Content Marketing
How to Create the Perfect Marketing Plan

How to Create the Perfect Marketing Plan

May 29, 2018
11 min read

Your annual marketing plan is the all-important, over-arching benchmark for your marketing goals for the next 12 months. It reveals where you are now and where you want to be in a year. It’s your roadmap that identifies priorities, what initiatives from last year you should shed, and both short and long-term expectations, as well as the plan B’s and plan C’s you can depend upon if plan A goes awry.

Most importantly, it helps to keep your organization’s marketing team united by a critical shared vision.

You have an annual marketing plan, right?

If you don’t, you’re not alone. Marketers aren’t exactly known for stellar long-term planning skills. About half of all marketers don’t have a clearly defined digital marketing plan and only 37 percent of B2B marketers have a documented content marketing strategy.

Let’s face it. Without an effective plan, however, it’s impossible to run an efficient ship – or to see things clearly. While you should definitely have your content marketing strategy mapped out, and planning out your digital marketing is also smart, it’s the eagle-eyed view the annual marketing plan provides that will help your team stay on course.

Here are some useful tips on how to create an annual marketing plan that will set your organization up for a great marketing ROI over the next year. Identify your end objectives and start working towards that plan to achieve them.

Start with Market Research

Market research is one of the biggest obstacles to creating a worthwhile annual marketing plan. Basically, it’s a lot of work.

Here’s the thing. It’s the foundation of your entire plan. If you don’t spend enough energy at this step, the rest of your plan may lack depth and your decisions for your marketing mix and strategy may lack direction.

So, put your back into the research to make sure you understand the pain points, motivators, goals and concerns of your current target market – as they are right now. These factors will keep changing, so keep doing your research.

This information isn’t just useful for creating your marketing plan every year. It’s what goes into your regular buyer persona updates and will help your team make smarter tactical decisions.

  • Keep your own customer surveys, interviews, and customer feedback at the heart of your research but outsourcing some of the work to a market research firm as well can help you get the depth your organization needs.
  • Today, social media and other online communities also are great source of data. You’ll find a lot of qualitative information on these channels by paying attention to the conversations circulating.
  • And then, of course, there are the new, AI-driven analysis tools, such as the algorithms made by Ayzenberg Group. We’ll likely see more artificial intelligence in the market research solutions sector so this is an area to keep an eye on.

Assess Your Market Situation

Next up: situational analysis. This part of your plan contains the current state of the market overall for your products or services, who your competitors are, and where your brand stands within the market. You also want to outline your organization’s strengths and weaknesses and look at your unique value proposition – has it been working for your marketing or does it need an upgrade?

All of these factors are constantly changing, which is another reason putting together an annual marketing plan is so critical. General changes to the market. Competitors getting a little too close for comfort to your competitive edge. A change in your organization’s market share.

When you know where you stand, it’s a lot easier to create practical goal priorities. For example, if you are dominating the market for your service this year, those lead generation and customer acquisition goals that were always so important should probably take a back seat to customer retention.

Gather Input from Key Stakeholders

When it’s time to sit down and create your marketing plan, getting started is usually the hardest part. With a blank screen staring at you, it’s hard not to feel alone and solely responsible for coming up with the winning formula for your company’s success.

But the truth is, you are not alone! You need input from key stakeholders such as product management and sales to define many of the key components of the plan (goals, key messages, target audience, etc.).

Sales is never short on opinions about what they think works and doesn’t work so don’t be afraid to ask. If you include them as part of the planning process and their voice is heard throughout, they are more likely to be supportive as you put it into place.

Set Your Marketing Goals

You already need to have your business goals – or where you want to go – defined before beginning on your marketing plan. Then it is easier to map the route to get there. Use this stage to evaluate your goals against the latest marketplace realities. Are you playing catch-up or trying to truly innovate in a particular area. Also, don’t forget that more than just business goals (sales, leads, conversion), you also need to create a plan for your people: what skills does today’s market demand and how can you help bring your people up to speed?

With a nice thick layer of market research and situational analysis, your plan is ready for the goal priorities. Which marketing objectives will matter the most over the next 12 months? You should focus on no more than three to five goals.

HubSpot’s State of Marketing report revealed the top priority for 70% of marketers is conversions, both converting to leads and customers. For 55 percent, it’s growing website traffic, and for 45 percent it’s increasing revenue from existing customers.

Spy on the Competition

Great job, you accomplished a lot last year! But your competitors probably did too. Get into intelligence gathering mode and spy on your competitors to see what’s new with them.

What changes have they made on their website? Are they positioning things differently? Selling a new product? Have a new pricing model? What kind of press did they get? You may even want to take it a step further and run an SEO audit to compare your rankings to theirs.

(BTW – We do this for our clients monthly)

Take Stock of Last Year’s Results and Current Assets

Before starting new, it’s important to take a look back at last year.  Look at the marketing results you achieved, the events you sponsored (and which were successful), the current collateral or assets you have available, your supporting tools, etc.

Basically, take this time as your opportunity to take inventory and reflect back on what you accomplished and how what you’ve learned can shape next year’s plans.

Now is a great time to document your sales and marketing processes if you haven’t done so already. By doing this, you will identify inefficiencies and make sure you are on the same page with sales.

Then it’s time to identify gaps. Take note of any issues you uncover while reviewing your collateral, processes and templates. Look for “dark holes” where prospects or customers get lost. Also identify any key pieces of collateral or sales enablement tools missing that you need to create.

Know Where You’ve Failed

Look at last year’s plan and use metrics and reporting to identify which bets produced winners and which bets you lost. Also, look at the assumptions you used going into last year. Have they changed? Double-down on the best tactics and don’t forget to prune away the losing tactics, techniques and processes. And shift people to where they are needed most.

One of the biggest mistakes of a poor marketing plan is forgetting to determine what you will stop doing as you think long and hard about the new things you need to do. Another common mistake is not adequately staffing new areas because we are afraid of moving people from the old to the new challenges. Even those who fear change will appreciate it in the long run.

That said, be fearless in experimenting. Don’t be afraid to try new things. If you need to change the outcome then that means it’s time to shake things up. Albert Einstein said it perfectly – “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Try sending a new message or campaign out to a small subset to test the results.

Establish Your Marketing KPIs

One of the benefits of creating an annual marketing plan is it gives you the opportunity to review and refine the current parameters and assumptions you are using.

Still using the same key performance indicators you had in place last year, or worse yet, in 2012? Throw them out. Focusing your attention in the wrong areas or diffusing your energy with too many numbers is one of the surest ways to not hit your prime target – revenue growth.

When establishing the right KPIs for this year, here’s the rubix cube you need to work on – they should be aligned to and indicative of:

  • Marketing goals you’re trying to reach
  • Marketing challenges you’re trying to overcome
  • Business goals

When creating your annual plan, because you are looking at a relatively long period of time, your priority KPIs may change a bit as you reach certain benchmarks and move on to other parts of your strategy.

Model the Appropriate Marketing Mix

For long, I’ve talked about using math to build the business case for changing from an outbound to an inbound marketing strategy.  In order to achieve a higher return on marketing spend, you have to take the objectives you identified in step 1, the tactics that worked and didn’t in step 2 and model the appropriate mix of tactics to achieve your 2012 objectives.

Some people are scared of marketing mix models. They say they are too quantifiable and don’t accurately reflect the reality of the future market reaction. However, they are a great place to start with a scientific approach to the question “how much should I spend in each marketing tactic?” You can always adjust based on new information or other observations (like benchmark data) to make that may not be reflected in your data.

A special word on the Hunter-Gatherer Model — One of the biggest mistakes a marketer can make is to create a plan in a vacuum. Or to create a plan with only your team’s objectives in mind. It starts with reaching across functional areas. Gather as many inputs as you can from as many perspectives as you can. Think about the entire life cycle from new product ideas all the way to customer retention. Do not allow any “realities” to restrict your thinking as you gather these inputs.

Another huge mistake I see marketers make in planning is to put it off because “I don’t have my budget” or “I haven’t been told what our goals are for next year.” Hogwash! You know how to get started. The world hasn’t changed that much. Worse case, you may need to adjust. As marketers, we need to read the market and always be ready to adjust.

You have gathered a complete set of inputs from far and wide, so now it’s time to become a hunter and focus in on what has worked in the past and why. It helps here to take a narrow view. Pick a metric you can use to separate the good from the bad. I have used the sales pipeline return on marketing spend as one.

If you use your CRM system to track marketing activities from inquiry to close, then you know how many opportunities you have created and how much sales pipeline that has generated. Total unweighted pipeline divided by total marketing spend is a good measure because it allows you to analyze a wider set of marketing activities then if you just looked at closed sales.

The point here is to pick a metric that is right for you and your organization. Then take all the inputs you’ve received, analyze those against historical performance and model towards the most efficient way to achieve that end goal: higher return on marketing spend.

Now there are those secondary goals you may have neglected by picking one metric to focus on. An effective marketing strategy focused on one goal will have a halo effect on other marketing metrics. For example, effective demand generation with high quality content that meets customer needs will produce awareness and will drive consideration of your product. You may need to supplement your programs with these types of tactics depending on your corporate goals. But focusing on one primary objective will still produce secondary benefits.

Build Your Strategies

And now for the meat and potatoes. For a lot of marketers, this is the fun part. It’s where you take each of your three to five goals, decide which strategy to use to reach that goal and then make a list of the tactics you are going to use.

For example:

Goal: Generate 30 percent more leads than last year

Strategy:

  • Increase engagement on social media
  • Boost website traffic
  • Offer more content

Tactics:

  • Publish one educational video a month on LinkedIn
  • Conduct extensive A/B testing to improve landing pages and email CTAs
  • Create a new eBook every quarter for download in exchange for newsletter sign up
  • Run one Facebook contest every quarter
  • Post one guest blog a month to increase the number of backlinks to company website

A special word on content strategy — If you’ve read most of my recent posts you’ve heard my plea to marketers:

  • Create an audience-first marketing mentality.
  • Define a content strategy based on the needs of your buyers in each phase of their buying cycle.
  • Deliver that content to the channels where your buyers spend their time.

Once you’ve identified the needs of your buyers, you may find that you are spending too much time, money and resources promoting your products and selling instead of telling stories about your people, your brand and helping your buyers with their jobs. This is not about being altruistic. It is about creating trust and value that will accrue back to your business.

Take the “Always On” Approach

Demand never sleeps or stops. If you are not producing valuable content and helping your buyers at all times, someone else is. Google’s search engine doesn’t take a vacation or spend time with family over the holidays. The benefits of always-on, inbound marketing are more leads, better leads, cheaper leads, and leads when you need them:

  • Produce a continuous bounty of new buyers to engage
  • Focus your efforts on helping buyers early in the process and gaining their trust
  • Personalize your marketing to produce higher conversions
  • Create more leads for sales, for less money per lead, continuously over the course of the year
More, better, cheaper! Who doesn’t want that?

This is a basic and fundamental concept of effective marketing that is too often overlooked or undervalued. Our customers do not decide to start searching for solutions to their problems because we decided to run a campaign. Demand is “always on,” 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. So why shouldn’t your marketing?

We need an always on demand strategy that utilizes an effective inbound marketing approach: optimized website, consistent paid search activity, drip nurture programs and marketing automation. The cost of going in and out of the marketplace with time-bound campaigns often cannot compare to an effective always on campaign.

Create a “train schedule” of activities that starts early in the year and ends late. Pick your best content from this year along with your best media and plan to fund that to start. Once you’ve planned the always on activity, you can now fill-in your calendar with all major time-based events. Major trade shows, online events, product announcements and other major communications.

With this calendar view, you can begin to see opportunities for integration across the entire marketing mix.

Measure Everything and Adjust Course as Needed

You can afford to try a dozen new things if you continue to measure what you’re doing. There is no silver bullet in marketing but if you track your results each step of the way, you will understand what is working and change what isn’t.

Once your marketing plan is complete, you have set your course and know the direction you are headed. But a marketing plan is never one and done. Your plan should be constant and revised throughout the year. You will gain insight into what is working and not working and make changes accordingly. This is how your plan will continue to stay effective.

Stick to the Plan, Sort Of

When you have a solid, detailed marketing plan, priorities, next steps, and processes are clear, which makes everyone’s job a lot easier. But, your annual marketing plan shouldn’t be set in stone. Think of it as a roadmap, guiding you in a constantly changing landscape. As you continually keep an eye on market research and your KPIs, you may need to ‘evolve’ your marketing plan mid-year to make sure the strategies and tactics you use are driving the results your marketing should see.

Keep Communicating

Communication with your key stakeholders shouldn’t stop once the plan is complete. Keep everyone in the loop by planning monthly meetings to review progress and update on results. When you are transparent and provide visibility, you will gain trust and support for your efforts. Additionally, this process will give you the opportunity to get feedback and buy-in from your stakeholders on a regular basis.

Go Forth and Market

In January, many businesses sit down to review and renew their marketing plan. But is January really the best time to begin your revisit?

Probably not. In fact, now is the time to start reflecting on what worked for you and what didn’t. It takes time to build a good plan, so instead of waiting until next year to actually start, jumpstart your plan now.

Once you’ve completed this process, you will be ready to present a strategic marketing plan that will drive a higher return on marketing spend, no matter what template your are asked to fill out and regardless of when you are given your budget and objectives.

With a little bit of extra time spent before the current year ends thinking through these ten steps and putting a plan in place, you can begin to deliver exciting growth not just for your marketing team, but for your business as a whole and stay on a path that outpaces your competition.

2 thoughts on “How to Create the Perfect Marketing Plan

  1. Heidi Cohen

    Michael–I totally agree with you. Every business regardless of size or focus needs a documented marketing plan. I’d go a step further to point out that it must incorporate all forms of marketing (digital, content, social media and sales support) as well as integrate with other marketing-related activities across your firm. This means sales, customer service, product and human resources. Happy marketing, Heidi Cohen – Actionable Marketing Guide

  2. Michael Brenner

    Thanks Heidi, I completely agree. I am speaking in an hour on this exact topic: everyone is in marketing!

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Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner is an international keynote speaker, author of "Mean People Suck" and "The Content Formula", and Founder of Marketing Insider Group. Recognized as a Top Content Marketing expert and Digital Marketing Leader, Michael leverages his experience from roles in sales and marketing for global brands like SAP and Nielsen, as well as his leadership in leading teams and driving growth for thriving startups. Today, Michael delivers empowering keynotes on marketing and leadership, and facilitates actionable workshops on content marketing strategy. Connect with Michael today.

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