For many marketers writing a marketing plan is a once-a-year chore required to justify their budget requests.
It is frequently viewed as nothing more than an action item to cross off the to-do list in order to please senior management and accounting.
One marketing director I worked with summed up what a lot of front line marketers think with this observation: “The finished plan goes in everyone’s drawer until next year.”
Why the cynicism?
There are several reasons we are tempted to skimp on strategic planning.
For one, it takes time and we are busy. Due to the fast pace of the workplace it is easier to default to assumptions. We assume everyone knows the underlying strategies which flow from the corporate vision. That barely changes from year to year. So why reinvent the wheel?
Related: The triage marketing death trap
Another is the bias to action. Executing on tactics offers visible proof you are doing your job. Time spent implementing real-time social media marketing and the multitude of digital strategies shows your value to the organization. Writing a marketing plan that sits in your drawer seems like wasted activity.
These are both a cop out.
There is no excuse for not keeping your commitment to doing excellent work. And that includes strategic planning.
For years, I worked with a colleague who had an audacious approach to writing his marketing plan. Each year he would take the previous year’s 50-page opus and update the product launch section, then submit it with a new cover page. When I asked him if he was concerned the executives might notice, he just shrugged. “They’ll see how long it is, assume I know what I’m talking about and decide not to read it all,” he said.
How many flaws do you see in that reasoning? Two trouble me.
One is the character issue. There is a difference between “working smart” and avoiding responsibility. Not only does it cheat the company of honest effort, but this shortcut approach robs you of the important benefits of writing a marketing plan. I will talk more about that shortly.
The second is the reliance on assumptions. In the fast-changing marketplace you can’t rely on last year’s assumptions. Don’t be that guy. Be the diligent one who assesses the business environment and builds a strategic plan around it.
That means taking the steps to follow a disciplined process for gathering business intelligence.
One time-tested process for gathering this information is the SWOT analysis. It has been around for a long time. I have found it is an excellent model for framing your strategy, regardless of marketing channels. Why?
SWOT analysis gives you an internal view of your STRENGTHS and WEAKNESSES and an external view of your OPPORTUNITIES and THREATS. Not only does it give you a clear picture of your business situation, but when used to full effect, the data informs your strategy in powerful ways. Here’s how it works.
First, gather a team representing key cross-functional areas such as: Sales, Marketing, Operations, IT, Product Development, HR, Manufacturing and Distribution, Channel Management, etc.
Next, make a list of opportunities and threats to your business and rank them in order of importance. Key areas to consider include:
- The economy – key sectors and indicators
- Industry trends – consolidation, outsourcing, etc.
- Technological innovations that impact products, markets, services
- Regulatory dependencies – government/legislative activities
- Competitive activities
Then list your strengths and weaknesses in critical areas of your business relative to your competitors and rank them in order of importance TO YOUR CUSTOMERS. Key areas to consider include:
- Operations/organizational structure
- Staff/talent pool
- Technology – business systems effectiveness
- Product innovativeness/value proposition
- Customer services
- Sales and distribution
- Sales and marketing channels
- Points of differentiation
Breathing life into the data
Now that you have gathered and ranked the information, you can add insights by asking some key questions. For example, looking at your external assessment of opportunities and threats ask the following:
Who are our key customers, competitors, suppliers and other stakeholders?
What are their driving concerns?
What opportunities or threats do these driving concerns pose?
What are our critical cross-functional processes?
For each process, what are our strengths and weaknesses?
Where do we need to improve or innovate?
Now you have a basis for setting business objectives and rationalizing your strategy. But what if something should change? Is all the work for naught?
The true value of writing a marketing plan
Even if your industry changes, your organization changes or market dynamics are disrupted, there is power in writing down your plans.
In the Old Testament story of Ezekiel building the temple, he writes a plan. He is instructed to make known to Israel the entire design of the temple and to “write it down in their sight so they may keep its whole design and all its ordinances, and perform them.”
Your plan says what you and your team will do and why.
But the true value of planning is not in the final plan. It is in the process of planning. Planning teaches. Marketing consultant and author Harry Beckwith sums it up nicely, “Writing a plan educates you in a way nothing else can.” The thinking, analysis and distillation of information helps you make smarter marketing decisions.
Even if the plan sits in your desk drawer.