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How to Write an Online Marketing Plan

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The best online marketing plan starts with 10 simple ideas. They are living, fluid documents that change with market conditions.

A book on Amazon about writing a one-page marketing plan is 225 pages long.

Learning how to write an online marketing plan doesn’t take 225 pages of reading. Time is precious for successful business owners and managers.

I have written dozens of business plans and online marketing plans for both major corporations and my own small business over a 40-year career.

My experience includes many presentations to company CEOs and division presidents as well as hungry hordes of stressed-out vice presidents.

Some of the presentations lasted up to four hours and required more than 100 slides, binders with hundreds of supporting pages and spreadsheets with thousands of numbers.

But a plan doesn’t have to be that difficult for a small business owner. In fact, the effort can be quite simple. The best ones clearly define products, services, goals, clients, tactics and costs.

How is an Online Marketing Plan Unique?

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Online marketing plans have many of the same basic elements as any offline marketing plan except for one difference in particular. Online audience tracking is much more data intensive than offline audience tracking, so plans are data intensive as well.

An online marketing plan defines current clients in exact terms using site analytics and identifies potential clients from those analytics. It also identifies the tactics required to keep current clients and acquire new ones with great detail because analytics will show objectively which tactics produce the best results.

The plan should have a good understanding of the competition and how to differentiate the business from competitors using tactics such as pricing and promotion.

Just as importantly, the plan explores how the business will profit from the marketing effort via client revenue and promotional costs that drive the revenue. (Costs include money, labor and other resources.) Small businesses cherish low marketing costs. They cherish free marketing even more.

Begin With the End in Mind

The famous book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” suggests that effective people begin with the end in mind as the second most important habit.

As a small business owner, the end in my mind when I start writing a marketing plan is the length of the plan. In one word, it’s brevity. Limit the length to the fewest pages possible.

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It’s a bit unusual to offer advice about writing a marketing plan with a decision about the length. But starting with length has three important purposes:

  • It protects the most precious resource of all for a small business owner, which is time.
  • It forces the writer to focus on the most critical priorities and avoid fluff.
  • A short plan is a lot quicker to update as circumstances change than a long one.

People who have to read the plan — such as other employees — rarely read all of a long plan unless they are having trouble sleeping at night. Short plans have more impact.

When I had a large staff with managers who reported to me, I required the managers to write and maintain a one-page plan for their departments. One of the managers kept trying to go longer than one page. I kept telling her to quit going over the limit. One day she brought in one page with extra wide margins and a tiny typeface.

Needless to say, I said no to that trick as well. A tight marketing plan for a busy small business owner is essential for prioritizing efforts and staying focused. If the plan requires more than one page, then add only one page at a time, and add each page reluctantly.

How to Write a Plan Outline

There are many ways to write a marketing plan outline. The outline depends on length, the needs of the business and the owner’s priorities. It also depends on whether the company has a sole owner / employee and how many people it employs.

The following outline assumes a business with one owner / manager and fewer than 10 employees, all of whom report to the owner. It also is enough for an independent contractor and other solo entrepreneurs.

An outline may include SOME of the following options:

1. Executive summary / mission statement

The concept of an “executive summary” is a lofty notion for big and mid-sized businesses. But even a small business should define its purpose in clear words for the sake of creating a laser focus with the owner, employees and clients.

2. Goals / objectives

Goals usually are paths with no end in sight. Objectives are measurable and timely. SMART goals combine goals and objectives. They are specific, measurable, achievable, results oriented and time-based. Fewer is better. It’s better for the business to deliver great results with five goals than lousy results on 50 of them.

3. Target markets

Identify client markets based on geography, demographics or similar factors. Prioritize them based on current and potential value. Prioritize resources — money and labor — according to their value and potential for revenue.

Yes, you know your products or services. But writing them down in the most specific description possible is a mental exercise that creates a unique selling point and much better focus.

4. Product / service descriptions

Yes, you know your products or services. But writing them down in the most specific description possible is a mental exercise that creates a unique selling point and better focus. It also may lead to killing off products and services that are low-profit distractions.

5. Distribution channels

Again, specifically defining the distribution channels in the most narrowly targeted way possible may uncover new niches or cut unprofitable channels.

6. Competition

How specifically does the competition price and promote its products or services? What are their strengths and weaknesses? What opportunities or threats do they represent?

7. Pricing

Google, Amazon and Facebook among other major online players have one thing in common. They emphasize low price, high volume. For any business, the choice is high price with low volume, low price with high volume or somewhere in-between. I chose low price with high volume for my business and ended up with more than enough clients who stayed with me for years.

They eliminated the costly hunt for acquiring new ones. But it also depends on the type of product or service. That said, I have seen many businesses struggle or even fail because they set their prices too high.

8. Promotion channels

The Internet has exploded the number of available options. Newspapers, magazines and broadcast are mass market options for reaching the widest number of people.

As a result, they are the most expensive. Direct mail, social media and online advertising are measurable, less expensive and more highly targeted. Return on investment or ROI is a key metric for choosing the right promotion channels.

9. Costs

Naturally, the business owner needs to know what all the above will cost in hard cash and labor. It’s helpful to track costs as a percentage of business revenue. The U.S. Small Business Administration recommends spending seven to eight percent of revenue on marketing. It assumes a profit margin of 10-12 percent.

10. Results

Advice on how to write a marketing plan rarely includes the results. But I found over decades of work in middle and senior management that the plan is much more useful if it has goals, objectives and results in the same document. Updating results will force the owner to look at the plan to see if the effort is effective.

The above list is merely a sample outline. Plans evolve over time if the business owner continues to review and update them. They take on the owner’s needs and personality.

Try putting a monthly reminder in an electronic calendar to review the plan and update the goals, objectives and results.

How to Track the Marketing Plan

A marketing plan is useless if the writer works for days on it and then files it away forever. I have seen that done too many times to count during my career. It’s an incredible waste of time.

Instead, try putting a monthly reminder in an electronic calendar to review the plan and update the goals, objectives and results.

A small business marketing plan works best as a live, fluid document that changes with the business and the owner’s needs.

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