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Does Your Business Have a Marketing Plan?

What you need to know if you're beginning — or maintaining — a small business

Female shop owner places an open sign on a window in her business

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En español | Creating a marketing plan for your business can help ensure that you're maximizing each marketing dollar you spend and that your marketing message is getting across to your target customers. So how do you get started?

Think of your marketing plan as a kind of business plan for your marketing. If you're launching a start-up, a marketing plan should be a part of your overall business plan. If you're beyond the start-up stage, you still need a marketing plan to set a strategy for your efforts throughout the year.

Here are the essential elements of a marketing plan:

The marketing message you want to convey. What image of your business are you trying to get across in your efforts? In other words, what's your business "brand"? Think about your product or service's features and benefits. What makes your company unique and better than the rest? Craft a marketing message that sums up that point of differentiation in one sentence. Then keep that message in mind when developing all of your marketing materials and strategies.

Your target customers. Information you need to know about your target audience includes how big the target market is, its demographics and its buying habits. How much money do your target customers spend on products or services like yours? Include the media your potential customers use. Knowing which magazines, newspapers, websites, social media sites and other media outlets your target market uses will help you determine where to most effectively market your business.

Specific marketing methods. Once you know where your target customers are and have an idea how to reach them, your marketing plan should specify which methods you will use. For example, you might want to use:

  • Your website
  • Online advertising
  • Email newsletters
  • Social media such as Twitter or LinkedIn
  • Public relations
  • Direct mail such as postcards or letters
  • Advertising (print, radio, cable, out-of-home)
  • Marketing materials (business cards, flyers or brochures)

When, where and how much. Break your methods down further to detail where you will use each marketing method (that is, the specific website/newspaper/media outlet you will use), how frequently you will use it (monthly, weekly, daily during a certain time period) and how much that will cost (both per instance and in total). Be sure you consider one-time costs, such as developing a business website or getting business cards printed, in addition to the ongoing costs of placing ads.

Goals for your marketing. It's critical to measure the results of your marketing methods so you know what's working and what isn't. However, in order to measure results, you need to know what results you want. For instance, if you're placing a Facebook ad, your goal might be to get 100 new "likes" in one month. If you're running an ad in your email newsletter, your goal might be to get 5 percent of the readers to click through and 2 percent of those to actually purchase.

Create goals that you think are reasonable based on past experience, information about your industry and norms for the specific marketing tool you're using. Track your results and make changes to your marketing plan accordingly. If you see that one method is generating more actual sales than others, focus on the method that's getting results and put more of your marketing budget there.

A marketing plan is traditionally created for a 12-month period so you can forecast your marketing costs for the year and plan in advance how you will market during peak seasons, such as the holidays. But be sure to review your plan quarterly to ascertain if you're heading in the right direction.

Finally, get your team involved in creating the plan and reviewing the results. Working together will give everyone a sense of ownership in the sales process, which always leads to better results.

AARP Town Hall

  • Join us for an interactive event on marketing your small business at 7 p.m. ET on Nov. 28