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So, first, the statement. Without a marketing plan you are seriously limiting your chances of having a business in a year’s time.

Now, for the honesty. I don’t have one either… yet.

There is something about the Christmas holidays that gives you time to take stock. Maybe it’s because the phone stops ringing for a week or two. Maybe it’s because it’s the time that everyone is thinking about New Year’s resolutions. Whatever the reason, this year I have been thinking about marketing plans.

It sounds funny to say that, given what I do, but there is that old adage about cobblers’ children, isn’t there? In my first year of business I just said “yes” to everything. I was permanently stressed and often hacked off at how I’d under-charged. In my second year of business I started to think about actually doing some business development… so I did more networking and lined up some speaking opportunities, as well as ramped up the social media activity. I still said “yes” to everything and still undercharged on most things. As I now head on into my third year of business it’s time I really applied a ‘grown up’ approach to things. And part of that means sorting out a proper marketing plan. I want to develop my business and now is the time to practice what I preach.

So, why is it so important? It sounds really cheesy but if you don’t know where you’re headed you can’t work out what you need to do to get there. If that’s the case then you can quite often spend too much time (and money) spinning around in circles and too little time developing your business.

How do I start writing then?

Personally, I promote my own format.  It’s a bit of a hybrid between a business plan and a marketing strategy and it’s not normally longer than five or six pages long. I don’t believe in overly theoretical formats and prefer a document that really earns its keep.  I also believe in plain speaking, lots of action points and, above all, common sense.

The format I like to use is:

1.     Background – a short paragraph clarifying the purpose of the business and the reason for writing the plan – in essence, a sense-checking exercise. I find this particularly useful in clarifying the messaging. You could also include in this section more detail about products/services, sectors and prices (particularly if, like me, you think this needs clarification).

2.     Values and key words – a list of key words that sum up what the business is all about. This process helps me to clarify my thoughts and justify activity to come.

3.     Outcome goal(s) – over-arching goals for a three, two and one year period. Of course, we’re talking about SMART here… Remember, all goals should be answerable with ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in answer to whether you achieved them. Years two and one should be specifically relevant to achieving the three-year goal. Some examples might be, “By the end of Year Three the business will be turning over £1m. By the end of Year Two the business will be turning over £750k. By the end of Year One the business will be turning over £500k.” [in my dreams]

4.     Process goals – Taking Year One only, look at what you need to achieve over this period to meet your Year One outcome goal. Once again these need to be SMART. This is where you start to look across the elements of communications: PR, segmented business development, client care, marketing communications etc. This is the point where you’ll start to identify the key channels for development. Some examples might be “By the end of Year One, new business from the education sector will be £100k. By the end of Year One, 95% of existing clients will recommend me for work.”

5.     Action points – Next we take each process goal and work out an action plan for how we’re going to actually do it. This is where we actually tie in the specific scheduling throughout the year, any budget requirements, ways to measure success and list the broad tasks that we’ll undertake. Some examples might be “To develop business in the education sector we will: Take a stand at the Education Show, set up a Facebook page for Headteachers, develop a specialist page on the website, write a fortnightly education e-newsletter and use Google Adwords to generate website traffic”. This is likely to be your most extensive section as it needs to be your work plan.

In addition to these five sections you might also want to include a section, in between one and two, that reviews activity to date. A large part of this might be a matrix that scores how successful (and therefore worth continuing/doing again) previous activity has been. You might also want to include a section at the end that details budget relevant to this plan.

Finally, this document needs to be a working ‘live’ document. It needs reviewing every month and [shock horror] changing, to reflect developments. The best way to do this, without it turning into a free-for-all, is to always challenge changes against the process and outcome goals. On the plus side, however, it also needs checking against achievements. Assuming you put deadlines in it’s a fantastic way of actually holding yourself to account in terms of prioritising ‘time for you’ in your day-to-day work.

So… let me know how you get on?

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