Man standing at his desk on his laptop, developing a strategy
Ditch Your Digital Marketing Plan
How new approaches to project management are transforming digital marketing teams worldwide, including our own.

Almost every long-term digital marketing strategy is destined to fail. Google changed its search algorithm, now your SEO strategy is obsolete. Your retargeting campaign was built on a flawed lookalike audience, sending your ad spend through the roof. The next day, a competitor kills your keyword rankings in one fell swoop.

Your approach will need to be adjusted as soon as these problems arise. So ditch your digital marketing plan. While it is comforting to have twelve months of work mapped ahead of you, it wouldn’t be in line with the realities of digital marketing. Let’s dive deeper to understand why this might be.

A Bit of History

The German concept of Auftragstaktik, or mission-type tactics, was conceived in the aftermath of a crushing defeat of the Prussian army by Napoleon in 1806. The Prussians learned that any plan the commanders cooked up would immediately become irrelevant once contact was made with the enemy.

The new doctrine required commanders to give no more orders than were essential (as each placed an additional burden on the recipient) while encouraging subordinate leaders to respond independently to the ever-changing conditions on the front.

Auftragstaktik was an incredible success and was copied by militaries worldwide. The concept eventually found a home in boardrooms across the business world - a lesson in the benefits of a flexible framework in the short term over intense strategizing in the long term.

Marketing executives are still adjusting to changes in recent years. Thirty years ago, a print or TV ad campaign would often run for several months before a return on investment could be determined. Nowadays, marketers have the tools to view results much sooner, often in real time. With the increased pace, they must be flexible and ready to pivot at any moment.

At OPIN, we’ve learned that the old approach doesn’t work. When we stopped investing in certain “traditional” marketing activities (some of which may be a surprise to some) and committed to a dynamic framework to marketing as opposed to fleshing out a strategy, we saw remarkable growth. We’d like to share some of what we learned with you.

What’s the difference between a framework and a strategy?

We propose marketers adopt a framework, or methodology, instead of a strategy where possible. The difference is subtle but important. A strategy relies on a set of assumptions to predict future conditions, and projects are planned around these perceived conditions. A framework instead relies on a set of principles to flexibly respond to current conditions, with greater objectives in mind.

It takes a certain level of humility to abandon the strategy for a set of objectives, and see what innovation will occur as a result. Too many marketing managers have unconsciously let the hours (and budget) they sunk into a marketing strategy cloud their judgment, creating a situation where they will seek to preserve the existing strategy at great cost to the firm (an example of the sunk cost fallacy).

Before we get any further, let us distinguish between committing to a strategy and acting strategically. Every action undertaken by a marketing team must be strategically aligned with the overall goals of the organization. From a marketing perspective, the main goal is growth.

Obviously, planning is required to an extent. I’ll give you a test to determine how far you should plan into the future. Ask yourself this question: What is the most important thing I can do this month to accomplish x the company?

If you can’t accurately guess what the answer will be six months from now, abandon your annual strategy for x. If you can’t guess the answer three months from now, abandon your quarterly strategy. Neither will be relevant, and it will save you time better spent refining your method.

Understand your method

At OPIN, our approach to marketing is inspired by the Agile development methodology that our development teams have committed to for years. It is an approach that’s based on flexibility and pivoting, continuous improvement, and constant learning.

The only assumption we make is that every assumption is faulty until tested and challenged (often more than once). We meet weekly to discuss progress and assign weekly tasks, and monthly to measure progress against benchmarks and set higher level goals.

Agile Marketing Principles diagram


Here are five keys to unlocking your own dynamic, Agile-inspired methodology in your organization:

1. Test all of your assumptions

There are a number of marketing activities that may seem essential, but upon closer inspection, they offer little business value for the time spent pursuing them.

Here are three sample questions every marketer could ask him or herself:

  • Do we need to write a new blog post every day?
  • Do we need to use social media the way other companies are?
  • What actual value do we get out of attending trade shows?

At OPIN, we asked ourselves questions like these and decided a lot of our answers defied more fashionable marketing practices. It’s important to start from basic principles and tie every marketing engagement to real business value for your company. Not based on whatever the content marketer at Hubspot thinks.

2. Set clear objectives

Even though we are moving away from long-term strategies, we must retain long-term objectives. Every marketing activity should be measured against these objectives on a regular basis, and adjusted where necessary.

3. Prepare to learn

Every emerging technology is a potential opportunity for growing your business, but it likely means hours of reading, YouTube videos, and online courses to understand how to use the tool and what the best practices are. At OPIN, our learning is baked into our monthly planning so we’re always at the cutting edge of marketing technology and tactics.

Man studying on his laptop

It’s not as boring as it sounds. Unlike your years of wondering when you’ll actually use what you learned in school, you’ll be putting your learning into practice immediately and viewing the results in real time.

4. Build the right team

A certain mindset is important for adopting a flexible marketing framework. It requires self-directed learning, comfort under rapidly changing conditions, and an honest, analytical approach to all marketing activities.

Group of colleagues brainstorming

5. Make small changes at a time

“What is one way we can get a single new blog subscriber this week?”

This is a question one of our marketing coordinators added to the top of our Trello board last week. It’s based on the Japanese idea of kaizen, or continuous improvement, that emphasizes constant small changes to achieve greater objectives.

Kaizen in Japanese script

It’s far easier and cheaper to determine what works at a small scale in a shorter time frame than on a large scale in a longer time frame. By scaling these small changes week over week, we have found ourselves getting closer to our long-term objectives.

Conclusion

It sounds like this might fly in the face of conventional thinking about future planning, but a flexible project management framework actually works in harmony with long-term aims. Moving away from big commitments and detailed strategies frees your team to pivot where necessary, double down every week on what’s working, and constantly be assessing new and existing assumptions to optimize the organization’s marketing efforts to the fullest extent.

We hope you found the lessons we learned here at OPIN valuable. Our flexible, Agile approach helped us become the fastest growing digital agency in Canada.

Navy blue plain colour background

Stephen has built a marketing career on his belief that even the most complex problems of the digital age should be resolved by starting from first principles, not chasing trends. This approach helps Stephen provide insights to our readers about the forces that are reshaping the digital landscape.