Back in the spring of 2011 I decided to step away from the boutique internet marketing agency that I co-founded, move to Austin, and join the core team of a growing software company named Clarity Ventures to lead its marketing initiatives. That time represented a lot of changes for me professionally, but one of the biggest adjustments I had to make was moving from a book of small business clients to one full of Fortune 500s, funded startups, and prominent mid-sized businesses.
I quickly realized that client relationships as I knew them were going to be much different, and I was playing an entirely different ballgame.
The relationship I was used to involved one person, the small business owner. This person called all the shots and usually “just went with” what was suggested by me, the consultant. I was now a part of a bigger puzzle, and had to learn to navigate executive management and get things done.
This Saturday will mark 2 years for me with Clarity, and I would like to share what I’ve learned about getting executive management approval in order to run successful projects.
The Common Misconception
I hear this common complaint from online marketers when working on a corporate website with many decision makers:
The executives don’t get it, and they won’t allocate the resources I need to get __________ done.
If you’re not getting buy-in, it’s often not because the executive doesn’t get it. It’s often because you have not pitched the right business case. Marketers (especially ones focused online) live in an echo chamber of self-confirmation that doesn’t benefit you in the boardroom with C-levels. They simply have different and more high level priorities than you do.
The classic battle between marketer and CEO is over the ROI of online activities. Before any campaign is approved, it usually needs to go through profitability analysis and a vetting process in order to reduce risk. Now, this becomes hard for the creative marketer that wants to innovate with tactics the company has never pursued. Here is the best way that I’ve found to get creative ideas passed through management without a fatal amount of scrutiny:
Low and High Risk Allocation
Organizing and allocating risk is one of the more important things you can do at the beginning of a planning stage. Not only does it give your tasks a way to be structured and prioritized, but it also shows management that you have their best interests at heart. In many of my discussions with execs, they’ve explained that one of their biggest concerns is bringing their marketing team down out of the clouds and into reality where activities have to play into ROI and CAC figures. In these cases, this ratio is not an add-on to strategy planning. It is how you plan strategy with management.
Low and High Risk Allocation is the act of organizing your projects or tasks into two categories: Low risk strategy and high risk strategy.
Low risk strategy is comprised of tasks that are either proven as “fundamentals” or tasks that have provided some sort of positive ROI for this company in the past. They are most likely to produce stable returns for the company, and fit into “best practices” of online marketing. This includes classic on-site optimization and link building on sites with highly targeted traffic.
High risk strategy is comprised of tasks that have no identifiable ROI before you complete them. Examples include creative content strategy, social outreach, and certain types of link building. In return for the additional risk, these tactics should have the potential to produce outsized returns for the company.
Note: These tasks usually aren’t actually “low risk” or “high risk” in the SEO sense of the phrases, but anything with unidentifiable ROI is high risk to management. This is why I identify them as such.
Companies take risks all the time. It’s a fundamental part of business. Executives aren’t uncooperative on your requests for resources on “high risk” tasks because they are 100% risk averse. They’re uncooperative because it hasn’t been accounted for in an upfront strategy. This is the way I’ve typically been able to solve it with a simple agreement:
The Pareto Principle (law of the vital few) splits “things” into the 80% and the 20%. Under the principle, the 20% of tasks are supposed to provide 80% of the results. I use this principle to define a low-high risk strategy allocation. In my experience you can usually ask for an allocation of 20% of your resources toward high risk strategies, while maintaining their comfortability with the fact that the tried and true methods will still get done and provide stable results. In an ideal world, because of the outsized return potential of your high risk strategies, they will begin to provide the majority of the results.
Here’s the best part: As you start to show positive ROI on high risk strategies (thus, becoming validated or “proven”), you can move them into your low risk bracket and it frees up more room for the unproven tasks you want to pursue. This can be done in a quarterly review, when campaign results are analyzed and can be viewed from a high level.
Establishing Trust With Communication
The easiest way to get things done is to have management trust you. If you can establish trust, the entire project becomes much easier and more strategies will get approved with less scrutiny.
Out of everything you can do to establish this trust, responsiveness is one of the if not the most important aspects to dedicate yourself to. On my projects (especially ones with high frequency communication), I ensure that I have a project manager watching my client messaging like a hawk. If I’m wrapped up, in a meeting, or otherwise unavailable when a client sends an email or Basecamp message, I want them to get a response within 1-2 hours. A PM can pick up slack for you when you’re busy with other clients.
But just as you need to be direct and clear about your own communication, you need to set the expectations about what you need out of them. This isn’t just about outlining their involvement in marketing tasks and what you expect to happen pre, during, and post implementation. It’s also about letting them know what will happen if/when they don’t give you something you need. Give them ultimatums. Executives need to be micromanaged in many cases just because of the sheer amount of items on their to-do lists. I use an example of this below in the email template.
Have a Clear and Consistent Email Template
This is an example of an email template you can use to send approval and/or input requests.
Hi team -
I’m excited about getting started with ___________. It’s really important that we pursue this part of our marketing strategy because ___________. This is part of the strategy we put in place on [date].
(Begin emails with enthusiasm. If you’re not excited, they won’t be either. Then remind them why this thing is important. If you think they need another brief on what the actual task is, give it to them. You can reference the agreed upon high-level strategy as I have done at the end of the paragraph.)
I need your approval and input on the following:
(Be straight and to the point with what you need. Ordered lists work better for me than unordered lists because it looks more like a task list. This matters.)
I’m looking forward to the implementation of these items and once I receive your approval I can get started. If I don’t receive approval by this Friday, we will miss our start deadline and it will negatively affect [insert really important KPI here].
(Be sure to include the consequences of a potential missed reply from them. This is half CYA, and half motivation for them to get back to you ASAP.)
Thanks so much for your attention on this.
Your Awesome Marketer
Boom. You’re done. Keep it simple and you’ll make it simple for them to give you what you need.
Bring in the Top Decision Maker When It’s Important
Anecdote time. Last year I was working with a corporate client and almost exclusively coordinated with the CTO and CMO. This worked well… some of the time. These top managers were always hyped about the things we came up with in brainstorm meetings, but when it came time to execute they fell through the cracks. Eventually, I was able to discern that the managers I communicated with directly still needed to get approval from the CEO to move on marketing ideas.
For this post, I went back through my notes from Q2 and Q3 of 2012 for this particular project. In that time, I brought 7 new initiatives (some big, some small) to the CMO. He told me all 7 were great ideas and that they should be put to use immediately. In the end, only 2 were actually approved and allocated resources. That’s a 29% success rate, even with full backing from my direct contact. When I started to get a handle of what was going on, I decided to bring in the CEO for discussions about 3 more suggestions I had. All 3 were immediately approved and were being executed on next day. A 100% success rate.
So what happened here? It turns out, the managers I was working with weren’t autonomous. In every conversation, the CTO and CMO were on board with my ideas, but had to pass them off with someone else first. As it turns out, I received little pushback from the CEO himself when he was finally involved in the meetings. So, with everyone on board, the 71% difference in approval rate had only to do with the communication between my directs and the autonomous decision maker. Previously, I had no control over this communication, and I paid for it. When I took that control my ideas went undefeated.
Moral of the story: Although you might work with decision makers, autonomy is key. If your directs don’t have it, make sure you have a plan for how to compensate for the gap that’s going to exist between your ideas and their approval.
Conclusions and tl;dr
In the last two years, I’ve learned that there are specific ways in which marketers can improve process and communication with management to ensure a project’s success. However, I’ve also learned that every project is different. As much as we like to assign universal rules to process, variance is inevitable and you need to figure out what works best for you and your clients. With that said, I hope these tips help, and here’s the tl;dr for the lazy:
Set expectations for low and high risk activities (they might not actually be “high risk,” but is defined by activities without a clear ROI outcome). This is a great way to put a systematic strategy in place for tasks that don’t have a predicted ROI upfront.
Be diligent in your communication, in response time and objective. Tell management what you need from them as early as possible, and let them know what will happen if you don’t get approval or input by certain dates.
Communicate in a systematic and simple way, so they know exactly what you need.
Always know if your managers are autonomous. If they’re not, understand what you need to do to get approval on your ideas.
Thanks for reading, please let me know if you have thoughts or questions in the comments.