Rethinking your strategic planning for 2021

Somebody asked me the other day if I planned to take a trip this year. I used to travel regularly for both work and pleasure, but I spent 2020 on the ground. I answered, “I don’t even know what’s going to happen tomorrow, let alone in six months.” 

I would like to see myself relaxing on [insert tropical island here] because I’m celebrating my 50th birthday this year. But the reality is that while we might be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, the situation is as unpredictable as it has ever been.

I’ve talked in previous posts about the fluidity of data, the changes in consumer behavior, the need for flexibility in targeting and marketing. The need for that still exists. Now that we’re a month into 2021, marketers are asking me, “What do I need to do differently this year?”

My honest answer is that I don’t even know what I’m going to do tomorrow, let alone for the rest of the year. But that doesn’t mean you should give up your strategic process. I might not know exactly what will happen in 2021 because we still have so many unknowns, but one thing will not change: You still need to work out your strategy (the “why”) before you start talking about tactics (the “how”). It’s essential to follow this format so you don’t end up wasting money on things that don’t work.

In other words, we can still plan, but we have to change the way we plan. So, let’s talk about what strategic planning in 2021 looks like.

How far out should you plan?

In other years, we could plot out an entire 12-month calendar. This year, spend your planning day dividing your year in half – call the halves H1 and H2 – and think about what you would like to do in each half. Subdivide each into quarters if that helps. This has another benefit – it forces you to narrow your vision and focus your energy.

My friend David Baker, who was my boss when we worked for a major data company, asked me for my annual plan one year. “Keep it simple,” he said. “So, 20 things?” I said. 

“No,” he replied. “One or two.”

“I can’t go to my EVP and tell him I have only one or two things planned for the first half of the year,” I retorted. 

“Yes, you can,” David replied. “Anything more than that is just a pipe dream. You’re too unfocused. It’s better to spend 100% of your energy on one or two things than to do 10 or 20 things at 50% or less.”

Your H1 action plan

List your strategies by dividing your program into your automations and your promotions for each quarter. Then within each of those things, list one thing you can reasonably accomplish in each quarter. This should be a realistic goal based on what you can do and what will add the most value.

If you have a larger marketing team, you can go deep and wide, brainstorming ideas and choosing what’s realistic, achievable and profitable. If you have a smaller team, focus on one thing and do that for each of the two quarters in the first half.

You’re going to think this is not enough, but it’s realistic. It also gives you time to flex if and when disruptions come up.  This year will bring agile changes, and this approach gives you a shot at meeting those changes.

Focus on why you would do these programs or tests.  Why will your subscribers or customers care?  The valuable step in the strategy section is to define the goals first, then move into how you’re going to do it.  

In the H1 action plan, you want strategies that will be the most impactful to your customers and business.  So choose wisely.

Your H2 action plan 

This is where you can dream a little. We’re hearing a lot of talk that things could start to return to “normal” beginning this summer to fall if half to two-thirds of the population gets vaccinated. 

This time, think about what you’d like to achieve in the second half of the year. Divide it into two parts again, but this time, label one section “Best-case scenario” and the other “Worst-case scenario.

“Best” is getting your business back to an adapted normal (I hate saying “new”). You can expect to get more investment in your marketing budget. You can set bigger goals and expect to achieve them. You can expect that holidays and rush season planning will figure in as usual. This is a view into what a normal year’s planning would be like.

“Worst” means your H2 looks like your H1. If that happens, you have to think about what your essentials are. Think about what you have to do and what you have the bandwidth to do. Much of your planning will be focused on holiday if you’re a retail/ecommerce marketer.

I’m seeing many companies create multiple models that are specific to various scenarios or signals. They’re planning for the best case but have developed a worst-case to have a fallback.

This year – 2021 – will be about making it through, using what you learned in 2020 and building on what you have. You’re fine-tuning the fundamental elements of your program. That must be reflected in your strategy.

Wrapping up: Take time for yourself

If you’re like many of the marketers I work with, you’re feeling disconnected these days. Coherent thoughts and strategic planning can be hard to come by when you can’t focus on the work at hand. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. 

You might have had to do some seat-of-the-pants maneuvering last year as the pandemic and economic and social disruption shredded your carefully laid plans. But “doing what works” isn’t sustainable for the long term. 

If you’re struggling, step off the moving walkway of your day and find some quiet time where you can focus. Block off time on your calendar and turn off your text and Slack notifications. Find some quiet time. You need this quiet time so you can assess where you are and think about the future. If you can get together in person with your team, do it off-site, not on Zoom.  

We need to be smart marketers who get out ahead of developments instead of marketers who have to be in react mode. I know marketers on every point of the preparedness spectrum. Some are busy laying out plans while others are in panic mode.

The prevalent success path for all of us is having a plan and treating it like the agile document it must be.

This story first appeared on MarTech Today.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.

About The Author

As the co-founder of, Ryan Phelan’s two decades of global marketing leadership has resulted in innovative strategies for high-growth SaaS and Fortune 250 companies. His experience and history in digital marketing have shaped his perspective on creating innovative orchestrations of data, technology and customer activation for Adestra, Acxiom, Responsys, Sears & Kmart, BlueHornet and infoUSA. Working with peers to advance digital marketing and mentoring young marketers and entrepreneurs are two of Ryan’s passions. Ryan is the Chairman Emeritus of the Email Experience Council Advisory Board and a member of numerous business community groups. He is also an in-demand keynote speaker and thought leader on digital marketing.

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