Getting Started with the Strategic Planning Process

When it comes to marketing communications, the first step of the strategic planning process is planning. “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” Few would disagree with these words attributed to Benjamin Franklin. Having and following a plan tends to be good advice no matter the endeavor. To reach a goal, it helps to first identify a clear end destination, map out a specific route to get there, and pinpoint what you want to happen along the way.

Getting Started with the Strategic Planning Process - man looking at pages of notes pinned to a wall

Yet in the field of marketing communications, the strategic planning process is all too frequently skimmed over, cut short, or skipped altogether: objectives are often vague, KPIs become afterthoughts, and ongoing measurement protocols are absent. Without some degree of front-end planning, our focus often narrows to the actions we will be taking — rather than the outcomes we should be causing.

There are many reasons planning can fall by the wayside: We believe it takes too much time or uses up too much money; we’re worried it might get in the way of the creative process; we think we’re doing it when we’re not; or, amidst the craziness of our industry, sometimes we just forget.

Done well, planning improves the quality of our work. It eliminates ambiguity, adds structure to complicated problems, sheds light on root causes, and makes the path forward clear. It ensures we are making the most of our time, maximizing resources, pricing success correctly, and optimizing based on learnings.

Thankfully, AMEC — the international association for the measurement and evaluation of communication — has been working to make this easier. Their Integrated Evaluation Framework  (IEF) is not just a measurement framework. It is also a tool that can help us with planning. So how do we get started? Here are a few tips:

  1. Recognize what planning isn’t. Planning is not agreeing on the number of media releases, influencers, pitches, events, or other pieces of content. These are important, but as identified in the IEF, they are Activities. Without the other steps in the process — namely the Objectives and the Input, or the “so what?” — activity may not always equal productivity. While this can be the hardest part, don’t worry! The next few tips will help.
  2. Budget for it.  Make room for planning time in your budget, and get the approvals and buy-in you need to do so. If all of a project’s funds get assigned to other things, planning is often treated as admin time that ends up getting squeezed out. Remember, this does not need to be a massive investment. Feel free to scale up or down depending on the specific needs of your situation. But make sure to bake in some time for pre-project strategizing, intra-project brainstorming, and post-project analysis. We know this is not always easy. We recommend discussing with your boss/manager/client early. Help them understand how critical it is to your success.
  3. Schedule it. When you build your timeline, schedule in time for planning and protect it on your and your team’s calendars.
  4. Involve the right people. Ensure that the most important voices are in the room at the very beginning, and that everyone knows what the overarching business objectives are. If you are an agency, that may be at the RFP (Request for Proposal)/SOW (Scope of Work) table read. If you are in-house, that may be at the very first briefing. Either way, collaboration is key. By having all the important players attend (could be someone from research, strategy, and creative; senior leadership, your brand team, your client), you are more likely to look at the challenge from multiple viewpoints, ask the right questions, and come up with a plan with fewer blind spots.
  5. Step back. Planning is about taking time to stop and ask the right questions. No set of meetings, even with all the right people in the room, will set you up for success if it lacks this crucial element. As natural problem-solvers, we are often in a rush to start ideating. We want to deliver the solution or great idea, or to come up with the brilliant creative campaign. But we can’t craft the right key without fully understanding the lock we have to open. Allow yourself the space and time to think about the problem as much as necessary before diving into solutions. It is critical to take `a step back and ask the right questions. The Planning Considerations column in the IEF  provides a great list of questions to get started.
  6. Align. As much as possible, make sure everyone is on the same page about what change you want to happen as a result of your campaign, what is keeping that situation from happening already, and how you will nudge your target audience to overcome them. When using the framework, this will include aligning on things like business and communication objectives, target audiences, the core problem to be solved —  the first two boxes in the IEF . The best ideas come from the intersection of audience, landscape and a brand solution. Without that alignment, you are simply executing a task. Use the IEF to create a brief or document that the entire team can align on and refer back to as needed.

Time, budget, confusion and even excitement can all be planning enemies if we let them. But they do not need to be. To set yourself up for success, be clear about the value you want planning to add to your process, create time and budget for it, and align with the right people to get the right questions answered. We promise that even adding one of these steps to your process will help.

If your organization needs some help getting started on the strategic planning process, we’re here to help.

A version of this post originally appeared on in support of AMEC’s Integrated Evaluation Framework. The new Planning Resources were launched at the Virtual Global Summit as part of AMEC’s 25th Anniversary celebration.

Jason is a planning director for Ketchum Analytics, and he has spent the past 10 years using data to help iconic global brands tell their stories. He pushes clients to truly understand their consumers, ask smart questions, challenge their assumptions and connect dots in ways that create something new and exciting.