By Ian Lurie
Digital marketing strategy is my 23 year obsession. Not search engine optimization (SEO). Not social media. Not content marketing. Not even analytics. M-A-R-K-E-T-I-N-G. I want—need to know how the pieces fit together, and how it all works. I’ve pondered, researched and banged my forehead bloody on this problem for a long time.
You’re now reading the product of that obsession: My be-all, end-all, 10,000 word rant about digital marketing strategy. I've packed it all in: What I think is wrong. How we can fix it. And, the workflow that seems to keep me from going utterly, run-down-the-street-in-my-underwear crazy:
If you’re in digital marketing, you’ve been fired.
Welcome to the club. In 20+ years as a digital marketer, I’ve had, well, let’s just say I have a lot of experience being on the wrong end of the oh-so-awkward “You guys are great, but we’ve decided to seek another direction” call.
When it happens, I go through three phases:
Mature Acceptance. Talking to the client, I emphasize there’s no hard feelings, that we’ve enjoyed working with them, and we wish them the best.
Rational. I look in the mirror (when I was on my own) or go to my team and explain that we’ve done a fantastic job. I talk about the average client tenure in our industry (about 18 months) and how turnover is normal. We have a post-mortem where we talk about what went wrong, what went right, and what we’ll change next time.
Frustrated. Then I start wondering. Our ex-client told me we were great. We proved our value in hard numbers again and again. But they cut us loose, choosing to instead go through the whole painful process of selecting an agency, all over again. What the hell?
(Spoiler alert: We ignore strategy.)
After, oh, the 100th time this happened, I decided to do some research. I ran two surveys:
Updated for 2019! In one, I asked 400+ in-house marketers, agencies and consultants three questions:
Check it out! Updated for 2019: In another, I asked 180+ clients why they’d fired their agencies or in-house marketers.
Of the marketers, only 8% said they got fired because they did a lousy job. 36% said they did a great job, but the client/boss didn’t see the value. The rest either said they ended the relationship, the client took the work in-house, or a leadership change ended the relationship.
OK. That sounds about like my experience. Then I got the client/employer data. Man, that was a slap in the face:
85% said they let their in-house marketer or agency go because they didn't deliver, didn’t provide strategy, or just couldn't agree on anything.
So, 8% of digital marketers think they got fired because they didn’t serve their employer or client.
At least 85% of clients feel their marketers didn’t bring enough value.
If this were a marriage, we’d be in counseling five days a week, and at the divorce lawyer’s office the other two. Why the disconnect?
For the last 20 years, ‘digital marketing’ has meant, in this order:
Content, of course, has become the zombie movie of digital marketing. If two zombies make a good plotline, FIVE HUNDRED THOUSAND MUST BE BETTER. Most agencies shovel more and more ‘content’ out the door: Third-rate crap that wouldn't make it into a coloring book. They call it ‘marketing.’ It’s easier to talk quantity than quality. And clients treat it as an SEO tactic, rather than a legitimate marketing tactic. They push the vomit-content-all-over-the-web marketing strategy even harder.
Social media has grown up, a little bit. Brands take it seriously. Sort of. The same way we all take Star Wars movies seriously: We keep going back, but we’re disappointed again and again. However, it’s sorting itself out. We’re seeing more mature approaches, and client expectations are more in line with reality.
We always end up going back to the dull everyday of rankings and quantity of blog posts. We want to be cool. Because let’s face it: Showing off rankings and cranking out blog posts is a a heck of a lot easier than demonstrating why social media's important. Our clients and bosses want SEO and PPC We give them SEO and PPC. Our clients and bosses want lots of content. We give them lots of content. We get paid.
If we delivered a top Google ranking, companies saw huge growth, so SEO was an obvious solution. A well-managed PPC campaign could deliver fantastic returns. If one lousy blog post helped rankings, then fifty must be even better.
Except, from the perspective of truly serving our clients, internal or external, and building a better business model, it’s never worked. We’ve been handling digital marketing the way cell phone companies handle customers: We stay just ahead of churn, making money by keeping work flowing in faster than it flows out. The mega- agencies of the world—the ones that started before digital and are worth hundreds of millions of dollars—continue to make scads of money, even beating us to the digital budgets. We scurry around, scraping up what we can.
Why? Digital marketing is the most effective communications medium ever. We know more about it than any traditional agency. Shouldn’t we be running the place? Well, yeah. But we won’t until we face the hard truth.
We’re all great tacticians. There are people out there who are so amazing at SEO, so brilliant at PPC, so incredible at social media that they don’t see any reason to try anything else. But they keep getting fired.
I’m as guilty as them. I’ve spent 21 years building a ‘full service’ agency that, until 4 years ago, earned 75% of its revenue from SEO. Sure, we had writers, PPC analysts and social media geeks galore. But we focused on SEO because it was easy.
Then, Social Media became the shiny thing. So we all jumped on that like frogs on a lily pad. Again, it was all tactical: How do we get more followers? How do we get more likes? How do we track the direct ROI of social media? 100% tactical. Zero strategic thinking.
Now, it’s Content Marketing and Inbound Marketing. So we sell those. At least, we use those labels. But most of us keep hammering the same tactics.
It’s so easy to give clients the numbers they want: Rankings. Followers. Traffic. Focus on tactics is far easier than trying to explain indirect attribution, or balanced marketing strategy.
But digital tactics only get you so far. We need to think digital marketing strategy.
In the end, every individual digital marketing tactic hits the wall. SEO hits a wall. So does PPC. So does puking content. So does every other tactic. Tactics always face Ian's Law of Perceived Diminishing Returns.
It doesn’t matter if you’re at war, playing basketball, or doing marketing. The longer you use a tactic, the less value your client or boss sees in it:
They do because:
I’m not saying tactics are bad. Tactics are how you get things done. Without tactics we’d have a bunch of consultants waving their hands around. I’m saying tactics need to be driven by something. We need to go where the big agencies play: Strategy. But we need to do it our way, tying data to planning. That’s something no traditional agency can do. That’s how we take over the marketing world.
According to Google, ‘Strategy’ means ‘a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.’
For digital marketing strategy, I get a lot more specific:
That last property is essential. It’s what separates us from traditional agencies and traditional marketing.
Also: Duration does not make something a strategy. A 4-year social media monitoring and response campaign is still a tactic. So is a 2-year stint rewriting title tags. Length of time does not a strategy make.
William Shakespeare (reportedly) said there were only 7 stories ever written. This isn’t as profound, but it simplifies things: There are only 3 fundamental goals for business.
That’s it. There aren’t any others. You create your strategic plans based on one or more of those three, by attaching a specific number to each.
Examples might be:
The basic rule is this: Any of the three Fundamental Goals + Number = Strategic Goal
The number is important, not just because it lets us tell our clients we’ve succeed, but because it lets us judge the effectiveness of factors. Remember those metrics? We use metrics to test influence of certain factors on our strategic goal. No numbers, no metrics, no strategy.
Online marketing has so many details it would drive the world’s best multi-tasker into a state of raving lunacy. So, I’ve taken a page from Hannibal Lecter's book...
Let me start over.
There are a lot of details to internet marketing. To keep it all mentally straight, and understand what goes where, you need some kind of visualization. I use The Marketing Stack.
Hannibal Lecter actually does use creative visualization—the mind palace—to remember stuff. But I'm not saying you have to be a cannibalistic nut job to remember marketing.
The Marketing Stack is my model for thinking about digital strategy. It's not the model. It's just mine. But you need it, or something like it, to picture how digital tactics and components come together to form a single strategic plan. Otherwise, you've got no map.
The very short version: The Marketing Stack shows where all of the factors in a marketing strategy ‘live’, and their relationship. It makes a strategy work by helping set priorities.
Here’s a very brief walkthrough of the marketing stack:
Everything in the stack percolates up. The lower down the stack, the more important it is. So the state of your infrastructure impacts everything else, from analytics to your channels. The state of your content impacts your channels. The state of your channels, however, does not impact anything else.
Customers, on the other hand, percolate down. The closer they get to converting, the greater the impact of lower categories in the stack.
The red rectangles are the elements. They’re at the bottom of the stack because they’re fundamental to all (digital) marketing. Think of them as the foundation. They’re basic foundational elements. Without all three, you have no digital marketing:
Infrastructure is the technology—hardware and software—that powers your site and your online presence. It drives everything else, and impacts the customer experience from the get-go. If your site doesn't work, or has lots of errors, or is painfully slow, everything else suffers. If it’s fast, error-free and stable, all the work you do across the rest of the stack benefits.
Analytics measures everything. It’s not just your traffic reporting tools. It’s any business analytics, multivariate testing and other nifty gadgets. Without it, you can’t tell if anything is working (except infrastructure which, when it’s not working, is gone).
Content is what you say. Images, text, video, audio. And it’s everything you say: Blog posts, videos, product descriptions, your About Us page. All of it. That’s my only problem with the concept of “content marketing.” I love it because it makes content important. I hate it because it makes everyone think content is some kind of appendage you hang off your brand. It’s all content.
You can try to have a digital marketing strategy without content, I guess. The deafening silence will pique consumers’ curiosity.
You can attempt to ignore analytics. But then you have no metrics. Which means you can't connect factors to your core goal. Good luck when the time comes to prove results.
And you can always roll the dice and ignore infrastructure. It’s always fun when you launch a humungous landing page campaign, only to find out the form wasn’t connected to anything, so you lost 250,000 leads.
I of course have never had anything like that happen. Of course. But I still don’t recommend it.
When I say ‘channels,’ most folks think of ‘PPC,’ ‘social media,’ ‘organic search’ and such. To me, though, channels are one layer below that: The three basic channels are paid, earned and owned. They’re the way you acquire potential customers:
In the Paid channel, you spend hard dollars to get potential customers’ attention. For example, pay-per-click (PPC) or display advertising. Or whatever other buzzwords are flying around, like programmatic advertising, behavioral advertising (the previous buzzword for programmatic advertising), mobile advertising (which as far as I know is paid advertising, too), etc. etc. etc. Don’t let the buzz words confuse you. Paid media means spending money for visibility.
In the Earned channel, you can’t buy that attention. You gain it by being in some way valuable. For example, search engine optimization (SEO) and organic social media mentions. PR is earned media, too. You have to work in the earned channel because if you don’t, someone else will. Then you’ll have strangers writing and talking about you. Which is great. Until they’re saying awful things, and you have no presence. Then it’s not so good. So yeah, earned media. You need it.
In the Owned channel, you control the media that gets attention. ‘Control’ may mean it’s on your own servers, or that you simply own it. Think of user generated content, blog posts, product descriptions and special offers. Use paid and earned to drive attention to, and generate, owned.
Your digital marketing strategy must use at least one channel. I’m not sure how you avoid it unless you’re pasting marketing concepts to the wall of your office. But your strategy should really use every channel. Using only one channel is pure insanity, because:
In marketing, diversity = strength.
A lot of people ask me what I call things like paid search, organic search, social media and display.
I call them paid search, organic search, social media…
I’m not being a smartass. Once you’re at this level of detail, each vehicle is…a vehicle. So that’s what I call them.
If you want venture capitalists to fling money at you so fast your life’s in danger, include ‘mobile’ in your product description. Everyone talks about mobile. It’s so high up on a pedestal I can’t even see it any more.
It’s not a channel.
It’s not an element.
It’s an environment in which people consume and interact with information. Like a desktop computer, or a TV, or a tablet.
That means it’s really, really important. Mobile devices are the way all them young people access information. Google favors sites that are mobile-ready, and have entire separate platforms (like AMP) to deliver content at super-speed. So yeah, mobile is an environment. Treat it like one, working across the entire Marketing Stack for mobile users.
It’s really, really important that you understand the basic marketing stack. If you remember nothing else about it, remember that:
Before I do or say anything else: A brief disclaimer.
This is how I prepare a digital strategy. I’m a little, uh, unique. I’m sure there are lots of other equally good or superior options. Use this, ignore it, accept it as a universal truth of marketing or feed it into a shredder. If it gets you thinking about how you’d plan a marketing strategy, it’s all good.
No two organizations are the same, so there's no template. Show me two organizations that are more than 75% alike, and I’ll cheerfully create a template for you. Until then, please don’t ask for one. Unless you enjoy watching my blood pressure spike.
That said, there are certain marketing strategy ingredients: Every chunk of the marketing stack. You have to touch on them all. Leave any out, and the result is the marketing equivalent of a collapsed, charred bundt cake. Or the kind of GPS unit that leads you and your new car off a cliff. It’s not pretty.
Here’s a walkthrough of the entire strategic planning process:
Ultimately, the goal of any digital marketing strategy is to:
To see what you’ve got, take an inventory of your marketing assets, organized by the marketing stack.
To define a goal, figure out what you can achieve given your inventory.
To see what works, move through that inventory, remembering that each piece of the stack percolates upwards. Then isolate the factors—the properties you think are making things work.
To measure and improve, use metrics to link those factors to overall strategic goals.
If we can do that, success will follow with 76 trombones. Getting there, though, takes some work:
The best way to show you a digital marketing strategy is to make one, so I’m going to play make-believe. I’ve got a company—mmm, let's call it Lurie Space Tourism (LST)—my web site sells trips to the moon.
Lurie Space Tourism is already making $150m per year (hey, this is my fantasy here). But I’m greedy. I want more. I hire a digital marketing agency, point at my site and say “I want more!”
Even better, I drag a hapless in-house digital marketer into my office, point at the site and say “I want more!”
The marketers could just list some tactics: We need better organic search rankings. We need to spend more on PPC. Whatever. But that gives me zero context. Why do we need more of these things? Also, once we do those, what’s next? What ties it all together?
It’s time for a strategy.
Do an inventory. A massive inventory. This is crucial. It sets the stage for your strategy and implementation. This first step drives everything else you’re going to do. The more comprehensive the inventory, the easier it’ll be. So take as long as you can on your inventory.
This may be easier for in-house marketers, since you probably already have access to the stuff you need. You lucky buggers.
Run your inventory straight up the marketing stack:
Remember infrastructure, aaallll the way at the bottom of the marketing stack? The foundation of everything you do? Yep.
You need to know your infrastructure strengths and limitations. This can affect strategic goals and everything else you do. Lurie Space Tourism is set up like this:
Overall, infrastructure gets a C-. That will limit my strategic goals. If I set ambitious goals, I’ll need to upgrade infrastructure.
It pays to know what you can measure. Before you get into metrics and micro-conversions, look at the tools available. I’m assuming you can measure site traffic, referrers and page views. But you’ll want to measure conversions of all kinds. And page value wouldn’t hurt. Psychographic and demographic data would be even better…
This is what separates us from traditional agencies!!! We have the data. If you do nothing else, get analytics right.
Your inventory may find big analytics holes. For example, you may not be able to measure conversions. If you need that data, make setting up the right analytics tools part of your strategic plan.
Right now, Lurie Space Tourism can measure every typical web metric, including conversions and transaction size. We can’t tie that data directly to offline business performance (like our call center) but we’re in the process of installing that.
LST gets an A- for analytics.
A content inventory can be really elaborate, which means including:
A caution: I talk a lot about data as our advantage. It is. But marketing isn’t built on data alone. We still have to be creative, and smart, and audience-aware, because we’re not selling to computers. Our strength is that we can put them together.
And so on. There’s a nearly infinite number of metrics you can track. The main strategic goal of the content inventory is to match certain properties of the content with behaviors that lead to micro- and macro-conversions. Here’s the LST inventory:
You don’t have to create something that detailed. Factor discovery is your goal. If you can figure out why one piece of content impacts business goals more than another, and what makes it valuable, it’s easier to replicate success.
Complex or simple, the content inventory is important! Content is a basic element of a digital marketing campaign, right? It’s also the hardest to measure and improve. Finding the positive factors—the properties that make some content better for your business—is the first step towards attributing content to core goals.
LST has lots of great content: Images, blog posts, narratives. I should be able to extract factors from it all. Since I have lots of content assets, and already have a lot of data, LST gets a B+ for content.
Finally, I need to take a look at what I’ve been doing across channels and vehicles. Nothing fancy. A simple list of channels, vehicles and dollars invested should do the trick for now.
For LST, it looks like this:
That’s it. All set.
I hear you swearing at me. It’s OK. I’ve heard worse. I grew up in New Jersey.
‘Other stuff’ sounds irritating as hell because it is irritating as hell. Every strategy has random stuff that lives outside the marketing stack. It’s up to you to find it. I can, though, give you some of the typical things you need to look at:
I don’t mean the story of the founder, how she got inspired, etc. You need company performance history: Revenue growth by quarter, for example, or past election results, or whatever. That helps you figure out whether goals are reasonable or not.
Revenue will almost certainly be my goal. So, here’s Lurie Space Tourism’s revenue history:
I also know that last year I had 300 sales with 50,000 visitors, or a .6%-ish conversion rate. The average sale was $500,000. So the average visitor value = $3,000
Digital marketing has pulled the word ‘audience’ in so many directions that it looks like really icky saltwater taffy. Not the tasty lemony stuff. I’m talking things like licorice flavor. Shudder.
But it’s really important. Your audience brings with it a list of factors, too. Certain types of customers are more likely to buy than others. Factors make them more or less likely to buy. If you can isolate those factors, you can seek out the perfect audience and achieve your core goals. So you have to know that audience, really well. Audience research is really two things:
Demographic research. Determining the age, gender, geography, etc. of your audience, and then figuring out the best mix. For demographic research, you can use the opportunity analysis tools I talked about above, census data, ComScore and other marketing database companies can deliver what you need.
Psychographic research. This is soooo much fun. Find the likes, life changes and dislikes of your best audience. Combine data from different sources. Free resources (like Facebook) can get you started, but you’ll probably want to dig deeper using data from companies like TransUnion, BlueKai and Acxiom.
I could write a pretty lengthy novel about psychographic research. Instead, I’ll just link to this great, cutting-edge article on the AimClear blog. AimClear leads the industry in this kind of research. Carefully read their articles
In my research for Lurie Space Tourism, I find that my audience:
OK. I can do some pretty precise targeting with that. I can also:
And lots more. So, I can target advertising, sure. But I can also aim content squarely at them. And build out infrastructure that supports them.
Ohhhhh yeaaaaahhhhh. That. The thing we’re selling. You might want to talk a bit about them, and what differentiates them from competing products:
What are your strengths and the competitors’ weaknesses? What can you do to exploit them?
I have no great example of this. It’s always different. But I usually use tools like BuzzSumo, SEMRush, RivalIQ, Moz Analytics and RivalFox for competitive data. Then I use tools like Hitwise, Dun & Bradstreet, Compete.com and such for benchmarking.
For Lurie Space Tourism, I find a few things:
In reality, this list would be a lot longer. But I’m trying to keep this guide below 10,000 words.
Put all of this together, and you start to see where and how you can grow. You’ll find the ‘easy wins,’ and the tougher battles that are still worth having.
Now that I know what I’ve got, I can set my core strategic goals. I can be more ambitious, and make infrastructure, analytics and content investment part of my plan. Or I can be conservative, and work within my constraints.
Either way, each strategic goal must be one of the fundamental goals—revenue, profit or win—plus a number or other definable, quantifiable performance indicators. It must also consider the factors: What will LST have to change or accomplish to succeed?
I want to increase revenue and maintain profit. ‘Increase revenue’ and ‘maintain profit’ aren’t good strategic goals. They’re half the equation. The other half is the number—the point at which I’ll say I’ve reached the goal.
I want to increase revenue to $200m, or 33%, in the next year. My profit margin is currently 25%. Rocket fuel’s expensive. I want to keep that margin the same.
So, if I can hit $200m in the next 12 months without killing profits, then I’ve succeeded.
That’s a really difficult goal. According to my company performance history, I’ve never had growth like that. If I do, my revenue graph will look like this:
At this point, everything's reduced to cause-and-effect:
If I know that LST converts .5% of visitors to customers, and the average customer is worth $500,000, then I know that:
I also know that the influential factors live pretty far down the marketing stack: Infrastructure and content are big. That means more work.
Given the state of my marketing stack, this is going to be a big effort. To make it, I’ll have to upgrade every element. Infrastructure, analytics and content all have to get to A’s. But, I’ve never invested a few million bucks in a digital marketing agency before. Let’s give it a shot, shall we?
This part takes what you found in the inventories and looks for factors. Factors directly or indirectly impact core business goals. Factors can be one of two things:
Factors must include a value multiplier. The multiplier indicates the impact of a given factor, either on the chances of conversion, or on revenue/profit/etc. generated. So these are all factors:
Each factor is something specific that I can measure. Each one also carries a specific value multiplier.
For LST, I’ve figured out these major factors:
These are all key factors. If I can repeat them, I can likely boost my business.
These are pretend numbers. Please don’t start changing all of your reading grade levels based on what you read here. Please.
If you can’t measure this stuff now, but want to, add “Set up analytics to track [factors you need to track]” and a list of what you want to measure to the strategy. It’s part of your plan and will impact the goals you set.
Put the marketing stack and audience factors together and suddenly you can create a few ‘perfect’ scenarios: People, behavior and site performance that adds up to a 100% conversion rate. For LST, I’d love to have pages that discuss safety, have a reading grade level below 11 and generate a lot of social shares. I'd like visitors to those pages to be Tesla owners who look at 5+ pages per visit.
Your next step: Figure out what metrics you need to track occurrences and performance of factors.
Metrics track factors. They’re the icky-but-essential connective tissue between strategic goals and specific properties of the work you do. With the right metrics, you can figure out which factors happen where. You can also constantly improve your model, getting more accurate factor value over time.
Metrics can include the usual web performance stuff:
A metric can be anything that helps you measure progress towards your strategic goal. Note the qualifier: Helps you measure progress. If you can’t use a metric to measure strategic progress, don’t make it part of the strategic plan. It’s strategically useless.
A metric is strategically useless if it doesn’t measure strategic progress (obviously). But it’s also not useful if you lack the resources or tools to incorporate it. Even if they'd be great to have, they’re not of practical use, so don’t confuse things by throwing them into the strategic mix.
Given all of this, I'm going to collect data for:
That’s it. I don’t have the time or tools to do more, and I know each of these contributes to my strategic goal.
Now, I’ll set thresholds for each metric. If I meet that threshold, that's either a micro-conversion or a minimum standard.
Every time a visitor does something that meets a metrics threshold, I'll record a micro-conversion. Micro-conversions are trackable behaviors that I know bring visitors closer to macro-conversion. They’re also events to which I can (hopefully) assign a specific value.
Using Lurie Space Tourism as an example, I had three factors that were visitor behavior:
I can now attribute value to each factor. Check out this mathematical niftiness:
In other words:
Yay! Trackable, measurable micro conversions!!!! That even connect back to core business goals!
Remember, at strategic plan doesn’t spring out of the box with everything already in place. These numbers won’t be a guarantee, because conditions will change over time. But they’re a heck of a lot better than guessing, which is what marketers have done for the last, oh, 7,500 years. It’s a plan, with a starting point, steps in between, and a result. If determining micro-conversions is part of the plan, so be it.
This takes judgment. You can’t just pound out numbers in a spreadsheet and create a list of minimum thresholds. Use common sense. It’s why you get paid.
Micro-conversions tell you the core business value generated when a visitor does something. Minimum thresholds tell you why a micro-conversion happens.
The math behind minimum thresholds works just like micro-conversions, but is based on properties of a page or visitor, rather than behavior.
Looking at the micro-conversions we just figured out:
Now, I’ll dig deeper:
Time to play detective. Look at each layer of the marketing stack. What happens at that layer when Good Things Happen?
Visitors looking at 5+ pages are more likely to convert, so I want more of those. I get 5+ pageviews per visit when:
Visitors who share content are more likely to convert, so I want more of them, too. Content is more likely to be shared when:
Bingo. I can prioritize my next actions:
These become repeatable tactics. The more I improve on these factors, the better I'll do.
That warning about common sense again
Look what you just did!!!! Holy crap!!! You’ve connected specific behaviors—micro-conversions—to specific dollar values. That’s a direct connection between micro-conversions to core business goals. And, you’ve connected specific properties of your infrastructure, content and other chunks of the marketing stack to those micro-conversions. I’m sweaty just thinking about it.
Finally, the fun part. This is where you get creative. Plan, in broad strokes, what you’re going to do. You know what you want to do, and why, and available resources. Time for the how. This is the high-level look at the tactics you want to employ. Not the gritty details—more of a rough sketch.
This is the big wrap-up for your strategy. You need to clearly connect tactic to result to strategic goal. Everything else you’ve done lays the groundwork for this.
I usually organize this according to the marketing stack, too. I use the stack as a kind of map. It can help you show your boss how different actions at different levels of the stack can affect the levels above.
99% of clients will turn directly to this section. That’s fine! You’ve done your homework. They don’t have to. They can cut right to the chase.
Hopefully, you now have a Big Idea. That one thing, creative or otherwise, that will drive this entire strategy. This is the part that you can’t do with data. It could be:
A new way to represent the brand.
A content initiative built around a certain content type.
A new way to use social media to build content attention.
A whole new site section, and a plan around how that can build our brand.
None of these are the strategy itself. They’re just the one guiding thing that can tie it all together. And, their impact stretches to all parts of the stack. That’s what defines a Big Idea.
For Lurie Space Tourism, it seems like everything leads back to clarity, simplicity and security. There are a few red herrings, like the fact that my customers like Battlestar Galactica, but I can chalk that up to good taste. My customers like simplicity and clarity (images of their destinations and simple, clear copywriting) and they like a sense of security/stability (fast pages, discussions of safety). So I need to reinforce those.
I ponder, drink whiskey in Draper-esque fashion and decide my message for the next year will be The Safest Space Tourism On Earth (and Off). Everything I do will reinforce a sense of security, stability and predictability. Let everyone else wax poetic about adventure. I can use my fantastic imagery to convey that. But I'll talk about how we'll help you see those great images, in person, without making you into a rapidly expanding fireball.
We’ll do lots of other stuff. But this will be the focal point, at least at the start.
Now we can get tactical. Every tactic is set in the context of the marketing stack, the metrics and minimum thresholds, and the Big Idea. Many are repeatable tactics, which are even better. We can keep looking for more and more folks who like Battlestar Galactica, for example, until we access that entire audience.
I like to include a one-paragraph summary of each tactic. That’s as detailed as I get. Later, you or the specialist hired to preform that tactic can expand it to a full tactical plan.
There will probably be a lot of paragraphs. I usually group them by marketing stack location, and then order them by priority, highest to lowest.
For Lurie Space Tourism, I ended up with this (again, this is a very shortened version). I work my way 'up' the marketing stack:
This is where we have the most trouble. And it’s impacting every other layer of the stack (as expected). Most of our minimum thresholds—page views per visit and sharing, for example—depend on infrastructure. In many cases we can triple visitor value if we can improve this part of the stack. So:
Move to dedicated hosting. Get the LST site on its own server, with the site database on another server. That should improve performance and limit the performance bottlenecks we’ve seen. We’ll need the IT team in on this.
Improve site speed. Get every page on LST to load in 1.5 seconds or less. Our data shows that each second we can shave off between 5 and 1.5 will give us an 8% improvement. After that, though, we hit diminishing returns. We’ll need one person from the IT team and/or access to the site.
Server monitoring. Ideally, we should monitor server performance so that, if the server slows down, we’re alerted.
All of this will reinforce a sense of security and stability, too.
We have lots of metrics, but not as many minimum thresholds as I’d like. We need to improve analytics to collect more data and better set those thresholds. So:
Use retargeting. We need to use retargeting networks that allow demographic and psychographic criteria. That will help us with audience interests.
Install click location tracking. We can refine pages far better if we know where our audience clicks, how far down the page they scroll, etc. This is an easy install, requiring only a content specialist.
Enable A/B testing. Our e-commerce software has built-in A/B testing capabilities. Testing various page designs, content and assets will help us better model the ideal user experience. To enable A/B testing, we need to check one box in the admin back end.
Write more about safety. Our audience cares, a lot, about safety. Our competitors don’t talk about it. We can grab a big advantage this way.
Talk about Battlestar Galactica. A huge chunk of our audience are BSG fans. By writing the occasional post about the latest episode, we can attract a lot of potential customers. It’s easy to do, with a great potential impact.
Up our Adwords spend. Increase our Adwords spend 25% per month until we see diminishing returns. We need 30,000 more visitors this year than last. We’re missing big opportunities for growth here.
Invest in paid social. We should buy boosted posts, advertising and sponsored Tweets/Instagram photos/Google Plus posts. We can precisely target our ideal audience, and use these ads to drive ‘first contact’ visitors. That, in turn, will help us build the audience of potential customers and our retargeting audience.
More of the same: SEO tactics, unpaid social, audience targeting, PR etc. etc.
And again, same: User generated content, reviews, the house e-mail list, adapting for an audience that’s 90% mobile, etc.
Digital chaos factors are the online things that would force you to change your marketing strategy. This is part of your planning process: The ‘what ifs.’ They do not include changes in the industry, winning the lottery, etc. Those are broader business issues and need to be dealt with in the business strategy, not the digital one.
Calling these out helps set expectations: Yes, things may change. Even if an unforeseen different factor pops up, at least everyone knew change was a possibility.
And honestly, what digital marketing strategy runs unchanged to the end of its shelf life? A really bad one.
For LST, digital chaos factors include:
You don’t need to plan for every one of these. Just call them out. For specific, really bad things like ‘we get awful media coverage’ or ‘something breaks,’ it might pay to have some basic steps, like ‘contact IT’ or ‘call our PR agency.’
If necessary, you and your client can figure out specific actions when you review the plan.
You need to, in one place, show the hard and soft costs for this strategic plan.
Hard costs require direct payment of money to someone. Buying a new server, hiring consultants or a new employee and paying for advertising are all hard costs.
Soft costs require time or other resources that translate to money. Having the IT team work on a server move will incur soft costs. Dedicating 10% of a writer’s time to specific content is a soft cost.
You can write these out in a list, do them in a spreadsheet, whatever. You can weigh the costs against the micro-conversions to which they'll contribute, and at least give your client or boss a general idea how to prioritize. No example here, because if you can’t create a budget this way, you need to learn before you create a digital marketing strategy. I’m not saying that to be mean. It’s just the truth.
Notice how I didn’t talk about keywords? Or ad creative? Or specific HTML code and changes?
Those aren’t strategic. You can add them if you want, but I guarantee the client will immediately drill down, and you’ll never get them to talk strategy, ever again. Set the strategy in everyone’s minds. Then get the specialists in the room and move on to tactics. If you’re a team of one, set the agenda: “In this meeting we’ll review strategy, which includes…”
After reading all of this, I’m betting one, really frustrating thought’s been repeating in your head:
“My clients just want followers/rankings/traffic. They don’t want strategy.”
Wrong. They don’t know anything about strategy. They’ve never even seen it. So yes, it’ll take some convincing. But they’re not sitting in front of you saying “Please don’t give me any strategy stuff, OK?”
This is not about upselling or increasing your contract size or salary. If it does, great! The goal here is a smart marketing plan, based on real numbers, with a real, measurable outcome. That tends to make everyone more money, including the client. Consider it a happy side effect.
If your client has no strategy at all, and they aren’t hiring you as a specialist, they probably aren’t yet your client. So you’ve got two jobs: Get hired and get them to think strategically.
Try this: Don’t give them a choice. Build ‘discovery’ or ‘strategic planning’ into your bid. Just leave it there. When the client asks, tell them “That’s critical research to support our work.”
Which it is. This may seem underhanded, but it’s not. It’s a line item. It’s an important line item. You’re not hiding it. You’re just creating the assumption that yes, strategy is important.
Another option that lots of folks will hate: Provide a far more limited, seat-of-the-pants strategy. Base it on a quick look at the client’s site and current tactics. Do it for free (yes, I said that). Just hand it over as part of your kickoff.
Finally, you can swap out the tactical work for the strategic plan. Tell the client they can pay you to do the strategic plan, first, and then hire you based on your findings. Worst case, they get a great marketing plan and hire someone else. Best case, you’ve got a plan in place, and showed them exactly what you’d like to do, and why.
All of these have worked for me. Even the free option pays off, because Portent showed the client our strategic smarts and the breadth of our services. Do they work 100% of the time? Of course not. But they succeed, and they’ve helped us do far better work.
They may already have a strategy. In that case, you’re the specialist. You can stay in that role, which is fine. You’ll still be vulnerable to tactical diminishing returns, though.
Or, you can bring other parts of the marketing stack into the mix. If you’re managing the pay-per-click account, maybe you take a quick look at social media and propose a targeted social media ad buy. Or, you take a look at organic search and note that there are some high-performing PPC keywords for which they don’t organically rank.
Expand into logical categories. Don’t force the issue. Just demonstrate you’re thinking beyond your little silo. I’ve seen this work time and again: We provide good, useful advice outside of our contract. The client sees that. They remember we do more than the one service for which they’re paying. They ask us to take a look at other parts of their marketing mix. We escape the tactical diminishing returns trap.
Most clients are not ready for a full marketing strategy. They’ll consider it a waste of money or they’ll face complete roadblocks in major strategic areas. It can get pretty frustrating.
But we’ve spent a lot of years getting clients to think tactically. It’s marginalized our entire industry, and it has to change.
So yes, it’ll take some time tie those tactics to true strategy. Fortunately, there’s a huge upside for us and them. We get fired less. They make more money. Everyone’s happy.
5 years ago, most clients thought social media was a joke. It was almost impossible to get any client to try it. Now, clients beat your door down, asking for social media help. Big change happens all the time. A change from tactical to strategic thinking is just another change, and it happens to be one we can manage.
Even if you can get one client to work on strategy before tactics, it’s a win. It’s more stable business. It’s going to lead to far, far better marketing. And they’ll tell their colleagues. Most important, it changes their perception of you: You’re not ‘the SEO guy’ any more. You’re not ‘the analytics experts.’ You’re ‘Our Digital Agency of Record.’, or ‘ Our VP of Digital Marketing.’
I like the sound of that.
Note: I have a slide deck, too! It’s not stand-alone, but it works pretty well in parallel with this article. See it here: On Slideshare
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A 25-year veteran of marketing with 24 years' experience as a digital marketer, he's been published on Forbes.com, Entrepreneur.com, Moz, AllThingsD and TechCrunch, and speaks around the world.
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