How to Build a Marketing Plan That Actually Works

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How to Build a Marketing Plan That Actually Works


The purpose of a marketing plan isn’t to create a step-by-step, never-fail manual. Rather, it’s a roadmap to help you accomplish the best-case scenario, while also maintaining realistic expectations for your marketing initiatives and establishing back-up plans if something doesn’t work.

Consumer trends shift, circumstances change, and initial experiments don’t always go as planned. Take it from Lucy Kelly, owner of bel monili, who says, “In 2020, everything went out the window and was turned on its head as far as traditional business and marketing practices. In-person markets and events were cancelled, shops were closed, and all communication (sales or otherwise) moved online.

“Having a strong social media presence and email marketing plan allowed me to pivot easily into a primarily online space, and having a Shopify website already set up and running made that transition smooth.”

Research shows that marketers who proactively write a marketing plan are 356% more likely to report success. So, what does a realistic ecommerce marketing plan look like? And how do you handle unexpected obstacles and overestimations that threaten your company’s marketing strategy? This guide shares the answers.

Overconfidence bias

People have a tendency to overestimate their own abilities. Scientists call this overconfidence bias. We see it in US drivers. Some 93% of them claim their driving skills to be above average—a figure that is statistically impossible.

If you’ve ever had a marketing plan that was a total flop, start by investigating why it happened. If there were no obvious errors or unforeseen challenges—such as COVID-19 closing down your stores—it may be because you overestimated the ROI of your marketing campaign.

Set conservative expectations

While it’s good to approach your marketing goals with confidence, high expectations often lead to disappointment when we fail to meet them. That disappointment is magnified in a marketing plan, as stakeholders or founders will have already bought into unrealistic predictions and business objectives.

Use historical data as a guide

Past performance can help you temper your expectations for your marketing plan. If you know your click-through rate for Facebook ads is 0.1%, don’t stray too far from that baseline with your social media marketing. The same goes for website content optimized for search: if you’re currently getting 10,000 visitors per month from Google, scaling your traffic up to a million is a tough battle. Instead, 50,000 visitors is a more sensible and achievable goal.

Going broad vs. deep

Tactical marketing hell is a real situation many ecommerce marketers find themselves in. It happens when you’re trying to generate results with all marketing tactics at once: running Facebook ads, tweeting like crazy, writing daily blog posts for SEO, and making constant changes to site and content strategy to improve your conversion rate.

If you’re very lucky, one of these tactics will bring you consistent traffic and sales. But more often than not, trying everything at once will make you extremely busy without anything to show for it. Instead, you’re left with a thought that’s lingering in the back of your mind: Is there something I haven’t tried that could turn things around?

Take it from Jameela Ghann, the owner of Alora: “When we first started Alora 10 years ago, our marketing plan was unrealistic. We were just a couple of people making plans that were good on paper but almost impossible to execute with a small team.”

Originally, Jameela’s team planned to invest in several marketing channels—online and offline advertising, PR, trade shows, influencer marketing, and blogging included. However, the team changed its marketing plan. They went deep on one channel instead of spreading resources too thin by trying to be everywhere at once.

“We stuck to one course of action that was where our customers were, and ready to buy, and easiest for us to see a good ROI,” Jameela says. “What really worked for us was focusing on a handful of channels that we knew we could do well.”

So, go back to your audience research and identify three channels your target audience uses most often. Put most of your energy into perfecting those before overcomplicating things with a more comprehensive marketing plan.

1. Name of the thing you’re launching
2. Date when it launches
3. Measurable goal (tied to revenue)
4. All the activities, deadlines, and who owns what (everything from internal comms to ads)

— Dave Gerhardt (@davegerhardt) October 25, 2020

Not enough flexibility

As we touched on earlier, the purpose of a marketing plan isn’t to create a never-fail manual. Whether your marketing team has fallen victim to completion bias or focused too heavily on one channel, sticking rigidly to your original plan can be a big mistake.

How to create a realistic marketing plan

We know that marketing plans fail for those three reasons. So, what does a realistic one look like? Here are the five core sections of a marketing plan, complete with tips on how to write each part in a way that sets your plan up for success.

1. Write an executive summary

An executive summary is the first page of a marketing plan, summarizing the strategy you’re about to present. Think of it like an elevator pitch condensing the top-line information from the plan, including:

  • Business details. Your company name and location.
  • Products or services offered. Include any special features, competitive advantages, or customer favorites that your marketing efforts will lean on.
  • Mission statement. What overarching goal are you trying to accomplish with the business? Why does it exist? Summarize it in one sentence, and you’ll have a mission statement to inform everything you do, which includes your marketing strategies. Yeti’s mission statement, for example, is “Build the cooler we’d use every day if it existed.”
  • Marketing goals. What are you trying to achieve with your marketing plan? Create both short- and long-term business goals that relate to financial metrics like revenue growth, retention, or new customers.
  • Budget and projections. If you plan to spend $40,000 on marketing over the coming year, how much revenue will you get in return? If you’re producing a marketing plan for a large or public company, this is what stakeholders really want to see.
  • Marketing team. Who is responsible for this marketing plan? Which team members are executing it? What experience do they have with marketing?

A woman sits on a blue couch typing on a laptop

While the executive summary is first on our list, it should actually be the last component you create in your entire marketing plan. That’s because the process of researching your marketing plan can give you valuable insights to use in your executive summary. You can also copy and condense some executive summary elements from your business plan.

2. Conduct market research

Be on the lookout for overconfidence bias rearing its head here. While data won’t give you a foolproof plan, every assumption is one more bit of uncertainty you’re folding into your marketing goals. If an amazing plan has a 40% chance of holding up to real-world scenarios, one without much rigor—and lots of assumptions—might hold up 10% of the time. Is that really worth planning for?

A woman looks at a wall of collected documents

Dive deep into the data you already have about your customer base in this section by investigating marketing analytics, social media audiences, and customer surveys. It reiterates who you’re trying to reach—and more importantly, the triggers that would make them buy your product over a competitor’s.

Consult your customer segments and buyer personas to get as much information as you can about the person buying your products, from demographic data (location, age, and income level) to the channels they use to discover new products.

Finally, run a SWOT analysis to uncover your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats relative to your competitors. Remind yourself of your unique selling proposition (USP). Tailor your marketing plan around key takeaways from these.

3. Build a marketing strategy

This section of your marketing plan defines the specific campaigns and tactics you’ll use to get the word out. We can break a marketing strategy down into four parts: channels, formats, messaging, and budget.


Channels are the platforms you’ll use as part of your marketing plan. Go back to your market research and uncover the online and offline channels your target audience is using to shop and get entertained or inspired.

Social media marketing. Social media is used by 53.6% of the population. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Pinterest are free to use (on the whole) and help brands reach their target audience. It’s why 70% of marketers plan to make social media marketing a larger component in their overall marketing mix.

Search engines. Almost half of online shoppers start their research on search engines. By making search engine optimization (SEO) part of your marketing plan, you can generate new business by reaching people when they’re actively looking for your products or services.

Google My Business

Google my business

What you are seeing here is one paid ad, followed by THREE Google My Business listings before we even see the normal organic search results. If you can rank your GMB listing in these top 3, you can pull in large numbers of highly qualified leads day in and day out without needing to spend a dime on ads.

Google My Business combines all your different Google platforms into one central place, which includes your Google+ profile, Google Maps profile, your Google reviews, access to data on Google Analytics and Google Insights, and more.

Google Plus Profiles

How to Build a Small Business Marketing Strategy?

There’s no secret sauce to developing a small business marketing strategy. However, the below strategies can help small businesses earn high ROI, and even get some valuable time back.

1. Search Engine Optimization

Beyond developing an impressive website, search engine optimization (SEO) is perhaps the most impactful marketing strategy for small businesses. SEO is the process of optimizing your website and content for search engines or end users to find your company easily.

Often, the higher you rank on Google, the more likely you’ll be able to drive traffic and consumers to your website. With over 35% of all traffic coming from local sources, customers searching for your services will be more likely to find your business in search engine results.

How to Build a Marketing Plan That Actually Works

The best advice we can give to any small business is to publish blog articles multiple times per week. Even if you don’t have the bandwidth to do it all right now, start small! Check out our guide to writing the perfect blog post and skip right on over the trial and error of blog posting.

Don’t expect to write a few words on an industry trend or two and expect your website to crash from too many visitors! Research SEO blog posting strategies and others that could help to build your credibility in search.

2. Pay-Per-Click Advertising

Pay-per-click (PPC) advertising allows small businesses to display ads when consumers search for certain keywords in a search engine. While it can lead to an expensive bidding war, local markets are often less competitive and the PPC model helps you keep a regulated budget.

You bid on certain keywords—like “local printing company” or “office supplies near me”—and create ads around those phrases. Advertising platforms will then use an algorithm to display your ads in the search engine result pages (SERP) based on factors such as keyword relevance and landing page quality. You pay every time someone clicks on your ad.

How to Build a Marketing Plan That Actually Works

For some, it works wonders. But this must be a thoughtful approach! Definitely don’t just “throw money at the problem.” Make sure your business roots are strong, like your strategy, website, and brand messaging. Then assess if PPC advertising could truly make a difference for you.

3. Email Marketing

With a projected 4.3 billion email users by the end of 2023, email marketing is an excellent way for you to reach your target audience. In fact, 81% of small businesses report that email is their primary lead generation and retention tool.

Email marketing is the only digital marketing tool that allows you to build a personalized relationship with customers and continue to nurture them well after their first purchase. You can send customers drip campaigns based on an action—like signing up for a consultation or completing a purchase—or send regular newsletters filled with company and product updates.

How to Build a Marketing Plan That Actually Works

4. Social Media Marketing

If you’re looking to reach a larger audience and engage with customers regularly, social media is a small business must-have. While it may not be the biggest driver of sales growth, it can help you reach awareness and branding goals.

How to Build a Marketing Plan That Actually Works

Your small business’s social media accounts could use their own smart strategy. Once you’ve figured out where your audience is lurking, build a realistic content plan and publishing schedule. Stay consistent for a few weeks and don’t be afraid to make small adjustments along the way.

5. Content Marketing

Content marketing is the act of developing and publishing high-quality content that is valuable to your target audience. It should speak to their challenges and needs while positioning your business as the solution through creative storytelling.

It’s important to note that content marketing is a long-term strategy. It will take significant time to build rapport with your customers and search engines. However, when done correctly, content marketing can position your business as an industry leader and build long-lasting relationships with your audience.

Your content should include a wide range of formats to highlight your industry expertise and learn what your audience prefers to consume. When getting started, consider the following content types:

How to Build a Marketing Plan That Actually Works

The quality of content you create is invaluable. Each business has a field of expertise, and you can capitalize on your valuable expertise by sharing your knowledge online. Customers then find your content when searching for information on the topic.

5 Questions Answered on Small Business Marketing Strategy

Figuring out a marketing strategy when you’re the owner of a small business can seen daunting. Once you have a foundation, we can start to dig a little deeper. Here are 5 important questions on marketing for small businesses, answered:

First, large companies believe that they can be known for something, but their egos get in the way when they only talk about themselves. Small companies are often better able to maintain the important focus on customers and become known as true thought leaders in their space. We help SMBs to craft customer-focused mission statements to guide their strategy.

Second, small companies have less technical infrastructure. We’ve seen them out maneuver their larger peers with better customer experiences on their website, more authentic and engaging content and more interaction on social media.

Third, smaller companies also tend to have more passionate employees who are willing to create engaging content, interact on social, and even drive referrals for customers and new recruits. SMBs should identify this strength early on and focus on employee and customer engagement as part of their marketing strategy.

Fourth, retention is the secret to a high ROI Marketing strategy. In larger companies, working closely with existing customers can become secondary to driving growth. SMBs face similar pressure for different reasons. But the math behind the growth engine is different for SMBs. They need growth with lower investment. Customer Retention programs are the best way to achieve high ROI with little investment.

Today’s customers and buyers are always searching online for information, education and solutions to their problems. The smart marketers are creating always-on programs to answer this need. That includes educational and non-promotional thought leadership, activating employees in content creation and social engagement, and then creating and testing the right paths to conversions.

Wildly successful marketing programs are always running. They are always testing the right content or message. They are always tweaking the audience filters and targeting parameters. They are always optimizing the visual elements of the program. And they are always testing conversion paths. Being always on is the key.

SMBs can sometimes be so desperate to deliver on the sales or lead goals, that we focus too much on the last stage of the buying process. Marketing programs should match the buying process as much as possible.

On average, for every 1 customer, there are 100 people in the early stages of the buying journey. These are people who know they have a problem but are not even sure what the solution is. Explain it to them and why it’s important (no product yet)!

We live in a digital world where it’s relatively easy to see what your customers need at each stage of their journey. We can simply use Google auto-fill or related searches to tell us what content to create. If I’m selling content marketing strategy services, I know that people want content marketing strategy tools, templates and examples because Google auto-fill or related searches told me that’s what most people are searching for.

Once you’ve created a list of topics, you can group them into categories and use Google Trends to tell you which categories of content and topics are more important for your customer journey relative to each other.

We can use other tools to tell us what questions we should be answering with our content at each stage of the buyer journey, and which channels are most important to our customers. For B2B businesses, LinkedIn might be the place to be. But if you’re in fashion, for example, you have to be on Instagram. Don’t leave these decisions up to your gut. We can quantify the impact of each of these approaches.

Finally, we need to measure our efforts. Are you showing up on the first page for the search terms your customers are using at each stage of the buyer journey? Identify the top 15-20 search terms your customers use across their journey and track your visibility or position relative to your competition. And remember that online, your competition might be an online publication or a mommy blogger.


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