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The other day, as we pondered our (heavy) work plan together for the upcoming six weeks, a startup mission-driven client asked if there were guidelines for deciding when to do what first for your marketing strategies. I quickly sketched out the axes and curves for the three horizons of growth.

Thinking of growth horizons was helpful in this instance as it has been many times before. So with due apologies to McKinsey, who originated the three horizons framework based on research into how companies sustain growth, I will dive into how to maximize your most effective marketing strategies today without cannibalizing your opportunities for tomorrow. My focus here is on the short-term versus long-term marketing trade-offs faced by nonprofits, professional services firms and triple bottom line companies interested in sustainability.

Marketing Strategies Before Tactics

To be clear, I am not talking about a technique to help you determine which specific marketing tactics or methods you want to use. The options seem endless today: print, radio, TV, direct mail, affiliate, content marketing, SEO/SEM, social media marketing, public relations, billboards, digital, traditional, and on and on. The three horizons framework helps you select your optimal and most effective marketing strategies based on your market position, time frame and primary objective. The specific tactics flow from these strategic choices.

Three Horizons for Timing

The axes for the three time horizons graph reflect an evolution designed to manage current marketing performance while maximizing future opportunities.


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Horizon 1 focuses on traffic and includes low investment, readily measured and therefore lower risk efforts, (both traditional and online), that effectively deliver an immediate return from shorter-term customer relationships. (Think direct response mail and advertising such as pay-per-click, cost-per-lead, cost-per-install and other forms of performance advertising.) You can test various channels and messages quickly to see what works. Your prospect is at the bottom-of-the-funnel (at the point of purchase). Traffic and near-immediate return are your priorities when you are new, when you’re entering a new category, when resources are limited. But these activities must be repeated over and over again, risk saturating a channel or geographic market, and are linked to short-term customers, churn and little loyalty.

Horizon 2 marketing tactics focus on expanding your reach to wider audiences, take longer to produce results and are less readily measured — but you are reaching your prospects in the middle of the purchase journey and through education and nurturing leads, you are laying the foundation for connecting with them more than once. Product public relations, blogging, content marketing, and social media marketing are common mid-term timeline tactics. Your customer-conversion times are increasing and it is more difficult to measure the effectiveness of your marketing spend, but you are starting relationships you can build on for the future.

Horizon 3 is for top-of-the-funnel, longer-lead-to-conversion times, broad awareness building and may include radio, TV, billboards, corporate public relations and other brand-building but less directly measurable efforts. Your focus is on retaining your audience and customer base and sustaining growth for the long term.

Effective Marketing Strategies Maximize Future Opportunities for Growth

Few organizations proceed neatly from horizon 1 to 2 and then 3. In some instances, elements of all three strategic horizons may be operating concurrently — it’s a case of which needs to be the priority at the moment. I see many marketers experience one of two frustrations:

  1. Selecting short-term tactics and wondering why there’s a high level of churn for customers/donors, or
  2. Selecting long-term tactics and then being pressured by board members or donors to demonstrate immediate results.

A major advantage of using the three horizons framework is making your marketing strategy choice clear to your entire team. Together you can confidently step ahead to advance your mission with what you know is an integrated marketing strategy that will be effective for both your immediate and long-term needs.


Originally published in 2014, this article has been updated to reflect new terms for common tactics. Effective marketing strategies are "evergreen."