Does 2020 Mark the Death of the Annual Plan?

In the marketing world, annual planning is a mix of art and science and, typically, the holy grail of midsummer activity. By early fall, our next year’s plans have been finalized, budgets requested and minds shifted toward the coming year. However, in the strange and surreal world of 2020, we’re finding our annual plans have become obsolete. Long-range planning has lost relevance during this time of uncertainty due to COVID-19, racial unrest, a politically divided U.S. consumer base and a roller coaster economy. The art of annual planning had a good run, but we’re wondering if 2020 could also mark the end of the annual planning cycle as we know it and usher in the rise of quarterly planning.

As a “C” (stands for Conscientious, also known as analytical, systematic and precise) on the DiSC assessment, I live and breathe by a plan both in my work and home life. But this year, I’ve had to embrace a lot more of living in the gray. And while that can be disconcerting, what I’ve learned is, you can still plan, it just must be in smaller increments, with more frequent review and revisions. To retain brand trust, it’s more important than ever to be on the same page as your customer and in-tune with what the current environment requires, which means your plan created in 2019 may no longer be relevant at all.

So, how do you keep the trains on the track without a plan? Here are a few insights based on what I’ve seen work with my clients so far this year:

The Shift to Quarterly Planning

Think Long-Term but Implement Short-Term
Attempting to map out your whole year is impossible and fruitless right now, but that doesn’t mean you should abandon planning altogether. Instead, revisit your company’s overarching business goals and consider the role that marketing plays in helping to achieve them. Break business goals down into marketing/communications-specific objectives by quarter in a way that allows you to see small increments of progress along the way.

Map Out One Quarter at a Time
Then, once you have your quarterly strategies down on paper, break each quarter down into monthly objectives and outline the tactics that can help your team accomplish your objectives. Your team should regroup from week to week to ensure the proposed approach is still practical by asking whether the tactics are still relevant and appropriate based on factors like the pandemic, social unrest, natural disasters – for example, an active hurricane season – and the election. This practice will prevent your brand from being exposed to reputational threats that may not have existed the week prior and give your team a chance to evaluate which priorities may need to shift.

Then, you can proactively schedule weekly touch-points with your broader marketing and operations teams to ensure collective awareness of what’s being implemented or changed that week. A risk of moving quickly is that communication can fall through the cracks, and you absolutely want to avoid a situation where cross-functional teams are out sync – like marketing forgets to tell the operations team about a key promotion launching, or operations forgets to tell marketing about retail locations closing down just at the moment a social post is about to go live.

Be prepared that even with a weekly schedule and checkpoints, so many things are changing day-to-day that you may have to adjust to a schedule that accounts for multiple checkpoints a week. For that reason, we do not recommend automating any marketing communications efforts like social posts or email marketing through at least November to ensure your brand is not communicating inappropriately solely due to a scheduling error.

Expand Your Perspective and Streamline Your Team for Smarter Decision-Making
It’s important to include multiple points of view when evaluating your longer-term communications initiatives. Give colleagues outside of your walls – like vendors, suppliers and other business partners – the opportunity to offer feedback and insights on how a given tactic or message might be perceived before it’s deployed. For a major rollout or project, consider assembling key stakeholders for a scenario planning session to assess the viability of various approaches depending on what 2020 and beyond might throw our way. These stakeholders may be able to flag issues or potential scenarios that you have not yet considered, allowing you to future-proof some of your tactics. Our facilitation team has done numerous sessions like this that have driven significant change in organizational goals and tactics.

Next, you will want to revisit the mindset of your most important stakeholders – your customers. Consider investing in customer research to better understand where their heads are, what they want from you and how you can best serve them during this time. No doubt it has changed since your last planning cycle. With the massive cultural shifts our country has seen in recent months, if you’re not already considering how to engage multicultural audiences, you absolutely should be. Given the current conversations about racial inequity and Census projections citing that the U.S. will be majority non-white by 2045, your consumer base is definitely undergoing change.

Lastly, because you need to be nimble, it’s important to assemble a small, designated team of internal stakeholders who can quickly make important decisions about major changes in strategy or allocate funds to new initiatives. In the event your team needs to quickly change tack, they should be empowered and unencumbered by bureaucracy.

Find the Balance Within Your Team
Not having a clearly outlined long-term plan can be a source of anxiety for those who crave structure, while others are much more comfortable existing in the gray areas. During this time, it’s important to draw on the strengths of both camps. Allow the planners-by-nature to create the quarterly roadmap that can be further shaped and refined weekly with input from those who thrive in the unknown.

Those who thrive in the unknown may be a great team to tap for scenario planning, which will allow you to forecast and plan for a variety of scenarios that can be acted upon quickly, despite the volatility that prevents development of a firm, long-range plan.

How do you know who falls into which group? Your colleagues can likely self-identify where they feel most comfortable, but you can also use tools like the aforementioned DiSC assessment or the Clifton StrengthsFinder to get an official read of the personalities and natural inclinations of your teammates. This is also a great time to evaluate your team and their roles and determine if their strengths can be better utilized in different ways going forward.

Use Budget Benchmarks
Lastly, don’t forget about the funding. The roller coaster economy is making all of us hold on for dear life when it comes to budgeting, and additional operational costs due to COVID-19 health and safety precautions or closures also mean organizations are often forced to cut marketing budgets. However, for organizations that need to drive sales (isn’t that everyone?) a zeroed marketing budget is not sustainable.

So, how do you budget without an annual plan? One approach I recommend is to average the last three years with a plus or minus of 15 percent for cost of living increases and general unforeseen circumstances. If it’s possible within your organization, consider shifting to a quarterly approach here as well.

To allocate funds going forward, revisit KPIs based on your consumer’s current behaviors, and let those drive where you are making your investments for the future. Because customers have changed so much just in the past few months, don’t rely solely on historical data to drive your decision making. Instead, look at what’s been successful for your business in the past 90 days and focus on elevating those channels and tactics. And again, revisit your KPIs monthly.

Most of all, as we tread through this volatile season, take your focus off the plan and instead embrace your customers. For them, brand marketing is not relevant right now. We’re not in a mass consumer market – we’re in a 1:1 market. That means your marketing must be relatable, responsive and hyper-focused on the individual consumer’s needs and mental states. Instead of planning for the future, ask whether the communication in question will resonate in this very moment, with your particular audience, and meet them wherever they are.