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How to Build a Marketing Plan

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Building a marketing plan may seem like a daunting task.  But you don’t need a team of MBA’s and files full of complex analytics to plan a successful marketing campaign. 

With six simple steps you can build a marketing plan – from simple to complex – that fits your business’s specific needs.

Before we dig into the steps to build your marketing plan, let’s first chat about why marketing plans are important.

Your business needs a marketing plan

In short, marketing plans help businesses identify their customers and tailor their marketing efforts for maximum effect.

It’s hard to focus everyone’s efforts toward a common goal without a plan.  This is true for pretty much every aspect of business, not just in marketing.  The steps involved in developing a marketing plan, as well as the plan itself, allow your business to set some clear goals, along with some hard due dates and fixed budgets.  Without a plan your teams’ effort would be scattered, it would be hard to keep track of your budget, and even more difficult to track results.

Check out these six steps you can follow to build a marketing plan for your company.

Step 1 – Analyze your current situation

Before diving head first into a new marketing strategy, it’s important to take a close look at your current marketing efforts.  There’s a good chance your present marketing plan isn’t working as well as you’d like, otherwise you wouldn’t be interested in planning a killer new strategy.  Or maybe you don’t really have any set marketing processes in place.

In either case, take a step back and check out the whole picture.  What is your current marketing strategy?  How are you targeting prospective customers?  Which channels are you using to reach them?  Examine how well your efforts are really working.  Put this information on paper or a white board.  Make it visible to you and your team.  And get input from any member of your team who is involved, even peripherally, in your marketing efforts.

In this step it’s important to be 100%, brutally honest with yourself.  Even the most well thought out, well intentioned plans sometimes fail.  A great marketing strategy for one company may be a total failure for another.  This is where you have the opportunity to identify which aspects of your marketing efforts are unsuccessful or inadequate. 

Now that you have a better idea of your current marketing situation, you can move on to something a little more fun:  deciding on the goals for your new marketing plan.

Step 2 – Establish your goals

Setting goals is something we learn at a very early age.  Back then, our goals usually had a reward attached.  “Pick up your toys and you can have a snack.”  Our goals were simple, and we didn’t think too much about the path we were taking to completion.  

In the business world, goals are a lot more complex.  And there usually isn’t an immediately tangible reward, like a snack.  In most cases, the process you follow to reach your goals is as important as the result.

As part of this step, you’ll define (in specific terms) the goals of your marketing plan.  Sorry, “grow my company” or “increase sales” won’t cut it here.  Use S.M.A.R.T. goals to layout your plan.  S.M.A.R.T. is an acronym that guides us in setting objectives.  Here’s a crash course.

S = Specific

Make your goals specific.  “Increase sales” and similar goals are too vague.  Imprecise goals are often a waste of time because their success or failure are difficult to measure.

Your goal should be detailed enough to allow for tracking and measurement at any point in the process.  A more appropriate goal would be, “I want to increase sales of our widgets by 10% year-over-year for the next 3 years.”

M = Measurable

Peter Drucker, author and management coach, said, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”  This is why it’s important to have specific goals in mind.  They must be trackable and measurable.  Otherwise, how can you determine if you’re on the right track?

Imagine you’re training for a marathon.  You’ve been practicing, but you haven’t kept track of how often you run or your running times.  When it’s time for the marathon, how will you know if you’re ready?  If you’re not tracking your progress, you could be in for a bad day.

A = Attainable

This might seem obvious, but it’s important to keep in mind.  Your goals should be achievable.  A lot of people want to grow their business by 1,000% and open five new locations, but that’s just not a reachable goal for most businesses.

What’s the current market climate?  What’s the economy like in your city, state, country?  Does the technology you need currently exist?  These are the kinds of questions you should ask.

This doesn’t mean you should only set easy goals for your marketing strategy.  By all means, set lofty goals that will allow your marketing team to flex their muscles and bring big results.  Just don’t make the goal impossible.

R = Relevant

If your marketing plan succeeds and you reach your goal, what will be the outcome?  Will the results be relevant in 6 months or a year?  This is where you take a look at the long-term effects and outcomes of your goal.  Here’s an example:

Your marketing plan’s ultimate objective is to increase sales of your widget product line by 10% over three years.  However, you’ve heard a competitor is launching a new product next year that could make your widget obsolete.

So is your goal to increase sales over three years actually relevant?  Probably not.  Be sure your goal, and the outcome, makes sense.

T = Time bound

It’s hard to make a plan when you don’t have a timeline.  Research has proven time and time again, projects without a due date are often never finished.  Establishing a time limit (or multiple deadlines throughout) is essential in developing your action plan and achieving your goals.  This is especially true when working with teams of people, where everyone’s attention may be focused on different things.  

Set hard due dates, like “the end of this fiscal year” or “in the next 12-months.”  This helps keep everyone on track and avoids our tendency to meander through the process.  

You know, S.M.A.R.T. goals aren’t limited to marketing plans.  This method can be used in our personal and business lives for all sorts of things.  We might use S.M.A.R.T. goals as part of a weight loss program, saving for a vacation, or planning the next steps in our professional lives. 

In this case, you’ve used S.M.A.R.T. goals to define your marketing plan objectives.  Now it’s time to identify your audience.

Step 3 – Identify your audience

You probably have a good idea of your target customer.  At least you know the general demographic.  In this step, you’ll drill a little deeper to understand who you’re selling to, what they want, and how you can reach them.

So far, the steps to build a marketing plan have involved a lot of thought and planning, but no real monetary expense.  Here’s where that changes.  While some of the things we discuss in this step may require financial investment, we won’t dive into the budget side of things until later, so keep reading.

Learning about your target audience can be done in a variety of ways.  Examining your current customer demographics is one of the best ways, but you shouldn’t stop there.  Targeting exactly the right customer is essential for a successful marketing plan.  Otherwise, you could be wasting your time.

Surveys are a great way to learn about your existing and potential customers.  While surveys usually aren’t free, their benefit far outweighs the cost.  A well-planned survey can reveal a more defined view of your buyer, including their socio-economic standing, their age, how they use your product, and what other products they want.  This information can help you pinpoint your marketing strategy, from the communication channels you employ to the language you use in your marketing material.  

There’s a ton of information available on how to maximize the benefit of surveys and how to get the best responses.  Learn all you can and put those ideas in use when identifying your target audience.  Once your audience is defined, you can do a little amateur sleuthing.

Step 4 – Consider your competitors

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War taught us to, “Know your enemy.”  While Sun Tzu was literally referring to people at war with one another, we can apply this quote to business, too.  

When you’re building your marketing plan, knowing about your competitors is vitally important.  Obviously, you can’t know every detail of their marketing plans, what’s going on in their R&D department, or the state of their financial health.  But learning about your competitor can reveal some valuable information – not just their strengths and weaknesses, but yours, too.  

In the digital age, this is easier than ever.  Many companies announce new products or features long before they’re launched.  Most company websites will give you some insight into how they’re targeting their customers.  For an added bonus, sign up for their mailing list or a free-trial of their services.  Then you’ll get a firsthand look at how they’re dealing with customers.

Understanding your competitors will help you better recognize your current position in the market.  It can also help you identify your target buyer – maybe your competitor is tapping into a buyer segment you’d never thought of before.  And don’t forget, your competitor can help you be sure your overall goals are relevant (see Step 2.)

Learn all you can about your competitors (ethically, of course) and use the knowledge to build the marketing plan that works best for your business.  Remember, your plans won’t look exactly like theirs.

Step 5 – Define your budget   

Marketing is not free, unfortunately.  But well targeted marketing can yield an excellent return on your investment.

In this step, take the time to crunch the numbers.  Look at your long-term and short-term goals.  Consider how much you can afford to invest and if the investment can be sustained throughout the life of the marketing plan (keeping in mind some plans may span months or years.)

Remember, marketing costs aren’t just limited to Facebook ads or traffic plug-ins on your website.  Marketing costs can also include surveys (see Step 3) or other investigation tools, promotional material, market research, consultation fees, support staff costs, and phone or other tech expenses.

Establish your overall budget first, then you can drill down to specifics in the next step.

Step 6 – Develop your marketing strategy

Developing your strategy boils down to deciding which channels you should use to reach your target audience.  There are so many ways to reach customers today, it can be a little overwhelming.  But don’t worry, when you review the information you have at hand things will become clearer.  

This is an opportunity for you to marry the knowledge you gained in Step 3 (identify your audience) to your budget. 

Take a look at your target audience.  Consider their age, gender, income, and communication preferences.  Only select marketing channels that match up with your target audience.  For example, men, aged 45-60, probably won’t make use of your sponsored Snapchat filter.  It just doesn’t make sense to spend money on that communication channel because your customer doesn’t really use it.  However, if your target audience is among the 18-25 age group, a sponsored Snapchat filter might be a great marketing method.

Certainly, research and analytics play a big part in selecting the most appropriate communication channels for your marketing efforts, but there’s some common sense involved, too.  Even if a particular marketing channel is showing outstanding performance at the moment, it might not be a good fit for your target audience.

Likewise, if a certain channel would be great for your audience but it has a high price tag, examine the sustainability of that strategy.  If it’s not something you can afford long term, you may want to reconsider.

Use your research and common sense along with your budget to select the communication channels that best fit your prospective customer.

Time to Launch

Let’s recap what you’ve done so far:

  • You took a hard look at your current marketing strategy and learned where and how it can be improved.
  • You established S.M.A.R.T. goals for your marketing plan.  You know the results you want and how long it should take to get them.
  • You identified your specific target audience and you learned all about them.
  • You learned about your competitors and what they’re doing to reach customers.
  • You decided on a budget and considered all the costs associated with your plan.
  • You formed a marketing strategy and selected the communications channels you’ll use.

Now it’s time to put your plan into action.  Launch your marketing campaign.  Remember to track it along the way.  Watch your timetable and keep an eye on your budget.

As the campaign progresses, examine what’s working and what isn’t.  Don’t be afraid to make changes.  If your campaign is a success, use it as an example when you’re drafting your next marketing plan.  If it’s not successful, use it as an example of what not to do in your next plan.

About the author


Drew Hendricks

Drew Hendricks is the Organic Growth Marketing Manager at Nextiva and has been featured in Inc., Entrepreneur and Forbes.