By Katrina Olson

Labor Day unofficially marked the end of summer. Now it's time to get back to work. If you haven't already started working on your marketing plan, don't worry. It's only September!

What's a strategic marketing plan?
A marketing plan is a comprehensive blueprint for the coming year's marketing efforts that outlines goals, strategies and tactics for accomplishing specific marketing objectives within a set time frame. Usually it has a budget attached to it, and perhaps a sales forecast. Planning should also include evaluation, with metrics clearly stated upfront. 

That's a pretty good definition, but it lacks is the word "strategic." Too often, marketing plans are based on the previous year: "What do we get rid of? What do we keep?" That's backwards, because it starts with tactics instead of goals. Also, this method suggests that nothing much has changed since last year. 

Why Strategy Matters
Strategy involves examining your current situation, deciding what you want to accomplish, and mapping a plan to get there. It's a methodical and intentional process based on research and information.

If your executive team already has a strategic business plan, they've already set some business goals for next year that might look like this:

  • Grow the business by expanding into new geographic areas, product groups, or services.
  • Expand our value-added services to build customer loyalty and differentiate our brand.
  • Increase new customers by 15% in 2018.
  • Break into new vertical markets (e.g., utilities, government, food processing).
  • Increase new leads by 20% in 2018.
  • Retain 75% of customers in 2018.

This is your starting point for a marketing plan. And if you're lucky, they've already done some of the homework involved in the situation analysis.

Situation Analysis
Before setting marketing goals, you must thoroughly analyze your current situation which includes:

  • SWOT Analysis – Perhaps the executive team already documented the company's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. If the goal is to retain 75% of customers, are the systems and processes in place to make this happen?
  • Competitive Analysis – Has the landscape changed? Are there new entrants to watch? Who will be your new competition in new markets?
  • External Influences – What legal, regulatory, technological, economic, political, societal trends or other forces may affect your business?
  • Target Markets – Again, if your goal is to expand into new geographic areas, product categories or vertical markets, these will be different than last year.

This isn't a complete list, but gives you an idea of what's included in a situation analysis.

Goals
Armed with the situation analysis, it's time to work on goals. Goals can be broader and supported by more specific SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-sensitive) objectives. Or you can combine them and just call them "goals."

A sample marketing goal might be, "To launch a new line of tools in the first quarter of 2018 for electrical contractors and achieve sales of $30,000 by fourth quarter 2018."

There's no "right" number of goals. Two is probably too few, but 15 is probably too many. It really depends on how many strategies and tactics support them, the size and skills of your staff, your financial resources, and what you feel you can reasonably achieve.

Strategies and Tactics
Ideally, you'd examine the four Ps: product, price, place (distribution) and promotion. However, depending on your role in the company, you may only be responsible for "promotion." If the latter is the case, your focus will be on marketing communication.

Strategies flow directly from the marketing goals. If the goal is to retain a higher percentage of customers, consider better utilizing your CRM system to track and monitor sales per customer. How will you address those customers who start to drop off?

The Last Three Steps
You still need to think about budgeting, implementation and evaluation. And evaluation isn't a once-a-year task – it should continue throughout the year. Because a good, workable marketing plan is a tool and a process that you continually refine and adapt. Your market keeps changing. Customer needs keep changing. And your plan needs to change with them.

What's the Point?
We all want to grow sales, retain customers and increase leads. But without a plan that includes specific strategies, tactics and tools, it's more of a wish than a goal. If you keep doing what you did last year with minor tweaks, you'll get similar results. Or if you're too focused on getting new customers, but you're losing existing ones, you'll end up taking two steps forward and one step back.

The strategic marketing planning process, when practiced correctly and thoroughly, will reveal opportunities and address those goals, one by one, resulting in a fully-developed, strategic marketing plan.

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Olson is a marketing and public relations consultant, and principal of Katrina Olson Strategic Communications. She has written for tED magazine's print edition since 2005, judged tED magazine's Best of the Best Competition since 2006, and emceed the Best of the Best Awards ceremony for a total of seven years. She can be reached at Katrina@katrinaolson.com or via her website at katrinaolson.com.