Improve Marketing Agility by Testing Big and Fast with a Core Team

Many times, I have witnessed established legacy processes dictating the marketing for large retailers. Ideally the customer and changing trends dictate the marketing. But that requires enterprises to have agile processes that develop, integrate, and implement new strategies across various vendors and third parties quickly. This remains a challenge. Database vendors, channel vendors, email service providers, creative agencies, analytics, inventory, and the rest all have a hand in simple changes to digital and direct channels. The danger is that promotional calendars stay the same year after year. Creative is slow to adapt. Budgets are not allowed to be used in a reactionary way. Conversations on potential new marketing focus on next season or next year. Instead of next week or this quarter. The calendar slips away, and you haven’t done much new and the final top-line is hoping to eke out a modest gain.

Some general examples of what I mean. The database vendor has developed and automated a new set of email triggers on specific behavior. But it will take at least 6 weeks for the creative agency to be ready. Other initiatives are ready to go but the email service provider cannot code and automate the dynamic content until next quarter and a new SOW. A new opportunity group is identified for the spring direct mail catalog. The analyst wants to add 20K as a test to the bottom of a direct mail piece with a budget for 3 million households. No changes can be made because the budget is set, and no additional volume allowed. The selection for the 3 million was determined from the same models used last year during planning. It can’t be changed now because the forecasting team anticipates only that selection being used. It will upset the forecasting team’s processes. All catalogs have under-performed this year, but no changes allowed during the fiscal year. Another enterprise wants to change their paid search terms and geography targets in real-time. But the vendor for that can’t move at the desired pace. At another company the marketing team wants to test, learn, and react quickly. An aggressive test plan is created. But the test plan needs a business case and that must be socialized and approved by executives. Getting on their calendar to do so is a big challenge. The meetings are rescheduled several times so that all the many stakeholders can attend. Some tests are small and tactical, some are brand new and viewed as risky, and some require months to properly execute and analyze. It takes 4 weeks for the initial meeting, and another two weeks for the follow up meeting. Certain tests are embraced, and the approval is given but when following up with the necessary outside technical vendors they have no bandwidth to execute. Unanticipated roadblocks appear. In the end the only outcome of the initiative is that 10 weeks have passed, and the opportunity period has ended. More examples are not needed here because you understand the underlying issue. That change, and more specifically agile changes to marketing, is hindered by corporate structures and culture. Which is in direct conflict with the current hyper-competitive environment.

What can you do? First bring as many technical and digital functions in house as you can. Retailers are doing this but at a slow pace. There will be significant challenges to overcome in the initial period and it will take several years. You won’t have the technical expertise at first. Downtime is experienced. Large investments in talent and technology infrastructure are required. The ultimate payoff may be several fiscal years away. The enterprise must take on a new set of disciplines with no experience. Mistakes are made. Revenue may be lost. But in the end, you will have a competitive advantage. Because what used to talk you 10 weeks to organize and eventually just consider now takes only 2 weeks. The questions for the vendors that used to go into a black hole are now easily accessible. Creative, analytical, technical, marketing, and budget stakeholders are accessible, and you have worked together several times already in the name of agile change. The process for pivoting is now part of the corporate culture. Instead of working with vendor talent that may at best marginally care for the vision, while they work on several other clients, you are working with an internal team highly invested.

Another method to create immediate agility is what I like to call testing Big and Fast. The word big means using a big enough sample size, bigger than what is necessary, to ensure that results are statically significant. Or to have multiple tests looking to confirm the same result or hypothesis. Over the years I have witnessed organizations trying to conduct testing on the smallest samples possible. The thinking is that small tests are low risk. But in my experience, it can be a sign that the organization isn’t committed to the findings or don’t care about the outcomes at all. The worst outcome is that the test samples were too small, and the entire effort was wasted. Finding out something does not work is as valuable as finding out something does work. If you are cataloging and using the findings going forward. If you don’t believe that you should not be testing. The word fast is used to mean implementing and acting on test results immediately or with purpose. Some outfits just test for the sake of testing. It allows them to report to superiors that they tested something. But there was never any intent to implement long term. As part of the test plan map out what you are going to do immediately if there is a positive result. Same for a negative result. Most marketing changes that create incremental lift and sales do so in a small way. You aren’t going to magically find a channel, promotion, or audience that will create yearly growth on its own. But you might be able to test 12 things in a year, and have 5 or 6 of them hit, generating a noticeable bump in total revenue and profit. But to do that you have to be able to test big, interpret the results fast, and then either implement the positive or abandon the negative and move on to the next thing. Only then can you keep the changes going in a meaningful and timely way. Consider allocating some of your budget to marketing yet to be determined. Make the case that your current budget is stifling agility and that you must as a marketer have some bandwidth to compete appropriately during the fiscal year when opportunities pop up. You may not have an answer to what those marketing efforts will be but that may be the most compelling part of your business case. How can you effectively compete next year if you are setting in stone today all the marketing for next year?

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