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The Value of a Marketing Plan

By: Eric Giltner, Senior Area Manager
Grand Forks Area Office
North Dakota District Office

Why Your Business Needs a Marketing Plan
"Before beginning, plan carefully." The philosophy of the great Roman Orator Cicero is 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; as a result, they fail to capitalize on opportunities to sell. Why do so many take this half-hearted approach? Many believe it stems from the nature of an entrepreneur, who thrives on action and tangible progress. 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:

  1. an analysis of the firm's internal and external environments;
  2. a decision on a "Unique Selling Point" to emphasize the project; and
  3. the selection of action plans (both paid and unpaid) to reach the targeted customer base.

Step 1 - Analyze the Environment
The first step is to describe the product or service in terms of value or benefit provided to the customer. Now, compare this to the competition. Is there a distinct and clear 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 obvious, 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?

Step 2 - Communicate the Unique Selling Point
Once the unique selling point is decided, a message needs to be crafted to 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 customer's mind.

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.

Step 3 - Action Planning
The target customer is identified during the environmental analysis stage and the related demographics (average age, gender, income bracket, education level, geography, interests, etc.) will help in devising a plan for reaching out to this potential customer.  Strategies for reaching this customer will be deployed in three main areas: paid advertising, social media, and public relations.

Paid advertising involves investing in traditional media (magazines, newspapers, billboards, radio, television, trade shows, direct mailing, etc.), internet company web sites, and social media ads.

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 option.  If you are not sure where to start, take a look at your most direct and successful competitor and follow their lead.

Public relations strategies involve investing time in personal networking efforts and activities designed to generate publicity for the business. 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 each time. 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.  Developing content for social media venues is also a very important publicity tactic.  Well written and informative content will be shared by others and increase the visibility of your business on the internet.

Ongoing Process
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 GiltnerEric Giltner is a Senior Area Manager for the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). In this role, Eric trains and connects entrepreneurs and small business owners with the services they need to confidently start, grow, and expand their businesses. He frequently speaks at small business events across North Dakota and presents online webinars. Eric writes about small business topics for the SBA's North Dakota District Office newsletter, Dakota Business, and often shares business tips Thursday mornings on KNOX radio. As Senior Area Manager, Eric also works with SBA resource partners, chambers, economic developers, and lenders to support entrepreneurship in North Dakota. Prior to joining SBA in 1998, Eric served as assistant to the dean of the UND College of Business and Public Administration. He received his B.S. Degree in Geological Engineering and his Master's Degree in Business Administration from the University of North Dakota. Eric can be reached at

Other Marketing Articles from the North Dakota District Office

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Marketing a Start-up Business

Relationship Marketing