Why Your Marketing Strategy Needs a Mental Model


See this blog post as a fancy slideshow


Mental models seem like a strange place to begin a chat about marketing strategy, right?

My tendency is to just “come up with the strategy already” and not spend time splitting hairs about what nests into where and which thing rolls up to what thing.

But … I understand the value of having a model in which to place yourself and your vision, goals, and strategy. Or, put another way, I recognize the risk in coming up with vision, goals, and strategy without knowing how it all fits in to the bigger picture.

I’ve done it before! It’s a mess.

Lesson(s) learned. 

Let’s start with models and then dive into the specifics of strategy.


An inside-out mental model of marketing + everything else

When you think of mental models, what image pops to mind?

Perhaps a tree or an org chart or an onion or a parfait. My mind goes here, too. There’s something classic and clean about a cascading, layered construction of networked bits. 

But for the purposes of thinking a bit outside the box, let’s assume that the mental model of a company, rather than cascading from the top down, emanates from the inside out. Like this …

The inside-out mental model starts in the middle with company vision.

Your vision can be anything. Here’s an exercise that helps you define vision, values, goals, and such for your company or team.

The company vision for Buffer for the next 1-2 years: Best-in-class DTC social platform

A note on vision:

The Vision is a goal. It is not the same as a strategy; business strategy tells you how a company is going to achieve (or maintain) its Vision. The strategy is a plan, the tactics are how the plan will be executed and the Vision is the end-result.


Important (albeit optional) next step: Setting goals to go with your vision

Once you have a vision in mind, there’s a lot of value in finding a way to measure your progress toward that vision. Some people attach BHAGs along with vision — these are great also, though by nature they are hard to measure. (For instance, Google’s BHAG is “organize the world’s information.”)

One simple way to measure progress is by identifying a metric or two that will serve as a marker for progress and help you stay accountable. It’s even better if it’s a SMART goal — specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based. But any metrics is better than no metric.

Here’s what ours looks like at Buffer.

How we’ll measure our company vision at Buffer: ARPU and market share

1. Average Revenue Per User(ARPU) — 

  • The thinking goes: If we are building a best-in-class social media marketing product, then we will be creating product value that customers want. They’ll want more of this value, they’ll pay us more, and we’ll see ARPU rise. This can happen a number of different ways, which I’ll get to in a moment, but to highlight a couple: people can upgrade onto higher plans (pricing) or they can add on additional Buffer products (multiproduct).

2. Market share — 

  • If we are building a product for DTC brands, then we should have more and more DTC brands as customers. We’ve chosen to measure this increase as a market share percentage: We have a list of 1,000+ DTC brands, and we will chart how many from that list become Buffer customers over time.

(Sidenote: We could measure the DTC thing in a few different ways, like the percent of our customer base that is DTC or the total number of DTCs we acquire in a given period. After thinking on it, we chose not to do the former (measure the % of customer base) because that creates a zero-sum game; it incentivizes us to grow DTC at the expense of other industries. However, the second measurement, aggregate DTC growth, is a data input that we want to stay aware of. It won’t be our primary DTC scoreboard, but we’ll keep an eye on it.)

Expect to see ARPU and market share talked about often and shared widely on dashboards and scoreboards. 


How marketing, product, engineering, and everything revolves around vision

Vision at the core. Strategies come from vision.

Company vision should be at the core of everything that the company does, so it makes sense that vision is at the core of your mental model.

Then, orbiting this central vision are all the areas of the company: product, marketing, engineering, support, finance, people, etc., etc.

This is where the mental model starts to really help sort things out. You can see the alignment across areas when everyone’s work is pointing back to the same vision.

Next comes the fun part: Strategizing!

Here’s a zoom in to one particular segment of the model.

Once company vision is set, then the areas of the company can go off and figure out the strategies they want to employ. One of my favorite ways of thinking about strategy is the DIBB framework that Spotify introduced. Here’s a quick snapshot:

Spotify’s DIBB framework for strategy

So what we’ll do for marketing strategy is take the company vision then apply the DIBB framework. We’ll dig into the data, collect insights, form beliefs, then convert those into strategic bets.

While we’re doing this, so are the other areas of the company.

You might notice … some of these strategic circles can be shared by multiple areas. We’re all in this together, so it’s very likely — even encouraged — that our plans will overlap and intermingle. This might be the case with a strategic bet from product, in the way they’re building features, and with a bet from marketing, in the way we position and acquire.


Turning a mental model into an action plan

Putting it all together, one way of looking at it could be to slot the vision, the markers, and the bets into a nice and tidy table like this:

Depending on your preference for goal-setting and organization, you might look at this chart and think any number of things … OKRs or DIBBs or Vision / Strategy / Goals. All these things are fine names, especially if it helps you better understand how all the pieces fit together. At the same time, I know some of those names carry hidden context or baggage for some folks, so I’ve taken to calling them:

  • Destination — Where we’re headed
  • Directions — The paths we’re choosing to get us there
  • Mileposts — How we’ll tell if we’re on track

Hopefully that helps.


Bonus: How we set marketing strategy at Buffer

We’re in the process of putting together strategy for the next year, and I’d love to share a bit of that process. Generally we want to start from a place where we can end up with clear marketing bets (“destinations”) for our highest-level objective (“destination”).

We’re already off to a good start since the product team had a chance to brainstorm its strategies already. We share a strategic bet with positioning.

As for mileposts and destination, we’ll debate whether the mileposts are correct for us or whether we want to zoom in tighter on the destination. For what it’s worth, I do like that there’s so much overlap between marketing and product in terms of the actions we might choose and the metrics we might track. Consistency and sameness, in this case, are encouraged.

Next, in order to come up with some of the directions for our team in 2020, it might help to take a quick glance at how we’re currently organized. 
This is the way I see things.

The Buffer marketing team, in circles and shapes

I feel like I make a new one of these charts about every other quarter. I probably do — they say at a startup you can expect your job to change every six months, right? Well, we’re not really a startup anymore, but I feel like our general team structure evolves and iterates enough over the months that it’s useful to see where and how we all fit together. 

Here’s the way it looks to me.

People:

  • Kevan is VP of Marketing
  • Ashley is Director of Marketing
  • Hailley is Head of PR
  • Bonnie runs our social media marketing
  • Ash is Head of Editorial (podcast, blog, content)
  • Julia is our designer
  • Gisete is our engineer
  • Spencer runs our website and CRO
  • Arielle runs community
  • Alfred is a product marketer
  • Mike is a product marketer

We have two general circles within Buffer marketing: brand and product. 
I’m helping organize our brand work (I’m the amorphous blog in the diagram), and Ashley is leading the product marketing side.

I feel responsible for owning our overall marketing strategy, too — how all the pieces fit together into one cohesive puzzle, which supports the overall direction we’re moving as a company. 

And then of course, each individual on our team owns a variety of channels and areas and strategies and tactics that all filter in to the main work we do as a marketing team. 

Questions to answer about strategy

Ultimately we want to get to a place where we have an action plan all filled in for how we’ll approach marketing and how we’ll support the company. These are the important questions I’d love for us to answer:

  • What strategic bets will we make in 2020?
  • What does this mean saying no to?
  • How do our bets complement the work being done by other teams?
    • Is anything at odds?
  • How can we model out these bets so that we can set achievable, ambitious goals and learn from the work that we’re doing?

Specifically, we can think about:

  • How can we drive more brand awareness?
  • What are the ways that we’ll acquire new DTC users?
  • How will we get new users to convert to customers?
  • Then how can we help them to expand into other products and plans?
  • And all along the journey, how can we engage with them and support them and deliver value at every stage?

(While we’re on the topic of question-asking, I also love to ask: If you were in charge, what is one thing you would do differently than we’re doing currently? and What do you see others doing and think, “I sure wish we could try that”?)

To set the stage, this is a snapshot of some of our key channels, strategies, and bets that are currently underway:

Brand Marketing
SEO
Content – Podcasting
Content – Blogging
Partnerships
Campaigns
Social Media
Press
Website & brand design
Product Marketing
Website optimization (more trial starts)
Customer communication (trial conversion, revenue)
Launches (new value add, acquisition, revenue)
Community
Email
Cross-sell, upsell, bundling
Retention & churn

Which ones do we want to keep?

Which ones do we want to stop?

Which new ones should we start? 

Let’s brainstorm together. This exercise is sounding like a Keep / Start / Stop for 2020 strategy, so I’ll go ahead and kick off a doc where we can toss around ideas together. 

Thank you for hanging with me throughout this long and winding explanation. Hopefully it helps to see how we can fit our activities alongside the activities of other teams at Buffer and how we can work together toward achieving some great things!


Thanks!  

If you found this interesting or helpful, I’d love for you to pass it along to anyone you think might benefit from it. Feel free to share the link or give a retweet.