The end of a calendar year—or a fiscal year, if your company doesn’t synchronize the two—is a contrived point at which to end one set of plans and start another.
Nevertheless, almost every business operates in this way.
Sadly, it leads to some terrible decisions—not least when an incomplete program of work is aborted because it hasn’t delivered sufficiently positive results by year’s end.
I cringe when I see six-month-old content marketing programs being “evaluated” to see whether they should continue into the next fiscal period.
B2B content marketing is a long-term strategy. Most B2B companies implementing a content marketing strategy from scratch must pursue it for 12-18 months before they will see the real impact.
Sure, there will be some quick wins—some “low hanging fruit” that implementing a coherent, consistent strategy helps the company to snag. But it will be small change relative to the impact that an effective content marketing strategy can ultimately deliver.
Persistence and a willingness to invest in content marketing for longer than a single financial cycle (i.e., more than 12 months) is one of the keys to B2B content marketing success.
With that in mind, let’s discuss some tactics for navigating the year-end hiatus and putting together a solid plan for the year ahead.
It’s important to begin with an evaluation of the things you tried over the past year, whether you’ve been implementing a content marketing strategy for years or are just embarking on that journey.
Carefully examine the performance of each tactic you implemented.
If a tactic has only been in play for a short time and it’s too soon to tell whether it will work the way you hoped, report that fact. This is an important defense against the premature rush to judgement that can happen at year’s end.
For tactics that you have implemented for long enough to see statistically significant results, what has worked well and what hasn’t? Can you explain the difference?
It’s not always possible to pinpoint a singular reason why a tactic under- or over-performs. Usually, it comes down to the assumptions you made when predicting what would happen.
Sometimes, however, it’s a confluence of multiple, weak influences that conspired to undermine or turbocharge your efforts—things you will have a hard time seeing in hindsight, let alone predicting.
Finish your look-back evaluation before you think about what’s next.
The second analytical step concerns the context within which you are marketing since it’s important for marketing to always be tied back to business priorities.
How has the company performed against its goals? What are the corporate priorities for the year ahead? If they have changed since you built the current plan, how will that affect your marketing goals?
Another critical piece of context is the market into which you’re selling.
What have you learned about the market over the past year? How is it changing? Are buyers’ looking for anything today that wasn’t a priority for them a year ago?
Finally, what are your competitors up to? Have any new entrants emerged? How has your competitive position—your differential advantage—changed?
Each of these elements contributes to the landscape within which you will be marketing your company and its solutions.
There’s never enough time, let alone money, to implement and manage every marketing tactic that could benefit your company. Prioritization is key.
Compile a list of the most important things your content marketing strategy must address in the coming months. Be ruthless. Only the most important things should make the list.
It’s difficult for a team to keep more than three goals in mind at once, so it’s imperative that those are the correct, most important goals.
Now compare your priority list to your ongoing marketing efforts. Are they aligned? Have your priorities shifted since the current plan was written?
Just because a tactic is working doesn’t mean you must continue with it when priorities shift. It’s vital to evolve your strategy to meet what’s most important today.
Too many companies live by the adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” while a more successful approach is to focus on what’s needed for the future, even if that means shutting down perfectly successful activities. Skate to where the puck is going next.
Communicating such changes can be fraught. The rigorous justifications you gave sponsors for implementing those tactics will come back to haunt you.
“But last time you told me…”
Yes, that was last time. The market is constantly changing. Our customers’ expectations are changing. Our competitors are constantly changing. What was optimal last time won’t be optimal this time.
It’s essential to evolve.
Resource availability changes, too.
You rely on team members and external resources for content production, subject matter expertise, fact-checking, and numerous other skills that contribute to a consistent, effective content marketing program. So when their circumstances change, it can be problematic.
Great people get promoted into more demanding roles or leave the company to take the perfect next step in their career journey.
Budget priorities shift.
The key question is: Are the resources at your disposal the same, more, or less than when you put the current plan together?
What did you not have enough of last year? Did you have too much of anything?
Where are the most critical gaps? Where can you find the resources you really need?
Agreeing a tactical plan for which you don’t have enough resources is called setting yourself up to fail. Take an iterative approach until you find a balance of effective tactics that your team can support.
To start something new, you will likely have to stop doing something to free up the resources.
While this isn’t universally true—fast growing companies can afford to invest more capital and dedicate more people to their content marketing strategies—it’s frequently a tough but necessary step.
Keep that regret list handy.
If your content marketing strategy is successful, it will drive growth, and growth usually leads to more resources. The items you regret now might be feasible the next time you revisit the plan.
That revisit need not be a year away, either. I’m a proponent of quarterly strategy reviews at which we run a light version of the annual planning process. This checks for alignment between marketing and corporate goals and adjusts for any unpredicted changes in market conditions, customer behavior, and competitor response.
If a quarterly review highlights the need to change tactics, some of those regrets might suddenly be called up to the active plan.
I like concise, coherent plans.
You should be able to capture everything we’ve talked about here in a few pages, supported by charts showing relevant market and content performance trends.
Don’t embellish, sugar coat, or filter the information you’re sharing. Be factual, analytical, and practical.
Have you answered all the whys? If someone can read your plan and ask “why?” about any of its conclusions, you’ve omitted some important context or an explanation.
Finally, be prepared for things to not work out the way you have assumed they will.
Part of your plan should be dedicated to exactly that, since about the only thing you know for certain is that you’re not certain about anything.
What optionality can you build into your plan to cater for that uncertainty?
What resources will you hold in reserve—for part of the year, at least—so that you can react to unexpected developments?
As Robert Burns put it, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.”
The best laid plans of content marketers go oft awry…
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Image credits: Adobe Stock