For years, my business operated without a marketing plan. This was a function of both ignorance and desperation, as at the time I was short staffed, undercapitalized, and over-traveled due to no sales support (it was primarily me, which in hindsight is both amazing given the miles I logged, and equally scary due to, again, my broader ignorance). But several years into it, I hired a consultant who helped provide marketing structure, and following that, I received an M.B.A. with a concentration in marketing. This put marketing at our businesses’ forefront and changed the way I managed the business, our time and collective efforts.
Having a marketing plan is critical to any business, regardless of product or service. In its most simplified form, the marketing plan is a roadmap that defines what your business is going to do and how it will go about doing it, over a specified period of time. It’s not a 100-plus-page document full of data, charts and back-up information (although in the writing process, you might review such information), but rather a simple and well thought-out roadmap to help guide your marketing and sales activities.
In essence, a marketing plan is a document that is a set of recommendations on what the business is going to do, and by default, what you are not going to do (the latter equally important). It is simple and actionable, organized in such a manner that anybody can easily follow the actions you have outlined for growing your business. But at a higher level, it is more than a set of actions, rather it’s a construct that provides context and rationale around those actions, helping align the daily activities with the broader agreed-upon goals of the business.
Why is this relevant? As an entrepreneur (with or without a team to support us), we can quickly find ourselves with new ideas, opportunities, and avenues to pursue in the journey of growing our brands. We read about new and exciting tactics to build sales and product awareness, and we’re never short of new markets to chase or customer opportunities to explore. But in the absence of a broader plan and the context of your larger business goals, you can easily get swept up chasing a thousand new opportunities at the risk of staying focused on the objectives of the business. Speaking personally, after flying literally tens of thousands of miles in pursuit of new sales and spending thousands of dollars on marketing initiatives and brand-building activities, it is easy to find yourself (and your business) trending only marginally higher. This is why an effective, well thought-out and actionable marketing plan can be critical to helping you and your business stay goal-oriented and focused. It’s a dynamic document that outlines what you plan to do, and when you plan on doing it.
Moreover, the marketing plan helps you, the entrepreneurial-manager, prioritize the key strategic initiatives for the business. This point cannot be under-emphasized: think about how busy running your business can be – there are a thousand things that you’re responsible for, a good portion of which are operational or financial in nature which are distractions (albeit highly important) from growing the business (where your continued focus should be). Your marketing plan is the go-to document for how the time you’re devoting to sales and marketing activities should be structured.
Do a simple Google search on “marketing plan” and you will find that typically most templates have three primary components (though they might not always be called these):
One key concept that is important when setting forth on the marketing plan-writing process (and for other areas of goal setting – including personal goals): it’s best to keep your goals “SMART” oriented – simple, measurable, actionable, relevant and timely. The rationale for this should be rather inherent, but ultimately you’re looking to create a set of activities that are simple (which does not mean small), timely and appropriate to your business now, and that are achievable in a defined time period. For example, the pursuit of two divisions of Costco with one SKU by the end of the year versus “a national rollout to the entire club trade in the next six months” would seem more SMART oriented. Again, think about where and how this concept can be used in other areas of your business and personal life (the most logical personal application – fitness goals!).
Again, these initiatives convey action and are equally measurable to follow and track and are extensions of the goals themselves – you’re simply addressing the question of how specifically you going to make your goals happen.
Reverting to my current start-up, one strategic initiative (supporting our revenue target) is to set-up our Amazon store and make all five SKUs available at launch. Nothing too fancy but because we know the market potential for Amazon sales, it could have a major impact on our business within the first six months – hence, calling significant attention to the opportunity by recognizing it as a strategic initiative.
Nothing in the above examples is overly complex. They are the simple actions that the organization can take to essentially make sales happen on the west coast (which isn’t to suggest that they will all pan out!). I don’t have a recommendation on how many tactics to include but I am sure most classically trained marketers would – from my vantage point, especially coming from the world of both small business and now start-up, it’s best to capture as many tactics as possible that support the initiatives you are trying to pursue. You’re likely not going to chase all of them right at once, but at least you’ll know the levers you can pull if a tactic you are prioritizing isn’t working. Moreover, you’ll likely have tactics to support the tactics – for example in the case of hiring broker, you’ll need to outline the activities (“tactics”) required to support and motivate them as well.
There are many ways to set yourself up for success in the marketing plan process, but foremost among those, and by all accounts the hardest, is the pursuit of simplicity for the outcome. This document does not need to be mind-numbingly complicated or dense, but actionable and appropriate for you and your team to grow your business. In many cases you know instinctively what is required to accomplish this – the marketing plan process helps you capture and organize these needs.
The other key for success is to keep it realistic, taking into account the resources you have at your disposal over the duration of your marketing plan’s time horizon, including but not limited to time and financial constraints. Will you be solely executing the plan or do you have a team to assist you? Do you have the relationships required to deliver on a new strategic initiative, or a clear path to develop the relationships? When a solid draft of your plan is complete, do a gut check: is what’s laid out actually feasible? If not, go back and revise.
Once complete, go through the added step of prioritizing and blocking the initiatives and related tactics: what are you going to do first, and when are you going to do it? Keep in mind, the underlying goal is to financially grow your business which needs to be a strong consideration when juggling the priorities (I won’t go into discussion about various “life hacking tricks” to create the largest return with the least amount of work, as there are no shortage of experts on the topic to be found online, but do a quick analysis on the effort required relative to the return on growing your club initiatives versus pounding the streets to grow your independent business and you’ll see what I mean – though the costs and barriers to entry are completely different). Ultimately, have a mental “plan for your plan”.
I mentioned above that much of what I learned about marketing plans came from a consultant we hired who had a strong CPG marketing background. I also learned a lot from a Kellogg School of Management Professor, Tim Calkins, who wrote an excellent book called Breakthrough Marketing Plans. It’s a quick read and one that I recommend all entrepreneurs read and keep on their shelf for on-going reference (I use it quite regularly, actually). It can be purchased on Amazon here. The book does a much better job than I in walking through the sections of marketing plans and how to make sure your goals, initiatives and tactics are strong, appropriate and actionable. He also goes into commentary about the importance of knowing your audience and the importance of having buy-in from colleagues, owners and investors – a critical component to the plan’s success.
Given the length of the above post and a desire for brevity, I’ll refer you to this update for the personal anecdote relative to the above. In it I talk about the process we have gone through in creating the marketing plan for our start-up – something I have found more challenging to create than for an established, on-going business. Not surprisingly, the biggest challenge for has been to keep the document simple which for a start-up, especially in the absence of consumer data, has been a challenge. Nonetheless, I’m proud of our final plan and as of this writing, is what we’re going to market with – stay tuned!