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Using the OODA Loop for Marketing Decisions

The pace of business moves faster every day. Make sure your marketing is keeping up by using the OODA Loop, a military‑developed method for quick decision‑making.

In an ideal world, you have all the time you need to make decisions: You can gather every bit of relevant information, do a thorough analysis of the situation, examine all possible options, and wait until the best time to take action.

But in the modern marketing landscape, that's rarely the case. Any company knows that business often moves fast. It's vital to have various methods available in order to react to unexpected challenges and changing market conditions, whether you're selling products, dealing with a PR emergency, or trying to boost your appearance on search engines.

The OODA Loop is a versatile framework that can be used in conjunction with any marketing approach focused on creating, communicating, or exchanging offerings for products and services.

Marketing in a fast-paced business environment

It's no secret that the pace of business is growing faster and faster. Attracting customers, selling products and services, and appealing to search engines' algorithms are often directly related to the ability to adapt.

In fact, according to a study published in Barron's, at the end of 2023, business activity expanded at the fastest pace in months. Any company's marketing that doesn't prioritize adaptability will fall behind.

The OODA Loop is an ideal solution, which also coordinates well with the marketing mix. The marketing mix (also known as the 7 P's of marketing) refers to all the variables that a company might use in its marketing efforts. Any one of them might need fast decision-making, which is where the OODA Loop comes in.

What is the OODA Loop?

Mental models are helpful structures used for thinking, reasoning, or making a decision. The OODA Loop, one of these decision-making frameworks, emphasizes agility and adaptability in rapidly changing situations.

In its simplest form, users cycle through the model's 4 stages, rapidly observing the environment, orienting themselves to new information, deciding on a course of action, and then taking that action. The Loop is particularly effective in creating a competitive advantage by processing information quickly, making informed decisions with limited information, and responding swiftly to dynamic circumstances.

Comes with a military pedigree

The OODA Loop was first developed by military strategist and fighter pilot Colonel John Boyd. During the Korean War, Boyd's experience in aerial combat influenced his understanding of the need for rapid decision-making in fast-changing and unpredictable situations. In fact, his nickname was "Forty-Second Boyd" from his contention that he could defeat an opposing pilot in air combat in that time limit, using his ability to quickly gather, assess, and use information.

The OODA Loop is now used in other contexts like business, sports, and law enforcement to help people make quick and effective decisions. This is particularly useful in situations where being slow and deliberate can have life-or-death consequences or can result in losing a competitive advantage on the sports field or in the business marketplace. Many private companies have seen the benefit of adopting this approach when navigating a fast-changing marketing landscape.

Designed for quick decision-making

Because of his experience in air combat, John Boyd understood that being successful in rapidly changing situations hinged on agility and the ability of the decision-maker to continuously observe, orient, decide, and act. That also means that the Loop is designed to be iterative—a constantly repeating cycle. This important concept recognizes that dynamic situations are constantly changing. Even after taking action, it's important to keep observing and gathering more information and recognize that the original context may have shifted as well.

It's helpful to think of the OODA Loop model as several OODA Loops that feed into each other, improving the effectiveness of every decision. Companies that employ the OODA Loop model can take a proactive approach, continuously responding to changing situations in the face of uncertainty while serving the needs of customers.

Prioritizes agility over power

The OODA Loop decision-making model places more emphasis on adaptability and quick resolution than on power or resource superiority. This aspect of the model is particularly useful in a dynamic marketplace, where the environment can change quickly and marketing decisions need to be made fast. Being able to assess the situation, decide, and act fast can give business owners a strategic advantage over their competitors.

Using the OODA Loop's 4 steps, businesses can keep an eye on market trends, shifting rankings on search engines, and relationship marketing opportunities. Continuously collecting information allows companies to be prepared to respond quickly to changes in customer preferences, implement a product improvement, or boost inbound marketing efforts in response to changes.

The OODA Loop is particularly useful for small business leaders who want to prioritize this type of agile response over sheer market dominance. However, even larger companies can use it to stay nimble, innovate more effectively, and navigate uncertainties.

How the OODA Loop works: The 4 steps

While the 4-stage OODA Loop seems simple, it's helpful to examine each step of the process in more detail in order to understand how the steps work together and how the process can be applied to your business's marketing strategy.

Step #1: Observe

You probably already know that you can't make a good decision until you understand the situation. The 1st stage of the OODA Loop is where you gather as much information as you can. In a military context, this includes observing the situation in combat, making note of the surrounding area and weather conditions, and keeping an eye on what opposing forces are doing.

In business, this could mean watching industry trends, understanding what is happening in the global economy, and keeping an eye on competitors as well as noting external factors like economic conditions, industry trends, and the actions of other businesses.

Because this process is designed to be used in fast-paced, high-pressure situations, it can be tempting to assume you know the facts or understand the entire situation. But don't skip over this important step. Think of this stage as gathering as many puzzle pieces as you can. The more you have, the more complete the picture will be when you fit them all together, and the better your marketing decision-making will be.

Step #2: Orient

In the 2nd stage, OODA Loop users take the information they gathered in stage 1 and try to make sense of it. This is where users analyze the information. The goal of this stage is to put together a clear picture of the situation so that when you're ready to make a decision, it's informed both by data and an understanding of that data as it relates to your business strategy.

Fighter pilots like John Boyd might draw on their knowledge of opposing forces' tactics, past actions, and goals. In a business context, this step could involve understanding the raw marketing data, contextualizing a competitor's marketing campaigns, or determining why customer interest in a product or service has shifted. Don't discount your own experiences, knowledge, and perspective in this step. They can provide valuable additional context.

Step #3: Decide

Once you've gathered and analyzed information, it's time to make a decision. The 3rd phase of the OODA Loop involves choosing the best option given the data and the situation at hand. Like the rest of the OODA Loop, this step should be done quickly and efficiently. In high-stakes military campaigns, a fighter pilot might choose a specific tactic or strategy based on their observations of enemy actions and analysis of the circumstances.

In business, it could mean setting a new product launch date, targeting a new group of prospective customers, or rethinking your approach to market segmentation. Now, there are some business decisions that require careful consideration and slow, deliberate thought. However, the situations that are a good fit for the OODA Loop model require timely choices in response to the rapidly changing nature of the business environment.

Step #4: Act

Finally, the 4th stage of the OODA Loop is where you take action. This is the time to implement your chosen course of action swiftly and effectively.

In the military, it may mean executing a combat maneuver or repositioning resources. In a marketing context, quick and timely execution of decisions is important as well.  Businesses can respond to market developments, take advantage of viral marketing opportunities, and react to high-stakes public relations challenges.

The 4th stage is where the importance of agility really kicks in, allowing both multinational corporations and small businesses to stay ahead in rapidly changing markets and emerging consumer trends. This may mean reacting swiftly to a new cohort of potential customers, rethinking a product lifecycle, or expanding distribution channels.

The benefits of the OODA Loop

In a rapidly changing market, the OODA Loop has many advantages to help foster a competitive edge. It can be used in conjunction with other marketing models like the marketing mix or game theory. Also, the OODA Loop can help you market your products or services by, for example, boosting search results or building your brand image.

Creates a sense of unpredictability for competitors

One of the benefits of the OODA Loop is that it keeps competitors on their toes. The rapid cycle of observing and orienting to a changing situation allows companies to adapt quickly, getting ahead of others and disrupting their expectations.

While another company that uses more deliberative decision-making models may still be in the information-gathering stage, a business using the OODA Loop may have already jumped on a chance to update their social media content marketing, adapt to new understandings of customers’ cultural traditions, or adjust their planned attendance at trade shows.

Many organizations have a multi-level management structure that results in slow decisions. These companies can be thrown off-balance by their opponent's OODA Loop agility and quick reaction time.

Acknowledges information uncertainty  

It's rare in any situation—whether in the military, business, or everyday life—that you have all the information you need before you make a decision. Sometimes it's a good idea to prioritize gathering as much information as possible before making a decision. If your goal is to make a product as safe as possible, making sure your Design team has all the relevant data should be a top priority.

But in other circumstances, communicating, delivering, and exchanging every bit of useful information isn't possible or even necessary. As the situation changes, so does the amount of content available. The OODA Loop allows your Marketing department to make constant reassessments and adjustments so your company can adapt to evolving circumstances and make good decisions even in uncertain environments.

Establishes an efficient decision-making structure

It can be difficult to know how to approach high-stakes decisions, especially when a situation is changing quickly. Rather than switching back and forth between information gathering and analysis—or jumping right to taking action and then deciding whether it was effective—the OODA Loop gives your Marketing team a clear, useful method.

The OODA Loop is simple and straightforward but still provides enough guidance and structure to make it useful in many situations. For example, if your company discovers that a major supplier is suddenly going out of business, the OODA Loop allows you to work through the process of finding a new source as soon as possible and then establish an ongoing process to plan for and detect future supply disruptions. Without a helpful structure, you may find yourself making a rushed decision without a sense of calm and focus because of the pressure to act quickly.

OODA Loop challenges

When it comes to decision-making, all mental models have benefits and drawbacks. While the OODA Loop is particularly well suited for certain situations that benefit from quick actions, there are other times when it's not the best choice. Understanding the challenges of this approach can help you decide when to employ it and when another process might be a better fit for your marketing strategy.

Can encourage using incomplete or outdated information

One potential drawback of the OODA Loop is its potential to encourage decisions based on incomplete or outdated information. Because of the emphasis on rapid decision-making, it's possible to neglect thorough data analysis in the 1st stage. In dynamic situations, information can quickly become obsolete, and it can be easy to assume that outdated information is good in order to rush the process.

In addition, the pressure to act quickly may keep your Marketing team from following the rest of the steps effectively. It's necessary to strike a balance between speed and accuracy to make sure that your company promotes OODA Loop decisions that are grounded in the most relevant and current information possible.

Not designed for one-off decisions

The OODA Loop model excels in situations where a continuous feedback loop is beneficial. However, there are many business and marketing situations that are more static or don't need continuous information input. Because of the iterative nature of the OODA Loop, it's not the best decision-making choice when facing isolated or one-time decisions.

For example, designing marketing campaigns for new products or deciding to research an event marketing strategy are decisions that don't require continuous iteration and information renewal. Similarly, a plan to hire an outside marketing firm or target a new group of customers might only need to be reevaluated from time to time. Using a process like the OODA Loop can encourage unnecessary inconsistency when it's not beneficial to the company.

Potential for oversimplification

Another challenge of the OODA Loop model is that it can be easy to oversimplify situations and decisions. Because it's designed to be used when events are changing rapidly or when a quick decision is needed, businesses may overlook nuances in consumer behavior or market changes in a rush to meet organizational objectives.

Oversimplification can result in marketing strategies that lack strategic depth. For example, a company may overlook marketing methods like relationship building, which can benefit from a slower, more considered approach in favor of more reactive digital marketing, even if it isn't the best of multiple options.

When using the OODA Loop, it's important to balance speed with thoughtful analysis, and in particular, not rush through the Orient step. Keep in mind that a nuanced understanding of market complexities is important for sustainable marketing strategies.

May not apply to all marketing decisions

While the OODA Loop is a particularly useful and effective mental model in fast-changing, high-stakes, or extreme situations, it's not a one-size-fits-all approach. In fact, many decisions require a more deliberate, considered approach and the temptation to analyze and act quickly could be detrimental to your company and your customers.

In addition, quick decisions and rapid responses could be seen as overly hasty, especially for companies whose brand loyalty is based on longstanding, steady relationships.

Examples of how to apply the OODA Loop in marketing

The OODA Loop process can be applied to any type of company in any industry. Whether your business is a multinational corporation or a small, bare-bones startup, there will sometimes be shifting situations or unexpected opportunities. Being able to react quickly will make the difference between taking a big leap forward or falling behind.

Look at these examples of the OODA Loop in action to help inspire some ideas about how it might be useful for your company.

Boost your digital marketing strategy

Digital marketing is one area where quick thinking in response to audience and market trends is particularly important.

In the Observe step, keep an eye on real-time data like website analytics, social media metrics, and industry trends. Then use the Orient stage to analyze this data in the context of your market segment and target customers.

Next, use this information to decide on a marketing strategy. This may include adding new marketing channels, pivoting to new sales promotions, or increasing the budget for your digital marketing campaigns. Finally, put the decisions into action without delay to make sure that your digital marketing efforts stay responsive and agile. This way, you can reach as many potential buyers as possible in the fast-moving digital landscape.

Act fast in a crisis

No matter how well you plan or how good your products and services are, most companies will face the occasional public relations or marketing crisis that requires a quick and effective response. The OODA Loop is particularly well suited to this situation.

According to the American Marketing Association, business is impacted when customers see negative mentions of a brand on social media. Staying ahead of the situation and taking proactive measures to counter negative PR is a good use of the OODA Loop.

In addition, if your Marketing department needs to respond to customer complaints about a product defect, a delayed response will only compound the problem. Use the OODA Loop to observe the situation, focusing on the most relevant and timely information, then orient yourself to the scope and nature of the problem, decide on the most effective and customer-focused response in the short term, and then implement that response as soon as possible.

In addition, the iterative nature of the OODA Loop means that once the immediate crisis has been dealt with, you can use the OODA Loop to continue staying on top of the situation as it evolves.

Take advantage of content marketing

Content marketing is a popular marketing method that involves creating and sharing material like blogs, videos, and social media posts. This method can be very effective for bringing customers to your site and keeping them engaged with a regular flow of fresh content.

The key to success with content marketing is understanding your audience. Knowing what type of content your customers are looking for and how they find it will allow you to effectively employ the OODA Loop to take in information and make quick changes and updates to your content channels and material.

Stay nimble when launching a new product

No matter how much research your company has done and how well your Marketing department has prepared, there will inevitably be some surprises when launching new products or services. The OODA Loop is a great tool for reacting to these changes.

You may discover that your advertising campaign is not reaching your expected audience. Using the OODA Loop, you can quickly gather important customer data, analyze which promotional channels are not working and what other options you have, decide on an alternative approach, and redirect your marketing budget appropriately. Don't forget to continue checking the data and adjusting your course of action as necessary.

There's no one-size-fits-all method for making good marketing decisions. But when it's necessary to react to fast-changing circumstances, the OODA Loop can be helpful in creating, communicating, delivering, and executing quick and effective decisions.

Although your company may not be dealing with life-or-death military maneuvers, you can put the OODA Loop to work for you. Observe, orient, decide, and act to integrate the model with your marketing mix, your business strategy, or your relationship marketing plan.

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