Developing a marketing plan

When hearing the word "marketing" many small business owners think of "advertising." Advertising is indeed one element of marketing. But it is not the first, nor the most important function of marketing. In fact, advertising should be one of the final steps in a complete marketing program.

As the owner of a small business you are responsible for defining the long-term vision of your business, as well as setting the goals and objectives to achieve that vision. It is very important to update your goals and objectives every year, or more often if necessary, to adjust to market and economic conditions.

Documenting them in a written business plan is one of the best ways for you to gain clarity. And, sharing the details of your business plan with your employees is a great way to communicate your goals and objectives, and to get all of your employees pulling in the same direction. Your business plan should also define the roles and responsibilities of every function within your company. The role of marketing in your business is to determine how you can best achieve your goals and objectives, and to develop strategies and

plans to make that happen.

Every business operates in a competitive marketplace, and today's economic environment raises the competitive bar, with every competitor striving to survive and prosper. Spending the time and energy to develop a strong marketing plan is essential, and having one will give you a competitive advantage. You must do the research to really understand your marketplace; don't just assume that you already know the answers!

Four key steps to developing a strong marketing strategy are:

* Clearly define your market and know the "market position" of your company and your products.

* Determine what is most important to the customers in your marketplace, and how they value each element.

* Identify your company and product or service strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of your competitors. Then identify ways to improve and differentiate yourself from your competition.

* Develop strategies to achieve your desired market position, win targeted customers and reach your company goals and objectives.

Completing these steps requires planning and persistence, but the tasks can be simplified with the right approach. The most important element of a successful marketing plan is to conduct real market research by getting the opinion of key customers and market influencers such as industry experts, trade group leaders, distributors, and writers and editors. You should also get input from your employees who regularly deal with your customers and influencers.

Clearly defining your market and the segments of the market that you want to address is the most important first step. If you are too broad (for example: a beauty salon defining its market as "all women with hair"), you will fail because it is difficult to clearly define the benefits a customer will gain by bringing their business to you. If you are too narrow (for example: a beauty salon defining its market as "all women with RED hair") you may win a large market share but the market it probably too small for you to be profitable.

Once you have defined the specific market segments that your business will focus on, identify several key influencers and customers in each market segment. Determine what you need to learn from each of these people to develop a strong marketing plan, and then develop a set of questions for each of them. The next step is simply to ask them the questions in the most effective way that will elicit an honest response. Then analyze their answers to develop your marketing strategies.

If you do not have a marketing department, recruit the most qualified person (or people) in your company to develop your marketing strategies and plan. When you have completed your marketing plan, you will have clearly defined your company's strengths and weaknesses, your current competitive position and your best opportunities for profitability. You will also have defined a clear message that you want to send to your customers about your company and your products that will bring them to you. And you will also know the best way send that message to reach your target audiences. Only after this are you are ready to launch an advertising campaign!

Gary Smith is a SCORE counselor in Reno with over 20 years of marketing and sales experience. He is a former senior vice president for Credence Systems Corporation. He will conduct the marketing session at the "Business Survival Workshop" at the UNR Extended Studies center on May 30.


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