26 June 2018

What Should A Marketing Plan Look Like?

Ged Leigh
Written by Ged Leigh

Ged Leigh is Regional Director for The Marketing Centre and specialises in working with small and mid-size businesses. He has over 30 years’ experience working in Private Equity backed and family owned SME companies including technical textiles, construction, engineering, recycling, waste management and paper.

In 1910, two teams of explorers - one from England, one from Norway - raced across Antarctica in the the ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition; a competition to become the first to set foot on the South Pole. The Norwegian team, who spent a year planning their journey by surveying the inhospitable landscape in detail, won by more than a month. Led by Captain Robert Scott, the British team instead focused on raising cash for expensive scientific equipment and a gamut of transportation methods. Scott - along with all four of his British teammates - not only lost the race, but died on the gruelling journey home.

In business, as in exploring, he who plans wins. And while poor marketing planning won’t end quite as dramatically as Scott’s expedition, it might signal the beginning of the end for your business’ growth. A good marketing plan should act as a navigation system for your business: assessing the conditions and setting the strategic direction while allowing for updates, diversions, speed limits and unforeseen roadblocks along the way. While delegating marketing planning and execution to experts, whether in-house or outsourced, makes good business sense, that doesn’t mean letting go of the wheel entirely. Business owners have a duty to understand the basic drivers of effective marketing planning to ensure optimum performance.

What should a marketing plan contain?

While the contents of marketing plans will vary, the fundamentals are much the same. Here are the key details to look out for in any planning document your Marketing Director provides:
  • The baseline - The starting point of any marketing plan is always the pre-journey check. It should begin with a thorough assessment of your business’ current competitive positioning, external and internal forces, and any other factors which have an impact on your offering and your customers.
  • The goals - Next, your destination. An effective marketing plan establishes clear objectives by asking “Where do we want to be?”
  • The strategy - These objectives should naturally feed into your strategy, by answering the question “So, how do we get there?”
  • The tactics - That’s your outline roadmap sorted - next should be the nitty gritty tactics: “How exactly will we get there?” The workability of any marketing plan is determined by the clarity of its actions - these should be directly linked to your goals, strategy, and tactics.
  • The measurements - Every every marketing plan should include prompts to measure and evaluate. “Did we get there?”, and “What could we do better next time?” Mechanisms for measurement and monitoring should be built into the plan from the beginning.

How does this work in practice? Let’s say that one of your objectives is to penetrate a new market segment. Your goal might be to increase lead generation in that area by 20%. The strategy to achieve that could be inbound  marketing, while the tactics used to get there might include a mixture content marketing, an optimised website, and a focus on email marketing campaigns.

Using the above tactics as an example, some of your actions might be to: create and maintain a blog schedule, ensure effective calls to action are present on all website sections, and commit to a weekly e-newsletter. Short term measures of success might include website visits, social shares, and email open/click metrics.

Long term, your results should directly tie into your starting strategy: in this case, a demonstrable increase in leads. If you’re looking for a simple yet powerful template, two frameworks spring to mind. Renowned for both its simplicity and its power, Peter Knight’s Highly Effective Marketing Plan (HEMP) offers a practical process for marketers and non-marketers alike. Similarly, the SOSTAC® planning model by PR Smith has been used by businesses to great effect since the 1990s.

What’s relevant: small businesses vs. large corporations

Big corporations may have multiple marketing plans covering different areas of the business - on a grand scale, Unilever’s newly-integrated marketing teams manage over 400 distinct brands globally. Likewise, a smaller but still multifaceted publishing conglomerate, for example, may also have distinct marketing strategies for libraries, professional societies, schools, trade customers, end-users and so on.

For small and medium sized businesses, a single plan is likely enough. You may need more if your business has two equal but entirely distinct audiences - if you sell your product both to the retail trade and directly to consumers, for instance - but whether this is the most effective use of your resources will likely be answered as part of your pre-plan internal assessment.

What’s relevant: B2B vs. B2C

The direction your marketing plan takes will vary considerably depending on not only the size of your business’ engine, but its make and model too. While the same basic marketing framework applies to any business, there are differences in output and techniques that separate a B2C marketing plan from a B2B one. For example, a B2C eCommerce business is likely to reach and engage its customers directly through a digitally focused and social heavy strategy.

B2B businesses on the other hand traditionally have a more circuitous purchasing process, requiring a highly-targeted approach to reach customers at each stage of their buyer journey. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach: marketing plans will vary depending on your business model, sales process, target market, and a million other variables.

How long does marketing planning take?

Any marketing plan should contain enough horizon gazing to understand your market, sufficient landmarks along the way, and clear directions to ensure it is both readable and workable by anyone in your business. To do so effectively takes time.

How much time? To an extent, that depends on how long your journey is. But if a marketing director tells you it will be ready within two days, be suspicious. Creating a powerful and practical marketing roadmap will almost certainly take weeks, possibly months. As with most areas of the business, marketing planning is an ongoing process of revisiting and refining. A rigid 12-month plan is all well and good, but as Brexit and GDPR (the new data protection guidelines) both prove, businesses need to be agile and flexible.

How much of your time will it take?

It’s sensible to think of cost in terms of time and effort. For smaller businesses, three to five days of a Marketing Director’s time is realistic: anything less may not elicit the depth of insight and breadth of activities required. For bigger, more complex businesses, it may be more like 12.


Time to plan: Be prepared to invest several hours into the marketing planning process.

Either way, business owners should be prepared to invest several hours of life into the process: taking the time to plan from the outset will prevent you from having to backpedal on ineffective strategies further down the line.

What does ‘good’ look like?

Workability - or drivability, if we’re going to see this metaphor through to the end - is far more important than perfection. Spend too long dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ‘t’ and by the time it’s finalised the marketplace may have changed, and you’ll be on the back foot. Once you are happy that your marketing plan reflects your business’ objectives, your customers’ desires and your ability to achieve, it’s time to hit the road. Marketing plans are never static, however, and the marketing team will check in with it every week for it to have real value.

What you don’t need to know

While appreciating the principles behind marketing planning is important, plans often contain terminology and information that doesn’t need to be understood by all parties. As the business owner, if your marketing director starts talking about any of these things, feel free to switch off.
  • Digital stuff - Don’t get hung up on real-time impressions, click-through-rates, or any other micro measurements that detract from the big picture.
  • Design decisions - Absolve yourself from having to weigh in on whether your email header should be pink, blue, or green (unless you feel strongly about it, of course.)
  • Execution - Once the plan has been agreed by all parties, hand the ‘doing’ over to your marketing director, safe in the knowledge the best course has been decided on.
  • Mountains of research - As the business owner, you already know your business inside out: your insight will have informed customer personas and market matrices.

Delegating understanding is always dangerous - all parties need to be able to navigate the road ahead with confidence. By understanding and appreciating marketing fundamentals, you will be able to commission better marketing to see your business reach its goals with ease. The Marketing Centre helps businesses shift gears through effective marketing. Find out how your business is performing with our Marketing 360 Healthcheck.

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