You know what kind of business you want to run, but how do you get people to buy your products or services? A marketing plan can help you approach this question in a structured way. You can set realistic goals and measure progress. A good marketing plan helps you run your business successfully and highlights areas where you can make improvements. When you see your marketing plan deliver the results you expect, you know your business is doing well.
What is a marketing plan?
A marketing plan places your business in its competitive market and then matches your products or services with groups of people who want to buy them. It operates on four levels:
- Competition. Who are your competitors, and how do they compete?
- Target market. Who are your customers?
- Value. What product or service characteristics do your customers value?
- Price. How much can your customers afford to pay for your products or services?
Your plan has to first address your competitive situation. You need to identify your competitors and look at out how they market their businesses. You have to find out who their customers are and why their customers buy from them. This lets you distinguish your business from your competitors.
The marketing plan identifies potential customers who might buy from you. You then determine whether they can afford your products or services, what they value, and how much they would be willing to pay. From this investigation, you can create a profile of your ideal customer.
When you put together the information about your competitors, your business, and your potential customers, you can develop a corresponding marketing plan. It will detail how you plan to compete in the market and describe how you tell your potential customers about your products or services.
As your business grows, you can adjust your marketing plan to address any new developments. You may find new customer groups, buy a competitor, or add new products. Ideally, you’ll update your marketing plan annually to reflect anything new. Such a marketing plan covers all aspects of the sales end of your business.
How to Create a Marketing Plan
To write a marketing plan for your business, you have to gather information, set realistic targets, and choose tactics that let you achieve your goals. The following steps lead you through the process of creating a marketing plan that can guide your business as it develops and grows.
1. Do a situation analysis
Before you can plan for the future, you have to examine your present situation. Your business has strengths and weaknesses and so do your competitors. A situation analysis depends on your competitive environment. The Small Business Administration (SBA) has a lot of resources you can draw on for research and data. Try the Market Research and Competitive Analysis page to begin.
One way of identifying your competitors is to think and act like a customer for the products or services you plan to offer. Do general online searches and find business directories you can look through. Print and radio or television ads can help you find retail businesses. Local business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce list businesses as well. For some types of businesses, you may have to go to trade shows or industry conferences.
Once you have a list of competitors, find out everything you can about them. Visit any websites they operate, look for online reviews, and check for flyers or brochures they may distribute. For corporations, there may be public filings. You may have to buy samples of their products to see exactly what they’re selling.
The purpose of this survey is to find out how your competitors make their sales. You want to know who their customers are and why those customers buy from that competitor. Some may sell on low price, some on quality, some on performance, and some on service. They’ll be selling on characteristics that reflect their strengths and avoid characteristics where they’re weak. A competitive analysis matches your strengths to their weaknesses and avoids areas where they’re strong and you’re weak.
When you can match one of your strengths to a competitor’s weakness, that’s an opportunity to take market share away from that competitor. Your analysis has to identify such opportunities and keep track of them for possible inclusion in your marketing plan. You now have a list of opportunities for entering the market, and you have to define a target market that will let you take advantage of those opportunities to build your business.
2. Who is your target audience?
To choose your target audience, you have to consider what characteristics your potential customers have, how you can reach them to inform them about your business, and why they should buy from you. You want customers for whom your products or services satisfy a need or solve a problem.
Based on the product or service characteristics reflected in your strengths, what kind of customers would buy from you? How educated would they be? How much would they need to earn? Would gender or age be a factor? It’s a good idea to create a profile of one or more ideal customers.
Your next step is to gather some general information. The United States Census Bureau has a lot of data on income, age, gender, and education levels. The Census Data Search Page is a good place to start. You can find out where your potential customers live and how many there are.
You select your target audience by finding people you can reach and who are likely to respond to your strengths. Once you have identified groups of people who are likely to buy from you, you can start reaching out and informing them about your business.
3. Set goals
Your market plan has to set realistic goals and detail how you plan to meet them. You need a certain level of sales and profit to pay for your expenses and your own time. Setting corresponding goals means you know what you have to do and what results are required.
To be effective, goals have to be SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. For example, you can set a sales goal of $10,000 per week over the next six months. The goal is specific and measurable because you can easily keep track of sales. It’s attainable if you have realistic expectations that groups of customers are going to spend that much. It’s definitely relevant to the success of your business, and it’s time-bound because you have to achieve that sales level within six months.
4. Research tactics for your marketing
Marketing tactics are methods you use to achieve your goals. Typical methods include:
- Web-based marketing
- Email marketing
- Direct mail
- Telephone calls
- Internet ads
- Print ads
- Radio and TV ads
- Word of mouth
The marketing method is only the first part of your tactic. You have to decide how you’re going to use a particular method. Some methods are suitable for cold prospects, while others work better for warm prospects who already know something about your business.
For example, you could use email marketing, direct mail, and ads to generate leads from cold prospects. Your leads represent people who are interested in your business. You can follow up warm prospects with telephone calls. Referrals and word-of-mouth are other methods that yield warm prospects, especially for new businesses. Make sure you know what your message will be when you decide to use a marketing method for cold or warm prospects.
When you are first starting out, focus your energy on creating a great Internet presence so your customers can find you. The first step is to register a domain name for your business, then create a customizable website using prebuilt templates that are appropriate for your business.
When creating your website, be sure to incorporate the words people would commonly use when searching for a business like yours; also, consider using that search term in your business name. For example, if you have a plumbing business, use relevant plumbing terminology in your business name and across your website.
Once your site is up and running, build out profiles on sites like Google My Business, Yelp, and other relevant listings and point them to your site. Next up, focus on getting as many reviews as you can so that you stand out among your competitors. Building out a presence on as many prominent (and relevant) directory sites will not only help expand your digital footprint but will also give your search engine optimization (SEO) efforts a boost.
5. Determine your marketing budget
What you spend on marketing is an investment in your business and depends on your expected rate of return. For example, traditional ads in print media, radio, and TV are comparatively expensive. They only make sense if you expect potential customers will see them and act on your message.
The second aspect of your budget is the interplay between your time and money spent. Many free or inexpensive tactics such as networking or cold calling take up a lot of your time. Evaluate where you can achieve the most valuable results from your personal involvement and from spending your budget. Don’t spend your time on an activity if you could pay someone a small amount to do it for you.
Overall guidelines for marketing budgets vary greatly by customer base and type of business. You’re typically looking at spending 5% of your annual revenue on marketing, but it could be up to 10% for some businesses. One possible guide is what your competitors spend, but, even then, you have to make sure you get value for your money.
Create an outline for your marketing plan
A marketing plan outline is a good tool to make sure your marketing plan includes all the elements you need. The SBA has a marketing plan template that gives you an idea of what your plan should include. The details of your template will vary depending on your business, but a typical marketing plan should include the following:
- Business goals. SMART goals for sales, expenses, profit, and other relevant targets.
- Marketing strategy. Overall strategic orientation, such as lowest-cost supplier.
- Marketing tactics. Specific methods, such as cold calling.
- Target audiences. Specific potential customer groups.
- Messaging. What you’ll tell target audiences.
- Budget. How much you plan to spend on each marketing activity.
- Timing. When you’ll carry out your marketing.
- Work. Who will do the planned work.
- Expected results. To evaluate the rate of return on marketing activities.
As you start executing your marketing plan, you can track your performance. Especially at the beginning, you’ll likely have to make adjustments to some elements of your plan as you get results.
Your goals are measurable, so your results can tell you how well you’re executing your plan. Raw results can include figures such as advertising expenses, overall sales, numbers of customers, and time spent on different tactics. To track detailed results and measure tactic rates of return, you have to analyze the overall results and break them down. While your overall results give a good idea of the success of your business, they don’t guide your specific marketing activities.
Your analysis has to be granular at the tactical level. For example, you want to know how much you spent on ads aimed at one target audience and how many sales resulted from that tactic. Then you can decide whether there was an adequate rate of return. When you set up your result tracking to deliver that level of detail, you can make informed decisions regarding future marketing activities.
A marketing plan is a key part of a successful business because it ensures that you can get the revenue you need to pay your expenses. A good marketing plan lets you track progress and alerts you right away if things aren’t going according to expectations. ZenBusiness has a good overview of marketing for small businesses on its Understanding Your Market page. If you need a website, get the ZenBusiness Website Service, and you can get a $150 Google Ads Credit as well. Start writing your marketing plan outline today, and fill in the details as you begin to examine your market and find target audiences.
- What is the most important part of a marketing plan?
The most important part is the tactics you use to inform your target audiences of your product characteristics. If you execute your tactical strategy as detailed in your plan, your tactics allow you to reach your sales and profitability goals. Achieving the goals defined in your marketing plan means you’re running a successful business.
- How much should I spend on marketing?
How much to spend on marketing depends on your business. The SBA says the average business spends 1.08% of revenue on marketing. Retail, online, and consumer service businesses spend more, at up to 12%, while business-to-business companies spend less.
- What are some free methods of marketing my business?
Sending promotional emails is free, as is commenting on social media. You can post on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for free, and you can comment in discussion groups across the internet. Off-line, you can attend free networking groups, leave business cards with local businesses, and get your family, friends, and business contacts to recommend you. Telephone calls to potential customers are free, and you can partner with local businesses to cross-promote each other.
- How do I research my target audience?
You can find out who will buy your products or services by researching online and asking people. Look at who’s interested in products similar to yours by checking the reviews on websites of competitors or their Twitter followers. If you take part in Facebook discussions about your type of product, you can look up profiles of people who are interested. Offline, you can ask friends, family, acquaintances, and business contacts what they think of your products and services.