Start the new year with a marketing calendar

There's never been a better time to be a guerrilla marketer. It's been 26 years since I began advising entrepreneurs that they should approach marketing like guerrilla warriors, using nimble attacks to succeed against better-financed foes. Today that approach makes more sense than ever because small companies have an ever-increasing number of marketing options, from infomercials to the Internet.

If anything, the number of marketing choices available these days can be a bit overwhelming. With so many options, how do you allocate a small promotional budget? A systematic approach to marketing is more critical than ever. Here's my down-and-dirty field guide to organizing and tracking--and succeeding at--your guerrilla-marketing attack.

Step one: write a marketing plan. I don't mean a Harvard M.B.A.­certified marketing plan. I mean a plan that's back-of-the-napkin simple. Stick to seven sentences. The plan must be clearly understood by your employees, suppliers, investors, board members, and marketing partners. Before you write a word of it, be sure you've done your market and industry research, identified your company's competitive advantage, and studied your marketing options.

What should the plan include? The first sentence should spell out the purpose of your marketing. The second should make clear the customer benefits you'll emphasize. The third should state your target audience, and the fourth list the marketing techniques you'll use. (I call them "marketing weapons.") Add a fifth sentence describing your niche in the marketplace, the position that's yours in the minds of customers and prospects. Follow that with a sentence articulating your identity, the way you perceive your company. Complete the plan with a sentence that states your marketing budget, expressed as a percentage of projected gross revenues.

As an example, let's consider a hypothetical adventure-travel company I'll call Peak Experience. Peak Experience offers river, hiking, and Jeep trips in the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada. Here's how the company's 1997 marketing plan might look:

Peak Experience Marketing Plan: Peak Experience wants to motivate people to send for its video by calling a toll-free number. We'll do that by stressing our visually stirring river and backcountry trips, our affable and knowledgeable guides, and our delicious food. Our travel company wants to reach adventurous males and females, both singles and couples, age 34 to 59, with sufficient discretionary income for our $750 to $3,700 trips. We will use a wide variety of marketing tools, including the toll-free number, press kits, postcard mailings, a Web site, speeches, printed brochures, video brochures, a referral program, a newsletter, a schedule of classified ads in travel publications, and a onetime ad in a regional edition of a national magazine (with reprints we can use in our brochure); we'll also use articles penned for travel publications, marketing arrangements with a network of travel agencies, cable-TV spots in selected U.S. markets, posters for travel-industry trade shows, and free adventure-travel clinics conducted in major cities. Our niche: we provide adventure travel with luxurious service. As a company, we radiate excitement and conscientiousness, blended with proven expertise in the wilderness. Because we want to grow our company substantially, in 1997 we will invest an aggressive 10% of sales in marketing.

Step two: create a marketing calendar. A plan like Peak Experience's is a good start, but smart marketers also plot their moves on a calendar. (See below.) It should have 52 rows--one for each week of the year--and five columns. The first column lists the week number. The second states the thrust of that week's marketing: in week one, Peak Experience wants to promote Jeep trips into Arches National Park. The third column states the media used that week, such as a postcard mailing to select zip-code areas. The fourth lists the marketing expenditure for the week.

But it's the fifth column that's key. That's where you sum up the results of the week's marketing by giving yourself a letter grade. Like the marketing plan, there's nothing fancy about this: just choose a grade from A plus to F minus. How do you decide what deserves an A and what deserves a C? The more you know about the way marketing is traditionally measured--for example, a 2% return is considered par for the course in direct mail--the better you can set goals and gauge the results. The important thing is to start with assumptions that can be tracked, tested, and modified.

Before you make each week's expenditure, ask yourself what results you expect and when you expect them. When that time comes, give yourself a grade based on how close you came to your goals. In the beginning of a marketing program, you'll have to rely on your gut reaction in many cases. However, as time goes by you'll more and more often have hard sales and profit figures to back up your intuition.

Step three: launch the attack. A guerrilla marketer conducts his or her attack in slow motion, taking as long as 18 months to fire all the marketing weapons. My average client has an arsenal of 43 marketing techniques, but remember that if the plan feels too complicated, it's bound to fail.

Step four: maintain the attack and track its effectiveness. Some marketing weapons will hit the bull's-eye, while others will miss the target altogether. Careful records will help you tell the difference. Peak Experience, for example, might ask customers how they heard of the company, track phone responses to its free-video offer, code brochures it gives away, and tally the number of visitors to its Web site.

How long will it take to know if an attack is effective? After three months, you should have glimmers of insight, and after six months, no doubt. If the results aren't clear after that, the attack has probably faltered.

The final step in a guerrilla marketing attack is to improve it. That means homing in on the media that work best for you and junking those that don't. Your aim: to raise your results to straight A's every week of the year. Then your competitors won't stand a chance.

Peak Experience's Marketing Calendar for a Sample Month

Jay Conrad Levinson is the author of the popular Guerrilla Marketing series.

Week Promotion Medium Cost Results
1 Backcountry Jeep trip, Arches National Park Postcards (2,000) $1,000 A
2 Sierra hike, Yosemite to Lake Tahoe Speech to local hiking club $0 B-
3 River trip, Snake River through Hell's Canyon Ad in Seattle edition of weekly national magazine $1,500 C+
4 River camping trip, Idaho's Hot Springs Travel clinic for Bay Area travel group $250 A-