A good marketing plan is like a battle plan or a game plan; it should serve as a guide and a blueprint for the actions you need to take to grow your business. It should also have some flexibility because as you start testing and measuring tactics, you'll need to shift strategies from time to time, to capture or gain share in a particular market.

That said, a good plan doesn't need to be complicated. Jay Conrad Levinson (known for his Guerilla Marketing tactics) says you can create a great marketing plan in just seven sentences. Can such a concise document be effective? I would say from personal experience, yes. Levinson's simple approach has formed the basis for business coaches in my firm with great success.

There are some things, however, you should avoid when putting together your own marketing plan for your business. Remember, the best marketing is a synergistic combination of good strategy and tactics, and you can't do either one effectively without the other. Don't be tempted to stray from these fundamentals. Enticing yet highly subjective ideas like "image," "branding" and "creativity" are important marketing tools, but they're not as vital as getting a firm footing in the basics--which ironically start on the accounting end of things.

When putting together your marketing plan for the first (or umpteenth) time, here are some things to avoid:

  1. Filling your plan with fluff: "Fluff" is anything not specifically related to a number, strategy or tactic. Generalities also qualify. Saying your target market is "everybody" or "adults 50-plus" isn't specific enough and will lead to problems down the road. Start to think in terms of a niche. Instead of "everybody," scale down to "young males 16-plus who play video games and ride skateboards." Instead of "adults 50-plus" turn this into "adult women at least 50 years of age who shop online at least three times a week."

    Remember, marketing is all about buying customers. Imagine going into a grocery store and buying everything. You may want to, but in reality, your resources would never allow it. In marketing terms, this means buying your ideal customer with the resources you already have. So figure out who your ideal customer is and how much you can budget to buy that customer. Then come up with a plan and stick to it. Know that most of your competition won't have the discipline to do the same thing--or will follow a plan that has been filled with too much fluff.
  2. Not doing the numbers: Marketing is all about math, and math is all about numbers. Taken a step further--business is all about numbers. If you don't know your numbers, you won't succeed in business. Creating any marketing plan without knowing how much it'll cost to acquire your customer, what your average sale needs to be, what your profit margins need to be and how many times your average customer needs to buy over a lifetime will set you up for failure. If you're going to run a $1,000 advertisement, how many leads and sales will you have to make to cover the cost of the ad, let alone make a profit?
  3. Relying too heavily on creativity: Creativity is fine, and in my opinion, there's nothing more creatively fulfilling than succeeding in business. But focusing too much on creativity at the expense of tactics and outcomes can hurt your business.

    A great example of this is the difference between the once-famous and now-defunct brand Pets.com and the still famous and thriving brand eBay. While Pets.com relied heavily on its famous sock puppet icon and national TV ad to drive its brand, eBay (under CEO Meg Whitman) took a very tactical approach to its business. By moving from its original model of a collectibles auction site to embrace a number of upscale markets, eBay was able to boost its average sale price, a key metric in determining its transaction fees. While the sock puppet was creative, boosting average sale price produced a tangible outcome. This is why it pays to know the numbers that ultimately drive your business.
  4. Thinking marketing is only advertising: While advertising is part of any marketing plan, marketing is much more than strictly advertising. Marketing is not only how you sell your products or services, but also the way your receptionist answers the phone and how you set up your internal company culture. In addition, it's the strategic and tactical aspects of identifying and segmenting your ideal customer base, discovering your competitive edge and USP (unique selling proposition), setting your pricing strategy, sales strategy and promotional strategy, creating and tracking a system for repeat business, and testing and measuring all of these to leverage effort and maximize ROI.

    Note that if your advertising doesn't yield an ROI, you've fallen into the "creative" trap, and that's both expensive and wasteful. You'll know you're in it when your vendors tell you, "Half of your advertising works, and half doesn't--you'll never know which half," or the even more famous, "it takes 17 weeks for people to get name recognition and then they'll start buying from you."
  5. Forgetting to market to existing customers and prospects: For businesses that have moved beyond the startup phase, there's no better or quicker way to massive growth than your current customers and "warm" pool of prospects. Generally, it costs up to six times more to get a new customer than to sell something to an existing customer. So if your plan doesn't include initiatives to tap into your current customers, you're missing out on a huge untapped resource.

Many marketers get so caught up in chasing new markets or customers, they forget the goldmine that exists within their current business. Don't make the same mistake; develop strategies to tap into what could be your most valuable--and profitable--resource.

As the end of the year approaches, take some time to start setting some objectives and clarifying how to make next year your best and most profitable yet. A large part of that success will depend on the actions and decisions you make now in the form of your marketing plan--and avoiding the costly mistakes that cause most businesses to abandon their efforts early and often.

If the metaphor "marketing as warfare" fits, know that wars are won by attrition. If you can out-perform, out-strategize and out-discipline your competition, you'll win more of your own company's marketing battles.