Q&A: Marketing plans

Writing a marketing plan may seem unnecessary for a start-up, but in fact it's a vital tool that can help you focus your marketing activities and ensure your objectives are met. Alan Gleeson explains how to go about writing a marketing plan for your new business

What is a marketing plan?

It’s a document that explains how a particular product or service will be marketed. It describes the overall objective, the market, tactics, associated costs/budget, responsibilities and anticipated sales. Much like a business plan, a marketing plan usually contains an executive summary, which explains key facts and figures. Business plans often include condensed marketing plans.

Marketing plans are not really for small businesses – are they?

They can help businesses of all sizes and types. While larger organisations normally have sophisticated marketing plans, even a relatively basic version helps a start-up or even a small or new business to allocate limited resources. A marketing plan assesses the most cost-efficient methods of attracting potential customers and how these can be converted into sales. Without a plan, a small business is essentially rudderless and marketing activities are more likely to be reactive – and considerably less effective as a result.

How do I start to draw up a marketing plan?

By assessing your business and its market. There are various frameworks and tools you can use, including a SWOT analysis, whereby you consider your internal strengths and weaknesses alongside external opportunities and threats. This, of course, requires good knowledge of your competitors, as well as a thorough understanding of your customers. Consider whether specific segments within your customer base would benefit from targeted marketing. Usually they do, because taking a ‘scatter-gun approach’ is a waste of time and money.

What else should a marketing plan cover?

Once you know which customers to target with marketing activities, you can decide how to reach them. Then, crucially, you can work out how much this will cost. The key objectives tend to be the same when marketing all products and services: create awareness, stimulate interest and convert this into sales.

Give me a real-world example of targeted marketing.

OK, think of a local restaurant. Its marketing activities are likely to be concentrated within a three-mile radius of its location, because this is where most customers are likely to live. There’s no point in advertising on TV, even locally, because the cost will outweigh the returns. Stuffing leaflets through local letterboxes is well targeted and costs significantly less. The same can be said of advertising in a local newspaper.

How can the success of a marketing plan be measured?

Your objectives need to include SMART objectives. SMART stands for specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timed. Plan-versus-actual analysis is also critical to measure success. How did results compare to your plan’s main objectives? Measuring precise return on marketing spend can be problematic. I’d recommend using codes with campaigns and then asking customers to use these when replying. At the very least, ask new customers how they heard of your business. This will help you to understand which marketing methods are successful.

So some marketing activities can be a bit hit and miss?

Some methods might bring no sales whatsoever. Marketing involves some trial and error for new businesses, but it’s important to learn from your mistakes. With time, you will establish a better idea of which methods work best for you. It’s important to ensure that your customers are happy. Word-of-mouth recommendations are the best publicity your business can get.