In my last post, "Don't stare, it's rude", I discussed how businesses often reach a two year itch. It may feel like your business is going nowhere fast because you're too busy to grow effectively. I felt this was true of our business and concluded the best thing to do was look at our marketing plan and clarify our business proposition. I thought we'd use ourselves as a bit of a case study. It all got a little confusing when half way into our marketing plan my brother and business partner gave me a birthday present. It was the book 'Rework' by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. There's a chapter called, 'Planning is guessing'.
I quote, "Unless you're a fortune teller, long term business planning is a fantasy. There are just too many market conditions that are out of your hands... Writing a plan makes you feel in control of things you can't actually control..." So there I am trying to be 'good'. I'm spending my already nonexistent free time on a plan and I read that. The Rework approach is to make quick short term decisions. Decide on a daily and weekly plan and certainly not anything past a monthly plan. Yearly plans are definitely OUT. The Rework authors conclude that chapter like this, "Working without a plan may seem scary. But blindly following a plan that has no relationship with reality is even scarier."
Right. Here's my take on plans based on my recent experience. I persevered and finished my marketing plan. The Business Link website and the CIM websites were very useful. In fact the CIM have a marketing plan tool which I used.
The pros of marketing plans
- It's a detailed look at a specific area of your business which you will otherwise never really do - it makes you think about your business in a way that you haven't for a long time.
- If you follow a guide the process makes you ask questions you never normally have time to answer or that you'd never think to ask yourself.
- It gives you a bird's eye view of where you're at and most importantly where you want your business to go.
- Action points come out of a plan that is done correctly - as a result of taking time out to do our marketing plan we have a list of things we need to action to help us achieve the goals we have set.
- The process helps you become more market aware because you have to consider things like your competitors and what your customers actually want.
- You have to express clearly your business purpose, your core values and why your offering is unique - an important aspect in my opinion.
- It helps you target the right prospects.
- Writing a marketing plan helps you to bring everything together so it all makes sense! If you understand all the pieces of the puzzle and put it together in a complete jigsaw then your potential buyers will understand the tangible, compelling and meaningful reasons why they should take action and buy from you. When every aspect of your marketing and communications just makes sense and tie together, you help your target audience trust you.
- As designers who help people create communications like websites, fliers and logos I recognised that if my customers came to me after they had gone through the marketing plan process they would be clearer about what they wanted from our services.
The cons of marketing plans
- Many of the guides available are more applicable for traditional business models and they haven't evolved as fast as businesses have had to.
- Today it's important to include social media in your marketing plans and many of the guides I found have not yet included this aspect - another reason why the marketing plan can be perceived as outdated.
- Most plans advise you to write things like your commitment and mission statement which are often convoluted untruths very disjointed from the actual customer experience you provide. This is especially true for for larger organisations. Use these in the wrong way and you'll do more harm than good.
- I found there was too much focus on competitors. I guess it is important to know about the opposition but felt that it took up a lot of time as it was so detailed. The good thing that came out of the competitor analysis was it gave us confidence - there is a lot of poor competition out there!
- I also found too much focus on things we cannot control. Like market conditions and the economy for example. Yes, we need to respond to changing conditions but we can't respond until conditions change and this is where I agree with the Rework argument I talked about above.
- All plans tend to end up gathering dust on a shelf, lost in a filing cabinet on sitting on your computer never to be referenced again. This is a major weakness.
- Many business owners (especially new ones) can hide behind perfection before they get their proposition out there. Plans can take up a lot of time and can stand in the way of you going out there and learning from experience and getting some business along the way. I wrote about this in, "A small business conundrum."
My conclusion I'm glad I took time out to do our marketing plan. It has brought clarity, we have goals with reason behind them and we have actions to complete. We are going to change quite a bit about our business and this planning process has taken random thoughts and conversations and crystallised everything. My marketing plan is 25 pages long as a result of following the CIM marketing plan guide. I really don't think it needs to be that long. In fact, since marketing plans do bring clarity and would help our clients we're going to champion a simpler approach to marketing plans (more on that later). I am going to have to battle against forgetting about our plan and reference it at least monthly to see how we are getting on.
I agree to some extent with both extreme views: 'don't plan and you plan to fail' from traditional marketers and business gurus and the Rework theory, 'planning is guessing' and put our approach firmly in the middle which I think, is much more balanced!