Writing a Marketing Plan That Works For You by Sharon Berman

by Sharon Berman, special to calcpa.org.

Writing a marketing plan often falls in the same category as going for a regular physical or getting your car tuned up: You know you should do it, but you seem to always find excuses for putting it off. However, just like the physical and the tune-up, it is time well spent that will pay off in the long run.

Think about the advice you give to clients regarding their businesses. You urge them to make the investment in carefully monitoring their costs and profit margins and staying on top of their ratios. The result is improved profitability and a more secure financial future. It's the same for a marketing plan. Your investment in time and effort can yield much greater benefits than a haphazard approach to marketing your services.

If you're worried about the prospect of writing a long, unwieldy document that no one will ever read again, you'll be relieved to know that your plan does not have to be the comprehensive, final word on accountancy in America in the new millennium. It only has to be as long and as detailed as is necessary to thoroughly cover the issues most important to your particular circumstances. And keep in mind that your plan is a work in progress, a "living document" that you can reshape as your business grows and changes.

Taking the Plunge 

It's time now to dive into the actual marketing plan process. We'll take it step by step in the order that each task should be accomplished. When you're done with the last step, your marketing plan will be complete.

Step 1: Situational analysis

The situational analysis is much like a balance sheet, giving you a picture of where your business stands today. However, you'll also look at where your business has come from and where your want to guide it to. Since it is the foundation for the rest of your marketing plan, we'll examine the elements of the situational analysis in depth.

Start by looking in the mirror. What are your professional strengths‹and weaknesses? What activities in your work do you enjoy? What do you dread doing? It's very important to be realistic and honest at this point, because most people excel at the things they enjoy. You'll give yourself a strategic advantage by concentrating your efforts in the areas in which your enjoyment‹and attention‹give you the greatest opportunity for success.

Next, take a look at your business and the marketplace. What are your organization's core competencies‹the activities you are best at? Consider, too, your firm's marketing strengths and weaknesses. Are you great at creating relationships, but not so good at keeping up with them in the long term? Maybe you are skilled at planning wonderful campaigns, but not so good at executing them. Finally, take a look at your firm's financial data. What can you learn from your billing patterns and the types of services clients have been buying‹and when? Don't be afraid to ask your clients about their opinions of what they buy and why.

Now, turn the mirror away from you and take a good look at your competition. Compare each of your service lines against the firms you compete with for clients. Make a chart and compare your firm, service line by service line, with the others on your list. Look for overlaps of service and‹most important‹market niches that are ripe for a new service that you might be able to supply.

Finally, broaden your research to encompass the entire industry in which you are involved. Talk with referral sources, clients, colleagues and competitors about their thoughts on industry trends, "hot" issues in your industry, new market opportunities and technology relating to your area of work.

Step 2: Problems and opportunities

As you begin to study the elements that make up your situational analysis, you'll be able to start identifying problems in your business that you'll search out solutions for, as well as opportunities that your competitors are missing.

Step 3: Target markets

This is the "who" of your plan. Who, specifically, is going to buy your services? Think broadly across a wide spectrum of geography, industries, company sizes, etc. Divide your group into primary and secondary markets (such as influencers). Don't forget such markets as your current clients and referral sources. Segmenting your markets in this way can help you decide how to best divide your marketing dollars to have the optimal impact.

Step 4: Marketing objectives

This is the "what" of your plan and can include both sales and marketing goals. Set both short-term goals (a year or less) and long-term goals (up to three years). Set your targets for the year, with interim quarterly objectives, then project out. Be specific about dollar amounts and the time frame. For instance, one sales objective might be to sell $400,000 in tax consulting services over the next year, 10 percent of which will come from emerging Internet companies, an underdeveloped niche you discovered during your situational analysis phase.

To set realistic sales goals, you'll need to spend some time examining your financial picture and doing some massaging. First, look at the trends in both your overall sales and your sales by service line for the past few years and project them out for your proposed time period. Reconcile the two numbers to come up with a top-line forecast figure.

Next, do a bottom-up prediction by factoring in the amount of business you and your colleagues realistically plan to pull in, projections of repeat business and estimates of other new income. Consider talking with clients about their projections regarding the extent of your services they intend to use.

Although your top-down and bottom-up numbers will likely differ, you can find a community on ground by considering market factors, trends, your company's future plans, etc. Your business sense will guide you in finding an appropriate final number for a sales goal.

As far as marketing goals are concerned, you're looking at what you want the target markets you identified earlier to do. Outline the actions you want them to take. You might want current customers to consider purchasing particular services from you such as financial services if you're branching into this arena. Your marketing objective might be to have 10 current clients become "full-service" clients where they are turning to you for investment and/or insurance advice.

Step 5: Marketing strategies

Don't jump the gun yet and begin picking the specific methods you'll employ to get new business! First, take this important intervening step, in which you'll look at the marketing process from a broad-brush strategic perspective. One of your strategies might be education--educating your clients about the full scope of your services. Perhaps you need to increase your visibility among a specific target market. Or maybe you'll need to provide services that are more conveniently located near where your target audiences live or work.

Step 6: communication points

What are the key messages you want to get out about your business? These should be "universal" statements that can be modified slightly for various target audiences, with the essence of the message remaining consistent throughout all your communication. Your goal here is to create a memorable and positive position for your services in the minds of your target audiences.

Step 7: Tactical marketing tools

Now you can start thinking more specifically about how you're going to communicate with your target markets. The range of marketing tools is broad including advertising, direct mail, telemarketing, media relations, publicity, corporate identity (your company's "look"), web site, e-commerce and many others. Each of these tools has many additional subgroups that you'll want to explore. Be prepared to make detailed plans within each tactic and include your objectives. For example, if you decide that direct mail will be one of your tactics, set your objectives for its use. What do you want to achieve with it?

Step 8: Marketing plan budget and timetable

These two issues go hand in hand. If you plan your marketing activities to take advantage of special rates, low-season discounts, etc., your budget will stretch further. (For instance, newspapers often have special sections on a quarterly or half-yearly basis that offer lower rates to advertisers.) Looking at your budget and timetable from a yearly perspective will likely save you money in the long run.

Step 9: Execution

This is where you get to "share the wealth" of marketing plan responsibilities. Everyone in your firm should have a role to play in executing the plan, which helps to build accountability among your colleagues and staff.

Step 10: Evaluation and measurement

Don't leave this crucial step out! You'll learn much from an examination of what worked and what didn't during the year. As much as possible, your measurements should be quantitative, but some will, of necessity, be qualitative.

When you finish that last step, your marketing plan is complete. Now it's time to put it to work. Be sure that your plan becomes a "living" document. Don't allow it to just sit on the shelf gathering dust while you wonder how you're ever going to market your services. You've invested time and effort into your plan: Now go out there and make it work for you.

Sharon Berman is principal of Berbay Corp., a marketing consultancy, which orchestrates and directs marketing programs with impact for service firms. You can reach Berman at berman@berbay.com or (818) 342-008.