal and red is high. Or you may split these cells into three cells and fill in one, two or all three of the split cells to show the level of work required from this group. Do what works for you. The key is for you to quickly glance at the sheet and spot when your team is maxed out and when it’s not.
As you fill in the spaces, there should be times when several spaces aren’t full, meaning that team is working at a normal or slightly lower workload. That’s OK. Don’t feel like you have to fill it. Other times, you may see that all departments are in “the red zone” (like around convention).
When you see an extended period of “the red zone,” this should quickly prompt you to make some decisions. Should I hire on someone full-time? Or maybe bring on a contractor just to get us through this period?
When you see some white space on the grid, those are times you could possibly work in some projects that improve your department operationally. Reports, analytics, workflow updates—these are all things that you could plan to address.
In some cases, you will see that a department or team member has a lot of white space for an extended period of time. This may indicate that you don’t need full-time resources for this function.
As a manager and a planner, match your resource planning with the company’s overall plans to make sure you’re in a position to succeed.
It is best to have strategic plans in place before budgets are created. Allocated funds shouldn’t determine your strategy; your strategy should determine where funds are allocated. However, this isn’t always the reality, so work with the hand you’re dealt and push forward.
For budgeting, think in terms of four buckets to start: staff, operational costs, project-specific costs and contractor/flex costs. From here, you should be able to gain a strong grasp on how you will use your funds for the year.
Execution is everything! All this planning means nothing if something doesn’t actually happen. A brief status meeting, either weekly or biweekly, is a good way to keep things on track. Each meeting should include these components:
- Report on Commitments: It’s amazing how phrasing can change how we think of something. Instead of asking your team to “give us an update,” ask them to “report on their commitments.” It shifts ownership of the projects to them. A task hasn’t simply been assigned; a commitment has been made.
- Identify Challenges and Changes: Create an environment where everyone identifies changes and challenges to the plan, and where the team wants to openly address them for the sake of the company.
- Make Decisions: We’ve all been to meetings where a lot is talked about, and nothing happens as a result. Be prepared and committed to make decisions on the spot whenever possible.
- Document It: The single best thing you can do to increase accountability is to document commitments and decisions. Having someone responsible for group note-taking and capturing the key decisions and updates can help everyone.
I hope this example has sparked some thoughts for you. Whatever you do, don’t overthink it. The best process is the one you’ll use on a regular basis. Don’t let software or project management philosophies distract you from using the process and approach that works for you and your company.
Brett Duncan is Managing Principal of Strategic Choice Partners, a firm that focuses on marketing and communications efforts, and facilitating the planning and execution process for companies. He also offers business coaching.