annual planning: it’s never too late

how to build an effective annual plan when time’s running out

jenelle maddox
8-minute read

in brief

  • Time is a luxury not always afforded to the marketing leader when it’s time to create an annual plan.
  • Without the right preparation, building a comprehensive vision for the next 12 months of marketing strategies can be daunting.
  • If you’re wondering where to start the annual planning process as deadlines loom, consider incorporating four activities proven to help marketing leaders achieve better outcomes faster.

As a marketing leader, you’ve likely had to work through this common scenario: it’s two months out from a new fiscal year, your budget is tight, your team is lean, and leadership is pushing you to deliver a miracle: an annual plan guaranteed to drive significant growth in the coming year.

As you consider the challenge ahead, I wouldn’t fault you for thinking, “How in the world can I make this happen?”

In my experience, the best answer is the simple one: focus on what matters most. Which begs the question: What’s the most important thing you can do in the next fiscal year?

As an account director at Fathom, I’ve had the privilege of helping marketing leaders sort through the clutter and accomplish incredible outcomes despite long odds. While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to delivering bulletproof annual plans, there are several simple-yet-effective tactics that can help you achieve a better outcome faster:

  1. Start with the facts.
  2. Reconnect with your customer.
  3. Get your best and brightest in a room together.
  4. Consider your team and partners.

It isn’t necessary to follow these steps in order, but you certainly can. Doing so will help you make significant progress toward an informed annual plan and prepare you to have better conversations about the current state of marketing.

1. start with the facts

You may be reluctant to relive the past but gathering performance insights—from a marketing an overall business perspective—will help your team understand how your business came to be in its current state.

As the marketing leader, you likely know these numbers inside and out, but not all internal stakeholders will. Don’t assume that anyone else in the organization is as familiar with your data as you are.

The goal is to use benchmarks and reporting from the past to weigh your options for the future. If this can be achieved early in the annual planning process, you’ll arm your partners with the context that will inspire change.

Before starting the annual planning process, you should have a command of:

  • Company financials
  • Sales and marketing performance (lead lifecycle and win/loss analysis)
  • Current media mix (traditional, direct, digital) and performance per channel/segment
  • Customer feedback
  • Return on marketing investments

2. reconnect with your customer

Your customer is the single most critical component of any annual plan; if we aren’t serving the audience, the audience will go elsewhere. Despite knowing this, annual plans are too often focused internally instead of on the customer.

To reconnect with your customer during the annual planning process, we encourage our partners to use a tool we’ve developed called the customer-first strategy map. Based off Alexander Osterwalder’s Business Model Framework, the customer-first strategy map is a tool that’s both simple and effective in creating clarity.

Boiled down to its purest form, the customer-first strategy map focuses on answering nine questions:

  1. Who buys your products or services?
  2. What problems do you solve for your customers?
  3. What is the process for the customer to purchase?
  4. How do customers compensate your organization?
  5. Why do customers select you?
  6. What other solutions does the customer consider?
  7. Where does the customer learn about you?
  8. What is the customer’s relationship after sale?
  9. What does the customer hear you saying?

As you think through these prompts and the ideas they might recall, strive to bring an outsider’s viewpoint. Think about the reality of each from your customer’s perspective and you’ll create a meaningful level of clarity helpful for the annual planning process and beyond.

If you’d like a worksheet version of the customer-first strategy map, including further detail around each question, you can find that here.

3. put your best + brightest in a room together

Rome wasn’t built in a day, but your marketing plan can be if you remove silos.

I’ve seen incredible strategies built in an afternoon with the right team at the table, so invite partners from across your organization as well as external parties to join the strategic planning session. Don’t just include like-minded individuals; bring your detractors into the conversation.

I’m often surprised by the benefits of including the typically negative-minded early and often. Candidly, I encourage the marketing leaders I partner with to let us facilitate these conversations. When you’re battling internal politics, your external partners can play a critical role as a third-party observer who bridges seemingly impassable gaps.

If you’re looking for a starting point for the planning session, consider beginning by inviting the assembled group to collectively imagine your customer’s journey from an external perspective. If you’ve already worked through the customer-first strategy map outlined above, you’ll have a foundation for dialogue with this group. Ask them to think about the customer’s experience on a day-to-day basis. What needs to change to create a better experience?

With the customer’s experience top of mind, collaborate on a holistic idea of what “good” looks like. Structuring the conversation this way ensures your vision includes space and wins for everyone without losing sight of what matters most: the customer. What’s standing between your current state and ideal customer experience? Work these initiatives into your annual plan.

Ideas coming out of your strategy session may prompt a shift in priorities, and that’s okay. Embrace the opportunity. Challenge yourself and team not to think about the way it’s always been done.

4. consider your team + partners

Reflecting on the past year, think specifically about your internal marketing team and external partners: the big wins, areas of opportunity, and key learnings.

Do your team members inspire you to be strategic and innovative? Do they challenge each other’s ideas and always aim to raise the bar? Do you have the right people in place to help bring the customer experience you’ve outlined to life?

What about your agency partners? Are you excited to collaborate with them? Do you consider them an extension of your internal team, or are they more akin to vendors? If you’re thinking of your external marketing partners as the latter, now is a great time to reevaluate the partnership.

No annual plan will be successful without the right team in place to bring it to life. Do yourself the favor of being honest about your support system and prioritize the strength of your people next year.

get started

It’s all about mindset. Annual planning presents an opportunity to create the future, and that prospect shouldn’t be feared or dreaded; you can change the current course.

Sometimes the most difficult step to take is the first. If you’re preparing an annual plan and not sure where to begin, consider building momentum by following the approach I’ve outlined here—or even incorporating a single activity. Your next annual plan has the potential to be your best, even if time is limited.


I’m passionate about helping marketing leaders connect business goals to marketing strategy. If you’re interested in discussing the approaches I’ve outlined or you’re looking for an experienced consultant to facilitate an annual planning process for your organization, please reach out.