What is the right time horizon for a marketing plan?

 

Are you playing checkers or chess?


Most marketers experience a constant internal struggle to balance their efforts between the strategic and the urgent. In my experience, the urgent usually wins. This short term focus problem has become more significant in recent years as the availability of real-time data has trained us all to focus on the immediate impact at the expense of strategic initiatives that unfold over a much longer period of time.

My personal struggle with this balancing act was on my mind as I started thinking through our product roadmap for more enhanced planning features in Plannuh. (If you would like to contribute to our roadmap for strategic marketing planning tools, please let me know - we would love your input.)

What time horizon are people using today?

I’ve been asking some of my CMO friends about their planning practices recently, and those discussions were validating my theory that marketing planning horizons were pretty tactical. When pressed, most people agree that a longer time frame should be employed in their plans, but they struggle with the rapidly-moving world that we currently inhabit.

As a self-described nerd, I decided I needed to get some data to try to validate the anecdotal information I was gathering. So I turned to Twitter to ask marketers about their planning horizon. A Twitter survey is about as non-scientific as you can get, but I thought it might start an interesting discussion.

Here are the results so far:

Screen Shot 2019-06-20 at 3.16.17 PM

Even though you should review the results as “directional at best”, they are still a little scary. More than half of the respondents indicated that they only plan within the current fiscal year, which means that if you are in Q4, you don’t have a plan for Q1. Yikes! And the best case for about 85% of the respondents is a single year view of their plan.

Why is long term planning important?

Even in today’s “get it done now” world, there are many reasons to take a longer term perspective on your plan, including:

  1. Strategies that unfold over years. The classic example is the “put a man on the moon” goal that President Kennedy defined for the United States in the 1960s. Planning a complex project takes a clear understanding of the strategic goals, combined with a set of waypoints that you can use to make sure you are on track.
  2. Long enterprise sales cycles. A much more pedestrian requirement for a strategic plan comes from some enterprise solutions that have sales cycles that are longer than a single year. Planning and measuring impact requires a plan and a set of measurements that span fiscal calendars.
  3. Campaigns that unfold over a long period of time. Some of the best campaigns can take years to realize their full potential. Consider the Nike “Just Do It” campaign or the IBM “Smarter Planet” initiative. Those campaigns pay dividends over the years, and sometimes take a long time for the first benefit to be realized.
  4. Campaigns that span fiscal periods. Even if you aren’t planning multi-year campaigns, most marketers build plans that span fiscal periods. And since more than half of marketers we asked on Twitter don’t plan beyond their current fiscal year, how do they handle a six month campaign that starts in their fourth fiscal quarter?
  5. Long lead time commitments. Some high-demand events like the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) books their premium space more than a year in advance. Because the event is in January, that often means that you need to make commitments two fiscal years ahead of your current plan. How can you make a major commitment like that without a longer term planning approach?

So what does a long term plan look like?

A long-term plan can look a lot like your short term plan, but longer. ;-) You can learn more about how to build a great marketing plan from my post on the topic: Tips for building the perfect marketing plan.

In short, you should start your plan with a view of the market, your marketing strategy, your objectives, campaigns, and tactical plans. When you start attaching budget commitments to your plan, those numbers should be firmer in the near term and get more flexible over time.

I like to think in 3 planning horizons. My strategic view should span 2 to 3 years and have a rough level of accuracy in our plans. The campaigns and themes should span 1 to 2 years, and the tactical plan should be well-defined for the current fiscal year and have a high-degree of accuracy when it comes to the numbers.

 

time horizons for marketing planning

An invitation for feedback.

As I mentioned above, I was motivated to dive into this topic because we are planning our roadmap for our long-term planning tools inside the Plannuh platform. If you have a process you use, or want to provide some input into our process, I would love to hear from you.

 

 

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