Congratulations! You are among a select number of small business owners and executives who recognize the need for a marketing plan. As a marketing strategist, I recommend a marketing plan to all of my clients. More often than not, business owners feel they can just “wing it.” That, my friend, is a recipe for disaster.

This is how I describe a marketing plan to my clients:

“While marketing is the engine driving your business, a marketing plan is the road map guiding your business.”

While marketing is the engine driving your business, a marketing plan is the road map guiding your business. Think of the marketing plan as the “GPS” unit for your company—a necessary tool carefully outlining detailed, “turn-by–turn” directions to help you reach your desired destination.

Regardless of size, your company needs a marketing plan. Some business owners choose to outsource, while others develop it in-house. This article is designed to help guide your in-house marketing team in developing a viable plan for your business.

While some plans are more extensive, let’s examine the very basic elements you should include in your marketing plan:

Who Is Your Company?

The first order of business is getting to know your company. Sounds simple, right? Not necessarily. In fact, you may be surprised at just how much you don’t know about your business. Business owners and management often get so immersed in their everyday tasks, they fail to step outside of their box and see what is happening in the cubicles around them. It is important to gain a comprehensive understanding of your company before starting a marketing plan.

When I develop plans for clients, I speak with multiple people in the company to gain a full perspective and understanding of the business and include a summary of my findings in the marketing plan. Let’s take a look at some ideas to help you effectively accomplish this:

  • Examine your company’s financial reports, including department budgets and profit/loss statements.
  • Develop a list of each and every product/service your company offers along with a short summary of each.
  • Review sales reports and any available information about your customers (such as income or age).
  • Talk with department directors and managers. Ask them to discuss any company strengths and weaknesses they are able to identify.
  • Review the history of your market situation (for example, the company was founded in 2005 and experienced a steady 2.4 percent annual increase in sales until 2010, when sales have decreased an average of 1.5 percent annually, etc.).
  • Interview members of your sales team to ascertain their impressions of what is currently working and not working with both the company offerings and current marketing efforts.
  • When talking with sales staff, try to assess relevancy of products or services. Has one of your offerings become obsolete? Does the market demand enhanced features or more affordable price points?
  • Digging deep into your company will give you a panoramic view of strengths, weaknesses, and overall company culture.

Understand Your Competition

Your plan should include a summary outlining who your direct competition is, what products/services they offer, what competitive advantages you have over them, what competitive advantages they have over you, how they have branded themselves, and any other pertinent information you discover. Do you have to fight to stay on top or get to the top? Knowing how you measure up in the marketplace will help drive your marketing strategies and tactics.

Research Primary and Secondary Target Markets

Once you understand your company, you need to identify your primary and secondary target markets. One mistake companies make is assuming who will want their product. Take time to talk with your sales staff and examine your competitors to find out who is really consuming your products or services.

Also, understand that it is also not unusual for your target markets to change over time. For instance, when smartphones were introduced, the target markets were very limited. Now, as the platforms have become more user-friendly and the technology has caught on, they have a wider appeal. Researching and identifying target markets will also help ensure you are outlining pertinent marketing strategies and tactics.

Conduct a SWOT Analysis

SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. Seriously examining each area and writing them down will help your entire team really understand where the company is, what is propelling it, and what could compromise its overall success. Some of these factors can be controlled, but others—like the economy—cannot.

However, sometimes what you cannot control can become less of a threat by making adjustments. For instance, when consumer confidence is low and the economy is struggling, people tend to save their pennies. Offering a more affordable alternative can help boost sales in some cases.

For example, Apple expands their pool of qualified buyers by continuing to produce and sell their iPad 2 at a lower price point than newer models. Check out this article, which dives deeper into how to conduct a SWOT analysis.

Set Goals

A company without goals is like a sailor without a compass. Not only do you need to set goals, you need to write them down and reinforce them. Make goals attainable but specific (e.g. increase sales of Product B by 35 percent over the course of two years). Your goals will drive your marketing strategies and give your entire team something to strive for and celebrate!

Develop Strategies

Now, we will discuss the “meat” of the plan. You will need to outline very specific strategies, and tactics to deploy them. Every marketing plan I write is different because no two businesses are the same. The strategies you choose must complement the research you’ve just conducted (understand your company and competition, identify target markets, outline strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, and set company goals).

Be very specific when developing a strategy. For example:

Strategy: Redesign the website to be more user-friendly, while integrating an e-commerce storefront which can be viewed on multiple size displays and devices.

Including specifics in your strategies will help you develop your tactics and also ensure your entire team is on the same page. One mistake many companies make is being too vague.

I cannot tell you how many times I have seen “revamp website” listed as a strategy when reviewing a company’s existing marketing plan. A general strategy such as this gives no specifics as to why it is being done and what it is meant to accomplish.

Next, determine your tactics. Tactics are basically the steps you will take to achieve the strategy. Some tactics for the strategy we outlined above may include:

  • Utilize a responsive design so website can be easily viewed on mobile devices.
  • Select a shopping cart which allows the user to rotate and zoom in on product photos.
  • Incorporate a content management system so website can be easily kept up to date.

As you can see, the tactics should also be very specific. When I write a marketing plan for a client, they generally hire me to help with implementation. Although I will remain involved with the plan, I write it as if I won’t. So, if something happens to me, anyone in the company can pick it up and fully understand and deploy each strategy.

One of your strategies should include developing a method to monitor and track results. You should review progress at least monthly and identify which strategies are producing results and which appear weak. Don’t be afraid to make adjustments to the plan if needed.

The Take-away

Once you have completed your strategies and tactics, you are on the home stretch. The final essential component is to summarize the plan and outline how your team will move forward. It is always a good idea to note that the plan should remain confidential within the company and be shared only with pertinent staff. The team then should sit down, prioritize the strategies, and assign tasks.

You may also want to make note of resources to help grow your business. These can become very helpful in taking you to the next level. Organizations such as the Small Business Administration (SBA) or America’s Small Business Development Center (ASBDC) provide both free and low cost consulting, seminars, training, and resources. And, when your marketing takes off, you may need to hire outsourced providers to help with customer service and fulfillment. Companies such as Global Response offer excellent options to help manage an influx of inquiries and orders.

I want to emphasize the importance of reviewing, monitoring, and tracking each strategy on a regular basis. While you may make some adjustments along the way, aim to write a new plan every year. This will help keep your entire team up to date on changing trends and markets, while ensuring relevant new strategies and tactics are identified and developed. Good luck!

AvatarGina Smith

Gina Smith is a marketing strategist who writes freelance articles for magazines, online outlets and publications for companies such as Global Response. Smith covers the latest topics in the business, golf, tourism, technology and entertainment industries.