Developing a marketing plan is Marketing 101 fodder, but the rules have changed in the digital era. Here’s how to build a successful marketing plan today.
You learned it in a lecture hall, drumming your pencil (or your stylus, for graduates in the digital age) on your desk as an instructor droned on about the building blocks of an annual marketing plan. Target audience, value proposition, positioning—you listened with one ear, waiting for them to get to the good stuff, the creative elements or the campaign strategies. But your marketing plan should be the point from which all else pivots—and one of the guiding documents to ensure the success of your company’s broader business strategy.
“If you don’t have a plan, it’s a missed opportunity. Your whole marketing effort becomes a series of programs with no link to the business or the results,” says Timothy Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Evanston, Ill., and author of Breakthrough Marketing Plans: How to Stop Wasting Time and Start Driving Growth. “You have to start with a marketing plan that’s linked to the overall business objectives and brings those to life.”
Here’s how to build a cohesive, digitally focused marketing plan that will keep a year’s worth of marketing efforts on track.
1. Start with the basics. “It’s hard to build a great marketing plan if you don’t know what your brand stands for in the first place,” Calkins says, so develop or fine-tune basics such as your definition of your target audience, your value proposition and your brand’s positioning. “Your strategies should be based on an understanding of what’s going on competitively, but you don’t have to spend weeks analyzing your competitors to start creating your plan,” he says. Such exhaustive research certainly would be worth your while when honing your value proposition and positioning, but consider your marketing plan to be more of a general blueprint for the upcoming year’s marketing efforts, an outline or checklist, of sorts, that ensures that no effort will be entirely disconnected from your company’s overall goals.
To that end, “Begin with the end in mind,” says John Jantsch, founder of Duct Tape Marketing, a Kansas City, Mo.-based marketing consultancy for small businesses. “Consider each touch point that your potential customers are seeing your brand through, and how you can move those customers through that process to make the sale and keep them coming back for more.”
2. State your objectives. Your plan should include one or two specific goals that you’re trying to achieve over the next year, Calkins says. “People get in trouble when they lead with the tactic, not the strategy. For example, they say, ‘We should be on Twitter,’ but they don’t ask themselves what they’re trying to do and whether Twitter will help them do it. Set goals that are clear, time-specific and measureable, like, ‘Over the next year, we’re trying to increase our profits by 15%.’ Once you have the objectives in mind, you can move on to the strategic initiatives.”
In addition to financial objectives, you could have an objective that speaks to how you get to the financial numbers, like a market share target, he adds. “Or you could have a measure of brand health. It could be brand awareness or brand favorability, or a competitive assessment.”
But be realistic, Calkins says. “You don’t want a marketing plan that’s built on wishful thinking. If your objectives are too much of a stretch, you’re likely to fall short and you might give up on things that might actually be working.”
3. Don’t outsource your plan. Your management team has to own your marketing plan’s results, so they should be the ones to create it, Calkins says. “An outside agency can help you learn about your competitors and customers, and implement tactics and programs, but the plan, itself, should come from the people responsible for the business. You don’t need to create a 200-page document. You just have to identify the priorities of the business and how it’s going to come to life.”
That said, be sure to involve as many internal stakeholders as you can. Assemble insights from a cross-departmental team to ensure that the plan accurately fits what the year has in store for R&D, IT, finance and others, says Don Sexton, a professor of marketing at New York-based Columbia University who specializes in branding and strategy. The feedback-gathering process also is a great way to garner your company’s buy-in from the start, ensuring that your approach to all things brand-related will be cohesive at every customer touch point.
4. Bake in digital. Digital no longer can be an add-on for individual marketing tactics, so you should be building your marketing plan with digital serving as its “through-line”—the tie that binds. “You need to make sure that digital is at the core of what you’re doing,” Calkins says. “It’s how people learn about your business, it’s how they interact with your business, and it’s how people form their brand perceptions.”
5. Don’t reinvent the wheel. “It’s possible to spend months creating a marketing plan, and some companies do, but that’s not essential,” Calkins says. “You could write a very good marketing plan in a short amount of time.”
Focus on creating a document that sets the overall direction for your business, with interim checkpoints scheduled to determine whether you’re on track, he says. “If one of your critical tactics is updating your website, for example, it’s useful to put some timing around that. Likewise, if you’re counting on a certain amount of revenue growth in a year, it’s useful to say, ‘How much of that should we be seeing in the first quarter versus the back part of the year?’ Distant goals are tough for people to focus on, and by having those checkpoints, you make things a little more urgent and you’ll find out if you’re on pace to meet your goals or if you have to make some changes.”
6. Be flexible. “It’s important to think about what could go wrong,” Sexton says. “Every marketing plan is based on a certain set of assumptions: the competition, how customers will react, what the customers want. When any of those change, you have to redo the plan.”
Developing a well-crafted, digitally focused marketing plan can help streamline your year’s worth of work simply by keeping you focused, Calkins says. “There are so many things today for marketers to worry about, and without a marketing plan, it’s easy to get lost.”
This was originally published in the May 2015 issue of Marketing News
Author Bio:Christine Birkner is the senior staff writer for Marketing News and Marketing News Weekly. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.