by Andrew Layton, American Lotus
Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. —Dwight Eisenhower
We’ve all been there. It’s the end of the year. The dreaded planning season. And you’re cramming together a marketing plan somewhere in between sales calls and online holiday shopping.
But what if you could cut yourself a little slack AND became a better marketer at the same time?
Conventional planning: the “security blanket” approach
Conventional planning usually involves making a lengthy document with lots of strategies and task lists for the coming year (yawn). You may even get fancy and put it in a three-ring binder — a fitting shield against the dust it will collect over the next 12 months.
I’m convinced the only reason this method persists is because it feels safe… for now.
You feel safe because you’ve padded it with so much stuff that something is bound to work. Plus, it looks impressive and shows everyone just how much work you do. Your boss feels safe too because the blame for any failure of the plan can be placed squarely on your shoulders. Everyone wins!
Alas, the bill always comes due after the new year. You go like gangbusters for the first month, maybe two, until you quietly admit defeat and go back to putting out day-to-day fires.
The planning mistake most of us make
So what’s the problem? If planning is supposed to guard against complacency and provide a benchmark for progress and performance, why, despite our best intentions, do we go off the rails so quickly?
Short answer: we want too much control.
We tend to assume at the outset that we know all the facts we need in order to grow our business. In other words, there’s little room to learn anything new about our audience, our market, or our customers because we think “we already know all that.”
We look into our crystal ball to predict which tactics will work, and then pile crippling expectations on ourselves and others in an effort to make the market bend to our will. When it doesn’t do so, we blame ourselves and others for being poor planners or even inept marketers.
So if all you learn from this process is that you are a poor planner or that you lack the discipline to follow the plan, it’s just going to sap your motivation and generate a negative feedback loop.
Let go of control and let the market teach you
However… if you shift perspective to see marketing (or even your whole business) as a learning experience — a series of experiments where you try new things and keep track of results — it becomes a much more positive exercise. You can safely admit from the beginning that you don’t know everything and that’s ok.
The plan becomes a flexible framework for the year’s activities rather than a complete, immovable structure. Did you learn something new from January’s campaign? Maybe you can apply it to that event coming up in March. Is one of your blog posts suddenly getting 10 times more traffic than your other posts? Maybe it’s time to redirect funds and produce more content around that topic.
When done responsibly, planning provides the guardrails to keep you focused and engaged throughout the year without getting discouraged (or losing your mind). Starting with small, manageable projects will yield the data you need to execute larger campaigns with confidence.
To explore these themes in a lot more detail, be sure to check out this in-depth guide to Agile Marketing from CoSchedule.
Andrew Layton is the owner of American Lotus, a technical marketing and creative agency in Rolla, Missouri. Andrew has been helping technical businesses with marketing since 2003 both as an independent consultant and on in-house marketing teams. He is also an accomplished photographer, musician, and amateur wine geek. Reach out with marketing or creative questions any time at firstname.lastname@example.org.