A commonly asked question among small to medium-size business owners is do we really need a written marketing plan?

 Every business, regardless of size, needs a process each year where the leadership team can step back from the day-to-day, assess the year’s progress, and make decisions about how to best move forward for the year to come.

Think of it as your company’s annual checkup. Start with a baseline temperature reading and an evaluation of all your major parts. Then, you can better judge what’s working, what’s not, and lay out the steps to grow stronger in the coming year.

The plan’s complexity is up to you. The main thing is that you create one in some shape or form to be sure everyone is working toward a shared vision.

The process can be quick, painless and inexpensive—one shot, maybe a few boosters, and you’re good to go. Truly.

If you’ve already spent time working through the previous “Mastering Marketing” articles posted here, you and your team can easily create a summary version in about an hour.

Will it be sufficient for your needs? That all depends. If you’re looking for a better way to run your business instead of your business running you, then the short version will help you do that. On the other hand, if you need backup to entice bankers, venture capitalists and other investors or you’re looking to sell your business, you’ll need a more formal marketing plan. Be aware that the time and cost to create this level plan will be significantly higher.

A good approach is to start with the simpler variety, then judge whether you need to delve deeper. Your efforts will not be lost. Instead the decisions you make will form the basis for a more in-depth plan. This article will guide you in either endeavor.

The One-Hour Marketing Plan

This high-level summary is perfect for the business owner (and team) that’s so busy in the trenches that finding time to create a “marketing plan” sounds daunting. It utilizes an EASY at-a-glance chart that everyone plugs their thoughts and ideas into ahead of time, then all convene to compare notes. Everyone can make time to fill in a simple chart, right?

If you are a solo entrepreneur or small business owner without a high-level leadership team to support you, complete the exercise on your own, then enlist thoughts and ideas from mentors and other business leaders you know to avoid the trap of tunnel vision. Others may see opportunities and threats that one person alone can miss.

To get started, distribute the chart below to your high-level team members, both managers and top performers who oversee sales and marketing. Set a meeting date a week or two out and ask each to come prepared with thoughts and ideas written down on the chart about the company as a whole. Later, you’ll repeat this exercise for each target market separately, assuming you have more than one, so that you can develop more specific strategies for each.

In the Meeting

  • Record your already established mission statement, if you have one, on a markerboard. Whether you’re creating one for the first time or reassessing, enlist thoughts from your team.
  • Remember, this is an ideation project, so be sure to record everyone’s input for each question. Evaluation comes later.
  • When talking about your primary competition, on what basis will you compete? Do you serve a different niche? Do you offer a better product package, better service, or stronger marketing? Do you have a unique brand voice that makes your company stand out?
  • Again, taking a bird’s eye view, what are your company’s strengths? Weaknesses? Opportunities? Threats?  Also called a SWOT analysis, many of these points may seem like they fall outside the purview of marketing, however they should still be factored into today’s discussion. Because the charge of marketing is to maximize strengths, capitalize on opportunities, and help compensate for weaknesses and threats, it’s important to address the good, the bad, and the ugly now.
  • What are your company’s top initiatives for the coming year? Are you planning to grow certain sectors? Launch new products? Build on existing relationships? Increase customer retention? Strengthen areas that are holding you back?
  • Discuss specifically how you will measure success. Benchmark tools, also known as KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), can be identified now, though quantifying these goals will likely fall outside the scope of this meeting.
  • Next, discuss where you and your team would like to see the company in three to five years. Projecting beyond immediate concerns can yield bold new ideas. Is there groundwork that must be considered in the next year to make that vision a reality?
  • Now return to the list of initiatives for the coming year. Are more than three or four listed? If so, which does the team think is most important, second most important, and so on. Do the same for each area of the SWOT analysis where there are more than a few thoughts listed and also for challenges and distractions. The idea is to whittle down each list to a few main focal points. It doesn’t mean other initiatives should not happen, only that they are not critical to the company’s overall success at this juncture and unlikely to receive a significant portion of the budget.
  • Is your team generally in agreement or are there opposing views? What information needs to be gained to objectively evaluate opposing views?

After the Meeting

So far, the team will have based their answers on their experience, ideas, instincts, and perhaps knowledge of data. Now it’s time to put one or more people in charge of pulling data to see if the team’s plan holds up. Compare industry trends and market share, product usage, market demographics, and your own year-to-year sales data. From here, you can decide if the plan is on target or needs to be adjusted. Then, set budget and quantifiable goals for the coming year, using the KPIs agreed on by the team.

Once you’ve finalized the plan, you and your team can use these snapshots of what’s most important to your company’s success to build out marketing strategies and tactics for the year.

If you have more than one primary target market, plan a separate one-hour session to go through this exercise for each one. Many of the same answers will apply, while others will present additional opportunities and challenges for consideration.

The Formal Marketing Plan

Now we’ll cover the well-researched, full of stats, buttoned-up marketing document that can stand on its own or fold into your company’s overall business plan. It’s the heart of the game plan you show your banker, venture capitalist, shareholders, or other potential investors. It serves a very important purpose at the time it is created, typically to gain funding and business contacts for starting up or expanding a business.

Unfortunately, after its first use this unwieldy document often ends up on the proverbial shelf, never to be seen again. The sheer amount of time and effort it takes to create these extensive plans makes it impractical for all but the largest companies to replicate year after year. However, if you foresee a need for outside funding or plan to consider a merger or sale of your company, even smaller businesses will need a more formal plan.

If you decide you need a formal version and you’ve already completed the one-hour marketing plan, you’re more than halfway there. Now you can delegate the project to a staff member who is a strong writer or employ a freelancer to finish the job.

Components of the Formal Marketing Plan

Generally, it’s best to begin by providing highlights of the plan in an Executive Summary. This will include your mission statement, the overall goals and strategies for the year, and why you believe they are feasible. It should also include a brief statement of the major investments in time and money that will be required to achieve those goals.

This introductory section can often be accomplished in a couple of paragraphs but should never be more than one to two pages. The longer variety is only appropriate for complex plans with distinctly different markets, product lines, and initiatives.

The order and naming of the remaining sections is not set in stone, however it is important to address each of the following to powerfully depict your company’s plans. Intersperse charts within the narrative to emphasize key take-aways for the reader to absorb at a glance. Assume the reader knows nothing about your business except what they will find in the pages of your plan. Your goal is to succinctly and persuasively share all information needed for the decision-maker to act, while carving away extraneous details.

1. Marketing Research: Present overall industry information, market size, market growth or decline, buying habits, seasonality, and any current trends.

2. Target Market: Provide a more fleshed-out description of the information you nailed down in your One-Hour Marketing Plan. Describe your primary customers (or planned customers). Divide them into key market segments and elaborate on the differences in each. Cover market demographics, behaviors, needs, and purchasing patterns as it pertains to your company specifically.

3. Competition: Define your competitors in terms of product offering, pricing, geographic focus, niche, and branding and message strategies. How does your company compare?

4. Positioning: Provide your mission statement (what you do, who you sell to, and how you’re different). What is the current perception of your brand in the overall market and with your customers in particular? How do you plan to solidify or change that perception? How do you stand out? What product, service, price, delivery or messaging adaptations need to happen to clearly communicate your brand and the way you do business?

5. Marketing Strategies: What marketing and promotion strategies will you use to access your market and achieve your goals? These might include conventions, training seminars and other events, email, direct marketing, advertising, website, affiliate marketing, social media, content posting, point-of-purchase promotion, or public relations activities. Be sure to think in terms of what is needed for lead generation as well as customer retention and growth.

6. Performance: How will you evaluate your success on an ongoing basis and what tools will you use to do so? Be sure to include quantifiable goals for the year. When will major campaigns occur? How will you compare lead generation, conversion, and ROI? Will you track website analytics? Will you survey customers? Do you have a testing plan? What success markers will you set to provide a clear signal for planned roll-outs or shifting to alternate strategies?

7. Budget: Outline your annual and monthly budget, noting any significant differences compared to past budgets, such as one-time capital investments or increased expenditures to enter a new market.

Always keep your primary intended reader in mind as you decide how much information to include and in what way. For instance, a banker or investor will want much more depth around financial projections, whereas a more hands-on stakeholder would relish a chart outlining monthly campaigns and events matched to a listing of marketing tools to be employed for each.

The Choice is Yours

Which type of marketing plan best suits your needs this year—the One-Hour Marketing Plan or the formal version? Make a commitment to your business now and challenge your team to at least accomplish the simplified plan each and every year. But, no matter what version you employ, taking the time to create an annual marketing plan to define success will greatly increase your chances of getting there.