I’m frequently contacted by business owners who are looking for ways to scale their marketing. The goal is obvious: increasing the number of leads to grow their business. The conversations usually start with questions about which lead generation tactics are best to get an immediate return on investment (ROI). And again, the goal is obvious, an immediate ROI means that money spent on marketing is quickly funneled back into the business to spur growth. Unfortunately, life is usually more complicated than that.
While it’s exciting to launch a new tactic, businesses are often better served by starting with an audit of what’s currently being done and turning the findings into a Marketing Activities Plan (MAP).
Having a methodical process is beneficial for a number of reasons. First, it helps to avoid pre-conceived notions, both from the business owner and from the person they have contacted. For example, a business owner may believe they need a particular tactic because they have seen a competitor use it or read about it. Likewise, a consultant might assume a particular tactic is best because they have had success with it in the past with different clients.
Having a methodical process helps to avoid what Chip Heath and Dan Heath describe as “narrow framing” in their book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work:
Narrow framing leads us to overlook options. (Teenagers and executives often make “whether or not” decisions.) We need to uncover new options and, when possible, consider them simultaneously through multitracking. (Think ‘AND’, not ‘OR.’) Where can you find new options? Find someone who has solved your problem.
In other words, it’s extremely easy to quickly get locked into a narrowly defined idea about what is needed so a process is required to help surface what’s really best for your business. An audit can take many forms but should involve a review of the current metrics, a discussion of goals, an analysis of the competitive environment, and a holistic view of what new users experience.
Optimizing Your Marketing Funnel
One of the primary goals for the audit is to optimize the marketing funnel and look for areas that can be improved. It’s a simple fact that we live in a world of finite resources and often this means something is done quickly in order to get it finished and move onto the next project. Consider this scenario:
A website form to get lead gen up and running is quickly added to the site. The form is added, an email service is connected, and a simple thank-you message is created. With that project checked off the list, the next project on your list is started.
What often gets missed in the scenario above is circling back to optimize the experience. Thank-you emails generally have a high open rate but are often left as just that – a generic thanks. Instead, these emails can be used to direct users toward another action. The sign up might be for a free report but the thank-you email can tap into the user’s current engagement to check out a product, download a coupon, or a start a free trial. For more on this concept see Using Momentum in Conversion Marketing.
If you are able to tighten up your marketing funnel, your current activities will be more productive so your current marketing spend will go further. Also, it really doesn’t make sense to launch a new initiative to drive more leads if your current process is letting leads fall through the cracks.
New User Experience
One of the best ways to understand the current state of your marketing funnel is to have an outsider sign up on your site and document what new users experience when they sign up. It is possible to have an internal team member document the new user experience but you run the risk of the curse of knowledge:
The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias that occurs when an individual, communicating with other individuals, unknowingly assumes that the others have the background to understand. For example, in a classroom setting, teachers have difficulty teaching novices because they cannot put themselves in the position of the student. A brilliant professor might no longer remember the difficulties that a young student encounters when learning a new subject.
The issue is that an internal team member has knowledge about why certain things are set up the way that they are. For example, suppose there is a lead gen form that allows new users to access a report. When a user hits submit, the form redirects users to a page that lists all of the gated reports and the user has to find the report they wanted. This was set up due to system limitations when the site was launched. An outsider might flag this a sub-par experience while an internal team member might accept this as a “fact of life” and not flag it. Said another way, the internal team member is viewing the new user experience in the context of how they know their current systems operate instead of how it could work. Without an audit by an external resource, a discussion of changing how the forms work might not get surfaced.
Competitive Analysis as Part of an Audit
After the person has documented your new user experience, they should do the same for a few of your key competitors. The goal is not to copy what your competitors are doing but to understand how you are alike and different. Separate from the new user experience documentation should be an overview analysis of each competitor.
What’s covered in the overview should be tailored to your specific industry. For example, the overview for a software-as-a-service (SaaS) company might focus on how competitors get prospects to engage with their product. (Is there a free trial? Do they offer a live or recorded demo?) Meanwhile, the overview for a local service business might be more focused on search rankings and marketing copy.
Aside from benchmarking your positioning compared to competitors, a competitive analysis can also help to avoid the narrow framing issue discussed above. Seeing how problems are solved in different ways may help you to come up with a new, unique solution.
There are some caveats to keep in mind, though. One of the primary issues is that you don’t always know if competitors are doing a something a particular way because it is really working for them or they are forced to because of some sort of constraint. In other words, they might prefer to do it a different way if they could!
Finding Bright Spots
Another primary goal of an audit is to find ways to leverage what’s already working. The book Switch, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, talks about the idea of finding bright spots. Here’s an excerpt from their article Switch: Don’t Solve Problems–Copy Success:
When it’s time to change, we must look for bright spots — the first signs that things are working, the first precious As and Bs on our report card. We need to ask ourselves a question that sounds simple but is, in fact, deeply unnatural: What’s working and how can we do more of it?
As noted above, it is tempting to want to initially charge headfirst into new tactics. Launching a pay-per-click campaign is a tangible project. It’s easy to scope and will deliver numbers that can be analyzed, all of which feels like progress. However, an audit might reveal that there are pages on the site already driving decent amounts of traffic but no conversions because the pages aren’t utilizing the right calls to action. Before paying for search engine ads, it might be better to re-work those pages to convert the (free) traffic you are already receiving.
Understanding what is already working is hugely important for two reasons. First, it is often the case that more could be devoted to this area. For example, a remarketing campaign might be working extremely well but is limited by budget. By simply devoting more budget, the campaign could drive more revenue. Second, it gives you a jumping-off point for discussions about what similar initiatives you could launch. You would be surprised how many ‘no brainer’ ideas can be surfaced in a simple discussion about what is already working.
The Issues with Audits
Audits are logical and have a lot of value, but the idea of audits has a perception problem. When you think about scaling, your first thoughts are typically about doing something new and exciting. Audits sound dull and boring.
And, audits often reveal infrastructure needs that won’t have an immediate ROI. For example, an alternative to the scenario above is that an audit might reveal that the website tracking isn’t even set up to monitor conversions. In that case, a needed (but decidedly un-exciting) project is to re-work website tracking. Having the tracking will tell you how your site is converting and then help guide you on what future projects to tackle. Think of it like this…
You decide to add a small addition to your house and have a contractor out to give you a quote. While you are already envisioning how you are going to use your new space, the contractor shows you a foundation problem that needs to be fixed first. Logically, you know the foundation is important, but that is a wholly unsatisfying project as once it’s completed your house will still look the same.
Audits also have a negative connotation. Let’s face it, they feel judgy. You are bringing someone in to make comments on the blood, sweat, and tears you have poured into your business. It is very difficult to have that not feel like a judgment on you. As anyone who has ever run a business knows, you often have to make quick decisions with limited information and less than ideal resources. In other words, you do the best that you can in the current situation. It’s easy to judge that harshly after the fact when someone doesn’t know the backstory.
Audits can be hard for internal teams to accept. You need someone who has been on “their side of the table” and understands that your team operates in a world of constraints. It’s not about judging what they have done wrong. It’s about helping them get the resources they need to do the job how they know it should be done.
Making the Most of an Audit
To be fair, I have seen some audits are just not realistic. An audit needs to take into account that you live in a world of finite resources. The audit needs to focus on what’s truly important to the business and what’s feasible. It’s easy to “suggest” a company needs a new website and a best-in-breed marketing automation platform such as Marketo. However, that only makes sense if a company has a sizable budget and a small team of marketing folks dedicated to supporting the platform. If not, the feasible solution might be to optimize a few pages and bring in something like MailChimp. While MailChimp doesn’t offer all of the capabilities of Marketo, it offers the basics of what is needed and is magnitudes cheaper. It usually better to match resources to near-term/intermediate-term future needs and then scale up down the road when it’s truly needed.
Turning Audit Findings into a Marketing Activities Plan (MAP)
The end goal of the process above is to give you the resources to create a roadmap for your marketing. A good Marketing Activities Plan (MAP) will have defined, discrete projects that can then either be handled by your internal team and/or outsourced resources. In other words, it outlines what projects you should be doing and groups them into buckets based on the amount of effort and the expected results. The buckets might look something like this:
- Easy projects with small, positive expected outcomes
- Moderate-effort projects with moderate positive expected outcomes
- Complicated projects with long-term positive expected outcomes
- Long-term efforts to chip away at via small, discrete projects
What’s obviously missing here are projects with a negative expected outcome. I don’t think anyone would expect to see negative outcome projects listed, so noting positive expected outcomes might seem redundant. However, there is a reason – it forces everyone to agree there is a positive expected outcome. All too often, a project is created without a discussion of its expected benefits and how those expected benefits compare to the effort involved. Many times, benchmarking the expected impact is a scientific wild-ass guess (SWAG), but it’s still a good process and the more you do it, the better you get.
The first two buckets might also include projects that can be tested at small scale and then scaled up if they turn into a bright spot. An obvious example would be a small pay-per-click campaign.
An example of a complicated project with a long-term positive expected outcome might include moving your website from an outdated platform to a modern one that offers better features.
For a company already familiar with the basics, search engine optimization (SEO) could also fall into the bucket of complicated projects with long-term positive expected outcomes. However, for companies not familiar with SEO, it might be better to spec it out as a long-term effort to chip away at via small discrete projects. A recurring issue I hear from companies I talk to is that they have previously started a large SEO project and then abandoned it as either they didn’t feel like it was delivering or just were completely unsure if it was delivering. In some cases, the projects weren’t scoped properly. In other cases, clear objectives weren’t set or there wasn’t alignment on how it would be measured.
It also doesn’t help that there are some questionable characters in the SEO space that make outrageous promises or use scare tactics. If you run a website, you have likely seen these types of pitches in your spam folder. The image to the right is a screenshot (you can click to enlarge it) of this type of pitch. (For the record, the site being referenced actually ranks well in search.) Clear signs that this a generic, robo-email include (but aren’t limited to):
- Lack of a company name given: Any signature that doesn’t list the sender’s company name is a huge red flag.
- Lack of a corporate email: While not shown in the image, this email came from a personal Gmail account. A favorite trick of spammers is to create a bunch of free, anonymous accounts so they can blast emails out on them without the messages being traced back to a company, which would get blocked.
- Vague errors referenced: If a legitimate SEO expert has really looked at your site, expect them to mention specific issues on specific pages. You shouldn’t expect them to do an entire SEO audit for free but anyone that finds an error and won’t tell you is someone you probably don’t want to work with.
- Awkward language: Everyone makes typos and occasionally flubs a sentence. However, notice how the wrong verbs/tenses are used and many of the sentences don’t flow.
- Saying ‘we are not spammers.’ (No additional comments needed).
A key point to understand is that SEO is a long-term game but, because of the effort, it’s a project with high upfront costs. This creates an opportunity for less-than-reputable SEO freelancers to tout a low-cost solution offering quick results knowing that many businesses will cancel. It’s then that company finds out that supposed money-back guarantees are subject to fees or that they can no longer get in touch with the company.
Unless a business owner has experience with SEO, doing it ‘right’ can feel like a situation where they are paying and paying but not seeing results yet. Working SEO into your MAP as a series of discrete projects may take longer to see the full benefits but it offers some advantages. First, it provides the opportunity to see small wins (bright spots) which can increase confidence in the project. Second, it allows the project to get off the ground quickly. Many times, a big project is put on indefinite hold because it feels too big to tackle “right now.”
Final Thoughts on Marketing Activities Plans
Audits can be a tedious and time-consuming process but, when done right, they give you the tools and insights to create an incredibly robust marketing plan. Having an external resource perform an audit will not only help you surface new ideas but can help you to optimize existing strategies and spur you to expand your best-performing campaigns.
About the Author
Nick Perry is a marketing and digital strategy professional who has worked in both B2B and B2C environments. With deep experience in software, SaaS, and financial publications, he specializes in helping small- and medium-sized businesses build, grow, and optimize their digital marketing. He can be reached at (513) 279-2075 – or emailed directly.