When you do it right, your marketing plan should guide and illuminate everything in your business -- who you're serving, how you communicate with them, and what you sell (whether it's consulting services, cookies or the chance to help children in Africa). But the truth is, too many plans simply sit on the shelf, rendered obsolete because they answered the wrong questions at the outset. Here are six key questions to ensure your plan does what it's supposed to: help you make better business decisions.
1) Who's Your Audience? This is the most critical question of all -- start here and work backwards. Don't invent a product and then go searching for an audience ("Accountants will love this!"). It almost never works. Instead, focus on the group of people you want to serve. Learn everything about them, determine what needs they have that aren't being met, and then figure out how you can close that gap. There are no generic "buyers." There are specific people with specific needs, and you can sell to them.
2) What's Your Goal? You have to be crystal clear on what you want out of each target audience. An environmental group may want legislators to vote "yes" on a particular bill, members to contact their legislators, and one-time donors to become monthly givers. Each segment requires specific messaging -- the more finely-tuned the better. In this media-rich environment, people -- even those who like you or your company -- will simply tune out any communication that doesn't seem precisely relevant to them.
3) What's Your Message? Alas, "buy from us" won't suffice on its own. You need to connect the dots for your customers. Let them know what's in it for them, and why they should care about your product or service -- preferably in 30 seconds or less. ("This vitamin helps you live longer!", "This audiobook will help you become a better teacher!", "This software will save you time and money!") Remember that "message" isn't just the words you use. From your customer's initial phone call (Are they on hold? How long?) to the end (Are they invoiced promptly? Did they receive a thank you note?), every piece of their experience is a message you're sending about who you are and how you do business.
4) How Do You Best Convey Your Message? There are a lot of ways you could reach your target audience. Super Bowl ads are great, for instance. But then again, you may not have a couple million dollars to spend on a 30 second commercial -- and you may not need to reach 100 million viewers. Instead, ask yourself specifically: What do they read? Where do they go? Who do they listen to? If you sell high-end golf balls, convincing a handful of influential pros to use your product could go further than any paid advertisement. If your target is Fortune 100 Chief Technology Officers, your entire business depends on the decisions of 100 people. Time to learn everything you can about them. If they all read a certain magazine, you want a column in it. If they all go to a certain conference, you want to speak on a panel there. The more targeted your efforts, the better.
5) How Do You Execute Your Plan? Broad brushstrokes are great, but your marketing plan should also enumerate clear action steps. Be specific: what's the timeline? What tasks need to be accomplished, and by when? If the kickoff is in September, you need the invitations printed by August, designed by July, and the speakers confirmed by June. If you're creating a podcast series, you need to create a schedule, identify topics, arrange interviews, master the technology, conduct the interviews, and then publicize them. For any marketing initiative, put it on a calendar -- it's too easy to miss a step.
6) Who is Responsible? This is the question that makes it real. Every step on the timeline above should have a name attached to it. And if you can't identify someone inside your organization with the skills, interest, or time to make it happen, then you have to identify outside resources and bring them in. As the saying goes, "What gets measured, gets done" -- and unless you're measuring a specific somebody on the completion of a task, it will not happen. Clarify responsibility at the outset, and you'll save yourself a world of hurt.
Don't even bother with a marketing plan if it's going to be a rote exercise. But if you dig into these questions and create a plan that really shows how your company will answer them, you've turned your marketing plan into something even more valuable--a road map.
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You and Stand Out, and you can receive her free Stand Out Self-Assessment Workbook.