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Content Standard: Can Systems Thinking Help You Think Like a CMO and Drive Marketing Innovation?

Content Standard: Can Systems Thinking Help You Think Like a CMO and Drive Marketing Innovation?

Liz Alto, Content Standard

Every marketer has felt the pressure to drive marketing innovation. But what does that really mean for the average marketer, whose role includes a diverse range of different factors? Consider a day in the life of a marketer. You’re managing social campaigns on four different networks. You’re editing blog posts, writing blog posts, and trying to solicit contributions from freelancers and internal contributors. There are update calls with your agencies that handle content, creative, and SEO. Your CEO is starting to make noises about redesigning the website again, and that doesn’t even begin to address the actual projects you need to finish this week, including the full setup for a major customer event and all the details for a new product launch.

Just writing that kicked my blood pressure up a few notches, and living it day by day is an entirely different experience. With heavy workloads and ever-changing platforms and priorities, it’s hard for marketers to move from a tactical focus to a strategic one. You often know you need to write and post five tweets a day. But when is the last time you stepped back, asked why, looked at your ROI, and determined how any one activity contributed to your success? If you’re ready to get real results, stay on top of your most important priorities, and ultimately move up in your career, you have to start thinking like a CMO. And that is best accomplished by understanding and mastering systems thinking.

What Is Systems Thinking? Or How I Finally Mastered SEO

Thinking like a CMO involves the ability to see the bigger picture and how smaller factors contribute to end results. However, it also requires the ability to understand how individual factors relate and can lead to meaningful shifts overall. The world is governed by systems: systems we create and systems that we learn how to work within. The same is true about marketing. Systems-based thinking has been described in many ways, but for me, it’s a way to systematically manage complexity and chaos with the aim of deploying the resources you have to accomplish your most important goals.

One official definition of systems thinking is “a management discipline that concerns an understanding of a system by examining the linkages and interactions between the components that comprise the entirety of that defined system.” In other words, it gives you a framework to assess the importance of individual parts of the puzzle, as well as their cumulative impact and how different parts of your marketing strategy affect broader outcomes. That’s what a CMO does differently than a marketer who’s running from tactic to tactic trying to achieve results. They set the vision, assess different options for getting there, and then craft a road map that’s designed to get you there.

In my pre-writing consulting life, I used systemic thinking a lot to help explain the impact of economic forces on specific industries or countries. As I transitioned to a career as a marketing and technology writer, it served me well. Early on, I was determined to learn search engine optimization (SEO). It’s pretty technical and composed of a thousand little details. You can “do SEO” by simply implementing different tactics—but you don’t get a meaningful end result unless you put complementary pieces together in a certain way. Just as I was getting overwhelmed, I started to think about SEO as a web. It’s a discipline with numerous individual parts that influence each other and significantly cross-influence your success. As it became clearer—from a systems-thinking point of view—which elements mattered the most and how they influenced one another, I was able to create a plan that actually positively impacted the SEO of the sites I worked on.

systems thinking

Image attribution: Daniel Alvarez Sanchez Diaz

Staying Strategic in the Face of the “Wheel of Disruption”

Technology futurist Brian Solis developed a framework that he calls the “Wheel of Disruption.” I strongly encourage any marketer who’s feeling overwhelmed to take a deeper dive into it, but here’s the fundamental idea: In the field of marketing, there are disruptive technologies that come along and disrupt everything else. Just as marketers adapted to online processes, they had to start thinking about mobile. Now, as the digital experience is redefined, we’re starting to think beyond the screen to virtual reality, voice-based technologies, and fully immersive digital experiences. Before social media platforms, the relationship was direct for marketer to consumer. Now, there are communities, user-generated content, and conversations about your products and brands that you can’t control.

Think about the speed of evolution in the last five years. How many new platforms, apps, technologies, and marketing approaches have come on the scene? Some have gone from interesting in an academic way to completely essential for our ability to connect with audiences. Others fizzled out. Systems thinking provides you with a tool to look at any new strategy or tech innovation and ask:

  • What would this really do for us? How would it get my company closer to its goals?
  • Within the total web of my marketing activities, what can this contribute uniquely?
  • How would introducing this into the mix impact our ability to generate results?

Applying the Systems Approach to Your Own Work

If you’re deeply overwhelmed in the world of marketing, it’s likely that you’re simply trying to manage too many tactics without a clear understanding of the underlying strategy and system driving the process. Put these theories to work by:

  • Clarifying your why. What goals are you trying to achieve? Why are you marketing this product, business, or idea in this way? Understand what you’re trying to achieve and what strategy you’re following to get there.
  • Getting systemic. Capture the full universe of everything you’re working on. Take the time to see how different aspects relate to each other and to the end result. Where are the duplicate efforts and the deadweight? By culling them, it allows you to focus on your most valuable and essential tactics.
  • Ruthlessly evaluating new ideas. It’s tempting to give into the “shiny syndrome” of marketing innovation and tackle each new idea. Yet, if you don’t ruthlessly evaluate each new idea or technology, it’s impossible to focus. Know where you’re going and whether a specific approach—especially within the context of your broader efforts—is really likely to get you there.
  • Continuing to learn about marketing systems. Sharpen your sword. The more you know about digital marketing, social media, emerging technology, and classical marketing strategy, the more equipped you’ll be to drive innovation and make smart, strategic choices about future marketing direction.

As a marketer, it’s easy to move from one thing to another without really stopping to assess impact. Instead, take a different approach. Build a clear understanding of how systemic forces impact your marketing results and how adjusting each piece can help put you one step closer to achieving marketing innovation.

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