You might have forgotten your holidays ever happened by now, but it’s not too late to focus on a handful of fundamental changes that will really make a difference to your ability to drive sophisticated marketing in your business. And we do mean fundamentals. As the tactics of digital marketing are maturing, the organizational barriers that often get in the way of high quality marketing in large international businesses are now ripe for revamping.

Here’s what we think you should have on your radar.

1. Invest in content

Chances are there are few marketing activities that you do that are not dependent on content. More than strategy, technology or even budget, we find that a lack of good quality content is the single biggest marketing barrier that our clients face on a day to day basis. In order to address this, businesses need to start investing in content as strategic business asset in itself, rather than as a phase within an individual project. The latter always ends up in a rush job and that empty feeling that things could have been so much better. Content strategy is the answer to this ill. Basically, it is a systematic approach to building a resource base of content continually, while also working the logistics – the people, processes and technology need to be aligned to make the process run smoothly. We call it thinking like a publisher. Publishers know their audience, they recruit the right people for the job, they create a schedule, they use technology to organize the process and then they move mountains to get things done on time. None of this easy, but it will have a dramatic effect on marketing if you can start to get it right.

2. Improve team structure

This one is really for the senior managers who have the luxury of leading from the top. But, we are convinced that the structure of your marketing organisation makes a big difference when it comes to its effectiveness. Are the people who hold the knowledge in your company closely linked with the people who are responsible for creating and publishing your content? Are the people who know your customers best able to provide feedback and input directly and efficiently? Do you have processes and controls in place that allow staff across the business to get involved in social media but with proper training and guidance? Are any of these employees measured on their involvement or contribution to the marketing process?

We advocate the setup of formal and informal team structures. The central team consists of specialists – those who are experts in their fields whether it be brands, content, social media or technology. This is your formal team. And, you must do frequent analysis for gaps and create compelling business cases for growth. However, the informal team is becoming increasing important as online marketing integrates itself more tightly into the business. This includes of wide range of people who sit within specific business units outside of the central team. They are specialists in their particular areas of this business, but they ideally have a keen interest in communicating with customers and taking advantage of digital and social technology to influence customers and projects. If you involve them, through collaborative business planning, joint-operational teams and through training, these people should do a number of things for you. First, they should support your marketing agenda within their business units because you’ve included them along the way and they believe in what you are trying to achieve. Second, they can learn from the training, guidance and overall objectives you supply them with and combine this with their existing knowledge to create great ideas themselves, or even manage some decentralized marketing activities on a day-to-day basis. They will often be able to do this more quickly and effectively than central marketing, and as the size of this ‘informal network’ expands throughout the business your marketing capabilities will grow exponentially. You just need to build in the controls to keep up. This sort of hub-and-spoke style of marketing management is almost becoming the norm in companies that are mature in their use of social media and other online marketing strategies.

3. Take control of social media

More than a few marketers are already losing sleep this year because they are under pressure to do something, anything in fact, with social media. It is too easy for those around you to pick out this particular type of marketing activity due to its newcomer status and put pressure on you to adopt activity in a knee jerk fashion. On one hand they are right; you probably should be doing something because social media does offer some pretty great opportunities. It’s just not that simple though. Many social media activities have started up quickly only to run out of steam and ultimately wither and die. This doesn’t help anyone. Customers do notice and it harms the credibility of social media as a business tool, and possibly that of the entire marketing function. So even if you are not an expert in social media you can take control of it. First, understand that social media is not a strategy in itself. It is a set of tools and channels that extend existing strategies and build on the existing objectives of the business. Make sure, at all costs that these objectives drive your decision making. For example, Dell’s Ideastorm initiative is not successful because it’s a social media strategy. It’s successful because it’s jointly a customer service strategy (listening to and interacting with customers) and Product Development strategy (putting customer needs behind product development), which both preceded use of social media in the business. Without multi-departmental buy-in and support beyond the social media side of things, this initiative would never work. We like to say that social media can amplify and accelerate existing initiative. In this case, Dell used the tools and channels offered by social media to do just that. Your job is to pull out the priorities that are most important in your business and then engage the right type of specialists to make implementation a reality.

The second way to take control is to analyse the business’s ‘readiness’ to support social media. Like any online marketing activity, you need to have the buy-in of a variety of stakeholders, appropriate support and resourcing, knowledge, content, follow-up mechanisms and of course, budget. Instead of looking to create a grand strategy across the whole business, look for the business units that have clearly defined objectives along with the support elements mentioned above. They’ll offer the best hope of creating something that can be developed properly over the long term and the also the best chance of using social media to impact the business in a way that those who hold the purse strings will pay attention to later when you are asking for bigger and better budgets for next year.

4. Get out of the office

The downside of digital marketing’s increased ability to be reactive, is that people get used to working in this a reactive way all of the time. And this can mean that less research, which can be considered slow and expensive relative to digital campaigns, is done as part of the marketing planning cycle. This is a false economy. If you want to create content that sells, you need to know exactly what customers are thinking. If you want to integrate digital marketing with the sales cycles, then you need to know what your buyers are thinking and feeling throughout the buying process. This means research. But, research doesn’t have to be expensive or time consuming – you just need to care enough to do it. Sometimes, it is simply a matter of time and energy of getting some staff and customer together to share thinking. Or, holding a series of telephone interviews every month and then building the data into your customer personas. There is a virtual angle here as well. We are very interested in the new social monitoring tools that allow you to understand how your brand is perceived by customers and how new marketing activity is being received in the market in real time. They aren’t expensive, and they are easy to set up and use.

5. Review marketing technology

For too long, the technology that drives marketing has sat in the domain of the corporate IT team. This needs to change. This requirement is based on two realities: 1) if your marketing activities are dependent on operational IT resources – those supporting the day-to-day IT needs of the business or its customers outside of marketing/sales – then you will inevitably find yourself in a queue at the very times that you need to be nimble and fast. And, 2) the nature of marketing technology has evolved to the point where it is a specialism in itself. There is now an array of technologies that you can deploy from Enterprise level portal and content management systems to Open Source and Software-as-a-Service (Saas) technologies. However, most importantly for anyone involved is the ability to maintain a constant awareness of business objectives and marketing plans alongside that technical understanding in order to build an adaptive suite of technology that serves the varying needs of the business and your customers. It’s hard for everyday IT staff to do their day jobs and to keep this front of mind on your behalf.

We propose a two-tier approach to technology. First, there are large scale technologies that offer robust capabilities but they require equally robust budgets, timelines and resource plans. These are the tools you might use for long term investments such as the corporate website. This shouldn’t change every day and it does need to be controlled, so something more permanent and expansive is appropriate. However, there is another set of tools that offer flexibility and scalability – meaning the ability to get them up and running quickly with less investment and change them when your needs change. You might be more likely to use these for short-term campaigns or fast-moving activities such as marketing automation, blogs and e-mail marketing.

Beyond the technology itself, we propose that corporate technology function start to divide themselves to include a specific discipline dedicated to ‘marketing technology’ that runs with its own staff, resources and objectives. This approach acknowledges the future demands that marketing will put on the IT skills of the business and the increasingly divergent skills required between traditional corporate IT and marketing technology.

Finally, there is a new role evolving that will pull together that gap that often sits between marketing and technology, unsurprisingly called a Marketing Technologist. Chances are there is a person already in your business that shows both interest and aptitude for straddling the two functions. If you know who they are, consider evolving their role. If you don’t, consider bringing someone in. Anyway, there is a good overview of the position here.

Nothing we’ve said in this post is going to be easy to achieve. But we see the same issues crop up so often in our client’s businesses, that we are convinced that change is required to make significant advances in the ability of businesses to meet the marketing demands of their internal stakeholders and their customers.