If there’s one thing more difficult than persuading technology company executives they need a well-researched, well-funded, coherent and integrated marketing strategy, it’s persuading them to stick to that strategy.
Now, I’m not saying that course corrections aren’t in order as market winds buffet and blow. But in the main, once a strategy has been properly developed, persistent and steady adherence to the objectives, messaging and tactics it sets out is essential if the company is to arrive at its desired destination — more leads, higher sales and improved revenue and profit.
When I first came to Ottawa more than 20 years ago, the best part of my practice was researching and developing comprehensive integrated communications strategies for large national federal-government programs. I relished the intellectual and professional challenge of coming to grips with the audiences, issues and messages, and then solving what was often a millions-of-dollars puzzle crafting the right mix of communications programming within an established budget that would support the government’s objectives on a major public policy initiative. Then, the program would go into implementation and all hell would break loose. I did not work on a single program where the strategy was faithfully followed. A multi-million-dollar government communications program could be thrown entirely off course by a single afternoon’s Question Period, or by a minister or powerful political aide simply saying, “I think we should do this.” All the research, objective rationale and programming could go flying out the window on little more than a whim. No wonder I don’t toil in those fields any longer.
Even without the political and public-policy vicissitudes of government communications, however, technology company executives are still prone to what my wife and fellow marketing strategist calls “shiny object syndrome,” that tendency of attention-challenged individuals to be frequently distracted by the latest new thing they’ve read or heard about. The tendency also expresses itself in their inability to resist recommending random changes to campaign ideas and copy. And it is typified by those early-morning conversations we’ve all had with clients and bosses that start with that dreaded phrase, “I had an idea last night…”
So how do marketing executives, who are the navigators on these ships of commerce and venture, keep their captains steering the wise and sensible course that was mapped out before we ever left port? It ain’t easy, but here are a few key pointers.
Make sure the map is a good one from the outset
This sounds obvious, but it often isn’t so. If your client or CEO can’t see how the strategy you have developed is actually going to accomplish the sales and revenue objectives that have been set for the company, she or he is going to be reluctant to sail where you want the ship to go. A good map makes it clear that you understand where the company needs to go and how your marketing objectives support the broader corporate objectives. Most critically, it makes it clear, through objective business-case rational and not with mushy marketing doublespeak, that what you propose is going to accomplish what you say it will.
Make sure there are clear signposts along the way
It takes a long time to sail across an ocean and it takes a long time to charter a company from product development through to customers and revenue. Just as sailors will lose all hope and stage a mutiny if they can’t be certain they are going to make landfall before provisions run out, so, too, will your client lose faith if there aren’t clear indications that you’re sailing in the right direction and making good progress in exchange for the resources you’ve been given. While leads and revenue are the ultimate yardsticks of progress, your strategy needs to incorporate intermediate milestones that will demonstrate to your captain that everything is still on the right track. At the outset, these yardsticks measure nothing more than activity levels, which at least reassures executives that the right level of effort is being expended. At some early point, however, progress needs to be measured in other areas. Is web traffic up? Are we meeting with greater numbers of prospects at trade shows and events? Are the media paying attention to our story? Is our social media community growing and are we engaging with it? Keep hitting the intermediate milestones your strategy established and your captain and crew will continue to have faith in your navigational skills.
Stick to the plan, certainly, but maintain some flexibility
What happens if market forces blow you off course or an economic downturn leaves you marooned in the doldrums? How are you going to get back on course and regain momentum? A good navigator can read the signs and course correct as necessary, and the same holds true for marketing strategists. The early-warning systems I talked about in the previous point will tell you, before anyone else cops on, that things are or are not working out as you expected them to. You need to be incredibly well-tuned to such signs as well as to intelligence coming in from your salesforce and from other sources of good market information, and be able to suggest refinements and new tactics that will keep your program on course.
Don’t hesitate to monger a little fear
Sailing into previously uncharted waters is something we ask our clients and CEOs to do all the time when we propose new ways of doing things that the company hasn’t tried before. Before we propose such a course, though, we still need to have a persuasive case that it’s the right thing to do. That’s a whole lot different from making a random tack in an unknown direction, which is effectively what we’re being asked to consider when executives who lack marketing savvy suggest, “Let’s try this.” In such an instance, if there is no rational for such a move, or if it defies and works against the strategy that has been developed and agreed upon, don’t hesitate to ring an alarm bell. Redraw the map for everyone. Remind them where we’re trying to go and how this map will get us there. And warn them that going elsewhere on a whim or a fancy is dangerous. In the words of mapmakers of old, “There be demons.”