Experts know that careful planning is integral to marketing success. Here's your guide to crafting a thorough marketing plan - and learning more about your customers along the way.
There's no question that most entrepreneurs thrive on action. But as the Roman philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero so aptly put it: "Before beginning, plan carefully." Careful planning is precisely the goal you should have in mind when crafting a marketing plan for your company's products or services.
"A marketing plan is good for focusing your energy towards the right actions that will deliver on what you want to accomplish," says Deb Roberts, CEO of Synapse Marketing Solutions based in Denver. "The whole idea of doing one is to try and understand your customers and take action towards delivering your product or service to them."
And there's no need to over-think it, Roberts says. For small businesses, it's best to think of a marketing plan as a way to tell a concise story that covers all the key points of your strategy going forward. So keep it brief: The best plans can be told in 15 pages or fewer.
Before you begin, it could be helpful to establish three items:
A completion date: A deadline you set in advance for when you want to complete your first draft of the plan. It's important to remember that establishing an effective plan will be an iterative process. You can count on your plan changing.
The responsible parties: Establish your team's roles and responsibility. In other words, make sure you identify who is doing what and when they need it completed.
Your budget: When it comes to putting together a marketing strategy, it's critical to establish ahead of time how much do you have to spend, as that can have a major impact on the strategies you decide to implement.
Once you have these items in hand, you're ready to put your plan together.
Dig Deeper: Inc.com's Marketing Plan Guides
Writing a Marketing Plan: Setting Your Objectives
The first step in developing your marketing plan is to establish the marketing objectives that will accomplish your business goals, says Karen Albritton, president of Capstrat, a marketing agency in Raleigh, North Carolina. "If your business goal is to grow revenue, what marketing objective will accomplish this? Adding more customers? More repeat customers? Higher expenditures?"
One of the steps you can take to create your objectives is to first create a vision statement, which is basically the long-term mission for your business that is both timeless and immediately inspiring for organization stakeholders. Every business has is it's own brand, so in setting your vision, you should identify the attributes of your product or service that define the brand and its long-term positioning.
Another step that can help set objectives is to perform a S.W.O.T. analysis, where you identify the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats facing your business. By conducting such an analysis, you should identify the key insights and strategic plans that will drive your business over the next one-to-five years. This includes understanding, your five Cs—the consumer, channel, company, competition, and climate—deeply enough that when you finish, you should understand your point of difference in the market and where your opportunities lie," Roberts says. This should inform how you set your objectives.
Once you have your vision and a better sense of the opportunities and threats facing your business, you can begin establishing S.M.A.R.T. objectives – specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound - that will help you drive to your tangible goal, such as profitable growth or market share.
The key is to be realistic and specific, but also set a limited number of marketing goals related to what you think is your target market.
Dig Deeper: Creating a Vision Statement
Writing a Marketing Plan: Do your Research
Many businesses fail to use research to shape their plans by conducting market research and market analysis, says Albritton. "It's either overlooked or perhaps small businesses feel it is a cost they can't afford," she says. Marketing plans that do not consider such research, however, will almost certainly waste money. The goal is simply to better understand who and where you customers are – something known as market segmentation.
One of your primary goals in conducting research is to set focus areas, which are the discipline in your plan, says Albritton. "It's easy to fragment your efforts without discipline," she says. "So set a clear definition for the type of customers you want." At this point you should tackle your priority geography and begin focusing on the product and service offering you do best.
Conducting research these days, though, does not have to be expensive. Anyone can access a wealth of information online from sources such as trade associations, media organizations, chambers of commerce, and other business groups. In addition, customer focus groups or roundtables can be a valuable - and relatively inexpensive - form of research.
Dig Deeper: How to Profit from Market Research
Writing a Marketing Plan: Define the Strategies you Need
Strategies are the how in your plan, Albritton says. This is the point where you begin to address questions such as:
• How will you position your business against other business?
• What target markets are your best prospects to achieve your goals?
• How will you price your offerings to achieve your goals?
Strategies should be also broad enough to capture several specific tactics, says Roberts, such as "Build Brand Awareness" or "Deliver Unmatched Customer Service."
"Ultimately, all work done on the business should fall into these strategies,' Roberts says. "If the work doesn't satisfy the strategies, then it shouldn't be done."
Dig Deeper: More Marketing Strategies from Inc.com
Writing a Marketing Plan: Outline your Tactics
Tactics are the what in your plan, says Albritton. Start by thinking about what you should do first to achieve the best results. That may be as simple as putting together a very good presentation. Start small and build tactics one-by-one. For each tactic you develop, note how it fits your areas of focus, your strategies, and your objectives.
An example of a tactic could be, according to Roberts, to reduce days from order to delivery as a way to accomplish a strategy of "delivering unmatched customer service."
You should also develop a forecast, for each tactic: Identify the expected volume of sales to flow from each marketing effort, the cost of goods sold attached to that sales volume, the budget, and any other financial figure that you expect to achieve as a result of accomplishing your plan.
Dig Deeper: Developing a Forecast
Writing a Marketing Plan: Build in Measurement for Each Tactic
In solid plans, tactics are thorough, all the way down to details concerning execution and measurements of success, such as launch dates and expected reach, Roberts says. The point is that you need to begin measuring whether the tactics are successful at delivering your objectives. You may even choose to stagger your tactics so that you can evaluate their effectiveness and learn which ones work best for your business.
Units of measurement can range from web traffic to retail foot traffic to increases in sales volume, Albritton says. Basically, you should strive to measure anything you can track to judge whether a tactic has made a difference.
Dig Deeper: Valuing your Prospects
Writing a Marketing Plan: Develop the Plan and Stick to It
Your plan is only as good as its implementation, so also create a plan for precisely how you are going to execute on it, Albritton advises. Where appropriate, look to partner with other organizations to help with implementation. You may be able to find interns from nearby universities, for example. "These days, even high school students have amazing talents in technology and design," she says.
If your plan includes advertising or events, sometimes the vendors will help with implementation. Depending on your area of business, you may also consider bartering services with other businesses. If you don't currently have the resources available to take action, find someone who does.
Dig Deeper: Setting Realistic Projections
Writing a Marketing Plan: Implement the Plan – and Stay Flexible
Never forget that the opportunities and risks you established in your S.W.O.T. analysis might dictate that the objectives you've established in your plan might not happen "as planned," Roberts says. A whole host of variables could come into play that you never considered in the beginning, such as changes in consumer demand, channel expansion, customer contracts, competitive responses, and supply costs.
That's why the best advice is to rough out a plan and then put it down in detail with action items on a monthly calendar, Albritton says. Set a time to review the calendar each month, assess results and determine next steps.
Dig Deeper: Discipline vs. Flexibility and Creativity
Writing a Marketing Plan: Additional Resources
American Marketing Association
A source that some 30,000 marketers turn to every day for information/resources, education/training and professional networking.
2010 Marketing Plan + Calendar
If you're looking for something to give you a daily to-do list in constructing your marketing plan, look no further.
Also, check out the related blog here.
Off-The-Wall Marketing Ideas: Jump-Start Your Sales Without Busting Your Budget
By Nancy Michaels. Adams Media, 1999.
A guide to incorporating creative ideas for selling products and services into a marketing plan.
The Little Blue Book of Marketing: Build a Killer Plan in Less Than a Day
By Paul Kurnit and Steve Lance. Portfolio, 2009.
An easy-to-follow advice guide that encourages collaboration between any company's key players in marketing, research and development, sales, financial, legal, and senior management in constructing a marketing plan.
Streetwise Marketing Plan
By Don Debelak. Adams Media, 2000.
A straightforward guide to putting your marketing plan together quickly and cheaply.
Dig Deeper: Inc.com's Complete Marketing Resource Guides
DARREN DAHL is a contributing editor at Inc. Magazine, which he has written for since 2004. He also works as a collaborative writer and editor and has partnered with several high-profile authors. Dahl lives in Asheville, NC.