Marketing Plans or Preparation? There's a Difference.

finest laid plans

You plan for offensive operations, while you prepare to play defense.  You’ll find this concept in both warfare and sports, and it’s applicable in business as well.

I much prefer playing offense, because that’s where you score and generate revenues. A strong business offensive plan also limits the amount of places you’ll need to prepare to play defense, freeing up more resources for–you guessed it–playing more offense.

What’s an example of planning as opposed to preparations in a marketing context?

A great example can be found in the United States Postal Service and the annual postage increases.  If you’re using direct mail as a marketing channel, you can be sure of two things:

  1. Postage will go up, driven by higher USPS costs and the rapid decline in the volume of first class mail.
  2. Automation requirements will become more rigid, which limit your ability to be creative in your mail formats.

One of the key cost components of your direct mail marketing efforts is always going to go up (which it has done for years) and is going to go up more rapidly than in the past because of the USPS’s need to cover labor costs and, now, energy price increases.

The USPS is trying to counteract the labor cost increases on their side by providing a bigger carrot for mailers who automate their mail more effectively and using a bigger stick (higher prices) on those who don’t.

In the past, we used to counteract higher postage rates by getting more creative in the the formats we’d mail. Moving to heavier packages, with larger non-standard sizes paradoxically would counter the postage rate increases.  Not anymore.

So, what’s the difference in “planning” for the USPS’s annual price action vs. “preparing” for the same?

In “plan” mode, you understand what you’re likely to face in the future and are testing for it proactively today. For example, at a past employer,  we knew the USPS was changing the automation requirements to require a certain amount of flexibility in the mailings or face significantly higher postage.  We were using a very rigid piece that was going to lose its automation discount and the price increase would have tanked our ROI.  So, we immediately began testing a number of different formats that met the flexibility requirements for next year, so we’d know the impact on our marketing ROI and could further develop plans to overcome any degradation.

In “prepare” mode, you’ve got to be ready for anything and then respond in a reactive way. You could prepare by figuring out what the price increase might be.  Or what the automation requirements might be.  Or any other number of things.  Being ready for too many options would suck away marketing resources into planning and analysis and away from the key task of acquiring more customers.  Plus, once you reacted, you still wouldn’t know the impact on your ROI.  Rolling out untested responses to competitive or environmental changes is the number one way to destroy your marketing ROI.

Plan = Proactive = Offense

Prepare = Reactive = Defense

Summary and key takeway
When you have the choice, play proactively and play offense.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t prepare for the unexpected, whether it be competitive efforts, consumer preference or even the weather.  Instead, you should be aggressively planning to launch new channels, acquire more and better customers and developing new and better products.  Then, on the planning side, be prepared for the 20% of things that could cause major disruptions to your business.

What do you think about the proper Plan to Prepare ratio?  Have you ever had an example where you suddenly realized you were preparing too much and, hence playing defense when you should have been playing offense?

Creative Commons License photo credit: selena marie

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