Why 12-Month Marketing Plans Are Worthless (And What To Do Instead)

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Marketing today has the ability to change without notice, and it can happen quickly. As a discipline of rapid iteration, marketing simply doesn’t lend itself to the rigidity of a 12-month plan any longer. Marketers looking to produce results-driven, nimble plans will need to think shorter-term, keeping the bigger picture in mind.

The marketing budget is obviously of utmost importance for any business, large or small. And sure, a budget cannot be produced if no long-term plan is in place, but too often, marketing departments are pigeonholed into dumping money into channels and tactics that prove to be ineffective, without any ability to change course until the next budgeting cycle. Budget can cause numerous long-term issues for marketers, including these scenarios:

The website is ineffective, but there’s no budget for improvements for another ten months

The paid advertising campaign is hemorrhaging cash, but can’t be turned off

The 12-month retainer with the SEO agency contributed $0 to your bottom line, but the commitment has already been made

The trade show strategy failed to generate any attributable revenue after two shows, and another five are already paid for


If any change is made to the marketing plan throughout the year, it’s usually a budget cut, not a budget addition. Instead of budgeting for innovation (which includes the risk of failure), organizations try to play it safe by shutting everything down when things don’t go according to plan. And nothing short of a merger, PR disaster or leadership change is going to change this before the next budgeting cycle.

Marketers cannot wait that long to abandon ineffective strategies and replace them with more effective approaches. So, the 12-month marketing plan doesn’t work. Here is its replacement: a marriage of long-term goal-setting with real-time iteration.

The Modern Marketing Plan, Plain and Simple

One way to create a flexible marketing strategy is to embrace an agile marketing methodology. For organizations willing to commit to this kind of initial disruption, it offers unprecedented accountability and complete freedom to adapt on a moment’s notice.

But for many organizations, agile marketing, and the bi-weekly sprints it entails, are far too disruptive. Fortunately, there’s a more straightforward option for creating an efficient, effective and modern marketing strategy – one comprised of three simple steps:

1. Tie annual marketing key performance indicators (KPIs) to business goals

Every annual marketing department objective should tie directly to a business goal. If your organization plans to grow revenues by 25 percent, you should be able to determine how many marketing or sales-qualified leads are needed to hit that mark, and use that as your key performance indicator (KPI). Orphaned marketing objectives, or KPIs with no ties to your goals, should be removed.

2. Embrace innovation and flexibility in your budget

Because operating budgets are set with the fiscal year in mind, a marketing budget has to have flexibility built in. In addition to a dedicated innovation budget, marketers must be able to shift its spend to reflect real-time results. It’s fine to create an annual marketing budget by forecasting how much you think you will spend over the year ahead, but those estimates cannot prevent a divergence when new opportunities arise or existing initiatives fail.

3. Use 90-day cycles to evaluate and reset your plan

The 90-day cycle can be the best method of evaluating an “annual” marketing plan. It’s typically enough time to generate results that will help determine the effectiveness of strategies, which ones need to be optimized and which need to be discontinued.

That doesn’t always mean that strategies can easily be implemented and evaluated in a 90-day window. It also certainly doesn’t mean performance should only be measured on a quarterly basis. The team members responsible for managing spend such as digital advertising or email marketing should be spending time daily optimizing performance based on real-time results. And teams should never go longer than 30 days without a serious review of site traffic and lead generation dashboards.

Instead, 90 days is the maximum amount of time marketers should wait before reevaluating. In effect, the 12-month marketing plan becomes a series of four connected three-month plans. Every 90-day cycle builds on the cycle that preceded it, because marketers are empowered and prepared to course correct regularly.

The Modern Marketing Plan, Enacted

Once the structure of the marketing plan is in place, everything should be able to follow suit with relative ease, including your relationship with partners and technologies outside your organization. Agencies and other outsourced partners will need to be held accountable, as well as software. Discard platforms and technologies that don’t demonstrate a time-to-value of 90 days or less - long before they have the opportunity to become unnecessary shelf ware.

Already have a 12-month marketing plan in place as you read this? Retroactively apply these methods to the existing plan; it’s not too late to change course. Just don’t get stuck with a failing plan. Otherwise, your 12-month marketing plan may not be the only part of your organization that becomes worthless in 2017.

Tiffany Sauder is founder and president of Element Three.

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