5 Elements of Operational Marketing Excellence

When a marketing department operates efficiently, the execution of marketing activities will run much more smoothly. For CMOs and marketing executives, the importance of operational marketing should not go overlooked.

In a recent blog post, we discussed the impact of ineffective marketing leadership execution. But if the impact of ineffective marketing leadership execution is so high, why don’t more people try to solve the problem? In most cases, the issue is not a lack of effort, but the lack of all of the core elements required for operational marketing excellence.

Defining Operational Marketing

What is Operational Marketing?

Before anything, let’s define operational marketing at a high level.

Operational marketing is the structural actions taken to achieve the objectives needed to meet the goals of a marketing plan. These processes allow teams to scale their marketing efforts efficiently and effectively.


Key Elements of Operational Marketing

There are certain elements that are needed to achieve true operational marketing excellence. When combined, marketing organizations can get much closer to their true potential. A single missing component can throw everything in the entire system off.

The marketing leader in an organization needs to operate like the conductor of an orchestra, the NASA mission commander, or even a classroom teacher in charge of wrangling a bunch of adolescents. 

These organizations and systems all require the following:

In this post, we explore the five elements in detail, with examples of operational marketing excellence.


Element #1: A Strategy-Based and Goal-Driven Planning Approach

For most of us, defining and aligning the extended team on your goals is the first step in the planning process, and achieving operational marketing excellence. There are some instances where there are prerequisites to this step. For example, when starting a business or going through a significant change, you would start by understanding and documenting the market, customers, messages, etc.

Steps of Goal-Driven Planning

  1. Define core goals, metrics, targets, and milestones
  2. Get aligned with your strategy
  3. Define the constraints of your plan
  4. Build thematic campaigns aligned with metrics in the goals

Defining a core set of goals, metrics, targets, and milestones

To describe your plan at the right level of detail, we recommend that you define four to six objectives for the marketing organization. You need enough goals to define what success means comprehensively and enough detail in each of the goals so there is no doubt about the achievement.

A properly-defined goal includes the following structural elements:

  • A descriptive title
  • Metrics
  • Targets
  • Milestones


Element Description Example
Descriptive Title The title of the goal should provide a clear definition of success itself. “Create $10 million of marketing generated pipeline in 2020,” or “Enter the French market and close at least one customer by the end of Q2.”
Metrics The metrics are the tools that you will use to measure success. For example, marketing-generated pipeline, sales qualified leads (SQLs), new logo acquisition, and annual recurring revenue (ARR).
Targets Metrics alone don’t tell you much. You also need to define what measurement you will achieve.  For example, if the metric is a marketing-generated pipeline, the target could be $25 million.
Milestones Sometimes, you need to define milestones to ensure you are on track to achieve your targets. Using the example above of $25 million in the pipeline, you could define quarterly objectives of $4 million, $8 million, $15 million, and $25 million to reflect the growth and seasonality you would expect along the way.


Getting aligned with your strategy

The term “strategy” is one of the most overused and misunderstood terms in business. That’s a bad combination. In its simplest form, a strategy is an approach you choose to attempt to achieve your operational marketing objectives. 

For example, if your goal is to climb a mountain, you can choose a meandering trail that is longer but has a shallower incline, or you can choose to scramble up the steep, sheer face. Both paths will lead to the same goal, but they might involve different tactics and equipment. The sheer face could require ropes and other safety equipment, while the meandering trail might require food, more water, and even sleeping gear if it takes you longer than a day to achieve your objective. To plan your hike, you need to choose your strategy in advance. And if you are hiking with a group, all members must be aligned on your strategy.

A marketing strategy follows the same rules. If your primary objective is adding $25 million of new pipelines, there are many strategies you can choose to achieve the goal. And while you can define strategies at all levels (for example, a campaign strategy or even a strategy for a landing page), you need to align your team with your overall marketing strategy.

To achieve operational marketing excellence, marketing organizations should have a well-aligned top-level marketing strategy. HubSpot, the CRM software company, is a great example of a company built on a strategy they coined “inbound marketing”—or what would be generically called thought leadership and content marketing. Professional services like law or accounting firms often combine branding and client hospitality. By inviting their clients to sponsored events, activities, and conferences, they can create opportunities for their partners to have one-on-one conversations with prospective clients.

If you sell a low-cost consumer product, you might successfully use the HubSpot strategy, but the relatively low-value customer relationships would not justify the client hospitality approach used by a large public accounting firm. 

Choosing your strategy and aligning your team is important for achieving operational marketing excellence. To go back to the mountain climbing example, if you chose to take the long meandering trail without aligning with everyone, you may have team members who don’t have enough water or a sleeping bag.

Defining the constraints for your plan

Because we all operate in the real world, we must plan for existing conditions. For example, you probably have profitability goals for your business that will define your budget envelope. You may have existing commitments as you enter the new year, including retainers, contracted events, software contracts, and lease agreements. 

Along with these commitments, you need to understand your organizational capabilities. If you want to move from a digital demand model to a thought leadership model, you may need to hire new people or plan for some additional contract resources.

Build thematic campaigns aligned with the metrics in the goals

Armed with a set of goals, aligned on a strategy, and with your constraints in the plan, the next step in the operational marketing process is to build a set of thematic campaigns designed to achieve your objectives. 

The term “campaign” is also overused in marketing, making it difficult to build campaigns at the right level. One good test is to see if you can align the metrics for your campaign with the metrics for your goals. If your goal is to grow pipeline, the metric is pipeline created. If your “campaign” is designed to generate leads, clicks, views, or registrations, then it probably isn’t a campaign. In this case, it is a tactic that could be part of a broader campaign. If you bundle the lead generation tactics with a nurturing effort, the combined effort can be measured in pipeline contribution.

If your campaigns are aligned with your goal metrics, you can easily build a capacity plan to achieve your objectives. Each campaign should also have a campaign manager accountable for delivering the results.

A campaign plan designed to achieve your pipeline objectives might look like this:


Pipeline Campaign Budget Q1 Milestone Q2 Milestone Q3 Milestone Q4 Milestone
US ABM $2M $2M $4M $8M $12M
WW Digital $1.5M $2M $3M $6M $10M
EMEA ABM $1M $1M $2M $3M $6M
TOTAL $4.5M $5M $9M $17M $28M
Pipeline Goal   $4M $8M $15M $25M
Coverage   125% 113% 113% 112%

In the case above, the campaign plan is built to deliver 112% of the target for the pipeline throughout the year. Each campaign has a budget and should also have a marketing campaign manager accountable for delivering the budget target and the results.

Each campaign may contain many underlying tactics required to achieve the results. The campaign manager is responsible for making sure that the tactics are delivering the interim results required for their target overall, but they are ultimately responsible for delivering against a common set of objectives that can be normalized across the plan.


Element #2: A Complete Marketing System View

Building a comprehensive campaign plan to achieve your objectives is a necessary (and critical) element of operational marketing leadership. Operationally excellent marketing leaders also develop and monitor a complete system-wide view of marketing for their company.

As you are executing your plan, it is critical that you regularly review the health of the overall marketing system to make sure that everything is operating efficiently. If you think of your progress toward your objectives as the GPS in your car, the complete system view is similar to the check engine lights, dashboard alerts, and tune-up computer at your service station.

For example, if you are focused on pipeline development for your plan objectives, you may miss that you are not nurturing leads that could convert to opportunities, or you may not be taking advantage of up-sell and cross-sell opportunities.

To support these analytics, we developed a diagnostic tool called The Integrated Marketing Machine (Figure 1). The tool highlights all the interconnected parts of a go-to-market system for improved operational marketing performance. While most marketers do a good job measuring their lead-to-opportunity funnel, other parts of the system are often ignored.


Integrated Marketing Machine for Operational Marketing

Figure 1: The Plannuh Integrated Marketing Machine


  1. Measuring marketing system metrics vs goals-specific metrics
  2. Are all appropriate elements in place?

Measuring marketing system metrics versus goal-specific metrics

The metrics associated with your marketing system usually differ from those for achieving your goals. Like the diagnostics in your car, the marketing system is typically instrumented to warn when a system is operating outside an expected range.

Pipeline conversion metrics are a good example of this type of measurement. Your marketing-qualified to sales-qualified lead conversion may have an expected conversion rate of 60% – 80%.

  • If your conversion rate is lower than 60%, marketing is probably passing too many unqualified leads.
  • If the conversion rate is higher than 80%, marketing may have a filter that is too tight.

Presence tests: are all the appropriate elements in place?

Another application of the marketing system view is ensuring that all the appropriate systems are in place. For example, do you have a process to nurture leads that fall out of each stage of the funnel? Do you have a program to market new solutions to your existing customers for cross-selling or up-selling? Have you explored all the potential demand sources that could create opportunities in your pipeline?

By regularly reviewing this complete system view, you force yourself to ask questions about the effectiveness of each operational marketing system element- and ensure all the elements are represented in your plan.


Element #3: Process for Measurement, Refinement, and Optimization

The third element of operational marketing excellence is to have a process for measurement, refinement, and optimization. We often see two primary issues with marketing dashboards and metrics: either they lack context and don’t have any targets and milestones, or nobody looks at them. A key to operational marketing success is a process, and regular reviews focused on the “So what?” that comes from the data.

  1. Review data & metrics
  2. Hold regular meetings

Review Data & Metrics

To facilitate the review of relevant data, we recommend that you schedule a series of focused meetings with the appropriate stakeholders to review the data in question. When reviewing metrics, the data should be presented with a comparison to their targets, milestones, and operating ranges (where appropriate).

Hold Regular Meetings

Here are eight marketing meetings for operational marketing excellence of teams:






Goal progress reviews

Monitor the progress toward achieving goals

Owner of the goal outcome and any underlying campaign owners

Monthly (bi-weekly for higher-velocity businesses)

Plan review

Review the aggregate performance against all the goals

Individual goal owners


Marketing system review

Review the presence and operating range for all marketing systems. Highlight areas that are outside the expected performance

Marketing leadership

Monthly (or quarterly)

Market scan

Review any changes to the external market conditions, competition, or major industry shifts

Marketing and product management

Quarterly or when a major market event happens

Budget review and refinement

Review committed spend, budget burn rate (BBR), forecast of spend vs. plan, and plan accruals

Marketing budget owners and finance team

Monthly (or bi-weekly for higher velocity businesses)

Campaign reviews

Review campaign performance vs. expectations for campaigns in flight to determine whether to repeat or refine

Marketing leadership, campaign owners

Monthly or on completion of a major campaign

Quarterly business reviews

Report on progress vs. expected results for the entire plan, marketing system review status, and campaign performance review summary

Marketing and business leadership


Strategy review

Assess marketing strategy effectiveness and make recommendations for adjustments

Marketing and business leadership


This may seem like an excessive amount of marketing meetings, but they are important elements of an operationally excellent marketing process. And if you are part of a small team, you can incorporate several of these reviews into the same meeting.

Many marketing teams meet regularly for generic status meetings. If that is the case, you can turn your meetings into a much more productive investment of your time with purposeful meeting management and agenda planning.

Element # 4: Connect All Activities to Outcomes

Another key element of operational marketing is understanding each marketing activity’s impact on your plan.

Does your marketing matter?

If you don’t constantly focus on understanding the relationship between your activities and meaningful outcomes for your business, you can quickly devolve into what we call “random acts of marketing.” And while it is a fool’s errand to connect a financial value to every marketing activity, you must connect every marketing activity to a financial outcome.

In other words, when striving for operational marketing excellence, you don’t need to try to attribute $2.73 to each data sheet you produce, but you do need to understand that the purpose of the sales tool is to increase the conversion rate of a certain stage in the sales cycle.

To what end?

One effective technique for assessing the value of your activities is to ask the question, “To what end?” until you can connect the activity to a line on the Profit and Loss statement (P&L).

For example, let’s take that datasheet you are writing.

We want to create a data sheet. 

  • To help the sales team convert stage 1 opportunities to stage 2 opportunities.
  • To get more opportunities through the funnel and close new revenue.

Let’s look at something harder to measure, like a customer appreciation award.

We want to offer a customer appreciation award. 

  • To create more loyalty with that customer.
  • To get them to renew their contract and act as a reference.
  • To close new revenue, reduce churn, and acquire new customers.

Even if you can’t distill each activity down to a numerical value, it is important to understand the business (financial) motivation for the activity. If you can’t make that connection, maybe you should stop the activity. 

Alignment to goals

Another approach is to connect your activities to your overall goals. If you have done a complete job of defining your marketing objectives, you should be able to associate the vast majority of your underlying activities with one of those objectives.

If you find a common set of activities that cannot be associated with any of your goals, you might consider adding another goal since its importance is implied by your activities. If you can’t define – or justify – that additional goal, it’s time to stop the random acts of marketing.


Element #5: Building a culture of excellence

The best operational marketing leaders can fail if they don’t have the full support of their team behind them. Additionally, the operational rigor of an organization can be quickly eroded if you accept deviance from your cultural values. The secret to getting your entire team behind you is to build a culture of operational marketing excellence. Culture comes from the top of your organizational structure, so it is critical that marketing leadership embraces the following principles:

  1. Focus on truth, not credit
  2. Celebrate success and learning
  3. Embrace diversity
  4. Develop emerging talent

Focus on truth, not credit

Regarding operational marketing, the best marketing teams operate like scientists, not promoters. You can tell which type of group you have regarding quarterly review time. The promoters focus on all the good parts of the last quarter and gloss over (or worse, hide) any negative results. Scientists always seek truth, even if the truth isn’t very attractive.

When promoters report their results, they often cherry-pick only the good campaigns or channels.  The scientists will report on all the channels and campaigns, highlighting positive and negative outlying performers. When reporting negative results, the scientists will develop a theory for the poor performance and may even design an experiment to try to prove that theory with upcoming campaigns.

One key indicator of a culture of marketing promoters is the amount of “marketing influence” in their results. Marketing influence can be an important metric, especially with long, complex sales cycles. But when all positive news is in the form of marketing influence, it is time to find some scientists.

Celebrate success and learning

Another principle for building a culture of operational marketing excellence is to celebrate success and embrace learning. A guaranteed way to discourage marketers from reporting the truth is to punish them for reporting negative results. Don’t confuse negative results with mistakes. In some cases, poor performance is due to a mistake, and there should be accountability in your organization. But poor performance may come from an assumption that was proven wrong. That’s how you learn.

So how do you avoid the “everyone gets a trophy” mentality? You reward and celebrate success, and you celebrate insights from experiments that can turn into future performance improvement. If a marketer presents results that didn’t perform as expected and then shrugs when you ask why the campaign didn’t perform well, they don’t deserve any praise. But if a marketer can articulate the assumption they made, the data that proves the assumption was wrong, the impact of that assumption, and how they will improve future campaigns, they deserve your praise.

Embrace diversity

Another part of building a culture for operational marketing excellence is embracing diversity. Diverse organizations perform better because they see the same problems through different lenses. The best marketing organizations are excellent at identifying market changes, campaign performance, competition, etc. By identifying and responding to change rapidly, marketing teams can outpace their peers and deliver much higher performance.

One of the best ways to identify change is to look at problems from different perspectives. If your entire team is cut from the same cloth, you can quickly convince yourself that your perspective is the only one that matters.

Develop emerging talent

Another factor of great operational marketing? Get new perspectives within your organization. One way to ensure that you have fresh perspectives is to embrace the idea that developing emerging talent is a critical, ongoing process. One of the best ways to reward up-and-coming talent is to give them a special project to work on. It costs nothing, and you often end up with excellent results.

Furthermore, there are many reasons for opportunities to emerge in your organization, including turnover (voluntary and involuntary), growth, or positions that become available when other high performers in your organization take on a new assignment. The best operational marketing leaders will always have someone ready to fill those unexpected vacancies – temporarily or permanently – with emerging talent from your team.


Wrapping Up: Operational Marketing Excellence

We hope this article helps you move forward to strive for operational marketing excellence.

Use our operational marketing index to get your digital marketing score:



Download The Full Book

Don’t want to wait until next week to read the chapter? You can download the full book here. 



Peter Mahoney
Peter Mahoney is the former CEO of Plannuh, a marketing planning software.  Peter has degrees in Physics and Computer Science and studied Latin for 7 years, and then showed up in the wrong room one day and ended up in marketing.  In his 30+ year career, Peter has built products and led marketing for startups and for multi-billion dollar public companies.  You can follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.