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Focus, fear, and flexibility — why they matter to 2020 business growth

There’s a baseball connection somewhere in this post! 🙂

We’re halfway through 2020, one of the most multi-faceted years in our lifetimes. As businesses look to the second half of the year, they’re scrambling to adapt their go-to-market approach to navigate the disruptive economic environment. They’re asking tough questions about their relevance in this new market and whether their product or service mix needs to change. They’re looking for new opportunities to grow. 

The lesson that businesses will learn this year is one that has always been true. Focus is critical for sustained growth. 

Focus is the act of choosing where to invest and, more importantly, where not to. It recognizes that every business, no matter its size or type, has limited resources (time, money, energy). If you spray these limited resources in many directions, you dilute your efforts. If you point all of your available resources to 3-5 focus areas, you’re going to move further, faster — with a clearer understanding of how each investment impacts your business. 

Making a steadfast commitment to focus requires business leaders to overcome the fear of investing in the wrong places. Overcoming this fear requires a flexible, agile approach that enables you to continuously test, refine, and iterate. 

Focus in marketing

Businesses often see marketing as an overhead expense, which means that marketers must demonstrate the impact of their investments. It’s also on marketers to determine where to allocate resources in a way that guarantees a return. This is especially important in today’s business environment, as many companies adjust to leaner budgets. 

The pressure on marketing to deliver a return, typically coupled with a lack of strategic leadership and not having enough time to prove out efforts, often leads to teams committing “random acts of marketing.” Marketers direct their resources to a bunch of different tactics, channels, and audiences — hoping that at least one of them will work. They’re trying to be all things to all people because they’re not sure where their message, product, or service will best resonate. 

This spray-and-pray approach doesn’t work. When you try to be everything to everyone — you often end up not being anything to anyone. You don’t know what channels to prioritize to reach the right buyers or which messages will resonate with their pain points. No buyer is going to choose your brand if you’re not reaching them where they’re at or if they don’t know, specifically, what problem of theirs you solve. 

Focus in marketing prevents these random acts. It enables strategic, thoughtful, and measured decisions. Marketing teams that put focus into practice define their 1-3 ideal buyers and craft messaging that speaks to each audience’s needs. They then build strong marketing programs around these buyers, choosing and testing buyer-driven channels and tactics. A business’s ability to narrow in and focus is vital to connecting with ideal buyers, differentiating from their competition, and fueling growth. 

Overcoming the fear of focus

Fear is natural when choosing a focus. Leaders often fear losing market share, revenue, or customers by narrowing their focus too much. Businesses that have been mostly sales-driven and haven’t invested in strategic marketing feel this fear even more acutely. These sales-driven companies grew in their first years by pursuing whatever opportunities came their way. They often took on whatever work they could deliver on instead of focusing on what they’re best at, and those opportunities that bring the strongest, healthiest growth to the business. 

When it comes time to double down on growth and invest in marketing, it’s impossible for these businesses to adequately and effectively support a wide variety of channels and approaches. They will need to make tough decisions about where to point their investments for the greatest impact. 

To overcome the fear of focus, I recommend four exercises: 

1. Know what healthy growth means for the business

Growth for one company could be a 3% increase over the previous year, while for another company, it could be doubling its revenue or getting acquired. Start by defining what healthy growth means for you and communicate it with your team.

2. Define what type of customers fuel that healthy growth

Assess which of your customers and opportunities are the most profitable and most likely to help you reach your growth goals. Look for similar themes between these customers. Are your best customers in specific industries? Who is the decision-maker in the buying process? Which sales source did they come from? Narrow down to your 1-3 ideal buyer audiences. You’ll be tempted to choose more. Don’t.

3. Get to know those customers better

Dive deeper into your ideal by audiences to create buyer personas. Figure out and document where your audiences go to get information, what challenges they encounter daily, and who influences their purchasing decisions. This helps you understand who your customers are as people and determine where and how to target them.

4. Direct marketing resources to generating business from ideal customers

Once you define audience profiles, direct marketing investments towards targeting these customers. This means choosing not to direct marketing resources toward audiences and initiatives that fall outside of your strategic focus areas. You’ll need to get good at saying “no” and “not yet,” especially to sales representatives who feel their best opportunities are within a segment, service or product line that is not in plan. Remind your team that “no” does not mean “never”. But you need time to execute and test results before changing course.

This level of focus and commitment will likely be uncomfortable at first, especially if your sales leaders and representatives have been accustomed to giving directives to your marketing team in the past. To help quell these concerns, it’s important to communicate that sales can still respond to and nurture opportunities that don’t fit the ideal customer profile. While marketing directs its resources in a very specific, focused direction, sales does not have to be limited to only working deals that come from marketing efforts. I like to describe this using a baseball analogy. 

If you haven’t had strategic marketing before, your company is playing both the infield and outfield. You catch whatever comes your way. When you have a focused marketing approach, marketers become your pitchers. They’re hyper-focused on pitching to the customers with the highest value to the business – a very specific “strike zone”. Meanwhile, if something comes flying out of the left-field, your sales team can still catch it and work that deal.

Businesses shifting to a focused marketing strategy will create tension between sales and marketing. Marketing is no longer going to support all of the sale’s teams requests, and that is a good thing. A strong leader needs to communicate why the change is important and reset expectations. Marketers should know what resources they’re going to have available to help them reach their goals, and sales should know how much wiggle room they have to go after business without marketing’s support.

Adopt a flexible approach to focus

One of the most important factors in building a strategic marketing function with focused resources is having a flexible methodology for decision-making. You made your best guesses on where to focus initially, but as things move to market, you need to gather feedback and iterate. Don’t make a 12-month plan you can’t deviate from. (The COVID-19 pandemic provides strong validation of why flexibility is so important.)

After you move to market, gather insight about what’s performing well and what isn’t — and redirect resources accordingly. Approach your focus areas with a flexible mindset. Make it a habit to ask yourself what you see in the market and how you need to adapt. Bring teams to the table together to discuss and develop plans of action.

At Authentic Brand, we help clients practice this focused but flexible mindset with Marketing Traction. Marketing Traction combines a simple set of marketing tools with an annual planning framework supported by a cadence of quarterly and weekly meetings. Plans developed with Marketing Traction are iterative, updated each quarter based on progress, results, and priorities. Its simple tools and structured process establish the alignment, accountability, and focus necessary to fuel growth. 

If you need strategic guidance defining your focus areas and building a strong marketing function that fits today’s changed business environment, get in touch with Authentic Brand. We’ll discuss your goals and whether we’re a good fit to help you achieve next-level growth.

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Jennifer Zick

Founder and CEO at Authentic Brand
Jennifer Zick is the Founder and CEO of Authentic Brand, a Minneapolis-based marketing consultancy that helps great businesses attain next-level growth through Marketing Traction™.
Jennifer Zick
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