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How to write a marketing plan

Read on to learn about how to devise a traditional marketing strategy for your small business- and how to write a watertight marketing plan.
How to write a marketing plan

Updated on 11/09/2020

Every small business owner is likely to be aware of the importance of marketing. At its heart, it’s about understanding your customers’ needs, tailoring your business’ offering to meet those needs and telling prospective customers about how you can add value to their lives.

That said, it’s an incredibly complex and ever-changing field which you could spend a lifetime studying without being able to claim that you know everything. Fortunately, though, you don’t have to be an expert in marketing to start putting some effective activity in place for your small business.

All this requires is a good understanding of the basics of marketing, and that’s what this article aims to provide an overview of. In this article, we’ll cover:

Before we get started, it’s worth pointing out that this article will cover the essentials of how to write a marketing plan. Marketing plans can outline the activity you’ll undertake both for digital and offline channels, and which of these channels you use will vary depending on the nature of your business.

So, it’s worth remembering to add as much context as possible to your own marketing plan to ensure that it’s highly relevant to your business and specific in its recommendations. We also have some tips on digital marketing specifically if that’s what you need help with.

Where do I start with my marketing strategy?

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There are some key things you need to know about your business before you start writing a marketing plan. Perhaps the most important is being able to identify your goals in line with your target consumers, and doing this successfully is a pre-requisite to writing a solid marketing plan. Also, identifying how dependent your business is on marketing activity can help you decide on how much time and effort to invest into a proper plan.

Some general pieces of information you need to be aware of before you start planning can include:

  • The advantages and disadvantages of your product - how does it compare to competitors’ offerings?
  • Your sales data & forecasting – which products are selling well? Where do opportunities lie to upsell products and draw back on poorly performing ones? How much cash are you likely to generate from your sales and, based on this, how much of this can be reinvested in marketing activity?
  • An understanding of your customers/industry – who is your current customer, target customer, why do they need your product, and to what extent do they ‘want’ your product?

With these points in mind, let’s run through an example of what a marketing plan can look like, with each of the individual elements explained.

How to write a marketing plan

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The first step in writing a marketing plan is choosing a planning framework to use. A planning framework is essentially a step-by-step process to help you design your marketing plan, and there are a few different options out there.

Two popular options are the RACE and SOSTAC models, which include the following steps:

RACE – Plan > Reach > Act > Convert > Engage

SOSTAC – Situation analysis > Objectives > Strategy > Tactics > Actions > Control

It may be worth taking some time to determine which of these frameworks you feel would be the best fit for your business. You can read more about the RACE model and see a visual representation on the Smart Insights website, or more detail on SOSTAC is available via the PR Smith website.

One limitation of frameworks is that they’re quite general and do not take into account the specific circumstances around your industry. So, keep in mind that they’re a tool for you to apply to your business, and don’t be afraid to add to them or chop and change bits based on how relevant you feel they are.

For the purposes of this article we’re going to use the SOSTAC model given how descriptive and granular it is. Let’s take a look at the key steps involved in a SOSTAC marketing plan.

1. Conduct a Situation Analysis

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A situation analysis is all about understanding the state your market is in. Firstly, build an understanding of the size of your market, its defining characteristics, and which businesses are competing within it. From there, you can determine how your business stacks up against competitors. We call this ‘positioning’, and it allows you to say, for example, ‘we’re better positioned against X competitor in terms of price, so we can make price the focal point of our advertising strategy’.

Some helpful tools you can include in this section of your marketing plan are:

A positioning map

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In a positioning map, or perceptual map, you determine the key factors that differentiate businesses in your industry. Price is a good example, but perhaps your product is edible and you use ‘tastiness’ to differentiate your product positioning. If you’ve done your research and your product tastes better than your competitors’ (objectively that is, do your consumer research!), then you may want to identify this in your situation analysis.

This tool is handy for identifying which elements of your product/service should be at the heart of your marketing activities. For example, you may choose to make your upcoming print advert all about taste based on the outcomes of your competitor and/or consumer research. For more information, visit Learn Marketing’s example of how to create a positioning map.

SWOT analysis

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A SWOT analysis is perhaps the most universally used analysis tool across all businesses. In it, you simply map out a four-by-four grid, with the four sections being labelled Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.

SWOT analysis template esme loans A basic SWOT analysis template

This is another tool for competitor analysis, and it allows you to identify where opportunities and threats may lie for you in market. From this analysis, you can devise a marketing strategy that plays to your strengths while minimising or compensating for your weaknesses.

2. Define your Objectives

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Your marketing objectives are usually informed by the bigger picture of your marketing strategy. They are best determined after your situation analysis has been completed, and will play a key role in helping you decide which marketing tactics to use.

It may be wise to include two or three marketing objectives, good examples of which could include:

  • To increase sales and conversions by 15% year-on-year.
  • To improve brand awareness within the ‘Espresso’ section of the consumer coffee market by 30% in Q2 of 2021.

Clearly you can make these objectives as broad or as detailed as you like, so take a while to discuss them with your business’ leadership team and agree on a set of realistic and achievable objectives that truly encompass the goals and KPIs you’re trying to achieve.

One way to check that your objectives are sensible is by testing them with the SMART framework. This acronym stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely- and you can use this framework to sense-check your objectives and make sure they’re not totally out of reach.

3. Devise your Strategy

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Within your marketing plan, the ‘strategy’ element is all about designing each element of your marketing mix to reach your target audience groups.

By segmenting your target audience based on demographic indicators (such as age and gender), and psychographic indicators (meaning lifestyles and interests; perhaps one segment of consumers strongly likes outdoor activities while another is less active), you can determine who you’re targeting with what marketing actions.

In a practical sense, you may identify three key audience segments you want to focus on for this specific marketing campaign. You could then devise one strategy to target each of them; perhaps you’re going to run with a Facebook ad campaign to connect with a new audience, while you also want to share a message with existing customers via an email marketing campaign.

4. Plan your Tactics

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With your strategies in mind, the ‘tactics’ section of a SOSTAC plan is all about determining exactly how your strategies are going to be rolled out.

An example of a tactic is ‘designing a Google Ads set’, and within that tactic you may want to include:

  • Creative requirements - perhaps you need an image for your Google Ad
  • Ad copy – what is the message your advert will communicate to consumers?
  • Targeting information – which segments (identified in your strategy) will this specific advert target and which metrics will you use to make this targeting effective?

For a single marketing campaign, you could create as little as one tactic, or potentially ten - depending on your budget and resource. But, how do you come up with a timeline for your tactics, and make contingency plans for how to change them if they don’t seem to be performing too well?

5. Determine necessary Actions

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The ‘actions’ section of your marketing plan should say exactly which actions need to be taken, and when. Crucially, they should also say who in your team is responsible for each action, which will allow you to properly plan in your marketing activity without compromising your business-as-usual activity.

A good way of tracking actions is a GANTT chart, which is effectively an excel spreadsheet showing which actions are to be taken on which dates. Gantt.com have produced a good guide on how to build a gantt chart, so if you don’t already have your own method for setting project timelines for your business, it may be worth checking out.

6. Set your Controls

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The final stage of a marketing plan is ‘controls’. If our marketing tactics don’t go as planned, or we don’t get the sort of response we’re hoping for, what actions can be taken to change them while they’re running?

As such, ‘controls’ is otherwise known as contingency planning, so for this section of your marketing plan you may want to write a few suggestions for how you can adapt your campaign to improve its performance, or stop it entirely, if the results you are seeing aren’t optimal.

How to put your plan into action

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You may be thinking ‘there’s a lot here to consider and I don’t have too much experience in this area’. If so, don’t worry. The chances are that you’re going to undertake marketing activity anyway, so any steps you can take towards making your marketing activity even 10 or 20% more likely to succeed, can be valuable to your business.

If you aren’t feeling too confident, start by copying out the SOSTAC format we’ve outlined today and writing one paragraph for each section to describe your marketing plan. Alternatively, if you’re feeling inspired and can’t wait to get started, be sure to dive deeper into each of the individual elements we’ve outlined today - there’s a whole world of marketing out there to explore and experiment with.

How could Esme help?

These are difficult times for many businesses, so it’s important now more than ever, to take good care of yourself and your team. If you’re concerned about your business being impacted financially due to coronavirus, visit our FAQ's page for information about how we may be able to support you.