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Author: Lisa Sirkin Vielee, President, Well Done Marketing

It’s November 2021, the month when all the business articles you read seem to be about planning for the new year. Yes, this is one of those articles.

Let’s start by acknowledging that, after the last two years, it may seem like long-range planning during a pandemic is just short of futile. In reality, having a business plan that codifies your goals, values, and strategy is more important now than ever. What I suggest is changing your approach to planning, especially when it comes to your marketing plan.

The traditional approach to marketing plans

The traditional approach to developing a strategic marketing plan starts with analyzing the metrics of past campaigns—social media engagement, conversion rates, customer feedback—and discussing what went right and what fell flat. From there, teams create new campaigns to build on past successes and guide a year’s worth of activities.

Unfortunately, what the pandemic proved is that the rules of business can change instantly. Everything we’ve known about running a successful business was upended—and continues to be—in the face of citywide shutdowns, remote work, vaccine mandates, the Great Resignation, supply chain issues, and more. The way companies communicate to customers and other stakeholders had to change as well. A year’s worth of plans set in stone is no longer a good idea.

Try a different approach: The emergent strategy model

Canadian author and management scholar Henry Mintzberg introduced the concept of “emergent strategy” in 1985, and it’s especially relevant in the COVID-19 era. Businesses that follow an emergent strategy model adjust their goals as circumstances change.

Think back to the start of the pandemic. As people were forced to stay indoors, marketers shifted from product messaging to community solidarity. When we weren’t allowed to go to the doctor, social media encouraged us to applaud them from home. Restaurants couldn’t open their dining rooms, so they increased their advertising spend to tout delivery services. In the past 18 months, the successful companies were the ones that were agile enough to adjust their business model, goals, and marketing to address the realities facing customers.

Pay attention to the external influences on your customers

The key is to pay as much attention to external factors as you do to marketing content you create. It means going beyond customer demographics to pay attention to the emotional and physical challenges facing your customers. It also involves being aware of what’s going on in the world that may impact your business. Here are a few ideas to help you take this broad view:

  • Seek out opinions from sociologists, physicians, and economists as well as industry experts to understand how cultural shifts, mental health, and economic conditions could be shaping your business without your knowledge.
  • Get a basic understanding of how your customers spend their time—personally and professionally—especially when they aren’t interacting with you.
  • Be mindful of what your customers and employees are feeling, not just what competes for their attention. Stress and anxiety can radically change habits.
  • Keep up on current affairs, and not just through your favorite news channel. Consume local and national news from conservative and liberal websites, feature articles and trade journals, and social media to understand different perspectives and priorities.

Let external context clues inform your marketing content

In high school English classes, students are taught to look for context clues to develop their overall synopsis and opinions. For today’s marketers, using some of the above research tactics to understand external context clues will help you put preliminary strategies in place to review or change marketing strategy when relevant issues and events arise.

For example, what if Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, is subject to Securities and Exchange Commission restrictions or fines? Would that change your use of the social media platform? If the mental health crisis worsens, how can you adjust your messaging to be more empathetic to the pressures of the world? If you can’t keep shelves stocked due to supply chain issues, will you keep advertising your product at all?

Taking this “context informs content” approach gives you room to react and adjust your strategies as circumstances around you change. Does it make it harder to plan and a little more chaotic? Yes. Does it help you prepare to react more quickly in an ever-changing world? Also, yes.

To learn more about Mintzberg’s take on strategic planning, I recommend reading Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning (Free Press, 1994).

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