“Before beginning, plan carefully.”
The philosophy of the great Roman Orator Cicero is just as appropriate in today’s small business environment as it was in the political arena of the Roman Empire. A sound and well thought-out marketing plan is an essential part of a firm’s ability to compete in today’s marketplace. In spite of this, many small businesses take a disorganized or haphazard approach to their marketing efforts and, as a result, fail to capitalize on opportunities to sell more of their products and services.
Why do so many take this half-hearted approach? Many believe it stems from the nature of the entrepreneur, who thrives on action and being intrinsically involved in the day-to-day operations of the business. Planning is seen as a non-active effort and therefore does not provide the same stimulus as being involved in producing and selling a product and/or service.
The process of creating a marketing plan involves three steps:
An analysis of the firm’s internal and external environments;
A decision on a “Unique Selling Point” to emphasize and project; and
The selection of action plans (both paid and unpaid) to reach the targeted customer base.
Analyzing the Environment
The first step is to describe the product or service of the business in terms of value or benefit provided to the customer. Now, compare this to the offerings of the competition. Is there a distinct and manifest advantage that allows for the creation of a “Unique Selling Point” (USP) to separate the offering from the competition? This advantage can be based on any number of things, such as business location, price, distribution channels, exclusiveness, customer service focus, or warranties and guarantees. If no USP is readily evident, then the product/service offering may need to be revised to gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace. Some basic questions to review during the environmental analysis are:
What does our business do for the customer?
Who best describes our target customer?
What is our biggest benefit to the customer?
How do we prove this claim?
How is our offering superior to our competition?
Communicating the Unique Selling Point
Once the unique selling point is decided upon, a message needs to be crafted to adequately connect the targeted customer with the available benefits. This is the beginning of the formation of a “brand” and can be enhanced by a verbal tag-line to reinforce the USP in the mind of the customer.
Consider the example of ACME Cleaners, a carpet and duct-cleaning business. Upon completion of the environmental analysis, ACME discovers two distinct findings. First, the competition’s USP messaging is focused primarily on price discounts, and second, ACME is the only competitor to use natural cleaning solutions. Based on this ACME can develop a brand image conveying a healthy and environmentally friendly option for cleaning houses. To verbally promote this USP, a simple and concise tag-line could be used: “ACME, the Healthy House Cleaner.”
Keep in mind that the message is conveyed both verbally and nonverbally. Packaging and color selection all play a part in reinforcing the USP. For example, a company focused on promoting a green product in the marketplace would use environmentally-friendly packaging supported by a green color scheme.
The ideal, or target, customer was identified during the environmental analysis stage. The average age, income bracket, education level, geography, and interests will help in devising a plan for reaching out to this potential customer. Both paid and unpaid strategies should be employed. Paid strategies involve investing in traditional media (magazines, newspapers, billboards, radio, television, trade shows, direct mailing, etc.) and new media (social networking, web ads, search engine optimization, e-mail blasts, web sites, quick response codes, etc.). Each medium chosen needs to be initially tested on a limited basis, and then regularly and carefully evaluated to ensure a profitable return on investment. If marketing dollars are limited, it is best to select a few of the most promising media opportunities, as compared to the shotgun-approach where a few dollars are spent in every media.
Unpaid strategies involve investing time in personal networking events and efforts to generate publicity. The interests of the target customer should help define which networking venues to join. Effective networking is more than showing up. It requires having a plan and setting goals such as meeting three or more “new” people at each event. It also means being prepared to share information on your business through business cards and using a “Sound Bite” to say who you are, what you do, and why you make a difference! Gaining publicity is a slow process, but is enhanced by positioning oneself as an expert in the field through writing articles, volunteering, public speaking, joining industry groups, offering product demonstrations, and the careful use of informative press releases.
The whole process of creating a marketing plan should be a continuous cycle where the internal and external environments are constantly being monitored for changes, the branding message is matched with what customers value most, and action strategies are added, deleted, or modified to maximize the effectiveness of the marketing dollar and your personal time. Research has shown the chances of success increase when business and marketing plans are updated on a regular basis.
Eric Giltner has been a Business Development Specialist and the Grand Forks area manager for the U.S. Small Business Administration since 1998, having formerly been assistant to the dean of the UND College of Business and Public Administration. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .