What happened to strategic planning – once a core element of marketing operations?
You may be saying, “Strategic planning is still a core piece of what we do.”
Is it, though? Today’s “strategic planning” typically involves semi-annual or quarterly events consisting of “strategy making.” Managers and leaders get together (often starting with bagels and coffee) to listen to SWOT analyses, participate in brainstorming sessions, and listen to summaries of new ideas for the strategy.
Don’t get me wrong. Creating a strategy is essential.
But when I asked what happened to strategic planning, I didn’t mean strategy making. I meant strategic planning, which involves managers at the appropriate levels of the hierarchy meeting to agree on detailed and prioritized plans of action for a coming time frame.
Once a strategy exists, strategic planning defines which activities, and in what order, will support it.
Interestingly, a lack of strategic planning is the common thread among every client I’ve worked with over the last five years, and it’s a barrier to scaling content strategies.
Why doesn’t strategic content planning happen?
Even bigger content teams don’t know how to act big
The answer lies in how content as a marketing function evolved to feed the growing number of digital channels created over the last decade.
Here’s what typically happens. Content teams work as small internal production houses for their companies. As the need for content grows, the business adds more resources. Soon, content needs outpace internal teams and require help from external agencies or freelancers. Teams get larger, but they don’t learn how to act in a “big” way.
When the only function of the content team is to serve up more and more content assets based on requests, there’s no need to plan and prioritize. Everything is equally important to the strategy.
The content team gets big without learning what it means to be big.
How strategic planning lets teams act big
Here’s an example based on a content marketing team I worked with recently. Over the last two years, the team doubled its content production, added six more content creators, launched two thought leadership media platforms, and helped marketing drive more business into the pipeline.
But the more they add, the more they struggle. The content leaders worry that:
- The quality of content has declined
- They’re losing executive support for the value of what they do
- Other departments feel impatient with the pace of content production
They wondered if they were trying to do too much and if they’d grown too big. When I asked about the planning workflow, the answer made me question whether they’d allowed the team to “get big” at all.
They’d recently implemented a new intake form the content leader can use to use to prioritize requests. The content team tries to meet service level agreements for different kinds of content and respond to all requests for assets.
But that process won’t solve their challenge. It’s like adding a microphone for taking orders before the customer’s car arrives at the fast-food drive-up window. It simply moves the problem. Yes, they can take and process orders faster, but the bottleneck of producing all the food being requested is still there.
They need the ability to act big – in other words, to make strategic plans about what content to produce instead of only taking requests.
A strategic planning process that happens in between the intake process and the content creation process helps teams act big in the following ways:
1. It balances proactive content plans with reactive requests
If you have a marketing strategy, you need to strategize and prioritize some amount of proactive content (planned) content. When the content team’s calendar contains nearly all reactive content (i.e., requests from other groups), there is no plan.
You’ll always need some level of reactivity. But to scale quality along with quantity, you must approach content creation as a forward-looking process, not one in which you’re always late by the time the request hits your inbox.
A strategic content planning process involves setting expectations, outlining needs, agreeing to timelines, defining expected outcomes, and prioritizing activities for a coming time frame.
These agreed-on activities align with business priorities. The output is forward-looking content creation, production, and activation calendars that say yes to some projects and no to others. Over time, it shifts the balance from reactive requests to proactive content.
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2. It clarifies content team capabilities
“It’s not what you do,” a content leader once told me, “it’s what they think you do” Strategic planning helps you communicate what the content team does so the whole organization understands what you do.
If your team has created (consciously or unconsciously) a mystique around its pace of content production, it’ll always be judged by the latest request fulfilled. No matter how large your content team becomes, it will never be considered strategic.
The strategic content planning process involves developing a list of objectives from the broader marketing or business strategy and the discrete and measurable steps for how your team will accomplish them. Then, you must communicate (early and often) that you’ll deploy content team resources and capabilities to support these objectives. This step gives purpose, clarity, and transparency to content prioritization. Put even more simply: It gives the content team something to point to when denying content requests.
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3. It creates a content seat at the table
Strategic planning lets content priorities evolve as business priorities change.
If it’s only responding to ad hoc requests, the content team will be the last to hear about business strategy changes.
Content teams without a strategic planning process often get labeled unresponsive or resistant to strategy changes. But strategic planning puts content at the marketing and communications table and gives it the power and agility to evolve as the marketing or business strategy changes.
Don’t fear growing big (even if it means more processes)
When should a once-small content team become strategic about planning? It often happens later than it should because people worry that it adds unneeded bureaucracy into what had been a “responsive” and “agile” team.
But don’t resist the change.
Big means you can afford things. Big means you’re ahead of the game and can take risks. Big also means using words like process, ownership, governance, and standards. It means meetings that focus not on the content itself but on how teams work together. Big means taking responsibility for not acting too big and overcommitting.
Getting big changes the nature of your work. Strategic planning may remove you and others on your team from doing work you love. But it also introduces you to work that will be a new adventure. It may force you to give up your team’s collaborative (but now too slow) decision-making and move to a command-and-control (but more efficient and effective) process.
But your desire to hold onto your current work, the flatness of your team, or your familiar workload can keep your content team from ever getting big – even if it grows.
Content teams that deny their bigness end up retrofitting their infrastructure, processes, and strategy. It isn’t pretty.
So, get ready for bigness. Don’t fear strategic planning, and don’t avoid it.
As you grow, do the strategic planning work. It takes the pain out of growing pains and keeps the dream in dreaming big.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute