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Marketing Strategic Thinking: Why You Need to Pause & Think High-Level

As a marketer, it’s easy to get completely engrossed in day-to-day marketing activities. I sometimes find myself so focused on my digital marketing metrics—blog traffic, backlink counts, newsletter subscribers, and customer acquisitions—that I forget to step back and look at the bigger picture.

A view of the big picture is crucial—not just for marketers, but for CMOs and founders, too.

In Hubstaff’s early years, I had a weekly meeting with Dave and Jared—the company’s co-founders—where they would ask me strategic questions, such as:

  • We noticed that [our competitor] is doing [a specific activity]. Have we ever considered it? Do you think we could adopt the strategy and improve it?
  • Do you think this [specific strategy] will still be driving sales a year from now?
  • Is this [specific strategy] in our top 20% that’s driving the majority of our revenue today? Will it get us to our $1 million annual recurring revenue goal sooner than other strategies?

Between those weekly meetings, I would prepare answers for those questions to supply in the next week’s session. Over time, I found myself asking those same questions as I formed new strategies, finding answers before I was asked.

As a result of this routine, I developed a high-level marketing mindset, and I’ve been using that approach ever since to stay one step ahead of our marketing goals.

Why a high-level marketing plan is crucial

When you spend all of your time on detailed work, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s next.

For example, you might be spending most of your time and energy on Facebook advertising, but in six months, heavier competition may drive up the price of bids.

Higher prices mean the strategy is no longer delivering a worthwhile ROI, but you haven’t even begun to think about what’s next.

Even if you do have a plan, launching a new strategy isn’t an overnight process. For a strategy to show scale, it requires an investment of three to six months.

Maintaining a high-level strategy makes you better prepared for the future.

At Hubstaff, this approach resulted in two major benefits:

  • It set us on a path of rapid growth, which has remained consistent. We have grown from $200k to $3 million ARR in the last two years alone. We’re bootstrapped, profitable, and proud, and we’ve hit our annual revenue targets consistently since 2015.
  • It made us thought leaders and gave us a really strong brand presence. We became a team that not only followed advice from other leaders, but also started becoming marketing leaders ourselves.

Because we’re a 100% transparent company, we’ve been very active in sharing our successful strategies. Our readers and customers connect with us regularly to say how much they love our blog. As a result, a lot of our customers come from word-of-mouth referrals.The word-of-mouth referrals were an unexpected benefit, but one that’s been invaluable in our growth.

If consistent growth and a position as an industry thought-leader are goals you’re struggling to achieve, it’s time to sit down and start developing a high-level marketing strategy.

Here’s how to do it.

Step 1: Define your target customers, and build your strategy around them

There’s a well-known article written by Christoph Janz that describes five different ways to build a $100M business.

In it, he describes five different types of customers—flies, mice, rabbits, deer, and elephants—and uses those animals as an illustration of the annual revenue value of each:

 

To reach $100M ARR, you either need 10M customers paying $10 each (flies), or 1,000 customers paying 100k (elephants).

Janz’s approach can also be applied to create a high-level marketing strategy.

At Hubstaff, our target customers are flies. Our average price point is $5 per user per month. We get an average of $40 per customer per month.

When you know what customers you’re targeting, you can build your strategy around those customers.

Since the prices for our target customers are so low, it wouldn’t make sense for us to have a sales team dedicated to customer acquisition. Having a sales rep spending three weeks to close a deal worth $40 per month just doesn’t make sense mathematically.

But if sometime in the future we were to create a white-label solution and start targeting elephants and deer—enterprise-level customers—having a sales team would make sense.

Since we’re targeting ants, we focus on broader-level marketing types—things like search marketing, content marketing, email marketing, and co-promotion partnerships.

The bottom line: know which animals you’re hunting, and use the right tools to target them.

Step 2: Get to know your competitors’ top 20%

After defining your target customer, you need to identify your competitors and take time to understand what marketing approaches they’re using.

Conduct some research to determine what customers your competitors are targeting, how and where they’re finding/engaging with those customers, and which approaches are the most effective:

  • Are they guest blogging? What domains are they targeting? How much referral traffic are they getting, and how many times are their guest blogs shared across social?
  • Do they publish regularly to their own blog? What keywords are they targeting? Are the posts high-quality? How much organic search traffic is their content driving?
  • Are they running AdWords ads? What keywords are they targeting? How much traffic does the advertising drive?
  • Which social channels are they active on? Which have the highest follower counts and most engagement?

If your competitors are transparent, it makes this process simple. Many companies share their strategies, successes, and failures on sites like GrowthHackers, Inbound.org, and other industry communities.

Since we’re a transparent company, we regularly share what strategies work for us, how we execute those strategies, and the results.

We know our competitors are probably learning from those strategies, but we also know there’s a huge difference between education and execution.

We also know that if we don’t share our strategies, someone else will share a similar approach, and they’ll get all of the traffic and credibility for that bit of thought-leadership instead of us.

If your competitors are transparent like us, you can uncover all of this information simply by finding articles and forum posts where they’ve detailed out their strategies.

If your competitors aren’t transparent, you can still find the information you need, but it takes a little more research:

  • Epicbeat and/or Buzzsumo can tell you which of your competitor’s’ blog posts have the highest social share counts.
  • Serpstat and/or SEMrush can show you competitor traffic counts and referrers.
  • SimilarWeb provides competitor keywords for both organic search and ads, as well as percentages of overall traffic broken down by channel.

Take time to research your competitors and learn what’s working best for them—identify their top 20%.

But don’t just mimic their successful approaches. Learn from their successes, find what could be improved, and do it better.

Then, share your successful approaches with the overall marketing community to become a thought-leader in your industry.

Step 3: Set aside time for brainstorming and problem-solving

If you’re always in execution mode, you’ll never find ways to improve. Quiet time—time set aside to identify current constraints and brainstorm ways to turn them around—is crucial for developing a high-level marketing strategy.

For a large part of 2013-2015, I spent a lot of time reading articles on GrowthHackers, Inbound, and other communities. I used what I learned from those communities to develop strategies that had been tried, tested, and maximized by other brands.

But using other brands’ strategies meant I was too late in the game to realize their full potential.

If a successful strategy is documented and well-known, it’s a safe bet to assume it’s overused and—therefore—much less effective than it was initially.

As I matured in my role, I started to set aside time to think beyond what other leaders share.

Schedule time for brainstorming and problem-solving. Close your email, go on do-not-disturb, mute your phone, and close your computer and work on paper if you have to. Disable all possible distractions, and utilize the quiet time.

1. Think about your current challenges (both in-market and in-product), and try to brainstorm solutions

A great exercise that Dave—our co-founder—does is to build a mind-map around constraints, which helps him brainstorm solutions for overcoming those constraints.

Our goal for 2016 was to hit $140k MRR. Our constraints are shown on either side of the goal in light blue bubbles: our revenue was too low, the top of the funnel was too small, etc.

Next to the constraints are the opposite of those constraints. For example, the opposite of the constraint of the top-of the funnel being too small is having tons of top-of-funnel leads coming through various sources.

Next to those is a list of ways to overcome each constraint.

Mapping out all of these details helps you build a customized strategy, and it enables you to find new ideas for overcoming your biggest issues.

2. Consider creative approaches for unblocking constraints

Of course, finding solutions during a mind-mapping exercise isn’t always simple. You could review blog posts and forums for ideas, but again, those approaches are already documented and likely overused.

One hack I discovered that turned out to be extremely valuable was looking at marketing job requirements from bigger companies to understand what our competitors were working on in terms of their next marketing strategies.

 

Using this approach, I could see that this competitor was shifting focus to lead nurturing, email marketing, influencer marketing, and case study development. I also discovered that they were looking to build relationships with leading ecommerce reports. This sounded like a new strategy that was worth looking into.

If you’re only executing on well-known strategies, you’ll never reach your maximum marketing ROI. To really grow, you’ll need time for innovation and solutioning.

Step 4: Focus on your KPIs and mould your strategy around them

Once you’ve identified your constraints and found solutions to overcome them, build the solutions into smaller 90-day goals. Then, transform them into smaller monthly goals.

Eventually, your ultimate goal is to break them down into weekly sprints and daily tasks.

As an example, let’s look at the goal of scaling Quora as an inbound marketing tool. In order to do that, we need to increase the number of questions we’re answering on Quora.

If we want to scale the number of questions answered each month from 20 to 30, we need to answer two questions on Quora each week.

Each goal must be backed by task-specific KPIs. The KPIs for this goal are number of questions answered and number of views of those answers.

KPIs allow you to think at the top-level of your business strategy—connecting weekly and daily tasks back to your major overall goals—and measure how you’re performing over time.

If metrics show that the strategy has been successful over time, do more of it. If not, shift.

When developing your KPIs for tasks at every level, keep in mind that each KPI must be achievable, measurable, and desirable, and your whole team must agree that KPIs meet these criteria. Everyone should have clarity on the following questions:

  • What’s the end goal?
  • How are we going to reach that goal?
  • What metrics are we trying to increase?
  • What do we need to do to increase those numbers?

KPIs—and building a strategy around KPIs—allows you to answer these questions.

The benefits of building a high-level marketing strategy

With this thinking, Hubstaff has been able to hit our goals consistently every year since 2015.

Our 2015 goal was to hit $70k in MRR, and we hit it on December 28th, 2015.

Our 2016 goal was to hit $140k in MRR, and we hit it on December 7th, 2016—three weeks early.

Our 2017 goal is to hit $240k in MRR, and we’re well on track to hit it by December. We’re currently at $210k MRR.

Our dedication to consistency in looking at our marketing strategies from a high level has allowed us to develop a business strategy that’s built for the future, sustainable, and one step ahead of our market.

Madhav Bhandari

I’m a SaaS marketer and I share my thoughts here on growing a SaaS business with a bootstrapped budget.

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