Annual and quarterly planning for SEO

In addition to shorter days and colder nights (at least in the Northern Hemisphere of the world), September brings a special gift to the office which everyone claims to welcome – but in truth they despise: annual planning. Many large companies will have some sort of quarterly planning process where in the last couple weeks of a quarter teams will have to detail how they have progressed on the current quarter’s goals and what they hope to accomplish in the coming quarter.

Annual planning

While this process isn’t necessarily the most fun, it can be straightforward as it has the benefit of making predictions about that things that are already in flight. This can’t be said for an annual planning process which is typically conducted in the closing quarter of a year and requires a team to pick a goal for the coming year and negotiate for the resources to achieve said goal.

Winning at annual planning

Team that “win” the planning process  in the sense that their goals are accepted and their resource requests are met can in some ways rest for the next 12 months until this process begins again. In most organizations they will not be necessarily held to their goals because of course a lot can change over a year. Their real win is that they were given the resources (defined as budget and/or headcount) to meet their goal(s), and if they did not meet that goal for whatever external resources, they were still able to deploy their resources to make some other flashy business impact.

This business impact – even if it was not the one stated in the annual planning process – positions them in a very good light in the following year to again state lofty goals and request resources to help them get there.

Losing at annual planning

On the flipside of the teams that win the planning process are the teams that “lose.” These are teams whose goals are not adopted as goals worthy of being resourced and their requests will be turned down in favor of other teams. They will still have a goal for the coming year, but it will likely be somewhat watered down due to the lack of resources. This team could find themselves generally deprioritized and locked out of new headcount and budget for the entire next year. When it comes time to develop goals and make a request for resources in the following year, they start off with a significantly weaker hand as they don’t have the benefit of making a huge impact in the prior year.

Looking at planning in this light, the stakes could not be higher. Teams must win at the planning process and successfully pitch executives to get behind their goals or risk becoming a non-essential line item until something fundamentally changes in the business. The only exception to this favored/non-favored child reality is if there is a high-level executive backing a team or if there is a shift in power within a company like a re-org, fundraising event or new product need.

Due to the nature of where SEO teams sit within a large organization, they immediately begin this planning process behind the curve. In most companies, SEO either sits within marketing or product and this placement has a big effect on how they do in a planning process.

SEO in marketing

If an SEO team is a part of the marketing team, they likely report up to a marketing leader of some sort. This leader will be juggling budget and headcount requests from teams that can make far stronger 1+2 = 3 pitches. For example, a paid marketing team can show very clear math of how additional paid budget will impact acquisition, retention or awareness. They can also show how added headcount will improve the efficiency of their spend thereby adding more value to the organization.

The same argument might work for a content team that could show how output (the metric that content teams are measured by) will improve by a factor of how much more is spent on producing content.

Contrasted with the SEO team that has fuzzy math for how SEO works and even fuzzier math for what more spend might get, a pitch for resources is a losing proposition on a marketing team. This is why most SEO teams even in companies with large other marketing-subteams will still only consist of 1 or 2 people.

SEO in product

When an SEO team sits on a product team, the uphill climb to win resources is slightly easier but not by much. Rather than a pitch for just budget and headcount, the resource ask will also likely include engineering time. In a company that does not prioritize SEO, the engineering time request might get shunted aside in favor of building new products or improving existing products.

Logically, this makes a lot of sense as what product leader would rather have a roadmap full of improvements to existing products rather than one with all sorts of exciting new builds.

How to win resources

To win at the annual planning game, the SEO team is going to have to morph into the kind of team everyone loves to fund and support. This will apply regardless of where the SEO team sits in the org.

First and foremost, the whole idea of using wishy washy data to forecast SEO impact must be completely discarded. There is data within the company and Google Search Console which very clearly tells the story of how valuable SEO traffic is for top line acquisition. There may even be data on how it impacts the bottom line too. Get that data and use that as the guiding light within an annual goal.

Is the plan to increase SEO traffic by 10%? That’s not a good goal! Back into what a 10% organic traffic increase might mean to top line revenue and use that number as the goal. An increase of 10% of overall web revenue from organic sources sounds a whole hell of a lot more sexy than an unclear 10% increase of traffic.

Second, many other teams will pitch ideas that they don’t really know how they will implement but want resources to try. They certainly aren’t pitching the process on how they may or may not get there, rather they are saying they are going to build X and X requires engineers.  The SEO team should do the exact same thing.

Instead of asking for engineers to update a whole bunch of SEO requirements, instead ask for engineers (or content or money) to build X for SEO.

Third, and this is specific by company, there is a process for how every other product and marketing team pitches for resources. Make sure that the SEO pitch looks exactly the same and there is data to show even greater impact than other efforts. Keep the SEO jargon out of the pitch and use the same language that everyone else uses. The last thing an SEO team wants is to have their pitch stand out just because it was different.

Annual planning from a leadership standpoint

The prior advice mostly applies to SEO practitioners pitching for resources or those pitching SEO asks to the C-suite, but it can just as well be modified for leaders being asked for the resources. Know that SEO is incredibly important, and if the pitch for resources doesn’t have the clear 1+2 = 3 approach then push it back to the team for a revision, don’t just reject it out of hand.

Summary

Annual planning is a process no one really enjoys other than the people who run the process for everyone else. It is a necessary evil and it isn’t going to go away if it is ignored.  If an SEO team does not put their best foot forward they could risk losing an entire year with no impact efforts.