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5 Tips for Writing a Basic (and Un-Daunting) Marketing Plan

By Caron_Beesley, Contributor
Published: April 4, 2013 Updated: September 9, 2016

Have you ever written a marketing plan for your business? Do you keep putting off the task?

Whether you are launching a new product or promoting your latest offer, a marketing plan is worth taking the time to complete. Why?

As a small business owner, it’s likely that you not only own the task of coming up with a strategic plan, but also the act of executing it (writing email copy, hosting events, etc.). If this is you, then a plan can help you direct your day-to-day activities, guide your approach, and ensure you are making the most of the available resources.

The good news is that a marketing plan needn’t be encyclopedic or overly time consuming to prepare. In fact, in my experience, the simpler the plan, the more effective it can be (bog yourself down in too many details and you’ll quickly lose focus). A simple plan also gives you the flexibility to quickly adjust your tactics if you need to.

Here are five tips for developing a basic marketing plan that can be applied to discrete activities such as a product launch or promotional campaigns.

1. Build a Precise Picture of Your Ideal Customer

Identifying your target market is the first step of any marketing plan and it’s essential that you are as precise as possible. If not, you run the risk of a scatter-gun approach that will dilute your message and drain your budget. Instead, think about your target market in terms of specifics – who in your current customer base is the right fit for your product or service? What have they purchased from you before? Do their purchasing patterns suggest they might be a good target? Are they the kind of customer you even enjoy doing business with? What about reaching new customers outside your customer base?

The more specific you can be, the easier it will be to craft the right message and tactics for reaching that audience. 

2. What do you Want to Accomplish?

Again, be specific. Stating that you want to increase brand awareness about your business/product isn’t really specific enough. Think about what actions you want them to take after they are made aware of your campaign or promotional activity. Do you want them to register for an event, take advantage of a special offer, upgrade an existing product, invest in training, or request a quote? There may be multiple actions that you want them to take. For example, a webinar could be positioned as a free training opportunity and your initial action goal would be to get your target market to register for the event. However, once the event is over, you may then want to circle back with attendees and see if they are interested in receiving more information (such as a one-on-one product demo or quote for a product or service).  

These actions will drive your messaging and delivery methods.

3. How Can You Reach your Targets?

Now that you know who you want to reach and what actions you want them to take, you’ll need to identify the best ways to reach them and with what message. To do this, consider the following about your customers and prospects:

  • What associations do they belong to?
  • Are they active on social media?
  • Do they subscribe to your email marketing?
  • What print or online media do they read?
  • What are their pain points (how can you help address these)?
  • What types of messages or call to actions have they responded to in the past?
  • Why should they care about what you have to offer (what’s in it for them / in what ways will they benefit)?

4. Work Out Your Budget

When it comes to planning your budget, either start with a figure that you can afford, or determine your tactics, price them out (my preferred method) and prioritize where necessary.  You can always adjust your budget as you go, so be flexible. For tips on calculating your marketing budget read: How to Set a Marketing Budget that Fits your Business Goals and Provides a High Return on Investment.

5. Plan Your Tactics

Your tactics are the actions you need to take to help you reach your target market and accomplish your goals. These include specifics such as direct mail, email marketing, print/radio/online advertising, blogs, social media, case studies, webinars, events, sponsorships and so on.

Never rely on one tactic alone. An integrated approach that delivers a consistent message across multiple, targeted platforms is the best way to ensure you reach your target market and get the most out of your budget. Refer back to who it is you are trying to reach, where they are, and what you want them to do.

Above all, be flexible. Track results and adjust your tactics and messaging as you go. I’ve seen many campaigns start out with one message and close out with a completely different one. Try out new email subject lines, test social media messages, and keep a close eye on what works and what doesn’t.

Don’t forget a call to action – whether it’s taking advantage of a coupon, downloading a white paper, or attending an event. Use a unique code for each medium so that you can track where your leads are coming from. This blog offers some tips: 8 Ways to Strengthen Your Email Marketing Offers and Calls to Action.

Lastly, don’t forget to include internal elements to our plan such as sales trainings or briefings about your campaign or new product offering.

Good luck! For more help, contact your local Small Business Development Center. They offer training, counseling and support for business owners in all areas of business planning and operation.

Additional Resources

For more marketing tips, check out SBA’s extensive archive of marketing-related blogs.

About the Author:

Caron_Beesley
Caron Beesley

Contributor

Caron Beesley is a small business owner, a writer, and marketing communications consultant. Caron works with the SBA.gov team to promote essential government resources that help entrepreneurs and small business owners start-up, grow and succeed. Follow Caron on Twitter: @caronbeesley

What Home-Office Deductions Can Your Small Business Claim and How?

By Caron_Beesley, Contributor
Published: April 1, 2013 Updated: August 25, 2016

More than half of all U.S. businesses are based out of an owner’s home, and with this year’s tax season deadlines fast approaching, you may be wondering if your business qualifies for the deduction.

To help business owners understand more about this important deduction, SBA sat down with IRS tax expert, Phyllis Grimes, about what is and what isn’t deductible. This interview is part of a series of short online videos hosted on SBA’s Small Business Learning Center, which offer tips and facts about all aspects of business financing.

Here’s what you need to know.

Evidence That Your Home is Your Principal Place of Business

In order to be eligible to claim the home office deduction, your home must be your principal place of business. If you conduct business at a location outside of your home, but also use your home substantially and regularly to conduct business, you may qualify for a home office deduction. For example, if you have in-person meetings with patients, clients or customers in your home in the normal course of your business—even though you also carry on business at another location—you can deduct your expenses for the part of your home used exclusively and regularly for business. You can deduct expenses for a separate free-standing structure, such as a studio, garage, or barn, if you use it exclusively and regularly for your business. The structure does not have to be your principal place of business or the only place where you meet patients, clients or customers.

Distinguish Between Personal Home Expenses and Home-Based Business Expenses

To claim the home office deduction, an area of your home must also be used exclusively and regularly for business use. This is an important distinction, because both conditions must apply. For example, consider this scenario – a home-based attorney uses the den of his or her home to write legal briefs or prepare clients tax returns but the family also uses the den for recreation. So the den is not used exclusively in the attorney’s profession so he or she can’t claim a business deduction for its use.

If, however, you have a separate room or blocked off area that is identifiable as being used solely for business purposes, such as an office space or work area (and you use it “regularly”), then this would qualify you for the deduction.

(Note that if you regularly operate an in-home day care, the “exclusive” rule does not apply. Find more details on this exception here.)

What Expenses Can You Deduct?

If you meet all the criteria to claim the home-based business deduction, you’ll next need to understand how the IRS permits eligible business owners to claim ordinary and necessary expenses related to the business. Essentially, an ordinary expense is an expense that is common and accepted in the taxpayer’s trade or business (in the case of a home business, an ordinary expense could be an installation fee for a business telephone line). A necessary expense is one that is appropriate for the business (such as the cost of your email marketing software). Deductible expenses might also include the business portion of real estate taxes, mortgage interest, rent, utility, insurance, depreciation, utilities, painting and repairs. Refer to IRS Form 8829 for a complete list.

How Much Can You Deduct?

Generally, deductions for a home office are based on the percentage of your home devoted to business use. So, if you use a whole room or part of a room for conducting your business, you need to figure out the percentage of your home devoted to your business activities. To calculate this amount, you’ll need to calculate the total square footage of your home and then the total square footage of the space you use for your business. IRS Form 8829 also helps you figure out this calculation.

A common error is to deduct expenses for a portion of the home that is not regularly used or exclusively used for business. For example, the telephone service charge, including taxes, for the first phone line into a home is a nondeductible personal expense. However, charges for business long-distance phone calls on that line—and the cost of a second line used exclusively for business—are deductible business expenses.

How to File Your Home Office Deduction Claim

Use Schedule C Form 1040 to report income and expenses and the deductible amount for the business use of your home (which you calculate using Form 8829).

Additional Information

For worksheets and additional information on computing the allowable home-office deduction, check out these resources offered by the IRS and refer to Publication 587, Business Use of Your Home for a full explanation of tax deductions.

About the Author:

Caron_Beesley
Caron Beesley

Contributor

Caron Beesley is a small business owner, a writer, and marketing communications consultant. Caron works with the SBA.gov team to promote essential government resources that help entrepreneurs and small business owners start-up, grow and succeed. Follow Caron on Twitter: @caronbeesley

Spiffing Up Your Place with the Help of Uncle Sam

By BarbaraWeltman, Guest Blogger
Published: March 28, 2013

There is little doubt that customers respond positively to the attractiveness of your workplace. In addition, it’s been *found that being in a good environment helps to motivate employees and adds to productivity. Improvements to your workspace may be modest or substantial, depending on your needs and your pocketbook. Either way, Uncle Sam can help defray the costs with tax write-offs. Here’s what you need to know.

Deducting repairs

A new coat of paint is a low-cost upgrade for your facilities. Other repairs may be more costly. Fortunately, the cost of paint and other repairs, whatever amount it may be, is fully deductible.

However, the cost of capital improvements has a different tax treatment than the cost of repairs, as you’ll see in a moment. The challenge in some projects is distinguishing between repairs, which are fully deductible now, and capital improvements, which are subject to special write-off rules. As a general rule, repairs to restore or maintain property, in contrast to capital improvements that materially add to the value of property, substantially prolong its life, or adapt it to a new or different use.  (Pending rules discussed later may impact the definition of capital improvements.)

A determination of whether a cost is an ordinary repair or a capital improvement is based on the facts and circumstances. The following chart can help you distinguish repairs from improvements:

Repair

Capital Improvement

Fix a leaky roof

Replace a roof

Fix a dripping faucet

Replace old lead pipe with new copper pipe

Apply a new coat of epoxy sealer to a concrete floor

Install a new concrete floor

Fill a pothole

Repave

As a practical matter, you must make a business decision on whether you need to make a capital improvement or can remedy a situation with a simple repair. Don’t let tax results dictate your business decision.

Writing off capital improvements

Usually, the cost of capital improvements to realty must be treated as if you’d acquired a piece of realty; it is a separate asset. Since buildings have a 39-year recovery period for depreciation, it can take many, many years to write-off the cost of capital improvements. The good news: The write-offs for capital improvements can be claimed whether you pay cash or finance the project.

Special rules for leasehold, restaurant, and retail improvements. If your property fits into any of these categories, you can deduct improvements more rapidly than for improvements to other commercial realty. Leasehold improvements are improvements to the interior of a commercial building that was placed in service at least three years prior to the improvements. The improvements can be made by the lessor or lessee, but they do not include elevators or escalators, the enlargement of the building, the internal framework of the building, or any structural component of a common area. For restaurant improvements, more than half of the square footage of the property must be devoted to the preparation of meals and seating for on-premises food and beverage consumption. Retail improvements mean improvements to the interior of retail space open to the public.

The special tax rules for leasehold, restaurant, and retail improvements are:

  • First-year expensing (Sec. 179 deduction). You can write off up to $250,000 of the cost of improvements in the year the improvements are made. This deduction, however, only applies to improvements completed before January 1, 2014 (unless Congress extends the law).
  • 50% bonus depreciation. You can deduct half the cost of the qualified improvements if you place them in service this year. Like the expensing deduction, bonus depreciation is set to end this year unless Congress extends it.
  • 15-year recovery period. Instead of deducting the cost of improvements over 39 years, you can deduct them over 15 years. Again, the 15-year recovery period will end on December 31, 2013, unless Congress extends it.

These special rules can be combined to permit a write-off of all or most of your costs. For example, if improvements to the space you lease cost $400,000, you can expense $250,000, use 50% bonus depreciation for $75,000, and depreciate the remaining $75,000 of cost over 15 years.

New regulations

Proposed and temporary regulations from the IRS use new terminology (such as “betterment”) for distinguishing repairs from capital improvements. Unfortunately, they do not contain any “bright-line” rules, so you – as well as the IRS – will have to continue relying on facts and circumstances.

In addition to new terminology, the proposed and temporary regulations also adopt a favorable rule that lets you fully deduct the unrecovered costs of certain building components, such as HVAC and roofing, when they are replaced. For example, you own an office building and installed a new air conditioning system eight years ago. You’re still depreciating the cost, but now have to replace the system with a new one. You can deduct the remaining cost of the old one (the portion of the cost you had not yet depreciated), along with depreciation for the new one.

These regulations had been set to be effective starting in 2012, but the effective date has been postponed until January 1, 2014. However, they can be used for 2012 and 2013 returns at a taxpayer’s election. Whether they alter the classification of costs you incur for your facilities is difficult to say; work with a knowledgeable tax advisor for this purpose.

Resources

Some IRS publications can help you assess whether your expenditures for changing the look or functions of your workplace are repairs or improvements:

Conclusion

Before you begin any project to change your workplace, determine the tax impact of your actions. Upfront deductions can help defray the costs and allow you to expand the scope of your project without a net cost to you.

 

*Denotes a non-government website

About the Author:

BarbaraWeltman
Barbara Weltman

Guest Blogger

Barbara Weltman is an attorney, prolific author with such titles as J.K. Lasser's Small Business Taxes, J.K. Lasser's Guide to Self-Employment, and Smooth Failing as well as a trusted professional advocate for small businesses and entrepreneurs. She is also the publisher of Idea of the Day® and monthly e-newsletter Big Ideas for Small Business® and host of Build Your Business Radio. She has been included in the List of 100 Small Business Influencers for three years in a row. Follow her on Twitter: @BigIdeas4SB or at www.BigIdeasforSmallBusiness.com

Demand ROI from Business Planning

By Tim Berry, Guest Blogger
Published: March 26, 2013

How do you value your business plan? What’s it worth to your business? Here’s how I do it:

  • I value the business plan by the decisions it causes.
  • I value a business plan by the money it generates.
  • I value a business plan by its results.

How do you value anything in business? For accounting purposes, expenses are negative value, and assets – things you buy, things you own, that aren’t expenses – are worth what you paid for them. But what’s the real value?

That’s where the phrase “return on investment” (ROI) comes in. Technically, ROI is the (return-investment)/investment. For example, the ROI of buying stock shares for $250 and selling them for $300 is (300-250)/250, which is 20%.

Please forget the formal financial definition, and consider this instead: every business expense—time, money, resources, reputation, and whatever—is an investment. What you get back is a return.

You don’t always get positive value back from what you do. Business meetings often cost more in wasted time than what they generate in information or business decisions. Many sales and marketing programs cost more than the dollars they generate.

So what about business planning? Here are some factors to consider:

  1. People often mistake the purpose of business planning as if it were to have a business plan document to help with raising money from banks or investors. That happens, but it’s a small subset of the real business planning that goes on.
  2. The investment in business planning can be measured (or estimated) as the sum of the management time invested, plus cost of consultants or writers or other outside help.
  3. The return on most of the best business planning investment is a matter of decisions made, performance improved, increased accountability and other aspects of better management. That’s because proper business planning sets goals, establishes responsibilities, and helps with focus and prioritizing key elements of the business.
  4. Sometimes the return on investment is insight. The people who develop the plan pull the business apart and see what makes the most difference, and what’s most important. Sometimes they see threats and flaws. Insight can be very valuable.
  5. When it comes to raising money via banks or investors, making a business plan document is part of the process. The plan doesn’t raise the money, but you can’t raise it without the plan. Effort in making it easy to read and understand often pays off in making the information easier to get to for the people who stand as gatekeepers. But they don’t invest in the plan. They invest in the company and the people that execute the plan.
  6. Some returns can be estimated as a negative. For example, the lack of planning means expensive surprises, lack of management priorities, lack of accountability, less-than-optimal reactive response to events, problems, and opportunities.

Taking the above into account, here are tips to optimize the return on investment in business planning:

  1. Do only what you’re going to use. Don’t spend business time on a document unless there’s a specific business purpose.
  2. Keep the plan streamlined, easy to build, easy to use.
  3. Understand that the plan is just the first step in planning. It will be obsolete in days or weeks. Set schedules for regular reviews and revisions. Track results. Use plan vs. actual analysis to manage better and optimize business performance.

Ultimately, business planning is about better business—not better documents.

About the Author:

Tim Berry
Tim Berry

Guest Blogger

Founder and Chairman of Palo Alto Software and bplans.com, on twitter as Timberry, blogging at timberry.bplans.com. His collected posts are at blog.timberry.com. Stanford MBA. Married 46 years, father of 5. Author of business plan software Business Plan Pro and www.liveplan.com and books including his latest, 'Lean Business Planning,' 2015, Motivational Press. Contents of that book are available for web browsing free at leanplan.com .

Which Tax Form Should You File? Schedule C or the (Easier) Schedule C-EZ?

By Caron_Beesley, Contributor
Published: March 25, 2013 Updated: July 19, 2016

Schedule CIf you are a sole proprietor, any earnings you make or expenses you incur as a business owner are included as part of your individual annual tax return (Form 1040). To calculate exactly what to report on Form 1040, you must itemize all operational income and expenses on one of two forms – Schedule C or Schedule C-EZ.

But which one should you use and how do you file? Here’s what you need to know.

Who Should Use Schedule C?

Schedule C (Form 1040) Profit or Loss from Business is the federal tax form filed by most sole proprietors or one owner businesses. The form is used to report both income and losses during tax season.

Sole proprietorships are often considered new to business ownership. However, the truth is that over 70 percent of U.S. business are owned and operated by sole proprietors or sole traders.

Business owners who make very little, or even those who are trading at a loss, can also use schedule C.

What is Schedule C-EZ?

Schedule C-EZ is a simplified and abbreviated version of Schedule C (hence the “EZ” in the title) and can save eligible business owners time and trouble when reporting business income and expenses on the 1040 federal income tax form.

Should You File a Schedule C or Schedule C-EZ?

Businesses that are eligible to use the simpler Schedule C-EZ must meet the following criteria:

  • Your expenses are not greater than $5,000
  • You have no employees
  • You have no inventory
  • You are not using depreciation or deducting the cost of your home you can use Schedule C-EZ.

If you can check all these boxes, then Schedule C-EZ can make tax season a lot easier.

If you run a home-based business, to take advantage of the home office deduction you’ll need to use Schedule C. It may take longer, but the tax savings will be worth it.

What is the Process for Filing a Schedule C?

Start with good records – something you should be doing as a business owner from the get-go. Every expense, payment, receipt, tax form and loss needs to be recorded and kept separate from your own personal financial records (separate credit cards, for example, will ensure you can easily identify and track business costs).

Schedule C itself is filed annually as an attachment to Form 1040 – Individual Tax Return. The quickest and safest way to file is by IRS e-file—either online with commercial tax preparation software or through a tax professional who is an authorized IRS e-file provider.

Don’t Forget to Make Quarterly Estimated Payments

As a Schedule C filer, you also need to make quarterly estimated tax payments to cover your income tax (federal and state), social security and self-employment tax. This article explains the process: How To Calculate and Make Estimated Tax Payments.

Additional Information

These tips were drawn from the SBA Small Business Learning Center video series on financing topics (specifically Schedule C Profit or Loss from Business). Check out the Center for more free self-paced online training courses, quick videos, web chats and more to help small business owners explore and learn about the many aspects of business ownership.

Also check out SBA’s Filing and Paying Small Business Taxes Guide and the IRS Small Business and Self-Employed Center for more advice on tax matters.

About the Author:

Caron_Beesley
Caron Beesley

Contributor

Caron Beesley is a small business owner, a writer, and marketing communications consultant. Caron works with the SBA.gov team to promote essential government resources that help entrepreneurs and small business owners start-up, grow and succeed. Follow Caron on Twitter: @caronbeesley

Is Your Business Moving? 6 Tips for Attracting Customers To Your New Location

By Caron_Beesley, Contributor
Published: March 21, 2013 Updated: September 20, 2016

Businesses move for all sorts of reasons. Existing rents may be too high; neighboring anchor tenants may have left; or perhaps you just need a bigger premise for your growing business!

But how can you ensure your existing customers move with you and how can you go about attracting new customers to your new location? Here are six tips:

1. Communicate Pre-Move and Post-Move

First, be sure to use every available touch point to communicate with existing customers about your impending move—and well in advance. Utilize e-mail lists, your website, direct mail, flyers, blog, social media, advertising, press releases, in-store signage—the works. Be sure to include directions, information about what else is going on in that neighborhood and, if your move is for positive reasons, be bold and share those details. For example, if you are expanding, include a message that thanks your customers for their patronage and stresses your commitment to providing top notch service.

If you haven’t been keeping a record of your customer emails and mailing addresses, use the news media and other avenues (see below) to spread the word about your move.

Don’t forget to leave flyers with your neighbors after you’ve moved and request that they display them in their windows or at the point of sale.

2. Update Your Online Listings

Search engines are increasingly locally-centric in their search results. For example, if you enter “Italian restaurant” into a Google search, it will automatically display local businesses in your area first. So update (or create if you don’t have them) your online listings, whether they are on Google+ Local, Yelp, Yellow Pages, Facebook, Trip Advisor or others. And, of course, don’t forget to update your own website “Contact Us”, “About Us” or “Find Us” page.

Google Search

3. Use Location-Based Services to Attract Passersby

Don’t forget to take advantage of mobile technology. Promoting your small business to passersby using mobile apps that target consumers in the vicinity of your business isn’t that difficult. Groupon, Living Social, FourSquare and ThinkNear, among others, let you post information about your latest offers and limited-time deals to consumers within a certain distance of your business. You can also schedule deals to get delivered during key hours—for example, if you’re looking to boost foot traffic during off-peak times.

4. Give Existing Customers an Incentive to Visit You at Your New Location

Your customers are your livelihood, treat them that way. Offer them incentives to stop by your new location. Make sure the offer is time-bound so they have a reason to check out your new digs soon!

 5. Host an Event to Attract New and Existing Customers

Give customers a reason to fall in love with your store—not just for its products, but as a place to get together. Retail stores, bars, restaurants and other food service businesses, in particular, can benefit from hosting events. These can be educational in nature (bring in a guest speaker from a vendor or supplier if you don’t have much to say yourself) or appreciation events (offer a sneak preview of your new location to your top customers). Events can also be tied to themes (date night or wine night) or holidays.

6. Don’t Forget Customers That May Not Have Checked You Out for a While

Your new location might be more convenient to some of your older customers. So consider running a campaign that targets not only your active customer base, but those who may not have purchased from you in a while. Special offers or other incentives specifically targeted at that group and paired with a, “we’d love to see you again,” message may just do the trick.

For more tips about attracting customers to your new business location read: 7 Ways to Increase Foot Traffic to your Small Business.

Useful Resources

  • SBA SizeUp Tool – Want to know how your business stacks up against the competition? Where your potential competitors are located? Where the best places are to advertise your business? Use SBA’s SizeUp tool to help you crunch millions of data points and get customizable reports and statistics about your business and its competition. Just enter your industry, city, state and other details. SizeUp then runs various reports and provides maps and data related to your competition, suppliers and customers. It also highlights potential advertising opportunities.

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About the Author:

Caron_Beesley
Caron Beesley

Contributor

Caron Beesley is a small business owner, a writer, and marketing communications consultant. Caron works with the SBA.gov team to promote essential government resources that help entrepreneurs and small business owners start-up, grow and succeed. Follow Caron on Twitter: @caronbeesley

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