What Is Marketing Operations?


Throughout history, it’s usually the soldiers and commanders who get the glory but none of their success is possible without logistics. Marketing operations is a bit like all those truck drivers, loaders, and managers working behind the scenes to make sure everyone else has the things they need to succeed.

In other words, much like Napoleon marching into Russia, ignore marketing operations at your peril (there’s a sentence I bet you thought you’d never read).

But if you’re a marketing operations professional then you already know all of that. The challenge is getting your colleagues to understand and appreciate what your role is, how better marketing operations can empower the entire organization to succeed.

After finishing this piece you’ll be ready to easily and effectively explain to anyone why your role is absolutely essential. After all, it’s long past time everyone started giving marketing operations their due.

What Is Marketing Operations?

At the most basic level, marketing operations professionals are the managers who work to improve processes, tie marketing to senior leaders, and generally find ways for marketing to reach its full potential as a function.

That might mean focusing more on managing people, processes, or just finding the right tools. Depending on whether your marketing team is just a few people or hundreds, the scope and focus of the role can change dramatically, but at its core, it always comes down to empowering marketers.

Why Is Marketing Operations Important?

Getting back to the logistics analogy, the impact of marketing operations increases with the size of the organization. Much in the same way the importance of logistics increases when you’re supporting a hundred thousand people on the other side of the world compared to ten people in the next town.

So while marketing operations is always important, it’s particularly important when your marketing efforts are happening on a large scale and with great complexity. This is important to keep in mind when trying to explain the value it brings, particularly if your organization is looking to scale its marketing efforts.

But at its core, the importance of marketing operations rests on having the right objectives tied to strategic goals, efficient processes, and marketers who feel good about their work. These elements are often shared with HR, senior leadership, and other managers, but operations has a part to play in each.

Marketing Operations

In short, marketing operations optimizes all the most important elements of a successful marketing team. Without them, processes don’t improve, and marketing stagnates.

Major Roles in Marketing Operations

Marketing operations professionals can serve a wide range of roles, which actually can (and should) evolve as marketing changes. So it’s worth looking at each one individually and thinking about how your own role might need to change.

Strategic Planning

No, marketing operations shouldn’t be the ones creating strategic plans. But they do have an important part to play in that process. This role ties back to the fundamental goal of great marketing: providing stakeholder value.

All the work operations does in every other role on this list requires understanding who its stakeholders are and what they need. Additionally, that information should be shared between operations and everyone else involved with marketing to ensure they’re on the same page and working towards the same goals.

This required operations participating in strategic planning, both lending their knowledge of processes, data, etc. and ensuring the resulting strategic vision doesn’t get lost in a game of telephone. This enables operations to ensure it’s working towards broader organizational goals instead of working in isolation and hoping the results add up to something greater.

After all, our latest State of Agile Marketing Report found that 39% of marketers felt that improving the alignment between organizational goals and marketing objectives as a high priority. It’s clear that marketers increasingly need not just better strategic planning, but better systems for ensuring that information filters down to everyday activities.

Process Improvement

We mentioned before that without process improvement, marketing stagnates. Frankly, this should be posted up on the wall of every marketing department like the “Believe” sign in Ted Lasso. Even the best, most cutting-edge, and efficient marketing processes won’t stay that way forever.

Imagine if you suddenly discovered you’d need to do all your marketing using what was “cutting-edge” back in 2005. If you shuddered a little, let that be a reminder of why process improvement is so vital. It’s also why you should never just say “well we did some process improvement so that’s done, now we can focus on other things.”

Process improvement is a continuous process. You can’t take your eye off the ball.

But what does process improvement actually look like from a marketing operations perspective?

In practice, it begins with feedback both in the form of data and talking to your marketers. Regularly scheduled retrospectives should be a chance to listen and discuss what processes need improvement. It’s also a good time to brainstorm ideas to test.

Operations is often in charge of those tests, ensuring they’re well structured and the results are significant enough to act on. Then, it’s time to repeat the process.

Project Management

Like with strategic planning, marketing project management is often handled by dedicated project managers. But when handled by marketing operations, their role is to tie together all the other elements, ensuring that the right processes get applied to ensure that work gets done to achieve the right objectives.

This is why operations can so effectively work alongside project managers to lend their expertise as needed. This experience can also help operations identify what processes need improvement as well as what tools teams might need to do their work more effectively.

Research

Another area that may be handled by marketing operations is research. This can include market, customer, or competitor research depending on what’s needed in the marketing function.

But why would marketing operations be doing research? In short, it’s because they’re uniquely placed to ensure the results of that research get filtered back into project management, process improvement, strategic planning, etc. They also bring the ability to leverage their knowledge of data and strategic goals.

Data Management 

All the other roles mentioned so far rely on data. From choosing the right metrics to applying them to processes and ensuring everyone else on the team has access to the data, marketing operations can have a massive impact by handling data management.

Again, why marketing operations? Because data management is as much about processes as it is about the data itself. Ensuring that data is accessible in theory and used in practice both come back to the processes marketing relies on to do its work.

Analysis and Reporting

Finally, because they are often the ones handling the data, marketing operations will also analyze and report on that data, ensuring both marketing teams and senior leaders can use it to make better decisions. This analysis also brings together all of the wider perspectives operations has to find better ways to use data insights.

It should be clear by now that all these various roles essentially boil down to carving out a unique position within the marketing function and using that position to improve processes via all the roles mentioned. But how do you decide how to use marketing operations in your organization? That begins with developing a strategy.

How to Develop a Marketing Operations Strategy

Understanding the varied roles of marketing operations is one thing, but the way those roles get translated into action is through marketing operations strategies. You can break these strategies down into 5 essential steps.

Start With Stakeholders

Every marketing operations strategy needs to begin with stakeholders. This can mean your customers, senior leaders in the company, and any other functions within the company who rely on marketing like sales.

You can begin by looking at what challenges these stakeholders are facing, what they’re trying to accomplish, and what they think is valuable. Neglecting this step can easily result in strategies that make life easier for one stakeholder but frustrate another. 

For example, marketing might point out that a series of articles they’ve been writing aren’t getting great feedback from customers. They might therefore think they should stop making them. However, it’s possible that sales finds these articles immensely useful in one-on-one interactions with prospects.

Create Your Goals

Once you understand what value you want to create for your stakeholders, it’s time to translate that into concrete goals. A helpful shorthand for creating better marketing goals is SMART:

SMART Marketing Objectives

Following the SMART guidelines will ensure your goals are targeted, achievable, and actually move the needle.

Choose Metrics for Your Goals

An integral part of choosing goals is selecting the metrics that can act as a north star, guiding everyone in the right direction together. The wrong metric can make even the best marketing goals pointless because it can easily trick you into thinking you’re achieving your goals when you’re not.

In short, you want to ask yourself whether achieving this metric will definitely equate to achieving your goal. This means avoiding vanity metrics that sound great but don’t actually lead to anything substantial.

You can improve how you are at setting metrics over time by reviewing them in your retrospective meetings. This is a time to run through all the SMART criteria and see if the metrics you chose actually worked. If not, you can look at what went wrong and select a better metric next time.

Flexibly Execute

Perhaps the biggest single mistake marketers of all kinds make when it comes to planning is being rigid about it. Marketing is a fast paced world and refusing to adapt when circumstances change just because you decided to do something a month ago doesn’t make sense. That’s why instead of simply executing, we recommend flexibly executing your marketing operations strategies.

For example, you might decide to try improving the process of creating and sending outbound emails. You decide this will help sales a lot and you assign a metric before you start. However, halfway through this plan the sales team decides to pivot its strategy to rely less on outbound emails. There’s nothing wrong with changing your goals at this point!

All that said, avoiding marketing operations strategies that stretch out over months is a great way to avoid needing to adjust them quite so much. Focused plans that take just a few weeks reduce the risk that circumstances will change while you’re midway through.

Review

We’ve mentioned retrospectives a few times and for good reason. If you’re not taking time at the end of each plan to talk about what went well, what went poorly, and what you can do differently, you’re missing out on a ton of opportunities.

Every time a team member thinks “that process really didn’t work well, I wish we did it another way” before moving on and ultimately forgetting about it is a missed chance for marketing operations to make an improvement. So stop, gather all those thoughts, and turn them into action before everyone rushes to the next task.

Before proceeding to see several examples of great marketing operations in action, why don't you take a minute to check if bad processes are eating up your marketing budget?

Examples of Great Marketing Operations in Action

All of this might sound somewhat abstract, so let’s run through some examples of what this looks like in practice.

Let’s say your marketing team produces a podcast to position your company founder as a thought leader. However, the process of planning, recording, editing, and posting these podcasts takes weeks. As a result, marketing wants to find a way to streamline the process.

In this case, marketing operations will look at the processes and find ways to streamline them. For example, maybe the team is always working on 4-5 episodes at once and all that Work In Progress is slowing them down. Or they may simply be using the wrong tools like editing or project management software.

To take another example, let’s say senior leadership increases the budget of the marketing team by 20% YoY. However, after 6 months, none of marketing’s KPIs has moved substantially. Leadership is frustrated that they’re investing more but not getting returns, so marketing operations decides to look at what’s causing the disconnect.

By digging into the data about where resources are being spent and how value is being created, it becomes clear that the marketing teams are simply investing the additional resources into campaigns they were already running. The result is that the teams are getting diminishing returns even faster, but haven’t increased their cadence to find new opportunities to efficiently spend those extra resources.

So marketing operations works with team leaders to create new processes for speeding up the process of creating new campaigns.

How You Can Make Marketing Operations More Efficient

Besides following the steps we’ve outlined, there are a few other techniques you can employ to improve the efficiency of your marketing operations.

Begin with fostering a customer-centric culture and mindset. Closely tied to the focus on stakeholders we’ve already mentioned, this involves using the delivery of value to your customers as a kind of north star.

Why Marketing Effectiveness Begins with Being Customer-Centric

So even when operations is focusing on something seemingly unrelated to customers, like process improvements, they should be asking themselves how these improvements will ultimately serve customers. 

For example, if the marketing department is debating whether to invest in more advertising or better SEO software they might get caught up in all the criteria they could use to evaluate each choice. Focusing on which option delivers greater value to customers simplifies the decision making process immensely.

Then, you can apply this customer-centric approach to the process of continuous improvement mentioned above. Combining a laser-focus on delivering value to your most important stakeholders with a reliable process for improving processes is a winning formula for marketing operations success. These two together both ensure you’re moving in the right direction and always finding the best way to get there.

Looking to Improve How Marketing Functions?

By now it should be clear that marketing operations is both vitally important and relies heavily on concepts like continuous improvement and customer-centricity. But learning and mastering those concepts requires more than a passing understanding. 

That’s why we’ve created Carabiners, a range of micro-learning resources designed to equip marketing leaders and individual contributors alike with the concepts, skills, and practice they need to vastly improve their effectiveness.

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