When your marketing plans take an unexpected turn, you shouldn’t have to go back to square one and restart from scratch. Instead, you must have a structure in place that enables you to stay in line with your goals.
According to Cheri Hulse, vice president of strategy and research at ON24, successful marketing planning is about having not only this flexible structure, but also open communication across the marketing organization and with other departments.
For ON24, which provides webcasting and virtual event software, this advice proved particularly helpful when the company (unsurprisingly) experienced massive growth in 2020.
Previously in senior research and analyst roles at Forrester SiriusDecisions, Cheri brings a wealth of knowledge into planning at enterprise companies. We spoke with Cheri, who joined ON24 right at the start of the pandemic, to learn more about her strategic planning perspective.
1. What does “planning” mean to you?
For me, planning is about having a structure in place that allows for flexibility and agility. You shouldn’t have to go back to the drawing board every five minutes. It’s not about having something rigid, like train tracks, where you’re never able to get off the track. You should be able to adjust when you need to.
Also, there are several layers to planning. You can do it at the highest level, starting with campaign plans (like under the Forrester SiriusDecisions framework), but that’s not always super helpful for every person involved. Take, for instance, a marketing manager who’s focused on building pipeline in Canada. You need something that they can work off of—something that can also be contextualized up but also be applicable to getting their work done.
2. How did you learn to plan?
Planning and being organized was something that I started early on. Call it a coping mechanism, but finding ways to organize and structure a path forward started early on for me—probably high school. Very quickly in my internships, I saw that it was a lack of order in planning that led to challenges at companies.
Some of the best planning experiences I had were during my time at Forrester and SiriusDecisions. I was impressed to see how planning needed to cascade between marketing teams. That seemed to be an area where there were disconnects: between marketing ops planning versus what marketing comms teams were doing.
3. What’s your planning process like?
I’ve led our annual planning process for the past two years at ON24. Because we don’t have a CMO right now, it’s up to the office of the CMO to split up the responsibilities of the CMO. That itself was a planning process, and we’re self-driven on that.
Our office of the CMO is six marketing VPs who set up the structure on creating our plans—and striking the right balance between bottoms-up and top-down. We start out with our business objectives—then our marketing approach, priorities, goals, and actions. That’s the “marketing work plan.”
We do the marketing planning side before we’re given the budget, and then we have a quarterly process for allocating the marketing budget.
We have a shared-services model for the budget, so we’re handed an envelope of money that we need to allocate—for headcount, technology, brand, field, revenue operations, and so forth.
In October, we launched, in earnest, the planning process on the “non-numbers” side—i.e., what we want our big themes to be for the year, and what’s the direction of the company.
4. What are some of the challenges you’ve seen with having an office of the CMO setup?
Having an office of the CMO has a lot of benefits, but it can also be hard to get things done at times. So having a structure is important; we need to empower the VPs to work with their specific orgs on their portions of the plan.
Our planning is built so that we can look at a massive document and see what each sub-function’s goals are, and see how they’re aligned to the business goals. It’s built to ladder up really well.
5. How does the rest of the organization play a role in successful marketing planning?
I think it’s important to not be afraid of asking for help outside the marketing department. There’s a way to get feedback that allows for the appropriate level of input on your plans.
We go out to the sales leadership and get feedback. We also have pipeline calls on what’s working and what’s not, which grounds our conversations in data. Those conversations are helpful from a planning perspective.
Oftentimes, marketing can shield itself and not want to share, or on the opposite end, can open itself up too much. I think there’s a way to say “here’s our direction” and educate and inform—and not necessarily leave people in the dark. I think finding that balance within your organization—and doing it the right way—is important. People will always bring ideas, and you don’t want to stifle that, but you don’t always have to act on the feedback either.
6. How do you ensure you can be agile and change plans mid-way?
Pipeline is tracked, measured, and communicated with the CEO on a weekly basis. His finger is very much on the pulse of what’s going on. Within the quarter, we have the flexibility to scale up or down based on what our needs are: e.g., swap budget from a business that’s outperforming and put it toward one that requires investment.
Every dollar counts. As a publicly traded company, all of our money has to be accounted for. And we also have sales goals that we need to meet. There’s not a lot of room for not having programs optimized.
I joined ON24 right at the beginning of the pandemic, which is when the business changed so drastically and started to grow so quickly.
There was no planning process we could have put in place to prepare for 2020. We had to pull back some of the programs we were going to run because they didn’t make sense in the real world for our product. Now, 2022 is about creating normalcy. It’s up to the office of the CMO to create marketing activities that we know are good for the organization.
7. Do you have any advice about planning that you’ve had to learn along the way?
When it comes to planning and meeting your goals, always be flexible in how you’ll get there, but don’t ever give up on the fact that you will get there.
I think structure and having an approach can breed confidence. Also, for marketing, it goes in a few directions for how you report into the business and how you report into your org. I think there needs to be an approach in place that you can share in different directions so you have the confidence of the people above you and the people who are working for you in order to be able to reach your goals.
Something will always go awry, but you shouldn’t have to go back to square one. You should always have a plan that can be salvageable.