5 Essential Tips for Building a Great 2021 Marketing Plan

David Lazarenko

AAs we enter the final quarter of what has been a uniquely challenging year for agribusiness, many of you will no doubt be starting your marketing planning process for 2021. While in most years, this would be a relatively straightforward and iterative process of measure and adjust, 2020 has probably thrown a major wrench into the works by causing many of you to abandon your previous plans (likely created in late 2019) in favor of one-off, COVID adjusted ones put together reactively and on short notice.

So, as we enter the 2021 planning cycle, with more time and perspective than what was afforded to us in 2020, the question becomes where and how do you begin and focus your planning efforts. This is where we hope the following 5 tips will help provide you with the guidance you need to create a marketing plan for 2021 that accounts for the continued market challenges we face while achieving the results you desire.

Tip 1: Consider “Zero-Based” Planning

As I mentioned upfront, most marketing plans that I have been a part of or privy to are iterative. More specifically, the planning process starts with the previous year’s plan following a measure and adjust philosophy. In this approach, new goals and objectives are still set for the new year, but areas of focus and primary budget line items are established by reviewing the previous year’s ledger and adjusting in or out, and up or down as deemed appropriate (i.e. Will we do virtual tradeshows again and, if so, should we invest more or less in them next year?).

While this “Iterative Approach” isn’t inherently wrong, it does favor fairly consistent market conditions as the majority of the plan will remain relatively the same (since it’s based on the sum total of the previous years). However, in unique times like those we have and continue to face, this approach breaks down as it can make it difficult to keep much of “what was” while still fitting in “what’s required”. Ultimately, in times of significant change, more change is required and iteration will likely not get you there.

Instead, we recommend that at times of major change (either internal/organizational and/or external/situational) agrimarketers consider taking a “Zero-Based Approach” to planning. As explained in one of my previous blogs, this approach comes from the accounting world and is akin to starting from scratch. As such, instead of looking at your previous year’s plan, you start with only the new goals and objectives in mind, focusing solely on determining the efforts, initiatives and investments required to achieve them. This is also known in the business strategy world as exploring “strategic alternatives” and is guided by the simple, yet challenging question of “If we were to build this ________ (i.e. company, product, plan, etc.) again, how would we build it?”.

Again, the goal of the “Zero-Based Approach” is to fully abandon “what was” and instead focus only on “what should be”. This can be extremely difficult in agrimarketing, where change has typically been evolutionary, not revolutionary, as it requires you to truly challenge your beliefs on what is and isn’t working.

Tip 2: Strengthen Your Agrimarketing Balance Sheet

While 2020 was indeed an uncharacteristic year, it still shed light on a number of agrimarketing shortcomings that should have been prioritized well before COVID (i.e. lack of digital relationships with customers, inability to drive new leads and business without physical touchpoints, incomplete, unorganized and/or unused CRMs). Furthermore, when stepping back and looking at these shortcomings collectively, one can see a fairly consistent trend emerging. That agrimarketers simply haven’t developed nor progressed their “digital stacks” (i.e. marketing automation, sales enablement and customer relationship management tools) nearly enough since these amazing assets became available.

This may not come as a major surprise as agrimarketing in general has long been driven more by “income statement” related efforts like seasonal campaigns, timed product/service launches and annual events, over “balance sheet” related efforts like lead generation, prospect nurture and sales conversion assets. As a previous blog I wrote describes , one of the fundamental differences between income statement and balance sheet marketing efforts is that balance sheet investments provide long-term, repeat and even increasing value over time while income statement investments generally provide value “in the moment” (i.e. when the campaign is running) and little if any value afterwards (which is why these are generally called expenses and not investments).

A good reflection of this income statement-heavy agrimarketing reality could be seen this year when most agrimarketers didn’t have proven customer relationship management, sales enablement and marketing automation tools they could turn to and leverage to overcome the lack of in-person, direct customer contact they typically relied on. This left many scrambling to develop these assets on the fly with limited initial returns (as is typically the case given the learning curves involved). As such, going into 2021, it is not the time to fall back on old income statement habits and wait/hope for the old normal to come, but instead to continue to invest in these new marketing assets so that you are better prepared to leverage them going forward.

Tip 3: Better Define and Target Your Audiences

If you are reading this blog, there is a better than average chance that you are either a Director of Marketing/Marketing Manager or VP of Marketing/CMO for an agribusiness headquartered in North America. Furthermore, it is quite likely that your organization has worked with an advertising agency in the past and commits an intentional amount of budget towards marketing each year (including advertising, brand, digital, web, CRM, etc.). Furthermore, you are very likely to attend and follow professional development events/resources geared towards the discipline of marketing/agrimarketing and consider platforms like LinkedIn as a good source of such information.

The main reasons that we know the above are two-fold: 1) we have adopted a very targeted approach to our marketing and focus the vast majority of our time and budget on what we consider “qualified audiences”, and 2) we use marketing automation, sales enablement and CRM tools to collect data on the individuals who consume our content so that we can ensure our targeting efforts are indeed “hitting their mark”. Unfortunately, my 20+ years of experience working with agrimarketers has indicated that this level of audience definition and targeting is not as common as it should be in Ag. Furthermore, even with the tools and technologies to do so, many agrimarketers are still inclined to consider “all farmers” (or “all retailers”) as their potential customers when it simply isn’t an optimal way to define your market in 2021.

As such, as you plan out your agrimarketing efforts for next year (and beyond), we would highly suggest that you include a target market/audience analysis as part of the process. Furthermore, we would recommend that you go beyond basic demographic targeting (an approach developed by 20th century marketers to help direct mass media buys) in favor of more precise models such as personas and the buyer’s journey. One of the main reasons why we suggest these new models is because they stem more from the world of sales and therefore focus more on purchase intent and propensity to engage. This, in turn, ensures that your agrimarketing efforts are focused on audiences and markets with higher likeliness to take action and better probabilities to generate actual ROI.

For example, while demographics would dictate that two corn farmers, both male, both 45-60, both with operations larger than 10,000 acres should be quite similar, with behaviors, wants and needs that are very comparable, what if one was a Republican and the other was a Democrat? What if one had used the same seed brand for the last 10 years while the other likes to explore new options? What if one hasn’t ever visited your website while the other has viewed a specific product page five times in the last month? Just think of the difference between these two now and the likeliness of converting them to a lead or a customer. Ultimately, this is the power that proper targeting provides.

Tip 4: Evolve Your KPI’s

If I could give one piece of advice to all agrimarketers, it would be to make 2021 the year of conversions. More specifically, I believe the time is now to evolve your existing marketing metrics, your Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s), in favor of new ones that more accurately reflect the true ROI of your efforts. To achieve this, there are two areas you will need to focus: 1) establishing your new KPI’s and 2) creating the mechanisms to consistently measure, review and adjust them.

Let’s start with establishing your new KPI’s. The reason why I would like 2021 to be the year of conversions is because I believe that conversions are a tremendous metric for agrimarketers to use to measure success. Not only do conversions go much deeper than existing and more common “vanity metrics” (i.e. awareness, recall, site traffic, page views, followers, likes, etc.) but they also help align sales and marketing around common goals. For example, in this year’s marketing plan, there is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to create a “prospect-to-sale” conversion scorecard (see below) that is aligned to your sales team’s sales goals and existing sales funnel. Furthermore, there’s no reason why you can’t develop this conversion scorecard with the sales team to ensure that you are working off of common goals and expectations throughout the year.

20TS12930 Agrimarketing Plan Table

When it comes to the ongoing measurement and review of these new metrics, I can’t help but stress the importance of sales enablement tools such as HubSpot, Salesforce, Freshmarketer, etc. As many of these tools have now been around for a decade or more, they will all provide you with the basic abilities to set, measure and report on a large variety of key conversion metrics in real time. As such, it is more important that you determine the right set of metrics to include in your scorecard (as too few will lead to a lack of insights and too many will lead to a lack of clarity) and the cadence at which you will pull, share and review reporting with your team.

As someone who has expressed the need for greater conscious competence in agrimarketing for some time, I ensure you that there are few things as satisfying as reviewing a set of real-time, highly relevant KPI’s with your team and being able to make future decisions based on a true picture of what is and isn’t working.

Tip 5: Plan for a Change of Plan

If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that even the best laid plans aren’t immune to change. Furthermore, even in years less erratic than 2020, agrimarketing has had a history of needing to adjust plans quickly and efficiently because of shifting market and business conditions. As such, if your marketing plan isn’t built to accommodate change, you are setting yourself up for struggles from the outset. So, how does one build an agile marketing plan? It all starts with strategy.

More specifically, your plan should be built on the foundation of a strong strategic direction or set of strategies that can be articulated, shared and referenced at a moment’s notice. This shouldn’t be confused with a list of marketing tactics as experience would dictate that marketing plans that are tactic heavy without clear strategy run a higher risk of being cut first when budgets are tight. In addition, without a clear strategy, it will be much more difficult to accommodate the elimination and/or changing of tactics as you will have a harder time of prioritizing those that should stay (i.e. those most important to achieving strategy) and those that can go (i.e. those that won’t affect strategic outcomes as much).

Speaking of tactics, the other way you can significantly increase the agility of your marketing plan is by practicing focus through exclusion. Our experience would suggest that agrimarketers often start with ambitious lists of objectives, initiatives and tactics that create an overly bloated and less focused plan. Furthermore, these ambitious lists generally get into the tactical minutia too quickly (i.e. we need to update our tradeshow booth and giveaways this year), while losing sight of what are, without question, the most critical efforts you must undertake to achieve success (i.e. We must use tradeshows to engage personas 1-3 in order to increase consideration for core product x and leverage relationship to help launch product y). To help achieve this focus on what matters most, we suggest ranking your tactics frequently throughout the planning process, keeping only those that consistently rank within the top 5 and placing the others in a Parking Lot for consideration if and only if budget and strategy dictate they be included.

As marketing planning usually needs to be completed while existing plans are still being executed. And, because it can be difficult to challenge your own assumptions and approach when you are so close to the work, Marketing Planning has become one of our most popular consultative services. As such, if you are in need of hands-on guidance and support for your 2021 plan, please feel free to contact us for more details.


Sign up to receive content from our “Think” leaders: