What many marketers refer to as "strategy" is actually planning: choosing platforms and channels, then setting up an editorial calendar, content plan, media buying plan, and other plans in order to "move the needle" on a specific set of goals.
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But how often do you pick your head up and look at your brand position from a market perspective? How often should you stop the day-to-day work of running a marketing organization to see whether you're making any big-picture progress?
On this episode of Marketing Smarts, I talk with executive-level strategist Chris Brogan about the difference between strategy and tactics, how to take stock of where you are in relation to your organizational goals, how to fold companies you acquire into your overall strategy, and more.
We talk about strategy for big B2B organizations that are merging with or acquiring other companies. We also look at departmental strategy, and how individual marketers can use pilot projects to spur innovation at their organization when leadership isn't interested in new ideas (yet).
Chris also offers insight into how marketing has—and must continue to—evolve in light of the changes caused by the global pandemic. (Spoiler Alert: Working from home is here to stay!)
Listen to the entire show now from the link above, or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode.
This episode brought to you by MNTN:
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"Marketing Smarts" theme music composed by Juanito Pascual of Signature Tones.
Kerry O'Shea Gorgone: Welcome to the Marketing Smarts Podcast. I'm joined by Chris Brogan. He's an executive level strategist and CEO advisor working with companies at the hundred-million-dollar plus revenue range. The projects he works on with C-level executives involve everything from scouting merger and acquisition opportunities in B-to-B enterprise spaces, strategic pathing and decision making, reorganization efforts, and more.
Chris is also president of Chris Brogan Media, which offers brand and digital content strategy, as well as business strategy advisory services. He's a sought-after keynote speaker and showrunner of The Backpack Show. He's also the New York Times bestselling author of nine books and counting. We're going to talk strategy today.
How are you, Chris?
Chris Brogan: I am so happy to be here talking strategy with you, Kerry.
Kerry: I noticed a lot of the work that you've been doing lately is really high level, organizational level and even multi-organizational level strategy stuff. I think a lot of marketers when they say they're working on strategy what they're really doing is planning. What's the difference?
Chris: At the very base level of the definition of the word strategy, a strategy is a plan. But with strategy what you're trying to do is not just how am I going to make an episode turn out or what do I have to do today to get through the end of the day. With strategy, you're trying to say where am I headed, where am I right now, what needs to be seen out of me, what needs to be understood, where am I going to go next, and if that doesn't work, where else should I consider going, what if I have to backtrack, what if I say that didn't work, how do I take a look at that.
Kerry: If you're involved in working on mergers and acquisitions and you're bringing on other organizations, and now you have even more moving parts, how does that change the equation? When you're looking at strategy, you have something working at the parent organizations, how do you fold other organizations into it?
Chris: Okay. The company that I'm doing work with right now, we did 12 acquisitions in 12 months. In every case, what happens is these companies, their founders and most of their staff are invited into the company, their departments are sort of cross-rolled into each other. It's a software company, so we take the code, and we learn the code and kind of have an on ramp to learn all of the bits of that code.
Let's say for marketing departments. For instance, almost all of these companies were their own standalone company with their own marketing department. We say, "Great news, we're going to roll your marketing strategy into ours." There's no real debate over it. Then we'll ask them questions. What have you been doing? What do you feel is working? Have you had any campaigns that you love to death that you really wish you could bring with to this new environment? Because we don't want to crush someone's years of work or anything.
Then what we say is, "Does that match where we're headed? Does that match the language we're using out there in the field?" If we're saying this is all going to feel a lot more seamless in the next little while and their marketing says we stand out completely from everybody else, then obviously we're going to have to switch that around.
Then there's always the question of what tools, what mediums, what media are we using, and where are we all going. To sort of cap that one off, once we blend everybody together, once we understand where they've been, we say here's where we're going, let's talk about what that looks like for your particular product, and now that it's part of a platform, let's talk about how we can get those goals met.
Kerry: If we take a step back and look at strategy then from the standpoint that most marketers are interacting with it, like at the one organization level, I still feel like even there there's still a lack of perspective, if you know what I mean. They're too close to it, almost.
It's like, "We have to figure out this TikTok thing and if it's for us, and we have to keep going on these whitepapers, and we have to do more thought leadership with our execs," etcetera, but there's not the, "Let's look at the market and see what people even think about us and whether that's in line with what we want them to think about us."
How often do you think businesses need to take stock of the bigger picture?
Chris: I think quarterly is somewhat reasonable. It sounds like a real fast pace for some people and for others they're like, "What are you talking about? We do this daily." I would say that quarterly is reasonable. A lot of what you said, to me, a lot of it was like busywork stuff, spreadsheet filling and I can show somebody at the end of the day in my TPS reports this is what we did. I'll say, "Great. My strategy was that we were going to up the channel partners 11%. Show me where your TPS report activities have moved my channel up 11%, because my number is not there."
One thing that has changed dramatically in marketing over the while now is marketing has to come with numbers more than ever before. There was a certain sense that you don't always know, or it's really hard to track this, or it's not always so clear. That marketing either will stop being done or that marketing will have some new numbers put to it. Without any sense of growth numbers, it's going to be a lot harder to justify the headcount that you have in your marketing department these days.
Kerry: What if the news isn't great? What if you take stock, you do this, and you realize that you're not where you want to be in a pretty fundamental way? People still think of you as the old busted legacy CRM, but really you've undertaken to revolutionize everything and everything works great now, but nobody knows.
Chris: Now we're down to absolute basic marketing. You say it turns out I have pretty much no recognition, which is a number that you can track. You can track is anyone ever talking about you. If that answer is no, well we have to get a big awareness campaign going, we have to draw people to put us back in the consideration set.
Depending on what kind of company or what kind of product, you might have to start doing a bunch of RFP campaigning where you say, "I'm going to get into a bunch of RFPs. Even if I'm not the right product or it's not the right fit, I want my name seen, so I will eat the effort it takes to fill out RFPs just to get my name in there."
By the way, if you want to talk strategy, there are zero people who anxiously want to fill out an RFP. They're the worst.
Kerry: No kidding. Request for proposal, if this is your first day.
Chris: I'm sorry. Request for proposal document, which means, "Hey, we think we need a new piece of software and your company might offer that software," or whatever it is, "Can you fill out this document that answers our questions our way," and it's never the same way that you've written it twice, so you have to actually copy and do a lot of editing to make it work.
With strategy, if you're not being seen, then you make a strategy around getting seen. If you're being seen as the old guy, you start executing some plans around how to make it look like we're not the old guy and how to give some people some view. It doesn't change when you're looking at that at the strategic level as much as you're saying, "What's our big goal?" If our big goal is to expand the channel, then what I don't do is I don't start an email campaign for that. If my big goal is work with my value-added resellers, then I don't go direct to consumer, etcetera.
There's a lot of what not to do in strategy as well. Don't spend your time here. Don't spend your calories here. Really let them loose over here on this other last thing and that would be the best place.
Kerry: What's the best way to spot opportunities?
One of the shows that you do is The Backpack Show, which I do with you almost every day. Yesterday we talked to Amanda Holmes, who is the CEO of Chet Holmes International. She was telling us how she increased leads and conversions upon taking the reigns as CEO by 1100% just by doing webinars. She took stock of what they were doing, they were all-in on radio, all-in on TV and print, no new technology, so it was like let's do some webinars. She expanded the pie, basically.
What kinds of things can people do to keep an eye out for that stuff when they're heads down in TPS reports or RFPs and stuff?
Chris: One thing about when one's head is down is that's a choice as well. We can always choose I'm going to do weekly reviews of where I'm spending my time and my efforts, I'm going to look at my calendar every single week appointment wise and say, "Does this match what I'm really doing?" If I'm handing in XYZ kind of material to somebody, it better match the real strategy, it better match the real goals.
Again, if your goal is to make retail stores very successful, then you're probably not going to start opening your own stores, that would be counter to your strategy. It's almost like laws and cops. Laws exist and you shouldn't break the law. Cops exist to enforce the law. When you're out there fighting against a cop and you're like, "This law is not fair," you're fighting the wrong person. You fight lawyers to change laws. You fight cops if they execute their duties incorrectly.
Kerry: Politicians, but yes.
Chris: Yeah, that.
Kerry: Then let's say you're a doer at an organization, you're not a strategy person, but you see an opportunity. What's the best way to gently suggest it to your higher-ups if maybe innovation from the ranks is not encouraged?
Chris: I would couch it always with a few things in mind. One is I would always push it for the point of, "You know how this really aligns with our strategy? I want to talk to you about this project I thought might be really great. It ties directly to our strategy. I'll show you how." Then you walk through what the opportunity is, how it does or doesn't align to that strategy.
Then the next thing you do right after is say, "And I have a pilot proposal where in which we don't have to do everything, but we can certainly pilot what it means if we try this out and see if you like the way it looks," or feels, or if you like the way it's going, or if the numbers move in the way you want. The real execution winner in a company that's not super big on innovation are little pilot programs. They're delightful.
Kerry: Fred Faulkner IV is watching us record this live in the Marketing Profs studio, and he observes, "It's so important to have key performance indicators that match your goals and track them on the right frequency to see what's moving the needle."
It's so true, but a lot of people are kind of data-allergic in a way. They have a bunch of it, they have access to a bunch of things. I have seen a real resistance to actually looking at it unless somebody else presents it to them. How do you overcome this data aversion and actually look at it, even if you have to make the data set smaller, actually look at it in a way that can inform what you're doing?
Chris: It's funny. We hate looking at data unless it's our data that's going to prove our point. Right?
If I said, "Mom, I want a new bicycle and I think I deserve. Here's how I can show you that," then you can collect stuff. "Out of the last 64 calendar months, I've done this with my homework, and I've done this. You said X years ago that in a couple of years it would be a great time to get a bike. I'm just checking in. My data shows I still have no bike." You know what I mean? Once you use your data to prove a point then you start getting more interested in it.
The other thing is that one of the number one things that any company in the world, no matter what your position, C-level or lower, we all want to contribute to something we think is worthwhile and is doing something for the company. If I said to you, "Kerry, your last seven years haven't been worth it," then you might say, "But I made this show, I made this MarketingProfs podcast and it had a lot of downloads, a lot of people had a lot of good stuff to say." If you said, "I made this show for all this time and no one ever watched it, it had like eight views," then you might start to feel really pooey about it.
Data is a great tool if it will help you grow and go somewhere. I guess in those cases, look for the stuff that proves your point or that you could use to disprove your point and make it so that you can choose a new opinion.
Kerry: What does a strategy at the organizational level actually look like? Do you have to have a big voluminous binder thing or not, should it be a little piece of paper? What does it actually look like and what do people need to be doing?
Chris: I think they work best when they're super small, so two to three pages, tops. I think that if you can present it in a small slide deck, that's always the best.
The very next thing you do is you say, "This is where the company feels we're going. We're going to keep expanding this total addressable market," they call it a TAM, "We're going to stay inside this TAM. We're going to do this by partnering with these people. We're going to change our price points, because it turns out our pricing is all over the place and it's ridiculous. That's what we're going to do."
So, say those are our four things. Then what we say is, "What does that look like for you," and you walk through as many departments as you can at the senior leadership team level. You might not explain to every engineer what every desk engineer's job is, but you say, "In engineering what that means is you're going to have to work harder on delivering a better API. Every piece of code you write has to come with an API application program or interface," which basically is how can you use this software inside the software and how does it talk out to other pieces of software. "Everything you're going to make has to have that API piece because strategically we're really trying to make it so that we are better together, so we want our apps to always be better together."
You start with the big strategy, here's the four things. You give some numbers to it, if there's a vague number that you can give. Then you say, "Hey senior leadership team," VPs, directors, that sort of thing, "Here's what you have to communicate down. That means in your department this."
As a strategist, I would take the time to go through each department, including ones that you don't think of. Facilities, a field services team that builds buildings for the company, you say, "How this is going to impact our teams is because we're doing a lot more remote work, you're going to want to change out the shape and size of our building, but you are going to have to work with our people who do our tele-co," corporate IT or whatever, "because everyone is going to have to have shiny new laptops, everyone is going to have 500 megabit or more down to their house," etcetera.
That's where strategy works, too. If I say to the guys who run the building, "We need about one-third as much building for the rest of our careers here, but we need this and this from these two other departments," now you see how these start to interlock. You bring in project managers, usually, to say now let's make this execute.
That was a little wordy, but I hope that got you where you needed to go.
Kerry: Yes. I'm also thinking about positioning in the B-to-B space and how difficult that is right now. I think we've all seen that diagram of how many vendors there are in the space. In marketing automation even alone, there are just so many. What does positioning look like when the market is so crowded that you need a fold-out chart to show you how many competitors there are in the space?
Chris: One thing people hate is people hate that, they hate seeing 85 options. "What dressing would you like on your salad," is sometimes the biggest amount of numbers we want in an option. We've just proven it so many times, humans just don't like massive numbers of options.
One way to get around that, one way to show differentiation, depending on your sales method, is to just compare a couple of places. "We're like HubSpot, but we don't take as much time to on ramp," or, "We're like Zoho, but you'll feel proud showing it off." I don't know if people don't like Zoho. It could be whatever it has to be, but you really just need to compare yourself to a couple.
You could say, "Salesforce has a CRM and so does HubSpot. The one difference we do is that we know salespeople really hate filling in the tickets on a CRM, so we made it super predictive. Every time you start to type a word, we're going to guess the whole sentence you're going to type. After a while, you're going to be so happy because you're going to type a few characters in and everything will be done." That would be the differentiator. Salespeople would go, "I need that one. That's my CRM," because they hate filling them out.
That's it. How do you find the one thing? Differentiation is never countering all of the products. It's countering the one you think someone would most likely buy that's not yours, or the most known. That's the other one, most known, "We're not like the number one guy because," and then go from there."
Kerry: One of the things you're known for is taking really good ideas and successful approaches from totally other industries. That's one of the things that you're best at, and it's also one of the things that B-to-B marketers can sometimes resist. They're like, "That's B-to-C, that's totally different." How do you poach ideas and apply them?
Chris: Same answer as how do you show innovation in a company that doesn't want it. You do pilot programs. You could say, "I actually picked this up from watching Kindergarten schools, but here's how it's going to apply to you." They'll be like, "That's stupid." Great. Give me three months of stupid then. Let's agree to it.
If I make this number go up, then you pay me my fee plus you agree to the next nine months with me. If the number goes down and it's not what we want, then you pay my fee, I walk away, and we're all done. You can really set some trials up that can give people the comfort level to know that whatever is next they're going to either benefit or cut their losses or something.
The other detail about showing other verticals is I say this every single time; Why would I follow other marketers to come up with a marketing innovation? They're all in the same trenches as us. We have to go outside the trench, we have to look beyond, because that's where something interesting is happening that we say, "Wait a minute."
Platforms like AirBNB, platforms like Uber. Uber didn't have anyone to compete with except for cabs and rental car companies. When they did, they went, "Wow. We're amazing at this." Lyft comes along and they're suddenly in a category, so their differentiators were harder to do.
Kerry: What are you looking at now, then? Because you always have a couple of things cooking or a couple of things that you've noticed in your travels and all the content you review, and you think, "It would be really cool if somebody did this." What are a couple of those things?
Chris: I'll give you a couple of examples. One from the company that I'm doing some work with right now. Work from home is here to stay. You'll have to pry that from a lot of people's dead hands at this point. And for great reasons.
If you heard that sentence and you lamented, you're the problem. What happens is, yes, it's great to have people handy to collaborate, but if you eat all of that commuting time, and if you stop trying to measure by butt in chair and start trying to measure by output, you're actually going to have a much more productive system, you're going to have a much more quality thing.
The only thing that's harder is a little bit of collaboration. I start looking around going, "What collaboration tools are out there? What can we do that's cool?" This company that I'm doing work with, over the Summer because of the pandemic, one of our companies built this thing called Whiteboards.io. It's just a whiteboards app and it works super easy, super flawless, exactly what you want it to do. It can connect with some really hard-core technologies.
Jira is one of the technologies it can connect with, which is an Atlassian product. It's going to go more and more platforms so that you use that wherever you are to have that cool whiteboard feeling, because there just wasn't an app that felt that way. Then when people started making good apps, there are competitive apps to this, they made them their own standalone platform. They made it like if you want, you can export it to a JPG. That's not why we use a whiteboard. We don't use a whiteboard so we can screen capture it. We use it because it's a fluid experience, and we want that to stay fluid.
So, I'm looking at that. I'm looking at how does work from home change things. Especially pure marketing, I'm looking at how many impacts the pandemic has had. We want things to be more brief. We're watching a lot more video than we are reading. We are needing lots more reminders. We need things to be a lot more instructional. All of that information is not how a lot of our marketing is built right now. For instance, when I say instructional, people want to be hand-held led through the process now in a way that they never did before.
I'll top it with one last one. We don't want tons of options, "With this, you could do whatever. You can collaborate however you want." Instead, you have to say something really specific, "With this, your all-hands meeting will be perfect. Here's how." If you drop to the one thing, then everyone goes, "Oh. I didn't know I needed something for my all-hands meeting. I'm going to check that out. That's great. Thank you." That's how we need to do it.
Kerry: It's like that app Instasquare that all it did was take your photo that wasn't square and make it square so that you could put it on Instagram. That's literally all it did, before Instagram would let you put other sizes in there.
Chris: Exactly. Because otherwise you were using something like full-on Adobe Photoshop or something for that. You have to wait for it to start up, you have to wait for it to load, it reads all your licensing, and all you're trying to do is make something square. Imagine you drop something in, you pull it out the other side, it's square already.
There's a lot more need for the little small bite-size apps to do the exact thing we need.
Kerry: As a consultant and coach, how has this changed the way that you market yourself? How do you let people in on what you're doing these days and how you can be of service?
Chris: I have a few things. I have a newsletter that I run. When I do that, the whole concept of the newsletter is just to give people ideas every week, it's my best idea every single week. I think there's such a rise right now on textual newsletters, it's a big thing. Some people are really getting into podcasts. Some people are really into video.
In my mind, what's great about podcasts and video is that you can take it with you on dog walks, you can take it with you around the grocery store, those sorts of places, to the gym if you're back to working out at a gym. I feel like any kind of place where the media can meet you where you are is better than our good old days of things like blogs.
I still maintain a blog at ChrisBrogan.com, but it's just so much less used than my newsletter, for instance. There's that, there's podcasts, and that's where I hide people.
Kerry: That's where you hide people. What do you look at as your KPIs for the newsletter? Is it unsubscribes, subscribes, click throughs, all of the above, or actual purchases of things?
Chris: I do opens and clicks. I want opens and clicks. If you are not opening or clicking anything inside of my newsletter, I start you on a path a few months into that activity. If you stop opening and clicking a few months in, I start you on a new path that says, "I noticed you've been a little quiet lately. If you really want to keep getting this newsletter, just click this and we'll keep sending it to you." If you take no action, I'm going to dump you in 12 days.
We prune as much as we can. The reason we do that is we never want to have a huge newsletter list; we want an active newsletter list so that our open rate is between 40% and 80%. That's nobody's open rate. Everybody's open rate is 10–14%. Ours is massive, purely driven by we knock people off of it. People have asked me over and over again, "Why do you do it that way?" The number one answer on the board is, "Why not? Shut up."
The other answer, the slightly more gentlemanly answer or professional answer is that I don't want a newsletter for the status of telling you how big my list is. I want a newsletter for the opportunity to sell and serve. If you're not buying, there are other places for you.
Kerry: There are some people who the size of the list really is primarily what matters because they sell sponsorships for the list, so that sounds impressive. Then, of course, on the back end you're going to have less satisfied people because they're going to discover that most of those people are dead weight.
Chris: That's right. That's it, too. I can have a sponsor because I have a big list and they are surely going to react. They're going to react for the first month or so. Then they're going to go, "I'm not getting any clicks. I know you have this big list, but nothing is happening." It'll be like, "I don't know." If 85,000 of them are robots or dead weight, then why did you sell that number? That just makes you a bad marketer. I would much rather be an effective small marketer than an ineffective big marketer.
Kerry: Here we are still talking about email probably a solid decade or more since people have been saying that email is dead. Is email ever going to die, do you think?
Chris: Not in my boat. It is so easy. Email is easy is the mantra. It's basically this idea that you can get through to people. The first things we check in our day is our text messages, then our emails. Almost every single human alive. We look at the notification screen on our phone, texts, emails.
You know why? Because no one tweets you that they quit. You get customer service tweets, don't get me wrong. I spent a whole day-and-a-quarter tweeting how much JetBlue made me mad the other day. You know what they didn't do? Take action. So, what good was my Twitter? 330,000 followers watched me tell JetBlue they stunk, and they wrote to me in private, "Yes, we stink," and that was it, no action.
I just don't know that email is ever going to go away. It's the best social network. One difference is when we see something our brain releases just enough dopamine to say that went through, saw that. We somehow give ourselves points at the phrase 'saw that,' not 'took action.' Email makes us take an action before it goes out of the box. Even if that action is to delete, I had an option. You had the chance to open, read, click, and take an action.
Kerry: Before we wrap up, I have to ask you about Clubhouse. I still hear people talking about it. It's not like at the fever pitch it was over the Summer, but there are still people investing lots of hours in it. I don't get it.
Chris: It's a really great platform if you want to emulate mainstream media and very exclusionary practices. "It's just us here, plus our moderators. We're the only ones. We're the vaunted." Right? It's just not that important. I'm still not a fan. I used it probably for a whole month or so, midway through. I dialed in diligently for a bunch of days, just wondering if this will be fun. I launched a bunch of my own – still not fun.
It's only kind of fun if you run a group long enough that people start coming up semiregularly. Then it's only fun for the few people who are talking and moderating it. It's almost never super fun for those listening, unless you're in some sort of space where you're absorbing a ton of free learning, and learning continues to be weighted and valued. There's a lot of poo you have to slog through to get to the really good stuff, and it's not worth it for me.
Kerry: Key takeaways then for strategy. You have to look at it quarterly, your big picture organization-level strategy. Run pilot projects if you're trying to move innovation at your organization. Email is here to stay, definitely use it. Clubhouse, maybe don't.
Chris: I like it. That's a great wrap-up. Better than what I would have given.
Chris: Thank you so much for having me on and making me part of the MarketingProfs experience.
Kerry: This has been the Marketing Smarts Podcast brought to you by MarketingProfs. Thank you for listening here to the very end.
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Published on September 9, 2021
Chris Brogan, an executive-level strategist and CEO advisor, working with companies at the 100M+ revenue range. The projects he works on with C-level executives involve everything from scouting M&A opportunities in B2B enterprise SaaS, strategic pathing and decision-making, reorg efforts, and more. He's The New York Times best-selling author of nine books, including Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation, and Earn Trust and The Impact Equation: Are You Making Things Happen or Just Making Noise? Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisBrogan.
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