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Rethinking your strategic planning for 2021



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.

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.


Email Marketing Trends 2023: Predictions by the Industry Stalwarts



Email Marketing Trends 2023: Predictions by the Industry Stalwarts

Every year, we see new trends entering the world of email marketing.

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5 Simple Things You Can Do To Improve the Content Experience for Readers



5 Simple Things You Can Do To Improve the Content Experience for Readers

Who doesn’t like to have a good experience consuming content?

I know I do. And isn’t that what we – as both a consumer of content and a marketer of content – all want?

What if you create such a good experience that your audience doesn’t even realize it’s an “experience?” Here’s a helpful mish-mash of easy-to-do things to make that possible.

1. Write with an inclusive heart

There’s nothing worse than being in a conversation with someone who constantly talks about themselves. Check your text to see how often you write the words – I, me, we, and us. Now, count how often the word “you” is used. If the first-person uses are disproportionate to the second-person uses, edit to delete many first-person references and add more “you” to the text.

You want to let your audience know they are included in the conversation. I like this tip shared in Take Binary Bias Out of Your Content Conversations by Content Marketing World speaker Ruth Carter: Go through your text and replace exclusionary terms such as he/him and she/her with they/them pronouns.

Go through your text and replace exclusionary terms such as he/him and she/her with they/them pronouns, says @rbcarter via @Brandlovellc @CMIContent. #WritingTips Click To Tweet

2. Make your content shine brighter with an AI assist

Content published online should look different than the research papers and essays you wrote in school. While you should adhere to grammar rules and follow a style guide as best as possible, you also should prioritize readability. That requires scannable and easily digestible text – headings, bulleted text, short sentences, brief paragraphs, etc.

Use a text-polishing aid such as Hemingway Editor (free and paid versions) to cut the dead weight from your writing. Here’s how its color-coded review system works and the improvements to make:

  • Yellow – lengthy, complex sentences, and common errors
    • Fix: Shorten or split sentences.
  • Red – dense and complicated text
    • Fix: Remove hurdles and keep your readers on a simpler path.
  • Pink – lengthy words that could be shortened
    • Fix: Scroll the mouse over the problematic word to identify potential substitutes.
  • Blue – adverbs and weakening phrases
    • Fix: Delete them or find a better way to convey the thought.
  • Green – passive voice
    • Fix: Rewrite for active voice.

Grammarly’s paid version works well, too. The premium version includes an AI-powered writing assistant, readability reports, a plagiarism checker, citation suggestions, and more than 400 additional grammar checks.

In the image below, Grammarly suggests a way to rephrase the sentence from:

“It is not good enough any longer to simply produce content “like a media company would”.


“It is no longer good enough to produce content “as a media company would”.

Much cleaner, right?

3. Ask questions

See what I did with the intro (and here)? I posed questions to try to engage with you. When someone asks a question – even in writing – the person hearing (or reading) it is likely to pause for a split second to consider their answer. The reader’s role changes from a passive participant to an active one. Using this technique also can encourage your readers to interact with the author, maybe in the form of an answer in the comments.

4. Include links

Many content marketers include internal and external links in their text for their SEO value. But you also should add links to help your readers. Consider including links to help a reader who wants to learn more about the topic. You can do this in a couple of ways:

  • You can link the descriptive text in the article to content relevant to those words (as I did in this bullet point)
  • You can list the headlines of related articles as a standalone feature (see the gray box labeled Handpicked Related Content at the end of this article).

Add links to guide readers to more information on a topic – not just for SEO purposes says @Brandlovellc via @CMIContent. #WritingTips Click To Tweet

You also can include on-page links or bookmarks in the beginning (a table of contents, of sorts) in longer pieces to help the reader more quickly access the content they seek to help you learn more about a topic. This helps the reader and keeps visitors on your website longer.

5. Don’t forget the ‘invisible’ text

Alt text is often an afterthought – if you think about it all. Yet, it’s essential to have a great content experience for people who use text-to-speech readers. Though it doesn’t take too much time, I find that customizing the image description content instead of relying on the default technology works better for audience understanding.

First, ask if a listener would miss something if they didn’t have the image explained. If they wouldn’t, the image is decorative and probably doesn’t need alt text. You publish it for aesthetic reasons, such as to break up a text-heavy page. Or it may repeat information already appearing in the text (like I did in the Hemingway and Grammarly examples above).

If the listener would miss out if the image weren’t explained well, it is informative and requires alt text. General guidelines indicate up to 125 characters (including spaces) work best for alt text. That’s a short sentence or two to convey the image’s message. Don’t forget to include punctuation.

General guidelines indicate up to 125 characters (including spaces) work best for alt text, says @Brandlovellc via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

For both decorative and informative images, include the photo credits, permissions, and copyright information, in the caption section.

For example, if I were writing an article about Best Dogs for Families, I would include an image of a mini Bernedoodle as an example because they make great family pets. Let’s use this image of my adorable puppy, Henri, and I’ll show you both a good and bad example of alt text.

An almost useless alt-text version: “An image showing a dog.”

Author’s tri-colored (brown, white, black, grey wavy hair), merle mini Bernedoodle, Henri, lying on green grass.

It wastes valuable characters with the phrase “an image showing.”

Use the available characters for a more descriptive alt text: “Author’s tri-colored (brown, white, black, grey wavy hair), merle mini Bernedoodle, Henri, lying on green grass.”

It’s more descriptive, and I only used 112 characters, including spaces.

Want to learn more? Alexa Heinrich, an award-winning social media strategist, has a helpful article on writing effective image descriptions called The Art of Alt Text. @A11yAwareness on Twitter is also a great resource for accessibility tips.

Improve your content and better the experience

Do any of these suggestions feel too hard to execute? I hope not. They don’t need a bigger budget to execute. They don’t need a lengthy approval process to implement. And they don’t demand much more time in production.

They just need you to remember to execute them the next time you write (and the time after that, and the time after that, and the … well, you get the idea.)

If you have an easy-to-implement tip to improve the content experience, please leave it in the comments. I may include it in a future update.

All tools mentioned in the article are identified by the author. If you have a tool to suggest, please feel free to add it in the comments.

If you have an idea for an original article you’d like to share with the CMI audience, you could get it published on the site. First, read our blogging guidelines and write or adjust your draft accordingly. Then submit the post for consideration following the process outlined in the guidelines.

In appreciation for guest contributors’ work, we’re offering free registration to one paid event or free enrollment in Content Marketing University to anyone who gets two new posts accepted and published on the CMI site in 2023.


Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

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The Ultimate Guide to Product Marketing in 2023



The Ultimate Guide to Product Marketing in 2023

Product marketing is essential, even if you only sell one or two products at your organization.


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