23 Hours to a Great Marketing Plan

The countdown has started: With these simple steps, you're less than a day away from creating marketing magic.

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.

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Gwen Moran is a freelance writer and co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010).

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This article was originally published in the June 2006 print edition of Entrepreneur's StartUps with the headline: 23 Hours to a Great Marketing Plan.

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