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The Integrated Marketing Mess

What do a public relations firm in Boston, a digital shop in Minneapolis, and an ad agency in Albuquerque have in common? A small client in St. Louis. At first glance, relying on three businesses for specialized marketing services might seem odd, but it's not.

More and more businesses are relying on multiple firms for their marketing needs in this digital age, particularly smaller companies that want a sophisticated plan but don't have the big bucks to hire a huge agency. They may have to look beyond their immediate geography to get their unique needs met, and they're increasingly able to do so as technology continues to shrink the distance between clients and contractors.

There is, however, a downside, from which many company leaders I have spoken with lately are suffering. I call it the integrated marketing mess.

Integrated marketing used to be fairly simple. If your television and radio ads were tied to your newspaper and direct mail campaign, you had an "integrated" plan. Today it's a bit more complicated. Traditional media vehicles still need to be tied together, but they also must integrate with point-of-sale materials and PR efforts. And Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. Plus website content and search engine optimization, and in some cases YouTube (GOOG) channels and LinkedIn profiles. Not to mention customer service and internal communications. It's downright dizzying the number of things we now have to keep track of.

It gets worse. Most marketers don't know that an epic struggle is going on just beneath the surface of the marketing communications industry. Digital agencies are starting to offer more traditional services. Traditional agencies are adding digital capabilities. Ad agencies are offering PR. PR firms are selling graphic design. Design firms are calling themselves ad agencies. And every one is staking a claim to the new ground of social media. It's a mess out there, with each company kicking the others under the table like too many siblings vying for too few pieces of pie. Somebody has to manage the chaos, and unfortunately, that's you.

As much of a headache as it may be, integrating your efforts is more vital than ever as the world grows more complex. How should you approach it? Whom can you trust? Where should you even begin? Here are three suggestions to help you get (and keep) your marketing house in order.

1. Strategy first. You may employ a host of companies to implement a variety of tactics, but to be effective they all must serve a singular strategy. If that's in place, make sure your vendor partners understand both it and their role in its execution. If you're lacking a clear strategy, that's where you need to begin. (If you're unsure, it's a safe bet you need work in this area.)

Find a resource that specializes in branding (and whose form of compensation ensures they'll be tactic-agnostic) and do the heavy lifting of figuring out where your brand needs to go. Beware the siren songs in pitches from the latest and greatest tacticians, especially from anybody who claims to be an "expert" or "guru" in new media. Yes, there are those who have demonstrated success in this arena, but nobody on the planet is an expert yet—it's too new and changing too rapidly. Besides, anybody who would ever call herself or himself a "guru" is just plain scary.

Don't worry about how you're going to get there until you determine where you're going. There are an infinite number of ways to get lost, and until you've charted a clear course, odds are that you will. Strategy has always, and must always, come first.

2. Don't do too much. Or too little. For companies that don't have a lot of money to throw at marketing, the availability of online media (particularly social media) is a wonderful development. But don't be deceived into thinking it's free. Add up all the staff time you're devoting to it (or being distracted by it), and you'll realize how many of your resources it's really consuming. And if you count time as less valuable than money, you're doing yourself a disservice.

"Because it's there" may be a good reason to climb a mountain, but it's not a good reason to chase every new form of media that comes down the pike. Not even the biggest marketers can afford to do that—not all at once, anyway. We all have finite amounts of time and money, and we need to invest them wisely.

On the other hand, in this rapidly-changing world it can be tempting to throw up your hands and resort to the familiar. The problem with that is twofold: Not only are you not taking advantage of potentially powerful new marketing opportunities; you're also neglecting the fact that the vehicles you've been using in the past may be losing audience, impact, or both. Most companies need a mix of tactics, each employed to its best advantage.

The important thing is to focus each tactic on a task for which it's naturally suited. Television is terrific at building awareness. Direct mail can be used to generate inquiries. Publicity is a powerful credibility-builder. CRM is a critical loyalty mechanism. Social media can encourage customer evangelism. The advantage of having a well-integrated plan is that you're not asking any one element to do too much.

3. Ask "what then?" This may be the most critical aspect in ramping up your integration efforts. Consider not only what you want prospects to do as a result of each form of outreach (become aware, visit your website, sign up for an e-mail newsletter, "like" your page, participate in your contest, etc.), but also what the next step will be for those who don't immediately convert.

Let's say you achieve a 1 percent click-through rate on banner advertising. No doubt some of the people who clicked through took the action that was intended, and your business benefited as a result. But what about those who lost interest and left the page? And what about the 99 percent who were exposed to your ad but didn't click through? Both are legitimate audiences who may need additional inducement or a different approach, yet most marketers simply let them go.

With today's technology, that doesn't need to be the case. By anticipating in advance the forks that will appear in the road to customer conversion, you can develop a plan to account for each. And you can build into that plan simple yet telling data analytics that will minimize wasted investment and make your efforts work much harder over time.

There has never been a better time for small marketers to act big. The tools, tactics, and best-of-breed vendors are increasingly available to help you take on larger competitors. But if your approach isn't integrated, you risk having your plan jerked here and there by the latest tricks and tactics, with no formal analysis of whether (or when) they make the most sense for your brand.

It's good to change your tires every so often, but if you neglect to align them, the ride may be rough—and you'll waste a lot of gas, even if you're headed in the right direction. Invest the time and effort to develop a properly integrated plan, and you'll be on your way to where you want to go with a lot fewer bumps.

McKee is president of McKee Wallwork & Company and author of Power Branding and When Growth Stalls. Find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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