Anthony Lee September 17th, 2019

How to Create a Marketing Plan

how to create a marketing plan

There are a lot of reasons to create a marketing plan. You might be looking for outside financing to grow and expand your business — many banks and investors ask for a marketing plan as part of a larger business plan. Maybe you’re expanding your marketing team and want to give them a blueprint for how you want to grow. Or maybe you’re growing quickly and want to write down how you got here and how to keep the momentum going.

The good news is that a marketing plan isn’t nearly as complicated as many people think. While there’s no “right” way to create a marketing plan; our simple template makes the process easy.

The goal of any marketing plan is to answer some basic questions:

  • Who are your customers?
  • Who are your competitors?
  • What do you want your marketing to accomplish?
  • What kind of marketing activities can help you reach your goals?
  • How much money will you need for these activities?

A good marketing plan will take your answers to these questions and put them into a simple framework that makes it easy for readers to understand. It will also make it much easier for you and your team to follow the plan.

This guide will cover why a marketing plan is important and walk you through the steps of creating your own marketing plan

Crucial steps of creating a marketing plan

  • Write an executive summary
  • Identify your target audience
  • Write a competitive analysis
  • Set your marketing goals
  • Create a marketing strategy
  • Set a marketing budget

Why is a marketing plan important?

The words “marketing plan” are enough to strike fear into the hearts of even seasoned marketers. You may have a lot of great ideas, but the thought of putting them on paper can be intimidating. Don’t worry! This guide will take you step by step through the process of creating a marketing plan.

So what is a marketing plan? Basically, it’s a document that tells readers who your customers are and outlines how you’re going to get more of them. It also covers who your competitors are, what they’re doing, and how you plan on out-selling them. Finally, a marketing plan helps you lay out how much your activities will cost and put together a general budget.

Why have a marketing plan?

You’re trying to secure funding

Whether you’re looking at a traditional bank loan or raising an investment round, most financiers will want to see a plan for how you’re going to grow your business. That usually means a business plan, of which a marketing plan is an important component. Investors will look for signs that you know your business inside and out, and have a clear vision for expansion.

It’s understandable that investors might have some tough questions, since you’re asking them to trust you with a lot of their money. Being able to show that you understand your market can go a long way to winning that trust. The more specific you can get when talking about your audience and your competitors, the more likely investors will believe you’re a good bet.

However, keep in mind that a business plan and a marketing plan are not the same thing. The former covers all aspects of your business, from how you create your product to who you’ll be hiring for key roles in your company. It’s a comprehensive document that outlines operations, support, company structure, and other details. A marketing plan, on the other hand, deals specifically with how you plan on getting your product in front of (and in the hands of) your customers. 

You want to expand your marketing team

When you’re trying to get a business off the ground all by yourself, or with a small team, a marketing plan seems unnecessary. After all, you know what you need to do to market your product or service. But as you grow, you’ll need to hire a marketing team, and they may not know your market, your brand, and your company as well as you do.

Putting together a comprehensive marketing plan for a new marketing team goes a long way toward making sure everyone is working to meet the same goal. It lets marketers know what they need to be doing, and gives you peace of mind because you know that your vision is being maintained.

On the other side of things, if you’re an early marketing hire, putting together a marketing plan will help you make sure that you’re on the same page as your boss. Either way, a marketing plan is essential to make sure an expanding marketing team stays aligned with the goals of the organization.

You want to collect your thoughts

Up to now, we’ve only talked about external reasons why a marketing plan is important. But the truth is that the most important reason to create a marketing plan is for yourself. Many entrepreneurs and marketers spend a lot of time working on coffee and instinct. When there’s too much to do and not enough hands to do it, a marketing plan can be the least of your worries.

But as your company continues to grow, it may be a good idea to put your thoughts down in a more formal way than you have in the past. The exercise of thinking through a marketing plan can help you refocus. It can also help you figure out exactly what has and hasn’t worked to get you where you are. That kind of insight can be critical in helping you plan your next move — making sure you do more of what works, and less of what doesn’t, or finding new business opportunities.

What’s the format of a marketing plan?

As we mentioned before, there isn’t one single correct structure for a marketing plan. In fact, it’s safe to say that there are as many marketing plan formats as there are marketing plan writers. Still, the process of writing one is a lot easier with a template that gives some structure to your thoughts, especially if this is your first marketing plan.

A good marketing format for beginners looks something like this:

  • Executive summary. The executive summary is a brief explanation of the marketing plan in your own words. Unlike the rest of the plan, the executive summary shouldn’t be full of jargon, technical terms, or numbers. Instead, think of it as your elevator pitch.
  • Audience analysis. Who are your customers? No marketing plan would be complete without a look at who you want to sell to. You should answer questions not just about who your customers are but what their motivations are and how you can reach them.
  • Competitive analysis. Unless you’ve invented something no one has ever seen before, you probably have competition. And even if your product is absolutely unique, your audience might have other things to spend their money on. In this section, you’ll talk about your competitors and figure out what they’re doing and what your advantage is.
  • Goals and objectives. Setting goals and objectives for your marketing plan is critical. Without them, you won’t be able to properly evaluate your strategy, and you won’t be able to tell if something is working.
  • Marketing strategy and tactics. The strategy and tactics part of your marketing plan is the meat of what you’ll be doing. It’s also where a lot of marketing plan writers make mistakes by forgetting that strategy and tactics are two different things. (We’ll cover this in more detail later.)
  • Marketing budget and projections. At the end of your marketing plan, figure out how much all of this is going to cost and what you think you’ll be getting for that money. All your assumptions about results and costs should be laid out here.

The good news is that if you’re considering creating a marketing plan, chances are you’re already past the hard part. You know what you want to sell, who you want to sell it to, how you’re going to produce it, and what your business model is. Compared to that, writing a marketing plan is a piece of cake.

In fact, all you need to do to start is jot down your thoughts about what you sell, who you sell it to, why people should buy from you, and how you think you can reach those people.

Don’t worry about arranging them in any specific order — we’ll help you take care of that as you work through the rest of this guide on writing a marketing plan.

Writing an executive summary

The executive summary may be the most important but poorly understood document in the business world. Everyone agrees that writing a good one is critical to success, but most people can’t agree on what should go in one.

This is especially true for a marketing plan executive summary.

There is an old saying in the marketing world: “The only time anyone will read your marketing plan is while you’re writing it.” That might be a bit of a cynical exaggeration from a career famous for its exaggerating cynics, but the principle is sound.

A marketing plan can be a very large, very dense document. In the spirit of hoping for the best and planning for the worst, you should expect that the only thing people will read is your executive summary.

What isn’t a marketing plan executive summary?

Before we get too far into how to write a marketing plan executive summary, it’s important to clear up a common misconception. An executive summary is not just a summary of your marketing plan. Nor is it an intro to or explanation of your plan.

An executive summary doesn’t just exist to provide a quick overview of things you’re going to be covering later. Instead, your executive summary should be a pointed document that recommends a course of action. Even though it comes at the beginning, you should think of the executive summary as the conclusion of your marketing plan.

Earlier, we called it your elevator pitch. Like any good elevator pitch, it isn’t complete without a very specific ask. What you ask for might vary depending on the purpose of your marketing plan. It’s entirely possible that you may need to write several different marketing plan executive summaries for the same exact marketing plan. We’ll talk about the kinds of things you can ask for later in this section.

When should you write your marketing plan executive summary?

This is another hot topic, full of disagreements and conflicting advice. Some people say you should write your marketing executive summary first, as a kind of guide to what you’ll include in your marketing plan. We fall in the opposite camp: The marketing plan executive summary should be the last thing you write.

Partly, that’s because it’s going to change depending on who’s reading it. And to some extent, it’s because you’ll need to reference specific information in the summary, and that’s more difficult if the information doesn’t exist yet.

Mostly, it’s because we believe that your conclusions should be guided by whatever you find in your research, not the other way around. Saving it for last lets you use what you put together to find the best course of action, rather than picking your direction first and then trying to justify it.

What should your marketing plan executive summary include?

Why this information is important

Before you describe what you do, who you are, or where you plan to go, you need to capture the reader’s attention. The best way to make a big impact is to start by describing the problem that you’re trying to solve with your marketing plan.

Your problem should be clear, simply written, supported by evidence, and immediately obvious as a problem. For example, “Continuing with our current marketing efforts will result in missing our yearly revenue goal by 50 percent” is a great opening problem statement. So is “Our research shows that 80 percent of our ideal customers still haven’t heard of our product.”

On the other hand, “This marketing plan will radically change the way people think about the future of our industry” is not only a bad problem statement, but it also doesn’t clearly explain what the challenge is and how the marketing plan will solve it.

Starting out with a concrete and easy-to-understand problem statement immediately informs the reader what you’re trying to address and why they should care. If you can get a reader to care about your marketing plan, you’re 50 percent of the way to accomplishing your goals.

What if you solved that problem?

The next section sets you up as the hero in this story. What if your company solves the problem you set up in the first section? The point of section two is to paint a picture of what the world looks like with the problem out of the way in as simple and straightforward a way as possible. Think of this as the result of your marketing plan working flawlessly.

Keep this section as brief as possible. You can get into who you are, what you do, and how you plan to solve the problem later. For now, it would be enough to say something like “Capturing an additional 10 percent of market share would result in new revenues of over $10,000,000.” That’s it!

Who are you, and how do you plan to solve your problem?

This is the meat of your marketing plan executive summary. In this section, explain what your company or marketing department does and what makes you different. As before, be clear, simple, and direct. This is not the time for marketing messages and bravado. Instead, focus on the things that make you different than the competition — things that make you stand out.

You can also use this section to briefly outline some of the competitor and market research you did when putting together the marketing plan. You don’t need to go into detail, because you’re going to do that later in the report.

Instead, use broad strokes to talk about the state of the market — what percentage of all available customers know about your company and buy from you? Who are your biggest competitors? What makes you stand out from them? Do the same for your target market — you want readers to see that you understand who you want to sell to, without getting overwhelmed.

When it comes time to present your solution, remember that you’re the hero. The solution needs to be something that only you and your marketing plan can do. Touch on the strengths and differentiators you highlighted in the previous paragraph, and make it clear that only you can successfully execute this solution. Use references to the information contained in the report, and arrange the solution in order of what happens first, what happens next, etc.

Spend a paragraph outlining potential risks and setbacks, and how you plan to overcome or avoid them. Be straightforward and honest — don’t try to minimize challenges, and don’t try to avoid talking about them. Instead, focus on how the strength of your marketing plan and your company makes these risks avoidable.

What do you want?

Finally, get to the point of what you would like from the reader. We talked in section one about some of the reasons you may want to write a marketing plan. The ask in your marketing executive summary should be tailored to these purposes.

For example, if your goal is to raise money, you’ll want to allocate some for the marketing budget here. If you’re writing a plan for your team, a good ask is setting specific marketing goals and objectives for them. If you’re writing a marketing business plan as a thought exercise, your ask of yourself may be a commitment to marketing time and resources.

Whatever your ask, be as specific as possible about what exactly you hope to get. Put a number on the budget, use real measurable goals, and specify the resources you’ll need. And remember that you won’t get what you didn’t ask for.

Additional notes for your marketing plan executive summary

Make it complete

Remember that there’s a chance readers will never make it past your marketing plan executive summary. Make sure that it stands on its own and accurately tells your story.

Use the rest of the report as a reference

Rather than expecting readers to go through your marketing plan page by page, think of the bulk of your plan as a supporting reference guide for your marketing executive summary. Use footnotes and references to your plan to support the statements you make.

Avoid jargon and business-speak

Even if you know who the intended audience for your marketing plan is, don’t take the chance that they won’t recognize industry jargon. Even more important, you want to engage readers. Make sure your writing is plain, clear, and to the point.

Keep it positive without going overboard

Remember that this is a story about your business solving a problem. Keep the report positive and upbeat. Focus on the upside, and reframe challenges as opportunities for you to take advantage of. But don’t go overboard. Respect your audience, and they will respect you.

While you should wait until the end of the process to write your marketing plan executive summary, it’s never too early to start thinking about it. Before you even start the marketing plan, think about the problems you want to solve and how you may be positioned to solve them. Jot down some notes on challenges you’ve faced and might face in the future.

While going through the rest of this guide, look for data that supports some of your initial notes. Also look for data that disproves them, and don’t be afraid to revise your problem, solution, or risks as you go along. In fact, the more you revise and boil down what you learn, the stronger your marketing executive summary will be.

Identifying your target audience

If you could pick any customer to walk through your door (or visit your website or give you a call), what would they look like? How old would they be? What kind of work would they do? What would their income be? If you sell to businesses, how big a business would they represent? These are some of the essential questions you’ll need to answer when figuring out your target audience.

So what is a target audience, why do you need one, and how do you go about identifying yours? That’s what we’re going to discuss in this section.

What is a target audience?

We started this section with a simple question: If you could pick anyone to be your customer, who would they be? This is the basic premise of your target audience. What does your best customer look like?

Your target audience is going to vary based on what kind of product you sell. For public-facing or consumer-oriented companies (often abbreviated as B2C for business-to-consumer) the target audience is most likely going to be an individual or group with specific characteristics or demographics. These often include

  • Age
  • Location
  • Income
  • Gender
  • Career
  • Relationship status
  • Hobbies and leisure activities

Keep in mind that this is just a place to get started, not a complete list. There are countless characteristics you can sort groups of people by, and some of them will be more important to you than others. We’ll discuss how to pick the best ones later on in this section.

On the other hand, if you sell products or services to other businesses (business-to-business, or B2B) you’ll be much more interested in characteristics that describe the types of companies you sell to. For B2B companies, that might include

  • Location or service location
  • Industry
  • Size
  • Public or private
  • For-profit or nonprofit
  • Revenue

Again, this is just a place to get started, not a complete list. The characteristics that matter to your business aren’t necessarily going to be the ones that are important to other businesses.

Why do you need to know your target audience?

Many business owners are conscious of how much money they spend on generating new business. It’s easy to put a price on a new ad campaign, hiring marketing staff, or hosting a promotion. It’s a lot harder to put a price on the time you spend getting new customers, but it definitely has a cost.

These two costs — time and money — are the main reasons why it’s important to identify your target audience. You have a limited supply of both, and you need to spend them both in the most effective way possible.

Knowing who your ideal customer is will help you spend your marketing and advertising dollars in the most efficient way possible. Even more important, it will keep you from wasting time on prospects who aren’t likely to buy from you.

So the short answer is, you need to identify your target audience for the same reason you need to set other business goals and objectives: It’s hard to hit a target you can’t see.

How do you define your target audience?

Now that you know what a target audience is and why you need one, it’s time to start figuring out your target audience. This process is going to be slightly different depending on whether you’re already in business or just starting out, so we’ll break the steps down based on that criterion.

If you’re already in business

The bad news is that you’re going to have to do more work than a brand-new or as-yet-unstarted business. The good news is that you probably already have a treasure trove of information on your target audience and, therefore, have a much better picture of who you want to sell to.

The first step is to go through your customer records. If you don’t keep detailed records, don’t worry — you can do your best to take down notes from what you remember. Once you have your records, or notes, it’s time to do some detective work.

Start by identifying the customers who have spent the most money with you. It’s important to note that there are two ways of looking at which customers are the most valuable. The first one is customer lifetime value, or CLV, the total amount that an individual customer spends with you — just go through and add up all of their individual orders. The second is the average order amount. Add up all of the money an individual customer has spent with you and divide by the number of orders.

There is a good reason why you want to look at both values. You may have customers who have great customer lifetime value, but who do it over a lot of small purchases. On one hand, you don’t want to miss out on great customers just because they place a lot of smaller orders and don’t register as “whales.” On the other hand, if servicing those customers requires significantly more time and resources, they may be less ideal than customers who make fewer but larger purchases.

Once you have a list of your top customers, it’s time to do a little detective work. Figure out what all of your best customers have in common. Start with the most obvious characteristics, which will vary depending on whether you’re a B2B or B2C business.

There’s no right number of characteristics to have. Keep going down your list of best customers and finding common threads, but don’t force it. And be careful that you don’t inadvertently throw off results with preconceptions. It’s easy to think of your favorite customers rather than your best. Make sure that you’re following what your data tells you.

After finishing with your customer list, it’s time to move from your own records to the broader market. At this point, you should follow the process for new businesses in the next section.

If your business is new

If you don’t have any customer data yet, or you’ve already finished going through your customer list, it’s now time to look at the market as a whole.

Your first stop is to look at what your competitors are doing. Of course, they probably won’t be too eager to share their customer research with you, but you can piece things together from how they market themselves. What kind of actors do they use in their marketing images? What kind of language do they use? Where do they advertise? What other products do they sell? Write down who you think your competitors are selling to. If you have your own customer data, compare the two descriptions and see if there’s any overlap or if you missed out on something.

Next, look at your products or services. What do you sell, and what benefits do you provide to your customers? Who can make the most use of your benefits? Sometimes it’s pretty obvious — if you sell plumbing equipment, chances are your customers are plumbers. Other times, it can be more difficult — if you sell a common product that is beneficial to anyone, it can be hard to pick just a handful of target audiences. You don’t have to narrow your list down from product information alone. Compare the list of benefits to the lists you made earlier and see if anything obvious pops out.

How do you refine your target audience definition?

By now, you should have a rough idea of the kinds of people that would benefit most from your product or service, a list of who your competitors are marketing to, a list of who benefits the most from your products, and maybe even a list of your best customers.

Go through your lists, and once again look for shared characteristics. Keep in mind that you may have more than one ideal target audience. For example, if you sell clothes for teenagers, you may find that you need to market to 15–19 year olds and to their mothers.

Now it’s time to put it all together and validate your target audience or audiences. The easiest way to make sense of all the information you have collected so far is to build something marketers call a “persona.” A persona is a profile of what a typical customer in one of your target audiences looks like. It’s often helpful to create a character that fits an audience — give them a name, find a stock photo of what they would look like, and give them a short backstory to help you think about who they are and what motivates them.

Then start compiling the information you put together into a set of demographics — statistical information about your persona, like age, income, education level, etc. — and their psychographics — the personal characteristics that describe what they do and why they do it, such as their values, hobbies, attitudes, and beliefs. The final persona should tell a story about your target audience and why they might be interested in buying your product or service.

To figure out if your personas make sense as target audiences, you need to ask yourself some questions and do some research:

  • Is my audience big enough to support my business, or do I need to expand it?
  • Can this audience afford to buy from me?
  • Are there easy ways to engage with my audience, or will it be too difficult to reach them?
  • Are there any other target audiences that I may not be reaching now but that I think I can reach?
  • Can I convince my audience that they should purchase from my business?
  • Is there room in this audience for a new competitor?

If you can answer yes to all of those questions, congratulations. You now have at least one target audience to pursue. If you answer no to any of them, it might be worth it to go back to the beginning and do a second pass to see if you missed anything.

When you add your target audience to your marketing plan, include the personas you put together and any background research you may have done to validate them. Make sure you have an estimate of how many people make up each audience, how much they typically spend on products similar to yours, and how much they have spent with your business if you have that information.

Having all of this target audience information will help you develop the rest of your marketing plan and will allow you to more accurately determine which customers you should pursue and how to reach them. It will also help you with the next section, writing a competitive analysis.

Writing a competitive analysis

If you have an idea who your target audience is, you’ll be ahead of many companies, but it’s still just the first step in putting together a strong marketing plan. Once you know who you’re selling to, it’s important to figure out who else might have their attention. This is where the competitive analysis comes in.

A competitive market analysis is a critical piece of your marketing plan. It can help you better understand who you’re going up against for customers, help you determine which marketing strategies to use, and can even give you insight about ways you can improve your own products and services — or create new ones — to gain a competitive advantage.

If you’re putting together a marketing plan for outside readers, a thorough competitor analysis will help to validate your market — or prove that there’s room in the market for you. It will also help demonstrate that you have a full and thorough understanding of the business you’re in.

On its face, a competitive analysis seems like the most straightforward part of a marketing plan. Most business owners have a pretty good idea who their competitors are and what they do. In fact, there’s a good chance you’re already informally performing many of the pieces of a good competitive marketing analysis: checking out competitors’ websites, looking at their marketing materials, maybe even visiting them in person or “secret shopping” them. However, there are some key differences between a full competitive analysis and these informal activities.

Types of competitors in a competitive market analysis

For a formal analysis, you’ll want to look at a few different types of competition:

  • Direct competitors. Direct competitors are companies that do the same thing you do, for the same target audience, in the same way. For many business owners, this is likely who you think of when you think of the competition. They’re in the same business, sell similar or identical products, operate where you do, and can seem interchangeable to your customers.
  • Indirect competitors. Indirect competitors share some but not all of the characteristics of your business. They may target the same customers as you, with the same product, but operate in a different geographic area. Or they may have the same customers and operate in the same location but sell a slightly different product.

  • Tertiary or peripheral competitors. These are companies that don’t sell the same product or service as you, but otherwise compete for your target audience’s money. Remember that most customers have a limited discretionary budget. If they spend it elsewhere, even if it’s not on products similar to yours, it’s still less money that they have to spend on your products or services.

  • Potential competitors. These businesses don’t exist yet, but they could change the way your industry operates. A great example is how Uber began competing with taxi companies. It was an entirely new business model that worked in a radically new way, and it provided a service that replaced some of the need for taxis.

Say you own a pet grooming salon that specializes in high-end dog haircuts. Another groomer that operates a block away would be a direct competitor for you. A chain pet store that also offers grooming services is an indirect competitor — they offer similar services but likely don’t have too many overlapping customers.

A gourmet dog food boutique would be a peripheral competitor, since they don’t offer the same services, but if one of your customers overspends on fancy dog chow, they may cut back on the number of appointments they schedule with you. Finally, a potential competitor might be an app-based mobile grooming service that comes to pet owners’ homes to provide doggy haircuts — Uber for Poodles.

Some businesses might not seem like they have many, or any, competitors. This is especially true for new business models that simply didn’t exist before. In these cases, it’s important to focus on the last three categories.

As an example, think about being the first iPhone repair shop to open when the iPhone first came out. Indirect competitors who don’t do exactly what you do can suddenly start selling your product — a watch or stereo repair shop might suddenly start fixing phones. Peripheral competitors can still offer alternatives to your product — a rival phone company might be offering discounts on new phones for anyone that brings in a broken iPhone. And there’s always the possibility that someone can open up a new business to compete with you.

How to start a competitive analysis

Finding competitors

The easiest way to begin a competitive market analysis is to create a list with four columns: direct competitors, indirect competitors, tertiary competitors, and potential competitors. Then start listing companies that you think compete with you — either selling the same products or taking enough of your target audience’s money and attention that they can cut into your business. As you think of names, sort them into one of the four columns based on the kind of competition they represent.

Once you’ve listed all the competitors you can think of, it’s time to do some research. In the past, this would have involved sorting through local newspapers and phone books. These days, the internet has made things much easier.

A great place to start is by searching for your exact product, paired with local keywords if you have a limited operating area. Something like “dog grooming omaha” would give you a great idea of who you’re competing with. Additionally, look through review services like Yelp and Google Local, and classified ad sites like Craigslist. And if you don’t have a service area, do the same thing, but without the local keywords.

Picking your competitors

If you tried to profile and analyze all of your competitors, your competitive analysis would probably be hundreds of pages long. In the interest of saving yourself and your readers some time, it’s important to cut your competitors down to just the most important ones, which leads to the next question: How do you decide which competitors to focus on?

When narrowing down your list, remember that not all competitors are created equal. Focus primarily on your direct competitors. These are going to be the most immediate challenges you face, so they should make up the bulk of your final list.

Your indirect competitors are important but not nearly as much. You can cut this list down to just one or two key companies that have the biggest chance of stealing your customers or turning into direct competitors.

For peripheral competitors, it’s often enough to focus on a few broad product categories rather than calling out specific companies. In our dog salon example, rather than listing several high-end dog food boutiques, you could combine them all together under the heading “high-end dog food boutiques.” This is enough to help you and your readers understand the threat without spending time on individual competitors.

Likewise, for potential competitors, it’s more important to paint a picture of where future competition might come from in broad strokes rather than focus on any specific competitor —  especially since most of these competitors don’t exist yet.

Narrowing down your direct competitors is a little bit more challenging but not much more if you think strategically. A good rule is to think in groups of four: biggest, best, closest, and catching up.

  • Biggest is the easiest one to figure out. Who is the market leader or the biggest competitor you have?
  • Best is more subjective. Who do you think is the best, coolest, most talked about, or most envied of your competitors?
  • Closest is typically the second easiest to figure out. Which of your competitors do you feel is the closest in terms of size, price, customers, etc.?
  • Catching up is smaller than you but gaining ground. Which of your smaller competitors is closest to catching up with you? Note, if you’re starting a new business, instead of catching up to you, consider which newcomer to the industry has gained the most ground the quickest.

Go through your list of direct competitors and pick out one for each category. These companies will be the focus of your competitive analysis.

How to write a competitive analysis

Now that you have a good list of competitors, it’s time to actually do the analysis and put it all down in a structured way. There are hundreds of ways to do this, but the one that combines the most information with the most straightforward package is something called a SWOT analysis.

SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. It’s an incredibly powerful tool for quickly and efficiently assessing businesses, both your own and those of competitors. You should perform one for each of the competitors you selected earlier.

The SWOT analysis is often broken down into a grid, or matrix, along two major categories. Strengths and weaknesses represent internal factors — characteristics of a specific business. Threats and opportunities are external factors — characteristics of the business environment.

Strengths

What is your competitor really good at? Do they have a reputation for any specific thing or things? This can be products, services, location, or the way they conduct business. Maybe one of your competitors has a fantastic store on a busy shopping street, or they are well known for their professionalism and timeliness.

Strengths can also be resources that a competitor has or strategic differences that make them stand out. If a competitor has a patent on a product similar to yours, that is a strength. Or perhaps they just received a large investment so they have capital to improve, expand, or spend on marketing.

Finally, pay especially close attention to their marketing strengths. Do they have a fantastic blog or an incredibly engaging Facebook page? Maybe they’re geniuses at coming up with Instagram or Twitter hashtags.

Weaknesses

What are your competitors’ weaknesses? Just like strengths above, this can be anything about their business that represents an area where they are weak or perform poorly.

A great place to look for weaknesses is to look at reviews and customer feedback. Are there any particular negatives that customers bring up again and again? Do they have poor service or limited selection? Do they have limited hours or an inconvenient location?

Opportunities

What environmental factors related to your competitor represent the biggest opportunities for you? For example, maybe you’ve noticed a particular breed of dog becoming popular in your area that your competitor doesn’t work with. Or maybe your competitor doesn’t have an Instagram account, which is where most of your customers find you.

Think about specific ways that you can take advantage of your competitors’ weaknesses, and make notes about tactics and strategies that you can use to exploit those weaknesses in this section.

Threats

This section is like opportunities but in reverse. What specific threats does your competitor represent for you? Think about how your competitor can use their strengths to threaten your business, and come up with strategies to counteract them.

If they have more money to spend on marketing, for example, think of ways that you can reach more people while spending less. Or if they offer products and services you don’t, consider whether you can start offering some of those products and/or services.

A SWOT analysis is a good way to organize a lot of different ideas about a business in one easy-to-read and -present manner. It can serve as the bulk of your competitive analysis. Before you finish looking at each one, make sure you’ve answered at least these basic questions:

  • How big is the competitor, both in terms of sales and locations/service area?
  • How similar are their product offerings to your own?
  • What is good about their products? What isn’t good?
  • How much of the market do they have — what is their market share?
  • How are they priced relative to you?
  • How do they generate sales, and what does their sales process look like?
  • Do they do a lot of marketing and what kind?
  • What sales and marketing channels are they active in?
  • How do they gain and lose business?
  • Are they growing or shrinking?
  • How similar is their target audience to your target audience?

If you have an answer for each of these for all of your selected competitors, then your work is largely done. You now have a competitive analysis and better understand the competitive landscape where you will be doing business.

Remember that this isn’t a one-time process. You’ll need to revisit your competitive analysis frequently to make sure that nothing has changed. You might also want to run a SWOT analysis whenever you notice a new competitor pop up, just to be on the safe side.

Setting your marketing goals

There’s an old saying: You miss 100 percent of the targets you don’t aim for. This is especially true for marketing goals and objectives. Without setting some specific goals, objectives, and targets, it will be hard to figure out just how well your marketing plan actually performed. That, in turn, will make it hard to know whether you need to change it or keep it the same.

You may have noticed that we talk about goals, objectives, and targets as three separate things above. That’s because while they may be interchangeable in casual English, in business and marketing, they have three distinct definitions.

  • Goals. Goals are things your whole business or organization wants to accomplish over a long timeframe. Goals are typically broader and less specific than other targets and have longer timelines to completion.
  • Objectives. Objectives are things that individual departments want to accomplish to help achieve organizational goals. They are much narrower and more specific than goals and are generally accomplished in the medium term.
  • Targets. Target is a broad term that can contain goals, objectives, or smaller units down to the individual employee. A target is just a specific thing that you want someone to achieve.

These terms should help you decide what kinds of marketing goals and objectives you need to set in your marketing plan. Keeping track of the different terms can be confusing, but just remember that goals are made up of objectives, and both are a kind of target.

The SMART framework for goals and objectives

Whether you’re setting goals, objectives, or targets, they should be SMART. The SMART framework allows you to set smarter, more meaningful goals and objectives for your marketing.

  • Specific. Is your goal clear, concise, and to the point? You want it to be as specific as appropriate to the level it’s set at and avoid any vagueness or uncertainty. A good, specific goal answers what needs to be achieved, who needs to achieve it, why it needs to be achieved, and when it needs to be achieved.

    Example: In order to compete against Large Doggy Grooming, Small Doggy Grooming will need to expand to three locations by the end of the next fiscal year.

rather than
We need to expand business to compete.

  • Measurable. The goal needs to be tied to a specific metric that can be quantified. In other words, the goal needs to be something you can measure, so that you can check your results and know when you’ve accomplished the goal.

    Example: Sales need to increase to $5,000,000.

rather than
The sales team needs to close more business.

  • Achievable. Setting goals that are impossible to achieve not only doesn’t help your business, it can actually hurt morale and productivity. A goal needs to be something that you can realistically accomplish with the resources you have.

    Example: Our goal is to be the largest provider of doggy grooming services in Small Town, USA within five years.

rather thanWe will become the most well-known doggy groomer in the country by the end of the year.

  • Relevant. This may seem like common sense, but it’s important for your goals to be applicable to your business. They should have a real impact on your company, rather than being vanity goals, or goals that aren’t tied to business results.

    Example: Small Doggy Grooming will win 50 percent of the local dog grooming market share.

rather thanSmall Doggy Grooming will have the most Instagram followers of any dog grooming salon.

  • Timely. There must be a definite time period in which the goal needs to be accomplished. You need a specific start and end date, so that you can accurately measure your success.

    Example: Small Doggy Grooming will grow by 100 percent by the end of the next fiscal year.

rather than
Small Doggy Grooming will grow by 100 percent.

Bad goals are almost as bad for a business as no goals at all. The SMART goal framework will help you make sure that the marketing goals and objectives you set actually help your business and help you constantly improve your marketing.

Setting marketing goals

As we mentioned, goals are broad, long-term targets. When we say long-term, we mean something that takes longer than a year to accomplish. Typically, marketing objectives will be set for one year out, three years out, and five years out. Particularly ambitious planners can shoot for longer than five years, but we don’t recommend it. Five years is a very long time in the life of an organization, and being specific about something that far away can be difficult, which would mean you can’t set SMART goals.

Remember that goals are the highest level of target, so you don’t want to get too bogged down in the fine details. You should set marketing goals that significantly affect the operations of your business — things like overall sales, market share, and expansion plans.

Setting marketing objectives

Marketing objectives, on the other hand, are short- to medium-term targets. These are things that you can accomplish in the next quarter to the next year. They are a much lower level than your marketing goals, and in fact it’s a good idea to tie specific objectives to specific goals.

Marketing goals are great for setting targets for specific strategies, tactics, or channels. If one of your strategies is to grow your social media presence, some great objectives would be the number of new customers you want to reach on each specific channel every quarter. Or if one of your goals is to expand to more locations, you can have objectives for identifying new space and preparing for the opening.

Formatting your marketing goals and objectives

There isn’t one standard format for presenting goals and objectives in your marketing plan, as the best way to format them depends on the specifics of each goal or objective. If you’re talking about sales or profit, for example, a bar or line chart might be the right way to show where you are and where you want to be. If you’re expanding, a map with expansion plans could be the best way.

One standard tip for formatting your marketing goals and objectives, though, is to group objectives underneath a specific goal and write out the goals and objectives clearly and concisely.

You should also try to tie your goals and objectives to the competitive analysis and target audience selection you did in earlier sections.

Marketing goals and objectives example

Goal: After analyzing our competition, Small Doggy Groomer has learned that we have a large potential customer base that is not currently being served in Fancy Suburb of Small Town, USA. The demographics for Fancy Suburb are a perfect match for our target audience, and our biggest competitor, Large Doggy Groomer, is not located within easy driving distance.

To take advantage of this opportunity, Small Doggy Groomer will open a new location on Main Street of Fancy Suburb by the end of the year and a second location on Large Boulevard by the end of next year. Within three years, we will expand to four locations, with the final location to be determined in year two.

Objectives:

  • By the end of the next quarter, our marketing team will locate a suitable location that has good visibility from Main Street, costs less than $10,000 per month, and has large windows we can advertise in.
  • Within eight months, we will secure a location and begin the build-out process for matching our current store downtown.
  • Within nine months, we will begin a marketing campaign that will reach at least half of the households in Fancy Suburb to build excitement for our grand opening.
  • Within 12 months, we will open the new location.

Goal: Social media is clearly an important way for our customers to share images of their dogs and find cute dogs to look at. However, our competitors are not active on social media, and we see a tremendous opportunity to win new business through this channel. By the end of this fiscal year, we will grow the number of customers who find us on social media to 50 per month.

Objectives:

  • By the end of this quarter, our marketing team will identify the three most important channels for our social media strategy and present a detailed set of processes for how to engage on each one.
  • Within four months we will launch our social media presence across the three channels identified by our marketing department.
  • Within nine months, we will grow our social media presence to 1,000 interactions per channel per month.

These goals are great because they use the research you put together in the previous sections and are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely. Each goal and objective answers the questions who, what, when, and why. All that’s left now is the how, which we will cover in the next section on creating a marketing strategy.

Creating a marketing strategy

You’ve done the research on your customers and your competitors. You’ve planned and written out some marketing goals. At this point you should have a pretty good idea where you want to go, what kind of obstacles you’ll need to overcome to get there, and who you’ll need to attract along the way. Now it’s time to plan how you’ll actually accomplish your goals.

Quite simply, a marketing strategy is the “how” of growing your business. It provides information about what makes your business stand out in the marketplace and how you’ll use those strengths to win new business. The plan also lists the marketing activities you’ll be performing to grow your business.

Having a marketing strategy is important for the same reason that having marketing goals is important. Without a clear idea of what you plan to do, it will be impossible to evaluate how effective your marketing plan actually is. Writing down the actual activities you or your marketing team will be performing allows you to regularly review how well those actions are working, and it gives you a base from which to expand or change your marketing strategy in a systematic way.

A marketing strategy will also allow you to figure out the financial needs of your marketing plan. Writing out each activity and putting a rough dollar amount next to each is the simplest way to start your marketing plan budget — something we’ll discuss more in the next section.

A complete marketing strategy consists of four parts:

  • Marketing positioning: an explanation of your company’s differentiators and competitive advantages and why they matter
  • Major marketing campaigns: any large or long-term initiatives you plan to run over the period covered by your marketing plan
  • Marketing tactics: an outline covering the specific activities you plan on performing to meet your marketing goals
  • Marketing calendar: dates for any marketing initiatives or campaigns you plan to run, along with any other dates you feel may be important (e.g., new store openings, new product launches, etc.)

Marketing positioning

Your market positioning tells the world who you are, what you do, who you serve, and why you are better at it than anyone else. It’s usually summed up in a single statement, the positioning statement. Use all of the insights you gained while researching for earlier sections to come up with a short “elevator pitch”-type statement that sums up your company. 

A good place to start is this template from Cornell University:

For [insert Target Market], the [insert Brand] is the [insert Point of Differentiation] among all [insert Frame of Reference] because [insert Reason to Believe].

The point of differentiation should clearly highlight how you’re different and better than competitors. The frame of reference is your market — for example, “airlines” or “small town” or “USA pet groomers.” And the reason to believe is a piece of supporting evidence that drives the point home.

Getting your positioning statement just right can seem like an impossible task. Even long-term marketers often require quite a few rounds of revision before they’re happy with it. The most important thing is that you have one and that it’s good enough to convey the meat of who you are and what you do. You can always refine your positioning later, but it’s important to have a strong focus.

Major marketing campaigns

A marketing campaign is an organized, ongoing, medium- to long-term set of marketing activities focused on a common theme. Think Geico’s “So Easy a Caveman Could Do It” or Hotels.com’s “Captain Obvious.” The idea of a campaign is to create a memorable experience around your brand by repeating the same messaging over a significant period of time.

Campaigns can be linked by characters or themes, or they can be linked by goals. That is, you can have a campaign like “Captain Obvious” where different sales messages are linked by a common story. Or you can have different stories and messaging linked around a common marketing goal — like a campaign that uses different messages to drive product demos.

There’s no “right” length of time to run a campaign, and no “right” number of campaigns to run over the course of a year. A good rule, though, is to have a separate campaign for every one of your major marketing objectives, plus additional campaigns as needed for any major events like new products, location openings, or major holidays.

Marketing tactics

Tactics are the smallest unit of a marketing strategy. They tell readers of your marketing plan what specific things you’ll be doing on a daily basis. Tactics can include things like posting on social media, sending out emails, advertising in the local newspaper, or other “marketing things you do.”

You don’t need to get too detailed about the tactics you present. For example, if you plan to focus on social media marketing, you don’t need a full breakdown of how often you’re going to post on Instagram. Instead, think about each of the tactics you plan on using as a percentage of your total marketing time. As an example, you can say you’ll spend 25 percent of your time on social media, 15 percent on direct mail, 15 percent on email marketing, 10 percent on web design, and 35 percent on campaigns and live events. Alternatively, instead of thinking in terms of time, you can think in terms of budget.

What you do want to get detailed with is the review of what each tactic will consist of. While developing your marketing strategy, remember that not everyone who reads your marketing plan will be an expert marketer. If you say you’ll be using social media as a tactic, explain which platforms you’ll use, what kinds of content you’ll post, whether you’ll use free posts or pay for promotion, and what you hope to accomplish with your posts.

That last piece is an especially important part of developing your marketing strategy. Every tactic you add needs to be tied to a specific goal, with specific measurable outcomes you hope to accomplish (look back at our section on setting goals if you need help). As we mentioned earlier, one of the most important reasons for developing a marketing strategy is to be able to evaluate how well your marketing is working. Without tangible, measurable goals, you can’t do that.

Marketing calendar

Finally, you’ll need to know when your campaigns and tactics will run, so you can properly plan for them. This is where the marketing calendar comes in. Depending on the business you’re in, it can be as exact as a daily calendar or as broad as a quarterly plan. For most companies, however, breaking things down to the month will be enough.

Figure out which months which activities will take place, and show them visually on a calendar. In addition, make sure that you include any major holidays that impact your business, as well as major business events like conferences, store openings, or even the birthdays of major clients.

How to develop a marketing strategy

Now that you know what a marketing strategy is, it’s time to put one together. You’re going to be relying heavily on your goals and objectives as well as your competitive analysis and target audience. You’re going to put together everything you’ve gathered so far to predict the future.

The first place to start is with your marketing goals and objectives. Ask yourself what smaller goals you need to accomplish in order to hit your larger goals. You should have already done some of this when building out your goals and objectives section, but this is your chance to get really granular. If your goal is to increase internet orders by 50 percent, and you think that a good chunk of that should come from social, you need to figure out how many social visits you need to support that growth and how many of those visits need to turn into customers.

For inspiration, look to what your competitors are doing. Focus on what they’re doing best and what they’re doing worst. The former category should act as inspiration — figure out what your best competitors are doing well and see if that could be applied to your business. The latter category, your competitors’ biggest weaknesses, are your opportunities — what do your competitors do poorly that you think you can do really well?

As in other sections, the best place to begin creating a marketing strategy is to start putting some thoughts down on paper. Once you have a good list of campaigns, tactics, and thoughts about your positioning, put on your customer goggles. Look at your ideas from the perspective of someone in your target audience, and ask, “Would this reach me? Would I be swayed by this?”

Collect your thoughts into groups based on shared themes and shared objectives. This is how you’ll build your marketing strategy — as groups of tactics compiled into campaigns, backed up with goals and objectives that are tied to each individual group and to your high-level marketing objectives.

Setting a marketing budget

Congratulations — you’re almost done putting together your marketing plan, so you’re done with the hard part. You’ve identified your target audience, analyzed your competition, set goals and objectives, and written a marketing strategy. All that’s left to complete your marketing plan is setting a marketing budget.

Creating a marketing budget is nothing more than looking at your marketing strategy and adding prices to all of the activities. Some of these will be very straightforward, and some less so.

How much should your marketing budget be?

The first step in creating your marketing budget is figuring out how much you want to spend on all of your marketing for the year. The best approach is to start with a standard percentage of your revenue. For businesses under $5 million a year, the U.S. Small Business Administration recommends about 7–8 percent of your gross revenue. For larger businesses, 10–15 percent, or sometimes even higher, might be the norm, but starting with the lower percentage is a safer bet if this is your first marketing budget.

It’s great to say you should be spending 7–8 percent of your revenue on marketing, but there’s a big gap between theory and reality. In reality, many businesses have different needs that can change this number. B2B companies might have different needs than B2C companies. Larger businesses might have more cash on hand than smaller ones. You need to evaluate your specific business needs and adjust the number until it makes sense in the context of your business.

Marketing budget breakdown

Once you have a number for your overall budget, you need to break it down further to make sense of how much you’ll be spending where. A good marketing budget template will give readers enough details so that they know where your marketing budget will be going but not so much that you overwhelm them with information.

Before you do that, however, it’s important to remember that a marketing budget isn’t just the money you spend on advertising campaigns and conferences. Your marketing budget should also include

  • Salaries and benefits. Instagram photos don’t post themselves, and someone is going to have to stand at conference booths to hand out samples. If you already have a marketing team, or you do it yourself, it’s easy to figure out how much of your marketing budget should go to staff. If you don’t have a marketing team, or if you’re seriously expanding your marketing efforts, you need to identify how many new employees you need to bring in and how much you’ll be paying them before you spend the rest of the marketing budget.
  • Coupons, samples, and giveaways. Most people remember to account for giveaways like branded t-shirts and frisbees (sometimes called “swag”). A lot of people forget to account for samples, coupons, discounts, and other “free” items they pass out to get customers. Remember that in the grand scheme of things, every dollar you give away has to come from somewhere, and even a free product isn’t really free. Consider the impact of this kind of spending on your revenue and include it in your marketing budget.

Once you list those items in separate categories, it’s time to actually create your budget. The most common way to write out a budget is to break it down into months and by buckets of activities. These can vary from business to business, but typically include

  • Campaigns
  • Paid advertising
  • Software and tools
  • Content
  • Events
  • Public relations
  • Branding and brand building
  • Miscellaneous

Under each category, you should have a few subcategories to present a better view. For paid advertising, for example, you might have

  • Facebook ads
  • Facebook promoted posts
  • Instagram ads
  • Google Adwords
  • Local newspaper ads
  • Dog Fancy magazine ads

Don’t worry if you aren’t sure what category to put a sub-category in. The most important part of creating a marketing budget is understanding where your marketing dollars are being spent, not making sure you have everything categorized perfectly.

Fill out the budget with the amounts you plan to spend by month, and refer back to your marketing calendar to make sure that you’re allocating enough resources at every point of the year. Remember that the point is not to spread the money out evenly across the whole year. The point is to spend your marketing budget wisely, in the right place at the right time.

It’s often helpful to keep a second spreadsheet of how much you actually spend, broken down by the same categories as your projected budget. That way, at the end of the year you can review and make adjustments for the following year if you budgeted too much some months and not enough others.

Remember to also keep a master column that keeps track of your total spending for the year, both projected and actual. It’s OK to go over your budget, as long as it doesn’t jeopardize your business, but you want to know when you go over and by how much.

And that’s it. With your marketing budget finished, you’re now done putting together a marketing plan. If you saved your executive summary for last, now is where you go back through your plan, gather your thoughts, and knock it out of the park. If you did the executive summary earlier in the process, you’re home free and can kick your feet up and relax. Congratulations — you now have a fantastic marketing plan, or at least all of the tools you’ll need to make one.

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