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Jan 31, 2022 BY Rachel Clemens, former Mighty Citizen UX Design & Content, Marketing

The Four Stages of Marketing Maturity, Explained

This is the second in a two-part series describing marketing maturity (and why it matters so much). Check out the first part, which covers what marketing maturity is.

I may never reach maturity, but baby, I’m gonna try.” - Hall & Oates, Big Kid

“Marketing” is a verb. But at its root is the noun “market.” So perhaps we should measure our modern marketing efforts by first considering marketplaces of old: vendors gathering in the center of town, setting up booths, displaying their wares, haggling with customers, and working sun-up to sundown to sell as much as possible.

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Markets like these still exist, of course. Here in Austin, for example, a half-dozen farmer’s markets take place every weekend. You can’t walk a few miles in any direction without coming across a craft fair. At concerts, there are merchandise booths. Strip malls are updated marketplaces. And in many parts of the globe, marketplaces remain cornerstones of entire economies.

What can we learn from these analog markets? Plenty. For starters:

  • It’s easier, cheaper, and more profitable long term to retain an existing customer than attract a new one.

  • Presentation matters—e.g., a vendor with a drab or cluttered look is a turn-off.

  • Real estate matters. If you’re hard to find, you’ll sell less.

  • Quality trumps almost everything. If you’re delivering products (or services or whatever) that make your customers’ lives better, you’ll probably beat the guy in the next stall over who cuts corners everywhere he can.

Translating these unshakeable truths to the digital space—i.e., websites, emails, social media—reveals a new set of unshakable truths:

  • Design matters, especially to younger users who have grown with exceptional design and have come to expect the good stuff.

  • Digital real estate—i.e., high search rankings—will produce better revenue and engagement for your organization.

  • No amount of snazzy design or snappy copy will substitute for a great product, service, or benefit. So you’d better make sure you stay invested in quality.

When we, Mighty Citizen, set out to categorize the stages of marketing maturity, we spent time thinking in these terms. We forced ourselves to return to the fundamentals—even those that appeared first, thousands of years ago, in real-world marketplaces. In so doing, we came up with the following four ways of categorizing how mature an organization’s marketing and communications are.

You need to know where you stand now so you can decide where you’re going—and how to get there.

The Four Stages of Marketing Maturity

Marketing is context-dependent. No two organizations are identical, so neither are their marketing efforts, even if they appear to be employing similar tactics or targeting similar audiences. Given this nuance, we could probably create a few dozen levels of marketing maturity. But we’ve gone with four because, like marketing itself, simplicity is best.

Stage 1: Crawling

Here, your efforts are scattered, or under-budgeted, or under-resourced, or all of these. You may have a few basics in place. Maybe you send the occasional e-newsletter, maybe you host a conference or two, and maybe your website accepts donations or event sign-ups. But that’s about it.

You have plenty of room for improvement at this stage. Any improvements you make might produce powerful results. After all, the difference between 0 mph and 10 mph is far more profound than going from 50 to 60. Or put another way: The marketing fruit is hanging low, just begging to be plucked.

Challenges in the Crawling Stage

  • Little or no marketing budget

  • Little or no buy-in from leadership

  • Staff doesn’t have the knowledge or resources to launch new initiatives

  • No concrete goals

  • More reactive than proactive

Next Steps in the Crawling Stage

  • Surveying your audiences

  • Establishing your brand guidelines

  • Creating a plan and a budget

  • Setting measurable goals

If you find yourself here, don’t despair. Remember, a journey is made one step at a time. And the first few steps are the most invigorating.

Identify the best practices you have the human and financial resources to implement and get to work. Often, this means first making the case for marketing internally—i.e., “Here’s why we should invest money and human capital into marketing and communications.” Without buy-in from management, your hopes of moving from Crawling to Walking are low.

Stage 2: Walking

Let’s use a new house as an analogy. In the Walking stage, you’ve passed inspection and have hot water. Now it’s time to select the flooring, backsplash tiles, and wall art.

Organizations in the Walking stage are often the most difficult to convince to try something new. They’re doing alright, treading water and producing measurable results. Numbers are more or less fine. The analytics look sufficient. No major competitors are stealing your users. What’s the rush, what’s the worry?

The worry is that your momentum may have stalled out, and without doing something new you won’t achieve anything new. If you’re not getting ahead, you’re falling behind. (This is especially true online, where you’re competing with both your obvious competitors and the amount of content online itself.) Your numbers might be fine now, but “fine” isn’t permanent, and it certainly isn’t inspiring.

Challenges in the Walking Stage

  • Lack of urgency stifles investment

  • Decisions are driven by experience and anecdotes, not by research and data

  • Old or clunky technologies

  • Website user experience is passable but sub-par

  • Often more reactive than proactive

Next Steps in the Walking Stage

  • Optimize your Google Analytics for better data at your fingertips

  • Hone your messaging

  • Prioritize your website’s UX

  • Implement more advanced technology

In the Walking stage, there’s plenty of room for growth. You need to identify the obvious gaps in your communications strategy—i.e., channels, technologies, and/or research that you’re lacking—and fill them. Often, we find that this means using Google Analytics and a savvy SEO strategy for the first time, although it can also mean a new website design, developing a video strategy, or building internal analysis of your audiences.

Stage 3: Running

You’re ahead of the competition, but there’s still plenty of room to grow. You’re doing some sophisticated things well—e.g., you use data to drive your decision-making, your website is firing on all cylinders, and your technology is in a good spot. But within each of these efforts lies a lot of untapped potential.

For example, let’s say you run a Google Analytics report each month and share it with your coworkers. But maybe you don’t yet have Google Tag Manager installed, and therefore you can’t track or report on the more nuanced metrics. Or maybe your website loads too slowly. Or maybe your content doesn’t meet modern accessibility standards.

You’ve seen the value of high-quality marketing, and you can clearly connect those efforts to larger organizational goals. And yet limitations (financial or human) are preventing you from taking flight.

Challenges in the Running Stage

  • Internal knowledge has hit its limits, including an inability to stay on top of the very latest thinking and tools available

  • What’s worked so far isn’t challenged or changed because … It’s worked so far

  • SEO, Google Analytics, and other, broader research efforts are often superficial

  • Technologies are good but contain plenty of unused features

  • Current projects and strategies are built on thinking that is often more than 2-3 years old

Next Steps in the Running Stage

  • Dive deeper into audience research

  • Audit your content and UX

  • Test, test, and test again

  • Assess your data security and privacy practices

Look deeply into your marketing and communications ecosystem. Where do opportunities exist to go deeper, increase efficiency, and optimize what’s already in place?

It should be clear where opportunity awaits. Often, it comes in the form of a massive rethinking of one part of your marketing and communications—e.g., a newly defined audience to target, a new communication platform to explore, a new piece of technology to implement, a new website or brand or logo or tagline, etc.

Stage 4: Soaring

You can have peace of mind, knowing that you’re mostly crushing your marketing objectives. You’re hitting your KPIs, growing your fanbase, and doing what marketing aims to do: win the day.

Now, the question becomes: How many precedents do you want to set?

As a Soaring organization, you’re poised to own the messaging around your mission and shape a larger conversation. Along the way, you just might expose entirely new opportunities and begin to influence, instead of react to, your organization’s goals.

Challenges in the Soaring Stage

  • Big ideas often demand a big budget

  • Sharing the nuances of your communication projects with leadership (and other departments) is difficult

  • Content governance isn’t in place, which means that as you create more content, you run the risk of it going off-brand and not meeting your standards

  • You want to scale your size and quality up 10x across your organization but aren’t sure how to make such an enormous leap

Next Steps in the Soaring Stage

  • Test, test, and test again

  • Implement content governance

  • Iterate on new technologies and their features

  • Coach your team

  • Seek new ideas from outside partners

When you’re Soaring, your focus turns to experimentation and influence. You’ll be scouring your organization for opportunities to reach new levels of success—and sharing what you’ve learned with your peers inside and outside your organization.

Now’s the time to revisit some of your fundamental thinking about why your organization exists and what it’s for.

After all, your high-level execution of a marketing strategy has produced undeniable results, and as such, you must consider a wild expansion of your vision. “If we can accomplish all this, why not accomplish a whole lot more?” You need to parse the finer points, split more hairs, and challenge yourself to do something industry-defining and non-ignorable.

So What Is Your Marketing Maturity Stage?

If this article has done its job, right about now you’re wondering where your organization lands on the maturity scale. You can easily find out by using The Mighty GPS™, a self-assessment to measure your marketing maturity. The Mighty GPS will give you an overall marketing maturity score, a score for each of six marketing dimensions—Research, Branding, Marketing, UX/Content, Technology, and Team Dynamics—and a list of steps to take to increase your marketing effectiveness.

The Mighty GPS

A Self-Assessment to Measure Your Marketing Maturity

Getting Started

Create Benchmarks to Track Your Progress

If you want to view marketing benchmarks and see how your efforts compare to your peers after taking The Mighty GPS, download our Marketing Benchmarks for Mission-Driven Organizations report. It showcases how well mission-driven organizations currently perform with their marketing and provides recommendations and best practices to improve. Where does your marketing shine compared to organizations like yours? Where do you need improvement? This is a great tool to use as a benchmark as you track your progress:

Want to Learn More About Marketing Maturity?

There’s so much to know! We’ve got a full suite of resources to help you better understand what marketing maturity is and how it can serve your organization:


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