Christmas in May: It's Time to Look Back at Holiday 2011 Selling

To Prevent Regret, Pretend the Season Is Over and Discuss What You'll Have Wished You'd Done

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If you're an enlightened CMO, you already have your holiday 2011 seasonal marketing pretty much in the can, or you might just be scared, because you can see the writing on the wall about how weak the economy is likely going to be when folks start scrounging around for something that used to be called "discretionary income" with which to buy presents. You'll need to work overtime to eke out profits at the end of the year, so planning now for the holidays is a really smart thing to do, however you arrive at it.

Only I think we talk about the future with the wrong verb tense, at least when it comes to marketing. I'm sure you've had endless meetings and conversations about what you want to do later this year. But have you met to discuss what you'll wish you'd done once the holidays are over?

It's a simple trick, really. Get everyone in the room who has any responsibility for creating your forward-looking plans and dare them to look backward, as if the holidays are over, and describe what they hoped would have happened. It's a standard move in the management consulting world -- often called "scenario planning" -- but the retrospective slant is my own personal addition. I like it because it yields a very different planning conversation. Actually, it changes just about everything, which is why I think it's so useful to marketers:

Language. Nobody is going to say, "I wish more people thought fond thoughts about our brand" that week after Christmas. And you know that everyone in your organization outside of your department is going to 1) know what sales and profits were at 12:01 a.m. the day after, and 2) they're going to hold you and your team accountable. So the language you use to describe your efforts leading up to the event (like increasing awareness, engagement and content consumption) -- needs to get translated into simple action verbs (sales, transactions) sooner vs. later.

Operational purview. When you're looking back at the season and deconstructing what happened, you're probably going to spend a lot more time bemoaning the things that went wrong vs. cheering one another for being so smart. Lots of those shortcomings will be operational, such as products didn't get to stores in time, there was a glitch in customer ordering or service, or a link on the website didn't work. The infrastructure of your holiday plan is far more important that the creative you're going to throw into it. The time to expand your perspective to the broader operations of your company is now.

Metrics. This is an easy one. Just think about the look on your fellow C-suiters' faces when you give them your agency's report on brand engagement. No pretty pie chart or repeat references to "data" in your spiel will cover up the fact that the only metric that will matter after the holidays is sales. Full stop. So whatever measures you're using now in the prep and implementation of those plans needs to default to tangible sales numbers, and quickly.

Acceptance of risk. Looking backward should reveal to you all the things that you hoped would happen -- either overtly, as a result of your strategy, or implicitly, like you assumed they would occur -- only they didn't. It turns out much of the outcome of marketing planning relies on variables that we too often ignore or underestimate. Now's the time to see those tenuous connections and levers, and figure out ways to avoid overly relying on them. Or make them more reliable.

Sense of urgency. My guess is that come January you'll wish you'd had another month or two for your various consumer-engagement strategies to bear fruit, since people never do things as quickly or directly as we'd hope (see point above). You'll wish that the programs happening in the fall happened instead in late summer, for instance, or that you'd started asking for sales earlier. You still have time to make those changes now.

Two other thoughts that might become apparent in your holiday 2011 review meeting: You might wish you'd figured out ways to offload backward some of those hoped-for sales to the months prior to the traditional selling season. The days of consumers dutifully showing up in the fourth quarter to move your yearly sales from red to black are long gone. Why not shift some of your selling expectations earlier?

Also, dwell for a moment on how rotten you're going to feel about having to slash prices at the last minute, in a mad dash to capture sales before Christmas Day. Why not use your staff's creativity and resources to figure out new ways for your consumers to buy from you now, perhaps so the shock of holiday spending isn't so shocking later on? My thinking is to bring back the Christmas club savings concept, though that 's just a lame thought-starter.

No matter how busy you are, there's a strong case for calling such a look-back meeting now. It might save you some time at the real one you'll be having once there's nothing you can do about what happened anyway.

Jonathan Salem Baskin is a global brand strategist, author and speaker. Read his blog at and follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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