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10 must-haves for your marketing plan

AS the list of ways to promote your business grows, working out the most effective way to spruik your business can be half the battle. That's why it's vital that small-and medium-sized businesses put a solid marketing strategy in place and make sure they don't deviate from the plan.

Here are 10 things your marketing plan must do.

1. Define your customer base

It sounds easy, but so few companies actually include a detailed synopsis of their target market in their marketing plan, rendering them powerless to make the most of potential sales.

Your customer base can change dramatically from one year to the next and if you're not watching carefully, sales can drop as a result. Even in the last few years, customer behaviour has changed dramatically thanks to the growth in the number of people using the internet to research and compare prices before hitting the shops. Consumers are also sharing brand experiences via social networking sites and could well be naming your business personally; and not all comments are necessarily positive.

Jetty van Kooij, Sydney based marketing consultant, says first and foremost a business should get back to basics and define its ideal customer.

"As a start, a business should consider what its unique selling proposition or so-called point of difference is, and always be sure to talk about your business's benefits rather than its features."

2. Don't look at marketing channels in isolation

It's so old-hat to list your expected expenditure on television, print and digital for the year ahead in your marketing plan. These days, smart marketers know that all these mediums have a significant influence on each other and should be considered collectively.

Jen Storey, founder of Brisbane-based strategy, marketing and communications firm Outside Insights says many companies still treat online marketing separately to more traditional mediums like print and radio, when in reality the two must be integrated.

"I'm often called on to do the online marketing plan, and my action is always to review the traditional marketing plan and explain how and why advertising mediums can't be thought of as separate entities."

"A fragmented plan will provide fragmented results, and yet this is still how many marketing plans are developed."

3. Try something new

All businesses need to push the boundaries from time to time, and marketing is an area of your business in which you should look to extend yourself. If you're still using the same advertising mediums that you were using two years ago, then it's time to try something new. Consider dabbling in email marketing, or maybe PR might suit you better. Either way, make a decision and detail it in your marketing plan.

For a small business, a marketing plan might only be a few pages long, but larger businesses often require a plan that details exactly where their marketing dollars will be spent and how.

The plan needs to be revisited monthly – or, at the very least, quarterly, according to Cecelia Haddad, director of Sydney marketing and PR firm, Marketing Elements.

"Businesses need to realise that marketing isn't an expense, it's a legitimate business building activity," Haddad says.

4. Make a real social media push

Social media engagement also deserves a mention in your marketing plan given Australians are now among the world's most active social networkers.

Mark Allison of customer intelligence company Webtrends says social media outlets give businesses the ability to engage directly with consumers, creating a database of potential customers to market to.

Social media can also provide businesses with valuable, cost-free insights when you're bringing a new product or service to market.

"It's free to set up a fan page on Facebook or a Twitter profile to engage with customers and if you launch something new into the market, engage with your community and see what they think of it," Allison says.

5. Improve your marketing measures

Depending on how much money you're willing to dedicate to measuring your return on investment, there are a range of measurement tools available to businesses which can give you real insight into whether your marketing dollars are being spent wisely.

And with the growth in the number of measurement tools in the market, half the battle is wading your way through the tools on offer and finding one that best suits your needs.

So what tools are available to a business wanting to measure how effective its online marketing activity has been? Many in business agree that one of the first ports of call should be Google, which offers a range of products to help measure online return on investment without charging a cent.

Kate Conroy, ad words strategist at Google says Google Insights is publicly available for free and enables small businesses to plan its marketing activity during seasonal events such as Christmas or Easter.

"This service can tell a business when is the optimum time to spend their marketing budget, which can help you plan your expenditure well in advance," Conroy says.

6. Utilise email marketing

Email marketing continues to be a favourite marketing medium for companies given it's one of the cheapest and most measurable forms of self-promotion around. But there are some hard and fast rules that businesses should stick to when it comes to email marketing.

The experts say you should make sure that each campaign focuses on a single message that's delivered succinctly, manage your database carefully and always include an unsubscribe link.

Megan Hales, head of digital and senior planner of Sydney advertising agency The Campaign Palace says email is a hot topic because it's finally reached maturity as a digital marketing medium. And a growing number of businesses have grown their email databases to a size that enables them to reach the masses with the click of a mouse.

"Email marketing has come of age, and is becoming one of the more preferred methods of contact for consumers engaging with businesses," Hales says.

7. Include expected results in your plan

Your marketing plan shouldn't simply list the promotions you intend on doing for the coming year, but also include expected results, otherwise known as Return on Investment.

Kylie Watson, marketing communications lecturer at the University of Canberra, says the key to any successful marketing plan is to know your average dollar sale and to work out whether any of the integrated tools you use are achieving a dollar return.

Whether a business utilises personal selling, PR, advertising, sales promotions or other forms of marketing, knowing your Return on Investment is key, she says.

"For example, if you place an ad for $450, you need to know how many products you have to sell to get the money back and then to make a profit."

"Branding is fine for the big guys, but SMEs need to be sure they're making a direct return on their marketing spend."

8. At least do the free stuff

There are things you can do to market your business that doesn't cost a cent, so make sure you consider including marketing approaches that are free in your marketing plan.

For example, gain some momentum by engaging the local media by distributing press releases and newsletters about your business.

Carolyn Loton, director of Sydney's Juntos Marketing says a business should think about how it can start, develop and maintain meaningful relationships with people within its target market, with social networking another free option.

"If you're unfamiliar with social media or online marketing tools, the best approach is to get onto the internet and actually try them. Just make sure you start small and build your presence as you feel more comfortable."

9. Be the brand

Smart companies are putting themselves front and centre of their branding, often with great results.

At the big end of town, Gerry Harvey from Harvey Norman or Richard Branson from Virgin have both fronted their brands with outstanding results, but this can also work for smaller operators.

One way to do this is to use your name in your business name or logo, which Nick Bowditch, founder of social engagement agency The Bowditch Group has done. His marketing plan includes points on how he can stretch his personal 'brand' into his business brand and vice versa.

"Using your own name as your company name certainly helps people find you via a Google search."

He also makes sure every photo he uses on his social networking sites is the same, making him easily identifiable.

"Some people don't think a business owner should appear in their own ad as it can look like you're a backyard operation, but I disagree. I believe it can give that personal touch. If you try and be a faceless entity as a business then I think you're really missing out."

10. Never forget SEO

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) strategies straddle the marketing plan and the IT plan and should be considered crucial to both parts of the business.

SEO simply means using key words and search phrases to get your website to rank highly in search engines.

Not surprisingly, this means that more than ever, content is king, with experts continually urging SMEs to adopt quality content on their website.

Mark Baartse, consulting director for Sydney marketing company First Rate, says the search engine's ultimate goal is to show the most relevant result for each search phrase.

"If you can't honestly say your site is relevant and useful to consumers, then you're fighting an uphill battle," he says.

"But if you have a genuinely useful, high quality site which users find valuable, then you'll rank well, although it might take awhile. Blogging on your site is one good way to achieve this."

Also consider offsite optimisation, which refers to who is linked to your site. Baartse says most major search engines see someone linking to you as a vote of confidence, therefore ranking you higher in a search.

"However, if you have a really good quality site, you'll tend to attract a lot of links naturally."