A marketing plan may not be at the top of every new business owner's to-do list, but it should be. While a business plan helps map the direction for your company, a marketing plan helps your company understand how to get there by detailing important steps on the road to creating customer relationships.
"The single most important thing for a small business to include in its marketing plan is a very clear understanding of its customers and its competitors," said Robert Thomas, professor of marketing at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University.
Though a marketing plan can be formal or informal, at a minimum it describes who your customers are, where they get information, and how you are going to reach them. Thomas said the development of a marketing plan requires four specific tasks:
Develop a very clear and focused insight into why a potential customer would use your business. More specifically, what is the core need that your product or service will meet? Is it to help your customers get through the day more easily? Do their job more efficiently? Be respected and admired by friends? Your offering should be designed to meet customer needs better than the competition.
Identify your target customers. There are numerous potential customers in most markets, but to succeed faster and better, a small business must study the market to determine the characteristics of its best target customers. The target customer should be described in detail. In doing so, a business also develops a clearer picture of the expected sales revenues and financials.
Identify competitors that would also want your target customers. There is always a competitor — never make the mistake of assuming there isn't. Small businesses seldom take the time to study their competitors in depth. But you must understand who your competitors are, what their core competitive advantage is and how they will respond to your offering (price cuts, increased communication, etc.).
Write down your brand-positioning statement for your target customers. Ultimately, your brand and what it symbolizes for customers will be your strongest competitive advantage. You should be able to write down a simple declarative sentence of how you will meet customer needs and beat the competition. The best positioning statements are those that are single-minded and focus on target customer needs.
While these steps are a good starting point, companies also need to incorporate multiple channels into their marketing plans. Some of the most popular channels for today's businesses include:
Social media marketing
Social media has become an essential part of businesses' marketing plans. Businesses that have yet to realize the opportunities that Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn and other networks provide them are missing out. Even though the concept of social media marketing may overwhelm certain small business owners, the process does not need to be a challenge, as more services and companies are popping up more and more frequently.
Brett Farmiloe, founder of Internet marketing company Markitors, advised companies that are just getting started in social media to get to know their customers.
"Figure out where your customers are spending their time and set up shop on those platforms," Farmiloe told Business News Daily. "Develop a content strategy that can be executed internally, [and then] execute your strategy by posting branded content on your selected platforms. While all three steps are key, the biggest one is really determining if your customers are on these platforms."
Though email marketing may not be as new of a concept as social media marketing, it is an effective and popular choice for many small business owners. Companies can implement email-marketing techniques in a number of ways, including newsletters, promotional campaigns and transactional emails. Companies such as MailChimp and Constant Contact make it easy for companies to manage their email campaigns.
Farmiloe noted that companies can set their email marketing efforts apart by segmenting their market.
"Not all subscribers want to receive the same blast," Farmiloe said. "Smart email marketers take the time to segment subscribers at the outset, and then continue to segment based on subscriber activity. Through segmentation, companies reduce the amount of unsubscribes, increase open rates, and most importantly, increase the amount of actions taken from an email send." [For a side-by-side comparison of the best email marketing services, visit our sister site Top Ten Reviews]
The popularity of smartphones and tablets has helped to change the way companies target their customers. As a result, companies are looking to implement strategies that reach customers on their devices.
Mobile marketing should not be considered a mere extension of email or online marketing, however. Since many consumers have a mobile device with them at all times, texts and push notifications will almost certainly be seen by the recipient.
"Mobile marketing is interruptive," Farmiloe said. "It's because of this power that a marketer has to let the consumer determine how and when to receive marketing material. That's why almost every app comes with the option to turn notifications on or off. The consumer has to hold the power with mobile marketing."
To optimize your mobile marketing presence, carefully consider how and when you reach your mobile customers. Be sensitive to when and why they use their phones, and offer them information that is pertinent to their situation.
Once strategies have been identified for each channel, you need to figure out your strategy. How much are you willing to spend in each channel? What outcomes do you expect to see? What tasks do you need to accomplish for each step in your process? Creating a well-defined list of budgets, goals and action items, with appropriate personnel assigned to each, can help make your marketing plan a reality.
It is also important to decide in advance how you will measure success. Are you hoping to see increased sales or traffic, or new client contacts? Set six-month milestones for each channel, and compare the results against prior efforts and your expectations. If a channel is underperforming, examine the consequences for both abandoning it and for adding more resources. If your efforts have fallen flat as the result of a failure to understand the medium's audience, go back to basics. Asking your customers to complete an email survey about their social media habits in exchange for a coupon or discount may help you learn surprising relationships between customer demographics and your marketing efforts.
More information and templates for your marketing plan can be found at the following links:
Additional reporting by Jeanette Mulvey, Business News Daily editorial director.
Originally published on Sept. 10, 2013. Updated Jan. 28, 2015.