While some entrepreneurs crow that they have achieved success without a marketing plan, such businesses are more likely to waste marketing dollars and not have a true sense of where their promotional budgets are yielding the best results. Just as a winning football team always goes onto the field with a solid game plan, your business needs to have an outline of how to reach out to prospective customers in order to succeed.
If the word plan makes you sweat, fear not. It's possible to create a simple, effective marketing plan in less than 24 hours. By following a series of steps, you will be able to schedule your marketing activities into your everyday routine and reach your growth goals that much sooner.
Hour 1: Take Stock
Before you map out where you want your marketing plan to take you, you need to figure out where you are right now. How is your business positioned in the market? Is this how prospective customers see you? You may want to ask some of them for their feedback. Be as objective as possible, and write four or five paragraphs that summarize your business, including its philosophy, strengths and weaknesses. Don't worry if it's not neatly organized--it's more important to get everything down on paper.
Hours 2-3: Set the Goal
Now that you have a sense of where you are, you can decide where you want to go. Ask yourself what you are trying to accomplish with this plan. Do you want to increase sales? Create a certain perception of your business? Generate more store traffic? The right marketing plan can help.
Outline each of your goals, being as specific as possible. While you should be optimistic, use a healthy dose of realism to keep you grounded. Remember that the best marketing plan in the world is not likely to increase sales 80 percent next year unless there are special circumstances, such as an outstanding new product introduction or the sudden disappearance of your competition. While it's fine to have multiple goals, be sure to prioritize them so that you can create a realistic plan to achieve them.
Hours 3-4: Hit the Target
Who are your target audiences? If you say "everyone," you need to rethink the answer. Even the largest companies don't blindly market to every individual. Rather, they break their audiences down into distinct profiles, or niche audiences, and create messages and vehicles to reach each segment.
Define your niche audiences as clearly as possible. If you are reaching out to businesses, describe what type, including industry, revenue level, location and other important characteristics. If consumers are your audience, describe their age, sex, income level, marital status and other relevant attributes. Be as specific as possible. You will probably have several audience segments, but be sure to rank them in order of priority.
Hours 4-9.5: Research Your Plan
Now that you've outlined where you are and where you want to go, it's time to play private detective to find the best route to get there. Nothing provides a clearer look into the path of least resistance than solid research.
Information about your target audiences is available from a variety of sources, many of them free. Take some time to find out about demographics (the physical characteristics of your audiences) and psychographics (the psychological characteristics of your audiences). Demographics outline such factors as age, geography, income level, etc. Psychographics offer insights into trends, buying habits, market segments and the like.
Trade associations and publications are often great places to start your research, especially if you are reaching out to businesses. Check out your target industry's trade resources for audience information. For information about consumer audiences in your region, try your state or county Department of Economic Development. The SBA offers limited help with market research. Find out more about their capabilities at www.sba.gov.
Once you have lined up this information, write a detailed profile of your audience segments. Include all the demographic and psychographic information that you can. For instance, if you are selling a product to homeowners in Anytown, USA, find out what percentage of people own their homes in Anytown. What is the average household income? Do most homeowners have children? The more specific you can be, the better.
Planning the Action
Hours 9.5-18: Plan the Action
This is the heart of your game plan. For each goal, you will need to create a strategy, key messages and a series of steps that will help you accomplish the goal. You have many tools at your disposal.
As you examine each of your goals, conduct a mini-brainstorming session. Consider what the best vehicles for your message may be. You may decide to use newspaper, radio, TV, magazine or outdoor advertising; direct-marketing programs, including postcards, sales letters, fliers, business reply cards, newsletters, and 800 numbers; and PR elements such as publicity, events, speaking engagements, sponsorships, opinion polls and the like. Perhaps you can accomplish your objectives and cut your costs by teaming up with related, noncompeting businesses for in-store promotions or cross-promotional outreach. Online promotional opportunities are more abundant than ever, and you may want to consider designing a website or uploading information to a newsgroup or special-interest forum.
Write each strategy, and list the key messages and tactics below it. For example:
- Strategy: Position myself as the leader in home inspections in my community.
- Key Messages: William Wright Home Inspections is a reputable, trustworthy name in home inspections.
- Tactics: Approach the area community college about teaching a home-buying class. Propose a feature story to the local paper about 10 things to look for when buying a home, with me as the source. Launch a website with an interactive home-buying questionnaire. Create a brochure entitled "Secrets of Home Buying," and offer it free to people who call your business. Issue a press release about the free brochure to the local media. Send informational brochures to real estate agents and mortgage brokers who refer home buyers to home inspectors.
For each step you plan, keep asking yourself, "Why should I do this?" Don't get trapped in big, splashy promotions just for the sake of doing them. It's much more effective to have smaller, more frequent communications if your budget is limited. For example, a small accounting firm wanted to increase publicity in local newspapers. The owner made a $10,000 donation to a local charity's annual gala, believing this would make a great news story. While the generous gesture was greatly appreciated by the charity and its supporters, that money represented the majority of the firm's annual marketing budget. In return, the owner got one small story in the local newspaper. If the organization's goal was to become more philanthropic, the donation would have been an effective gesture. However, because the original goal was to increase publicity, the money would have been better spent on a diverse marketing program with more components.
Finally, be sure that your promotions are projecting the right image. If your audience is conservative, don't create an outrageous promotion. Similarly, if you need to project a cutting-edge image, be sure your efforts are smart and sophisticated.
Hours 18-21: Budget Your Resources
Some business owners believe that marketing is an optional expense. This is one of the most tragic myths in business. Marketing expenses should be a priority, especially in times of slow cash flow. After all, how are you going to attract more business during the slow times if you don't invest in telling customers about your business?
Take a realistic look at how much money you have to spend on marketing. While you do need to ensure you're not overextending yourself, it is critical that you allot adequate funds to reach your audiences. If you don't have the budget to tackle all your audiences, try to reach them one by one, in order of priority.
For each of your tactics, itemize the expenses and their estimated costs. From there, you can beef up or pare down your plan, depending on your situation.
Hours 21-23.5: Time Your Projects
Now that you've broken down the steps involved in each marketing activity, allot a segment of time and a deadline to each. Again, be sure that you're not overextending yourself, or you may get burned out. It's better to start with smaller, more consistent efforts than an overly ambitious program that gets discarded a few months later.
Hours 23.5 and on: Go for It!
What you now hold in your hands is probably the most effective to-do list that you will ever write. You have prepared a document that will help you reach your audience segments from a point of knowledge and expertise instead of shoot-from-the-hip hunches.
Don't put the marketing plan on a shelf and forget about it. Your marketing plan should be a living document--it should be revisited and revised, and it should grow and change over time. As your business reaps the benefits of your initial marketing strategies, you may want to increase the scope of your marketing. If you find that something isn't working, discard or change it. Consistency and continuity, delivered with a dash of creativity, give you the formula for successful marketing.
Marketing Plan SOS
If you still need assistance in developing your marketing plan, here are a few places to turn to for low- or no-cost help.
- The SBA has a number of Small Business Development Centers and Women's Business Centers throughout the country. The SBDC counseling program assigns a consultant to meet with you on a regular basis to monitor your progress in any area, from marketing to human resources, for free. Find the nearest center by visiting www.sba.gov.
- SCORE is a group of retired executives with various areas of expertise. The organization offers free counseling to startup or established business owners. You can request a meeting with someone who has a marketing background to help you write your plan. Visit their website at www.score.org.
- Contact the head of the marketing department at a local college or university. Suggest that he or she assign a class to develop your marketing plan, or find out if there is a marketing or related business club on campus that would be willing to handle the project for free. sConsider starting an internship program. A marketing student may help you write your marketing plan in exchange for the experience or a small stipend. Call the marketing departments of colleges in your area and ask if someone can recommend a student.