Marketing plan: an essential guide for small businesses

What’s a marketing plan, and why you need it

A marketing plan is a document that translates a brand’s marketing strategy in concrete steps and actions. While it’s often confused with the business plan, it’s only a part of it. In fact, an effective marketing plan stems from an accurate overview of the company’s goals, status and assets.

Many solopreneurs and small business owners underestimate the importance of thoughtful planning for outreach and promotion. As a result, they end up “dealing with marketing” only through dry spells… but marketing is more of a marathon than a sprint.

Also, it’s pretty hard for service-based businesses to mitigate a bad month with a flash sale or similar tactics. Planning ahead and deciding on a sustainable timeline for your marketing activities is key to raising awareness about your business all year long.

Moreover, a marketing plan will help you narrow your focus, invest your time and budget wisely, define your priorities and assessment criteria for each marketing action. And this means that you will refine and smoothen your processes over time.

The ingredients of an actionable marketing plan

Is it possible to create a valuable marketing plan when you don’t have a formal business plan at hand? Yes – provided that you already have a clear overview of the following.

Your objectives
What would you like to achieve with your marketing? Are you eager to raise awareness, promote a new service (or product), grow your mailing list? In your marketing plan, each activity will be associated with specific micro-goals. If you can combine such micro-objectives with an understanding of your broader marketing-related goals, distilling the right marketing mix will be easier.

Your target audience
Are you looking for the best promotional channels to reach a wider audience and promote your services? Then, you first need to figure out your ideal audience – i.e. who would buy from you. Defining your buyer personas will help you understand their needs and how your products would make their lives easier. Buyer profiles can also provide insights about the best tone of voice to connect and engage with your prospects.

Your products and services
What would you like clients to buy from you? While this sounds like a no-brainer, that’s not always the case. All businesses evolve over time… and sometimes this implies refurbishing or renewing your offer. Consider your current portfolio and ditch or fix any offer that doesn’t convert (or doesn’t fit in with your brand identity anymore).

Your budget
Marketing is a strategic investment. To make it valuable and sustainable, you first need to define a budget (and stick to it afterwards). Some marketing activities, such as content marketing, might not require big bucks. Still, they do require time – and time is at the essence for all business owners. That’s why you need to know how much time and money you can dedicate to marketing beforehand … and figure out whether you could delegate some of your activities or hire a specialist to help you out.

Focus: SMART or HARD objectives?

In business and marketing speak, acronyms are all over. And one of the most popular of all – SMART – has to do with business objectives.

Even though the attributions of the acronym have changed slightly over time, the SMART model refers to corporate objectives that are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound.

Even though you might have started your own business to “follow your heart”, the success of your (micro)company depends on hard facts. Turning vague objectives (e.g. get more clients) into SMART goals (e.g. sell 5 blogging packages to mid-sized design studios over the next 6 months) will help you:

  • develop ultra-targeted marketing activities
  • measure results and improve your processes
  • visualise your objectives and stay motivated.

In more recent years, another acronym has entered the realm of goalsetting. According to the HARD model – which was originally developed to explore the role of goals in the context of professional development – an effective objective shall be:

  • Heartfelt
  • Animated
  • Required
  • Difficult.

Even though the underlying philosophies are worlds apart, both HARD and SMART objectives have their place in business – they just have different applications.

For solopreneurs and small business owners, personal and professional are often intertwined. The HARD model is a perfect choice for developing a long-term vision or development plan. SMART goals, on the other hand, will help you translate such vision into actionable steps and milestones.

How to schedule your marketing activities

For solopreneurs and small business models, elaborating a marketing plan based on the standards of large corporates is impractical – if not useless.

Setting a sustainable schedule is key to staying on track. But what’s sustainable for a big company with a dedicated marketing department seldom works for a business with limited staff and smaller budgets.

This aspect is especially important when scheduling recurring activities, such as content marketing: if you cannot delegate content creation, deciding on publishing 7 blog posts a week is unrealistic – and likely to result in fatigue, stress and feeling demotivated.

When deciding on specific marketing activities, you should always assess its costs/benefits profile. Remember: diversifying your activities can help you keep an eye on budget whilst reaching different audience segments.

You should also determine the best promotional channels for your business, based on your audience. Choosing a platform just because it’s popular amongst peers isn’t a viable strategy. To reach your ideal clients, you need to be where they are.

Do you work with pharma companies and medical start-ups? Placing an advertorial on industry magazines would probably wield a higher ROI than an advertisement on a local newspaper. And a hyper-focused piece on LinkedIn would likely work better than an Instagram account.

Promotional activities shall fit your target audience, the chosen media and your market. But they also need to be right for you: choosing a format or a media that doesn’t suit you won’t get you far.

Indeed, exploring new forms of expression and stepping outside your comfort zone is good. Which is why I’d recommend you play a bit with your marketing plan and make room for something new (e.g. try a new content format or social network). Still, your marketing shall be genuine – and if you freeze every time a camera shows up at events, a promotional video might not be the best fit.

Beyond the plan: evaluation

Is your marketing plan ready? Then, it’s action time!

Remember, though: to get the most out of your promotional activities, at the end of your campaign you also need to assess how you have performed.

Non-recurring activities – such as the launch of a course – is relatively easy. On the other hand, measuring the performance of recurring activities requires frequent checkpoints.

That’s why your marketing plan should take into account follow-up and assessment activities as well as define the most meaningful metrics.

Following-up on your marketing actions will also help you understand what works well and what could instead be improved to achieve better results. Regular assessment sessions also help you fix and amend your campaigns on the go, to increase your chances of achieving your mid-term goals even in case of missteps.

When deciding on your assessment criteria and metrics, make sure they are specific, relevant and measurable. Be especially conscious of vanity metrics, i.e. measurable elements that aren’t directly related to your sales success or the achievement of business goals.

Facebook likes, social media following figures, website or blog traffic. Such figures are just a part of the bigger picture. In business, success means conversions and revenue.

Bonus: the marketing plan workbook

Ready to ignite your marketing? There’s a treat in store for you: a step-by-step workbook that will help you craft an actionable marketing plan for your small business.

To download it free, sign up for Quicksilver, my newsletter. Quicksilver lands in your inbox once a month (or so), with tips and resources to help you grow your business and share your story.