When annual planning season rolls around for B2B marketers, it can be hard to know where to start. Do you just make tweaks to last year’s plan? Do you start from scratch? The best place to start is with an effective discovery session. In this blog, we’ll review the most important components of an effective discovery session and how to manage one from start to finish.
Prepare to ask tough questions
The bones of a strategic marketing plan rely on having a deep understanding of where your business has been, where your business is currently, and where you want your business to go. That includes knowing where you want to be in the next year, as well as in the next 3-5 years.
But, how do you extract that info from your marketing team, as well as your other key teams like sales and procurement?
You must be well prepared to ask the tough questions. Sometimes in multiple ways. And even in multiple formats. And you may have to dig a little deeper than the initial answer someone gives, even when the topic may be sensitive, like talking about missed sales goals or marketing that fell flat.
One of the most effective ways of getting teammates who are more reticent to provide thoughts or feedback to participate in a marketing discovery is to create a pre-session questionnaire.
Create a pre-discovery session questionnaire
To ensure the time booked for a discovery session is as efficient as possible, we at ColinKurtis, a food and beverage advertising agency, often prepare a pre-discovery session questionnaire. We have found that Google Forms can be a great way to facilitate this process.
In the questionnaire, we start with basic questions like identifying the team member completing the questionnaire, their department and their role.
Then we move into more specific questions around company positioning and marketing, like asking the participant to provide their current company elevator pitch to get them warmed up.
As the pre-session questionnaire progresses, we get deeper into questions like:
- Who the participant thinks the company’s core audience is
- What the competitive landscape looks like
- What their current sales funnel looks like and the pros and cons involved.
We offer multiple choice questions as well as open-ended responses because we know some people are willing to write in answers and some just aren’t (hopefully you’ll have more of the former than the latter–but you can make both work).
We finish out the pre-session questionnaire by asking what the participant’s expectation(s) for the discovery session are and what they hope to get out of it. When volunteered, this information helps you ensure you craft a discovery session agenda that either meets that need or addresses when the need will be met in the future for each participant.
Review pre-discovery session questionnaire submissions
After giving participants a recommended two weeks to review the questionnaire and provide responses (everyone is busy; two weeks is enough time for people to complete, but short enough to ensure the deadline doesn’t fall off their radar), it’s time to review the goldmine of info you’ve received.
It’s normal for some folks to provide a ton of info and others to provide less. This is good. It allows you to prepare probing (and informed) questions to ask during discovery, instead of starting at square one. It gives you a good idea of where everybody stands, so you can help facilitate deeper conversation between marketing and sales (and other groups) vs. ending up at “we want to sell more” as a goal after two hours.
If you are able to include questions that require prioritization or ranking of different audiences, competitors, challenges, or strengths, within the pre-session questionnaire it can also push respondents to take a stand and make decisions on where to best allocate marketing resources during the discovery session (always a win for you).
The ultimate goal of the questionnaire is to provide you with baseline information on where your sales, marketing, R&D, procurement, and any other key audiences stand so that you can make decisions during the discovery session vs. just starting to understand the true challenges of the business.
Design a marketing discovery session agenda
Now that you have the pre-discovery session questionnaire submissions, you’re ready to design your discovery session agenda.
Hopefully, you’ve received enough answers to allow you to focus on the big topics during the session vs. just basic information gathering.
At ColinKurtis, we recommend at least eight total hours spent each year on your marketing plan discovery session(s). This can be done in one day or two, though we recommend splitting it into two, four-hour sessions held in the mornings of two consecutive days. This allows everyone to focus during each four-hour session with time to sleep on things and ponder the first session the first night before heading into the second session.
Sessions can be held virtually or in-person. While either approach works, we find conducting the sessions in-person is ideal.
Knowing you have two, four-hour sessions to work with, you can design an agenda that builds on itself with each segment.
For an effective marketing discovery session, be sure to include these four key segments:
- Develop business and marketing goals and objectives
- Identify key target audiences, audience personas, and prioritize them
- Conduct a thorough competitive review
- Develop/adjust branding and positioning statements
Let’s talk more about what should be covered in each of these four segments.
1. Develop business and marketing goals and objectives
After starting the first discovery session with an easy introduction and icebreaker, your initial segment should focus on the goals of your organization both for the coming fiscal year and the next 3-5 years. This allows you to develop a marketing plan that not only accomplishes your short-term goals (especially when things like EBITDA and profit margins are looming) but also helps you work towards longer-term goals, one step at a time.
You and the team need to identify both the business goals for the organization and the brand/marketing goals. Both are important to short- and long-term success. Your organization may already have the business goals set from larger organizational planning. If so, great. Use those goals to help define the brand/marketing goals in a way that is achievable and demonstrates how the marketing dollars you are spending will contribute to overall organizational success.
Once you have 3-5 measurable goals for both business success and brand/marketing success, you’re ready to move on to identifying your target audiences, audience personas, and prioritizing them.
2. Identify key target audiences, audience personas, and prioritize them
Understanding who you need and want to sell to is vital to crafting a strategic marketing plan that delivers.
In the B2B space, it can be easy to just say “everyone in X INDUSTRY is our target.” But is that really true?
For many of our food and beverage clients, key target audiences include marketing, R&D/product development, and procurement. Their audience personas fit within fairly similar titles within these departments in the organization. While all three of these audiences play a role in becoming a preferred vendor partner, they generally don’t all participate or weigh into the final decision with the same weight.
Make sure you work with your sales and other teams to identify who the key customer and prospect decision makers are and how they like to work. Use that information to craft your marketing and communications approach—from which channels you leverage to how you develop your key marketing messaging and support statements.
Does prioritizing a target audience or audience persona mean you should develop marketing materials that speak directly to your key audience persona and completely alienate the other audiences? No.
The beauty of B2B is that the selling points that mean the most to a customer marketing lead are also generally important to a product development lead. But focusing on one audience allows you to fine-tune your messaging to connect to the very heart of the day-to-day and long-term concerns of your key target and ensure that they know exactly how you help them.
3. Conduct a thorough competitive review
Most organizations have a clear understanding of who their main competitors are, but they may not all be on the same page when it comes to what makes them strong competition and how to strategically beat them across departments.
Working with your marketing, sales, R&D, and procurement teams to discuss what each of them is seeing and hearing from customers and partners in the marketplace can help you understand how and where competitors are beating you, where you are beating them, and where to focus your efforts to gain market share in a way that is profitable for you.
A formal discussion around key competition with your core internal teams, as well as a thorough marketing audit of what your competitors have been doing, will put you in a good position to not only identify competitor weaknesses but also ensure your marketing stands out vs. blending in—as the marketing and communications landscape gets louder and louder.
4. Develop and/or adjust branding and positioning statements
Developing or adjusting branding and positioning statements can be easy for some organizations and a true challenge for others. For folks in the food and beverage space, it can be hard to break through with branding and positioning that is truly ownable and differentiated—especially when your products may share 80+% of their key benefits with competitors. This is where it is important to have honest internal conversations about how you are different and how you might not be.
The old, reliable SWOT analysis can be useful here when the team commits to providing honest answers that delve deeper than citing “good customer service” as a strength and “innovation” as an opportunity. Having worked with many organizations like yours, we can say with certainty—your competitors are saying the same things.
Find your true differentiators, even if they are deeper versions of those cited above.
- Do you deliver “on-time and complete” orders at a rate that is out of this world (great customer service)?
- Does your ingredient deliver both function and flavor without the junk chemical that your competitor can’t figure out how to do without (real innovation)?
- Is your team made up of specialty area experts who can develop IP that blows the competition out of the water?
Specificity is the true key to differentiating your company in a cluttered marketplace. It’s not just what you deliver. It’s how.
Keep in mind that, sometimes, your key differentiator is a combination of multiple attributes that competitors can’t provide. That’s great. Use that combo! It doesn’t always have to be one thing.
Marketing discovery session agenda format
The best format for a marketing discovery session agenda is the one that leverages the way you know your organization and team work best.
At ColinKurtis, we have found a robust slide deck can provide both the structure needed to keep folks on task, as well as the flexibility to set up collaborative exercises and take notes. Sending the deck out to participants for review/notes after the session is also a great way to ensure you have all of the inputs right and the team feels heard going forward.
Final tips for running an effective marketing discovery session
Once you’ve crafted a winning marketing discovery session agenda, it’s time to work your plan and maintain an inquisitive and collaborative tone and approach.
There will be participants who are slow to open up or provide feedback.
TIP: There are times when it’s good to push and ask someone to provide more specificity or deeper reflection, and there are times when it’s better to come back with a slightly different way of asking the question later.
People need to feel safe to provide honest feedback and they need to know that the session is going to contribute to the overall success of their team and the company. You can make sure this environment is created and maintained and ensure that you can all have some fun, too. Now go get ‘em!