08/26/2010 04:42 pm ET Updated Aug 04, 2011

Writing A Marketing Plan: 5 Things You Need To Know

It has to be the most generic business advice you'll ever get. "Well," business experts always say, "you'll need a marketing plan." OK, sure, but how exactly do you get one? Of course, you could hire a marketing firm to do the heavy lifting. But what if you're like most entrepreneurs -- cash-strapped and need to go it alone?

You could buy a book. There are a million out there, from The Ultimate Marketing Plan by Dan S. Kennedy to The One-Day Marketing Plan by Roman Hiebing and Scott Cooper. You could contact the well-regarded business advisory group SCORE. and find a mentor who can teach you about marketing.

But before you do anything, here are five things you should know.

1. Think of it as a marketing plant.
A plant grows over time -- and it's something you need to nourish and look after. "Too many times, people try to shoot for the moon in the first step," says Brad Nierenberg, president of RedPeg Marketing, an Alexandria, Va.-based marketing firm with clients including GEICO, the Army National Guard and DirecTV. "A marketing plan should be evolutionary. Yes, you need a plan, but you need to be able to adjust it, and if you're a startup, you have to constantly do a course correction."

2. Focus on your plan, not the competition's.
It's logical to focus your marketing plan on building up your company, rather than tearing down your rival, but in a few cases, your competitor's success may be standing in the way of your own progress. Think of how the Netflix executives must have felt about Blockbuster when it was just starting out. If you feel your marketing plan needs to include a lot of anti-marketing, fine. Just make sure you aren't suggesting you're equal to your rival, says Chris Wallace, co-founder of The SuperGroup, an Atlanta-based Web-branding and marketing firm whose clients range from the State Department to the Weather Channel. "Even if you succeed in establishing that you're on equal footing with a competitor, why should customers choose the copycat upstart when they can have the original?" Wallace says. "Instead, entrepreneurs must strive to inform customers how they're different from their competition, and preferably, how they're superior."

3. Spread the wealth.
For every business owner who blows most of his or her marketing budget on a big-time television commercial, there are probably three others who are shaking their fists at the sky and crying, "Why?" If you're a risk-taker and can live with devastating consequences, that's one thing. Otherwise, it's better not to blow your entire budget on a single effort. As much as possible, spend your money as you would when investing in your retirement -- diversify.

4. Know when to bring in the big guns.
When should you hire a big-budget marketing firm? Maybe never. It depends on your point of view, your business situation and whether you consider yourself a gifted or clueless marketer. If you have a local business, word-of-mouth, networking and the occasional newspaper or radio ad might be all you need. If you aspire to be a national or international company, you'll probably want a marketing firm to help you out. As much as someone like Wallace would love you to call him up right away, he concedes, "It's foolish to spend hard-earned and limited dollars on outside help when internally you don't have a clear and succinct answer to the question, 'Why should customers choose your product or service over someone else's?' No external group can answer that question for you, but once you have an answer, then get the word out."

5. Understand your customers.
This is crucial: If you're thinking about the mindset of your customers, you'll save yourself from wasting a lot of money. "It's not about reaching the masses anymore," Nierenberg says. "Marketing is about having meaningful, interactive conversations with your consumers." So don't despair if you can't afford to advertise at a stadium full of 80,000 spectators, because chances are, a lot of those 80,000 people aren't going to be your customers anyway. You're better off if you're sponsoring an art show or a wine tasting or a demolition derby at a local festival, depending who you're trying to reach. "It's all about getting an emotional connection with your target audience," Nierenberg says. And you can often do that more effectively at smaller events, if those events are meaningful to your customer. In other words, as Nierenberg advises, "Spend your money where your consumers spend their time."

The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 8/26/10.