The Keys to Building an Effective Marketing Plan that People Will Use
A marketing plan outlines the advertising and marketing efforts to be used to achieve business objectives. Building a marketing plan requires research, foresight, flexibility, and organizational support.
No marketing plan can be implemented without people. An effective marketing plan involves and aligns multiple departments, confirming understandings and promoting agreement among all stakeholders on the company's vision and mission.
The most important benefit of a marketing plan is the translation of an organization’s mission into a meaningful message that is communicated to potential customers. The marketing plan, then, details the tasks and organizes the efforts needed to carry this message to your target market.
Elements of an Effective Marketing Plan
1. Executive Summary
The executive summary is a synopsis of the overall marketing plan, summarizing product, pricing, promotion, and placement—the four “P”s of a marketing mix.
2. Situation Analysis
The situation analysis describes your company and its mission as well as your product offerings. It includes a list of your competitors and your position in the market including your points of differentiation. An honest self-appraisal is helpful. “Most people understand the 5 ‘C’s of their business: consumer, channel, company, competition, and climate—a pulse on what’s going on,” says Michael Thomas, CMO and partner at Noble Studios, a digital marketing agency specializing in integrated search strategies. “Make sure to validate these understandings so you don’t launch into a campaign based on conjecture or opinion.” A SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis can be particularly useful to determine your competitive advantage and unique selling proposition.
A marketing plan’s goals correspond to the business objectives you hope to achieve by implementing the marketing strategy. “Some companies spend a lot of time creating marketing plans that aren’t connected to their business plans,” Thomas says. “The marketing plan must drive business impact. Tie your marketing plan goals to the business outcomes you’re expecting to see.”
Be specific and realistic when setting your goals, quantifying how many new customers you expect to acquire or the amount in sales you expect to generate. Avoid goals that don’t directly grow your business. “Some people set goals to increase organic traffic to their web sites, for instance,” Thomas says. “But what’s the impact of the organic traffic? What does organic traffic mean to the business, what does it need to do, how should it be optimized, and how does it drive more leads or engage customers to move down the sales funnel?”
4. Marketing Strategy
A marketing strategy is the “whom” and “what” of your marketing plan, describing what you will do to achieve your marketing goals. This is the crux of your marketing plan, listing your target audiences and spelling out how you will message them.
Your target audiences are specific segments of your current and potential customer groups, split by demographic data. “I use demographic information to know whom to target,” says Stephanie Elsen, marketing manager for Red Wing Software. “We track customer zip codes, job titles, whether they are male or female, and what they purchased.”
Your messaging, therefore, should be specific to your target audiences, explaining your product’s potential value to them. Develop customer personas and create storylines that address their needs. Each message should be consistent across all engaged channels.
The marketing strategy, while not overly detailed, should be compelling enough to engage your company and motivate your team to action.
Beware confusing marketing tactics and channels—“social,” SEO, or influencer outreach, e.g.s.—with marketing strategies. “Twitter is not a strategy, it’s a channel,” Thomas says. “Everything that goes in behind Twitter is the strategy. You can’t start with Twitter and back into a strategy. Twitter is only one part of a holistic marketing plan.”
Ensure the proper implementation of your plan by detailing the concrete actions to be taken for your marketing strategy, as well as how to track progress and how to follow up. List the groups or team members responsible for carrying out tasks, assigning tactics and channels to each.
Your marketing tactics should efficiently reach your customers when they are most receptive to your message. “Don’t fall so in love with a single tactic that you miss your overall marketing objectives and how they fit into a complex buyer’s journey, which is fragmented and nonlinear,” Thomas says. Target prospects at all stages of your sales cycle: advertising and direct marketing are effective at increasing awareness and attracting cold prospects; hot prospects, or those close to buying, respond well to opt-in emails and loyalty programs. Typically, a customer will have been exposed to your messaging between five and fifteen times before they think of your product when a need arises.
Basic marketing channels include:
- Web site
- Content marketing
- Advertising (billboards, SEM, TV, radio, etc.)
- Public relations
- Social media
- Affiliate marketing
- Product samples
As technology advances, the number of opportunities for customer connections increases. “I keep a list of strategies to consider from things I read or learn about at conferences such as Content Marketing World,” Elsen says. “I stay on top of what’s working well for other companies and decide when we need to get on something—whatever I learn that’s applicable to us.”
Selecting which channels to pursue—and when to employ them—should be deliberate. “To make a successful channel decision you need to do the calculations to determine the return-on-investment (ROI) and what your costs are per sale or lead,” Thomas says. “ROI analysis allows metrics to make the decisions, not opinions.”
“Everything is measurable. Even if you can’t get exact numbers, modeling can show the direction your ROI will move—you should see that the data is pointing in the right direction.”
Once you’ve decided on channels, tailor your messaging to match the mediums. “The customers you find on a particular channel have expectations of what they will hear from you there,” Thomas says.
Your marketing budget lists your marketing costs as well as the expected ROIs of each tactic, thereby providing justification for management’s buy-in. Your total marketing allowance may be set prior to planning, though, in which case budgeting involves determining allocations for strategies rather than requesting funds to optimize your plan. That said, create a fund for ad hoc marketing strategy costs so winning strategies can be invested in more heavily on the fly.
As with the scheduling of marketing campaigns in Tactics, budgeting should be thorough and detailed to avoid cost overruns.
Tracking the key performance indicators (KPIs) of your marketing strategies is the only way to learn which tactics are effective and which are not. “Track what happens with your customers and prospects for a given campaign over the course of 180 days,” Elsen says. “Learn how many people come through a particular campaign, how many call, and how many convert.”
This data, in turn, dictates which strategies to continue and which to pause or cancel outright. “We had been running a direct mail campaign promoting a software upgrade,” Elsen says. “We were getting fewer and fewer responses to our postcards, so we switched to email. That got us better responses and cost less than the mailers. By looking at what worked and what didn’t, we were able to decide to move forward with email marketing rather than mailers.”
Include the frequency with which you review and reassess your strategies in your marketing plan. Though marketing plans typically cover a period of a year or more, there should be flexibility to pursue new opportunities, to increase investments in successful campaigns, and to cancel failing strategies and reallocate resources accordingly.
Tips for building an effective marketing plan
Focus your marketing efforts on the customer profile and tactics that provide the greatest ROI, avoiding “spray & pray” strategies. “Be realistic about who your target audience is,” Thomas says. “It’s great to be aspirational, but it’s much more impactful to go where the real opportunities are.”
Develop messaging and content that answers your potential customers’ questions. “Content is what drives successful marketing,” Thomas says. “Target consumers with useful, relevant content that meets them in their moments of need. When they have a problem, you have a solution.”
Make your messaging consistent across tactics and channels even as you cater to the different forms of communication each medium is best for. “Everything ties together,” Thomas says. “A holistic marketing plan has the content to support laddering to the overall position you want to have in the marketplace.”
Follow your competitors:
Look where your competitors are having success and go after a lookalike audience. Take advantage of what they’re doing and then solve a problem for your customers that your competition can’t. “Sometimes it’s better to be second,” Thomas says.
Do make sure the channel fits your message. “Just because your competitors are in the pool, you don’t have to jump in, too. Be smart in your approach.”
The flexibility of your plan allows for quick updates and changes to ensure your tactics are performing as expected and to take advantage of opportunities as they present themselves. Check in on strategy performance quarterly or even weekly and act when it makes sense to do so. “In between check-ins, cancel the true dogs and punch up the programs that are showing success,” Thomas says.
Persistence pays off, particularly in marketing. Many strategies need time and repetition to effect real change to your bottom line.
Failure is an integral part of trial-and-error and will provide lessons that will lead to greater success in the future.
Align the entire company so that everyone is pursuing the same objectives for the same reasons. “I go into meetings and explain what we need to do, why we need to do it, and the costs,” Elsen says. “That way I have everyone on board when we go for it. I’ll also get help when I need it.”
Even operations—how staff dresses, where production takes place, what customer support consists of, etc.—affect how your company’s messaging is received. A positive reputation is key for successful marketing.