The Ingredients of a Marketing Plan

Ready to get it all down on paper, but not sure where to put it? We'll help you with the format and elements of your marketing plan.
The Ingredients of a Marketing Plan

Every how-to book on the market has a different take on the essential elements of a marketing plan. Those geared toward the big corporate crowd communicate in a language few human beings understand. However, the words you use are much less important than how seriously you approach the task.

This section outlines the key elements you need to include in your marketing plan. No matter how it's ultimately organized, your marketing plan should be a straightforward, easily understood company document. It should provide you with a clear direction for your marketing efforts for the coming year, and it should give an incisive look into your company for all readers.

Preparing to Write
Before you begin to write, pull together some information you'll need. Getting the information first avoids interruptions in the thinking and writing process. Have on hand:

  • Your company's latest financial reports (profit and loss, operating budgets and so on) and latest sales figures by product and region for the current and the past three years or, if less, for however long you've been in business.
  • A listing of each product or service in the current line, along with target markets
  • An organization table (If you can count your employees on one hand, you can probably omit this.)
  • Your understanding of your marketplace: your competitors, geographical boundaries, types of customers you sell to, existing distribution channels, latest and most useful demographic data, any information on trends in your markets (both demographic and product-related)
  • Ask each of your salespeople and/or customer-relations people to list the most crucial points, in their opinion, that need to be included in the coming year's marketing plan. You don't have to include all of them, but you do have to take them into account.

Market Situation
The "market situation" section should contain your best and most clear-headed description of the current state of the marketplace (this is no place for hunches).

  • What are your products/services or product/service lines?
  • What is the dollar size of your markets?
  • What is your sales and distribution setup?
  • What geographic area do you sell to?
  • Describe your audience in terms of population, demographics, income levels and so on.
  • What competitors exist in this marketplace?
  • Historically, how well have your products sold?

Your market situation section might read like this:

Sumners and Associates is a bookkeeping and accounting firm started in 1981. We provide tax services to individuals and to businesses under $500,000 in annual sales. We provide bookkeeping and payroll support to those same businesses. Our market area is Boulder, Colorado, and its northern suburbs.

For the personal market, our clients typically are in the $75,000 and higher income range, or they are retired with assets of $200,000 or more. For the business market, most of our work is for restaurants, service stations, independent convenience stores and a large courier service.

With the exception of a slump from 1988 through 1991, Sumners and Associates has grown steadily from its inception. Gross sales in 1997 were $145,000.

Competition for our immediate market is a group of eight firms roughly comparable to our company. Only one of these firms, Acme Bookkeeping, has an interest in marketing itself. We believe we rank second in the group of competitors, behind Acme.

We have a strong position in the restaurant portion of our business.

Much of this information exists in the heads of the management team, the way it is at many companies. But now is when you write it down. For example, how much information do you have in your office--right now--on your competition? A marketing plan gives you a chance to pull all this relevant information together in one place, to spur ideas and justify actions.

Consider each of your products or services up against the matching products or services of your competitors. How well do you stack up? Is there any significant market opportunity for you that neither you nor your competitors are currently exploiting?

You'll also find that the best thinkers in your company may well have different ideas about elements of the current situation. Your marketing plan will provide a good arena to test different snapshots of the market against each other.

Threats and Opportunities
This section is an extension of the "market situation" section, and it should focus on the bad and good implications of the current market:

  • What trends in the marketplace are against you?
  • Are there competitive trends that are ominous?
  • Are your current products poised to succeed in the market as it now exists?
  • What trends in the marketplace favor you?
  • Are there competitive trends working to your benefit?
  • Are the demographics of your market in your favor? Against you?

There are lots of places to go to get information on the trends in your market. City and state business publications frequently publish overview issues; you can talk to local business reporters; and local chambers of commerce publish projections, as do associations of manufacturers (the names are different in various parts of the country). Talk to your professional association and read your trade journals.

Here's an example of what a threats and opportunities section would look like for the Sumners and Associates firm:

The company faces four identifiable threats in the coming year:
1. Our computer system needs upgrading to the latest version of our accounting and tax software. To do this with all of our machines will be too costly. We'll need to work with the existing version of our software for another 10 months. This may put us at a service disadvantage with some clients.
2. Two of our clients, Porkie's Carryout and the Magnus Group, are facing difficult business prospects in the short term. We will likely need to replace this business before the end of the year.
3. Acme Bookkeeping, our major competitor, has hired one of our staff members. We have to assume they now have our current client list and will make solicitations based on their greater size and service capabilities.
4. Growth on the south side of town is outstripping growth on the north side. We'll need to consider opening a south-side office or look into ways to use couriers or electronic communications to make ourselves fully competitive in providing our services.

1. Morrissey's Inc., a long-time client, has purchased three significant restaurants in the adjoining county and has expressed an interest in having us take over the accounting work for these operations. This should provide us a great chance to hire one and perhaps two additional people.
2. Changes in the tax laws have made many small businesses uneasy with handling the bookkeeping by themselves or through a one-person bookkeeping service. As the details of these revisions become more public, we anticipate increasing calls for help.
3. We have been asked to participate in several educational venues in the coming year, which include three presentations at a small-business forum, an evening class at the university on starting a small business, and a role in the Boulder Entrepreneur Club. These will provide us good exposure and strong business prospects.
4. The local economy continues to be strong, and we believe our typical clients will continue to flourish in this growth cycle.

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