Catalogs are pouring in our mailboxes. Do you know what that means? Holiday shopping games have begun! BizRate, the folks who often ask for your feedback after you've made an online purchase order, is forecasting that online holiday sales for 2003 will go up a whopping 22% from last year: 2002 sales totaled $15.04 billion, and this year they are expected to reach $18.35 billion. (Source: About Retail Industry).

What can you do to get a chunk of that cash? How do you drive shoppers to your Web site? If you're already successful at getting electronic traffic to your store, then how do you sell specific items during slow sales times?

One example is a historic hotel's attempt to attract customers: it enjoys heavy-duty weekend booking and sweats bullets getting customers during midweek. Enter this issue's dilemma from the hospitality industry, where you, SWOT Team Star, can help a historic hotel with online marketing advice.

Thank you, also, for sharing your expertise on strategic planning. Read on to check out your peers' best advice on how to get your process back on track.

If Web traffic doesn't concern you, or if your process never flies out the window, write to us and ask our SWOT Team about your dilemma. Tapping into our collective experience, strength, and hope works. You could win a free copy of our book, A Marketer's Guide to e-Newsletter Publishing.

SWOT Team, unite and make a difference!

This Issue's Dilemma

SWOT Category: External Opportunity

How do you develop a coherent Web marketing strategy?

As President of a hospitality company, I am looking for ways to increase visibility and business online. For example, a small, 22-room, recently renovated historic hotel owned by a nonprofit needs midweek business. Located in a small non-gaming town, 25 miles from Las Vegas and minutes from world-class golf, this hotel has the charm of a B&B and offers the privacy and amenities of a boutique hotel. Its new Web site accepts online bookings via a GDS supplier, but there is no coherent online strategy. The sales and marketing budget of $1,500 per month has not been allocated yet.

How do we get more people to the Web site, and once they are there, what ideas can you give me for selling more midweek bookings? Ultimately, how do we go about developing an effective online marketing strategy?

—Larry Kimball, President, Historic Hospitality, LLC

Previous Dilemma

SWOT Category: Internal Weakness

Help! Our strategic planning process has gone out the window.

My company has a staff of 35 people with eight programs under three areas of service. For almost three years, we have been meeting to discuss strategic planning with very little progress. As the communications director, I have made suggestions; but for the most part, have sat back while other, more important people (senior ranking), have led the meetings and gotten us nowhere. I recently decided that I cannot, in good ethics, waste my time in these meetings.

When the head of the strategic planning committee decided our next goal was to define the messages for our target markets, I worked with a team of people on what I felt was the first step: defining what the target audiences want to hear, then writing/crafting relative messages. I thought we should define our goals and look at ways to market these messages in tune with our mission and vision. However, no one can stay focused in any of these meetings. They are not concise with their messages and get furious when I try to consolidate them.

What do your readers suggest? I feel like our process is out the window, and we continue to complete random miscellaneous acts without direction. I am very frustrated by the whole process.

—Anonymous, Communications Director

Summary of Advice Received

Dear SWOT Team member, the advice we received from your colleagues will help get your strategic planning process back, no matter what the weather is like. The majority of the advice falls into these four categories:

1. Rely on an experienced facilitator.

2. Define your objectives clearly.

3. Try another approach.

4. Survey your customers.

1. Rely on an experienced facilitator

The majority of the SWOT Team members who responded to this dilemma recommended turning to a clear leader with an objective perspective. While this leader could be found in your organization, there are many experienced facilitators outside the organization.

Susan Wheeler, Principal at Pathfinder Consulting Solutions, suggests getting an objective view of the situation through an outside consultant:

Often times, bringing in someone from outside the company helps give much needed direction. Outside consultants often (not always) provide an objective view. They may also set a tone with the stakeholders that would be difficult for someone inside the company (given the politics that often take place).

Also, because a consultant's time is an added expense, the team may want to make good use of that investment and not waste money running the consultant clock. It is also important to find out what the other players want to accomplish (and what they think they are accomplishing by their current behavior). Someone outside the company can uncover these motivations.

Clive Lewis, Principal Consultant at Strategia Limited, recommends a facilitator who may come from within or outside the organization:

It sounds like you are battling against conflicting objectives and probably politics. It must be very frustrating. Not being able to consolidate messages is a strong indication that the objectives are not common. I suggest that the problem is more to do with management of the process, rather than the approach.

A quick fix would be to get an experienced facilitator in TQ or Six Sigma or TPM who has marketing experience. (Be warned—they are rare). The longer approach is to get someone in the organization trained as a facilitator. I have found being a trained facilitator one of the most valuable skills to bring disparate groups to consensus and get action. Best of luck.

Denise Barnwell, Principal for Transformation Marketing, adds some more ideas about both internal and external facilitators:

Wow, can I relate! I paid my penance in more wasted “strategic planning” meetings than I care to remember during 17 years in brand management and corporate communications. Based on your description of the behavior of your senior execs, it sounds like you may be experiencing ego and turf battles played out in these meetings.

My suggestion, if you still have the courage to try: find some articles about how an outside professional facilitator has worked wonders at other companies. Ask if the team leader was considering this approach since you know he likes to “challenge” (or whatever sincere flattery you can muster to help him think this is his great idea). Typically, big honchos care about the impression they make and are motivated to follow an expert's guidelines for having effective meetings—if only so they don't look like they don't know themselves.

Really good facilitators also know how to use games and other tools to problem-solve, break down silos, etc. If the top brass won't spring for the meeting facilitator's fee, a strong HR person who wouldn't be intimidated could also fill the bill.

Unfortunately, if these meetings aren't taken seriously as a way of moving the company forward, there is no incentive for change. Still, think twice before trying to excuse yourself, if your absence would send a wrong signal about your commitment to your job. Instead, go to the meetings with a new attitude. Identify one or two issues that you want these decision-makers to clarify or decide, so you can make progress against your job duties. Let that be your goal. Then at least your time will be well spent. Good luck!

2. Define your objectives clearly

Whether you decide to rely on an experienced facilitator or not, some of our SWOT Team members remind us that in order to have success in this kind of a process, you need to clearly define your objectives up front.

Peter Altschuler, VP Marketing Strategy & Creative Services, Wordsworth & Company, gives this valuable advice about setting objectives:

This company, from the sound of it, is attempting to craft strategies without first setting objectives—an activity that takes a lot more guts. Deciding where the company wants to be in terms of revenues, new customers, increased sales from current customers, market share, new products, brand awareness, profit margins, and so on means committing to goals that may be challenging to reach. Yet, without those targets, strategies are pointless. They become busywork—internal exercises that are unrelated to external conditions.

To make strategic planning meaningful, executives need to examine the company's current situation, determine how it got there, analyze whether they're gaining or losing ground and, then, determine what they want to achieve to either reverse, reinforce, or accelerate the company's direction. After that's done, the department heads can focus on what strategies they have to create—to meet or exceed the objectives.

If the objective is to increase revenues by 12%, displace a competitor to gain market share, and achieve revenue gains by introducing two new products, the strategies to support that will be different than if the goals are to prevent customer defections while increasing existing customer income by 8% without introducing new products. Marketing, product development, sales, finance, and every other department will then be able to focus on their strategic contribution, and the tactics they'll need to implement these approaches.

Rather than try to improve on what senior management tries to impose, redirect the discussion. Don't try to make their strategy suggestions work better for a specific department; ask what objectives their strategies support. Ease them away from solutions and back toward defining the problem.

Steve McDonald believes in developing your objectives, defining your company's values and mission are also necessary. Then, once you create a battle plan, document it:

Strategic planning is about aligning your business activities with the values and mission of your organization. This assumes two things:

1. You have an established, easily definable set of values. Your corporate values are "rules" that you play by. If the mission statement defines who you want to play with, the values are the "rules" that define the game. Think back to when you played a neighborhood game of football as a kid. You said things like, "No kicking, no punching, no pulling hair... if you pass this line you get a touchdown." Your corporate values define HOW you intend to play your game in terms of what is important to you.

2. You have clearly defined your mission. Your mission should outline (1) who you are, (2) what you do and (3) who you do that for. A mission statement should be written to target prospects. If a potential customer asks you, “Why should I use your business?” You should reply, “Because... [insert mission statement here]!”

Once you have clearly defined these two things, you can begin to take elements of your mission, constrained by your values and begin to outline short-, medium- and long-term "activity-" or "outcome"-based goals. These goals are your battlefields. Let the strategic planning begin: once you have decided on which battlefields to address, refine your vision for how to accomplish your mission, constrained by your values, to achieve your goals. Each refined vision (or future activity) should be a battle plan for a battlefield. It must contribute toward achieving your goals.

How to Document Your Battle Plan: While documenting your future activities is simple, executing the plan is complicated. At a minimum, record:

1. Who will carry the ownership of the particular battle plan (sorry—only one person can lead; many can help).

2. Outline the goals the plan addresses.

3. Outline the target battlefield for executing the plan.

4. Set deadlines for the battle plan.

5. Clearly ascribe the necessary outcomes required to call the executed plan a success (outcomes are like a finish line in a race: unless you know your expected outcomes, you won't know when you have completed the race).

6. Finally: Concatenate your goals into a master plan and order them by date. Prioritize the battle plans and begin to build your teams to execute the plans.

3. Try another approach

Cass Cannon, Performance Improvement Coach for UVA HSF, says “backing off” may inspire another approach to this process, and having a conversation with the process leader can also make a wrong into a right:

I'd advise you quit pushing and start absorbing whatever your team is committed to. It sounds like you've made your case and demonstrated the skills that you can contribute to the process, but nobody's buying. Sometimes, not always, backing off results in an invitation. When the group discovers for itself that the meetings are going nowhere, they might come to you. On the other hand, they may be content to have three more years of Strategic Planning meetings that lead nowhere.

Finally, have you had a direct conversation with the person in charge? You need to share your views in a neutral way, e.g., “You know, I'm not really sure what's expected of me in Strategic Planning meetings as Communications Director. I've made some assumptions in the past that seem to run counter to the group's focus.” Then ask for advice, just like you did here.

Jim Eagles, Director for Showcase BC, recommends developing a “rolling” plan visited when internal, external or industry changes occur:

Business planning is too important to be left to the planners and too ephemeral to be addressed once a year. To be of any practical use it must be:

1. Executed by line managers

2. A dynamic, interactive process—a “rolling” plan visited once a month or more often when any significant competitive move, internal or environmental change occurs

4. Survey your customers

Along with absorbing and analyzing what is happening in your meetings and developing a “rolling” plan, your customers can provide much-needed insight for the strategic planning process.

Jennifer Rice, Principal at Mantra Brand Communications, recommends sharing customer research with the process team to influence your outcome:

I have found that the voice of the customer tends to be the most compelling way to align various departments toward a common vision. Instead of an opinion face-off (in which the loudest voice wins), I've found it extremely effective to share the qualitative and quantitative customer research that drives your recommendations.

For example: “We interviewed 20 members of our target audience and found that their key frustrations are (x), and they really want (y) and (z) from a company like ours. Since our key competitor is already focusing on (y) and we have some existing skill with (z), it makes logical sense to use (z) as a springboard for our strategic development.” 99 times out of 100, you'll get heads nodding in agreement. This is how I present brand strategy recommendations for all my clients and it works every time. No one wants to argue with a customer. When my clients say, “We don't have a budget to do customer research,” I tell them they can't afford not to listen to their customers.

Two very cost-effective options that work well:

1. Develop an ongoing, online customer survey.

2. Conduct one-on-one phone interviews with both customers and non-customers (you can get a focus group company to recruit non-customers for a reasonable fee).

Adam Gordon, Owner of Gordon Consulting provides this perspective:

DON'T do it in an ivory tower. Strategic plans that don't listen to their markets are only recipes for failure and lack of future strategic planning. While not going for the “strategy du jour” (or week, or quarter) your strategic plan has to be flexible enough to be responsive to the market. Remember, even business-to-business still means you are interacting with PEOPLE.

Way to Get the Process Back, SWOT Team!

We did our best to provide a thorough overview of your responses to this timely topic. All of the advice we received was insightful. Thanks for your participation. We appreciate it!

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Hank Stroll ( is publisher at InternetVIZ, a custom publisher of 24 B2B e-newsletters reaching 490,000 business executives.

Tamara is a writer at InternetVIZ and is available for freelance work.