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As the heat gets turned up in companies to produce more with less, marketing is often the first group to get its toes scorched.

Why does this happen? Often it's because marketing's contribution to the bottom-line is just not evident to everyone. Increasingly, marketing executives find themselves on the ropes, struggling to justify investments, losing resources and dropping into a self-fulfilling spiral of ineffectiveness that weakens the entire company.

Six simple but powerful strategies can help you survive and prosper in today's dangerous high-tech management waters.

1. Don't take “no strategy” for an answer.

A company without a strategic plan--and there are many--is like a ship without a rudder. Everyone on board is in danger as the ship wanders aimlessly in a turbulent marketplace. Without a corporate strategy that guides marketing investments, companies create confused messages, poorly positioned products, and ineffective, costly programs that damage business and jeopardize marketing's credibility.

As the marketing executive, you have a vested interest in making sure a sound corporate strategy has been developed--even if you have to champion the effort yourself. Driving executive consensus around a core set of high-level business goals is a great start and provides value to all functional groups, not just marketing. It makes explicit the direction of the company so that programs can be planned intelligently and budgets set at optimal levels.

2. All roads lead from the customer.

While it may seem obvious, there is simply no substitute for solid feedback from your customers. Marketing strategies and programs that are rooted in stated customer needs usually hit the bull's eye. Here are some effective strategies for engaging your customers on a regular basis:

  • Establish a customer advisory board that meets twice a year. Make it an extension to your strategy development process.
  • Hold informal, half-day customer focus groups several times a year. Involve your users in shaping product strategy and sound them out on important company and product issues. Again, act on their best advice.
  • Regularly call your best customers and simply ask how they're doing. They'll appreciate the attention and you'll learn a lot about what's on their minds.
  • Using a Web-based tool like Zoomerang, send simple e-mail surveys to customers that solicit input on new product features, service offerings, pricing proposals, and so on.

And most importantly, keep sales involved in all customer-oriented activities like these.

3. Goals without plans are vapor.

No question: You've gotta have marketing goals! But goals are no better than pipe dreams until they're linked to concrete, measurable activities. A goal articulates a desired end state--like a future newspaper headline you'd like to see. But thoughtful, detailed analysis is required to turn each goal into a comprehensive collection of interlocking strategies, plans and actions. Until this is done, marketing has no way of rationalizing the decisions or investments it makes.

Begin by developing solid goals that support your company's strategy. But don't stop there. Guide your staff through the essential process of assigning measurable objectives to each goal, then developing specific strategies and plans for each objective. This provides a framework for all your actions and a means of tying everything you do back up to “corporate first principles.”

4. Make sales your best friend.

Like the Hatfields and McCoys, sales and marketing groups in many companies live in a constant state of conflict. Sales claims that marketing isn't giving it what it needs to close business. Marketing complains that sales doesn't bother using the tools it provides.

The result? Individual sales groups start doing their own marketing, leading to fractured and uncoordinated activities. Sales drop off and the destructive cycle of blame continues.

Marketing can work wonders by simply treating sales as its most valued customer. It does this in many ways, including:

  • Soliciting and responding to actual sales requirements, just as it would with customers.
  • Jointly planning customer engagement strategies with sales, fostering an integrated, cooperating team.
  • Creating programs and materials that address the specific requirements of each stage of the sales process--from initial customer contact right through to close of sale and customer maintenance.
  • Demonstrating your interest and commitment by regularly going out on customer visits with the sales teams.

You and your counterpart in sales can foster such teamwork between your groups when you realize that your goals are the same: Closing business and making customers happy.

5. Metrics, metrics, metrics.

It doesn't exist if you can't measure it. And conversely, when you do measure it you've significantly increased its value to you. Too often marketing programs are launched without clear objectives around required outcomes.

Take trade shows, for example. Companies can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars participating in a trade event without having a detailed plan for specifically what they want to achieve--X number of qualified sales leads, favorable coverage in Y trade magazines, or Z written customer endorsements.

For every marketing investment you make you should be asking the following kinds of questions:

  • What are our measurable objectives for the activity?
  • What's our strategy for achieving those objectives?
  • What alternatives do we have for achieving the same results?
  • What resources will we apply to be sure we meet those objectives?
  • How will we monitor progress against the objectives?
  • How will we know if we've been successful?

By tying every marketing dollar to a revenue producing (or cost reducing) outcome you demonstrate accountability and increase your value to both the organization and your customers.

6. Do more with less.

Finally, turn your marketing group into a SWAT team. Make sure that every member of the team is cross-trained in more than one skill area. Promote flexibility and versatility so that marketing subgroups can combine and recombine to adapt quickly to change. Moving away from specialization reduces costs, stretches people in positive directions and can lead to exciting and creative solutions to problems that cross marketing functions. It also demonstrates budgetary responsibility in difficult economic times.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Basil Harris, Jr. is the founder and president of MarketStreams (www.marketstreams.com), a strategic and product marketing consulting firm based in New Hampshire. He can be reached at bharrisjr@marketstreams.com