Many brands seem to effortlessly execute and replicate strategies that gain engagement and loyalty, realize search visibility, and improve conversion rates over time. Yet, regardless of how robust their plan is, most businesses will go through a season when they need to implement a pivot in their marketing strategy. Sometimes the shift is monumental, and other times slight tweaks can have a ripple effect across channels.
I define a marketing pivot as an intentional change in strategy: a decision to adopt a new platform or channel, engage a new target audience, or create a different type of content. Knowing both when and how to pivot is necessary to stay nimble, and adapt your marketing approach when necessary.
One of the things I enjoy most about digital marketing is the ability to research, test, and implement opportunities quickly to make an impact on audience engagement. Yet, it’s important to evaluate your strategy, budget, and current approach before getting too excited about shiny new platforms and channel strategies. Pause and take a step back.
When Should You Invest Time and Money in Making a Pivot?
Every pivot should have a purpose. If your digital team ventures into a new strategy or platform without an agreement on the “why” behind that change, then it could be difficult to justify the expense, effort, and time. Pinpoint an opportunity or clarify the perceived reasoning behind a known issue before you chart the course for your pivot.
Here are some examples of when it might be time to consider a change to your digital strategy:
- When part of your marketing stack isn’t performing as well as expected. (organic traffic plateau, paid social CPL continues to be high, paid search competition is increasing and your budget is flat, etc.).
- When you realize you’ve been focusing a channel on the wrong part of the marketing funnel (traffic from paid channels is not converting to leads, return on ad spend is too low, assisted conversions are primarily from channels where you’re investing less time and budget, etc.).
- There is uncertainty around your user journey and user engagement (traffic and time on site are increasing while conversions are flat, your target audience isn’t engaging with your paid campaigns).
- You’ve been using the same playbook, and you want to (or have been told to) test something different to increase brand awareness (Pinterest paid advertising, digital content promotion, podcast advertising, etc.).
- You have the time to research and budget to invest in evaluating new strategies (slow season, new fiscal year, extra content development team capacity, etc.).
If any of these prompts resonate with the state of your strategy and spark excitement about finding a path forward, then keep reading to learn about how to effectively close a gap in your digital marketing approach. And if you know something isn’t working, but you’re not sure where to start, performing a marketing mix analysis or competitive analysis can help uncover traffic sources, users, or content that isn’t performing as well as it should be.
Types of Pivots
There are three ways I categorize pivots. Each has different motivations, financial support requirements, and expectations of results that can influence the pace and visibility of your plan. Identifying the type of shift you need or want to make as an owner of the strategy, channel, or team can help clarify urgency, timeline, and goals that are foundational for making a pivot in digital strategy. I’ve also included some questions to ask when preparing to address each type of pivot.
I associate these pivots with the “I have to/I need to” language from a marketing team. For example, “I have to improve organic traffic to this section of the site by the end of the year, or we will lose budget.” They are always time- and budget-bound, requiring a thorough plan. These opportunities can have a broad-range impact and carry amplified risk or reward for paving a new path forward. Plan your commitment and communication with leaders wisely by addressing these potential roadblocks early on:
- Was a goal identified, from which you can build a potential projection to set expectations? If not, help set an appropriate target.
- Is the timeline for achieving the goal and utilizing additional resources to meet that goal clear between leadership and your team? Plan time for discovery and research, then follow-up with any adjustments needed to the timeline.
- Can you initiate this pivot in strategy with the tools and personnel you have? If not, make the gap clear or reset expectations around what you can achieve with your current capabilities and budget.
These pivots, usually associated with “I want to” or “I want to learn,” are often driven by innovation and a desire to test from within a team. “I want to expand brand awareness and drive organic traffic with this audience by testing podcast advertising.” Because these changes are driven by a team closer to the day-to-day strategy, there’s usually more data and motivation on hand to support the change or pilot a test to inform directional results. Set your team up for success by asking the following questions:
- Why is it the right time to make this pivot? Make sure your data analysis informs your decision, your roadmap, and your communication with leadership.
- How would collaboration with other teams potentially improve the outcome of this pivot?
- If this pivot goes as planned, how will your work and your engagement with customers change? Use this answer to support your conversations with partner teams and leaders.
Channel/Platform Change Pivots
There are times that tools and advertising platforms are updated and force change. Or, a new feature release encourages further investment in one platform over another. These shifts in advertising methods likely start with a “let’s try this” attitude. For example, “What would happen if we shifted our paid social budget from Facebook to Instagram, and started advertising on Pinterest to increase top-of-funnel awareness about our product?” Consider the following when changing or expanding a platform or tool:
- Have you done enough research on how other companies in your industry use this platform? See if you can gain insight into the budget, not just the tool, competitors might be using as well.
- Do you need to plan a research period into your roadmap if you haven’t used this platform before? Set clear expectations for when you can start testing or launch your new approach.
- Identify how your strategy for this platform needs to work in concurrence with other channels or campaign elements. Note those connections and dependencies in your roadmap.
How to Pivot Well
One of the most important steps when making a change in strategy is documenting where you started. Get very clear on your goal and what you, your team, and your stakeholders aim to accomplish. Below is a template to get you started:
- Metric: What do you want to improve on? (e.g., traffic).
- Baseline: How will you measure performance? (e.g., monthly sessions, non-branded traffic YTD).
- Channels: Which channels will you be focusing on? (e.g., paid search, organic search).
Next, set a measurable goal and KPIs you can use to track progress after launching your test and make decisions about how to evaluate performance and budget.
- Goal: Clearly state what you are looking to change or improve (e.g., increase brand awareness).
- KPIs: This should be quantitative and measurable within the platform you’re using (e.g., increase organic traffic by 15% by the end of the year).
Once you have settled on the goals, it’s time to build your pivot plan. Don’t worry, you can always adjust, but having one in place makes things much less stressful in the midst of testing.
- Timeline: Your plan should list a specific start date (e.g., May 1st instead of Q2). It’s important to consider seasonality, product launches, target audience shifts, or historical engagement rates that might affect your performance.
- Evaluation Milestones: I recommend a one-month test minimum, monthly reporting, and quarterly evaluation and confirming how progress will be communicated.
- Hypothesis and Steps Needed to Prove it True or False: Borrowing from science, pair a hypothesis with your quantitative KPIs to help you stay focused on your strategy until you can evaluate the results. This hypothesis could be completely new or based on user research, personas, keyword research, or competitive analysis.
- Targeting: Confirm the specific audience(s) this pivot will affect, if it varies by channel, funnel stage, or product, so your approach is clear.
- Research and Testing Opportunities: Determine how you might ease into a strategy shift, if possible, through reallocating existing budget, A/B testing, running heat maps on landing pages, or pilot testing with a small subset of loyalty customers.
- Implementation and Tracking: Define who owns the implementation and tracking of metrics once the pivot kicks off.
With a documented plan in place, it will be easier to gain buy-in from peers and leaders on making a change in strategy, no matter the size. Now, after all of that prep work, you’re ready to launch your pivot—exciting!
Celebrating Failures and Successes
Pivoting is a necessity for survival in some industries, as advertising platforms evolve, and as audiences expect more from brands to which they are loyal. In digital marketing, the tools we use make it easier to test and transform strategies, expand audiences, and run experiments.
My most memorable projects at Portent have been coaching clients and team members through upgrading their digital strategy. But let’s be honest, some pivots do not go as planned, whether due to timing, depth of audience awareness and engagement, or not properly connecting implementation across channels.
Even when KPI progress doesn’t meet expectations, it doesn’t mean that the budget was a waste of time and effort. If you start your pivot plan with a baseline metric and hypothesis, it will be easy to look back and see how far you’ve come (e.g., if brand awareness increased and organic traffic rose by 15%). More importantly, you’ve gained valuable insight about your customers that you can apply to future initiatives, as well as the capabilities of your marketing team, who adapted to a new business approach and can now iterate on the process.
I once worked with a client who asked for a pivot plan with every strategy I recommended. She wanted to know that our team had clear performance metrics top of mind and that we were prepared to quickly make a change when initiatives didn’t proceed as planned. Proactive communication about pivots and their potential impact became a habit after six months of planning and launching a new site and building an audience for her brand.
You might not be recommending frequent digital marketing strategy changes with a rapidly evolving brand or a demanding manager right now. Still, chances are you will in the future. I hope these tips help you confirm or organize a plan for how to execute and communicate your next pivot effectively.