5 steps to creating a five-year marketing plan

Features - Future Focus: Marketing

Be willing to have a plan, work the plan and change the plan.

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January 19, 2016

When tasked with providing a path to a five-year marketing strategy for this month’s issue, the classic interview question, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” immediately came to mind. Now, if you and I happen to be personally acquainted, then you may know I often throw many conventional rules out the window when it comes to things like hiring, business strategy and marketing. So, attempting to answer that particular question for other people has always made me feel a bit dishonest.

I can see myself retired and sitting on a beach in five years. But one can’t really say that to someone who may hire you; nor is that approach particularly suited to your business and marketing plans (unless you’re talking about succession planning, which you can read about in this month’s cover story). Both require evidence of a long-term commitment from you. So, you make something up that sounds like what they want to hear, and you may even believe at that moment.

Get real

We tend to do the same in business and marketing plans. We put things on paper that sound good, but may or may not be relevant or executable. While I do firmly believe that envisioning and defining one’s goals helps bring them into fruition, I also know that goals and circumstances change, sometimes quickly.

While planning is essential to good business and professional development, getting locked down in a set position for too long can be stifling; change is a powerful fuel for innovation and success. Getting overly attached to a long-term plan, realistic or unrealistic, can sometimes end up paralyzing you; both personally and professionally.

A more productive and honest question seems to be, “What actions are you going to take now to realize your current goals?” This same question can be applied to your company’s marketing strategy.

Best laid plans

Most of us have probably received “have a plan and work the plan” advice at some point in our careers. And yes, doing a thorough market analysis and committing to a marketing budget is very important for the success of your business.

However, you may find better success by adding in a third component to that old adage: Have a plan, work the plan and don’t be afraid to change the plan. It’s the fear of changing the plan that seems to get people hung up on outdated approaches, systems and tools.

The landscape of consumerism and marketing channels is changing so quickly these days that you need to be light on your feet and willing to quickly pivot. Smaller businesses have an advantage in the quick-pivot department. Creating a marketing plan that sets forth a realistic path for long-term success while still allowing room for change and innovation can better help you realize your vision.

While there are a number of ways to go about creating a marketing plan, or having one created for you, there are a few key components you’ll want to flesh out, both for longevity and ongoing flexibility.

1. Where are you now?

Before you know how you’re going to market your business in the future, you should get a good picture of where it stands now. Marketers typically refer to this as situation analysis.

Doing an effective situation analysis requires that you be brutally honest with yourself about the real benefits your products and services bring (or don’t bring) to the market and how they set you apart from your competitors.

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Having an understanding of your niche and how to communicate its value is key to gaining market share. Be sure to detail your company’s and market’s strengths, weaknesses and any opportunities that may exist.

If you’re working on goals, your situation analysis will change over time, and you’ll need to update it.

2. Who’s buying?

Expecting everyone to love what you do and sell is a nice expectation, but one that rarely manifests in real life. A niche business requires a well-vetted target customer. Narrow customer profiles down to very definite descriptions. What do your ideal customers do in their spare time? Where else do they shop? What’s their personality like? What do they value most? Price, value, quality or time? Creating detailed profiles will lead to better marketing decisions as well as better buying practices.

3. Goal getter

Once you have an idea of where you stand in the market and who you’re selling to, you’ll need to define your company’s marketing goals. Looking for a 5 percent increase in net profit next year? Want 50 percent growth in sales over the next five years? Writing down specific goals is a must for your strategy, but make sure the goals are realistic and measurable.

This is where you can get into trouble, or trapped, with goals that may not be achievable based on the time frame, your situation analysis and your target customer. Failure can lead to frustration, which can then turn into paralysis. Don’t tell yourself lies about your business goals, and don’t get overly attached to the plan you initially create. Make a date with yourself to revisit your marketing plan every six months to update your situation analysis and goals.

4. Take action

So now what are you going to This is where most good marketing intentions come to a screeching halt. Public relations, advertising, direct marketing, customer loyalty communications, digital content, social media and events will all be tactics you’ll use within your marketing strategy.

PR, strategic marketing partnerships and earned media will help to introduce, build and reinforce your brand in your target community. E-mail, social media and customer loyalty benefits will help you maintain and build relationships with existing customers and gain referrals. Events are a great way to both attract new customers and touch base with existing ones.

Knowing who your customers are and what they want is an essential step to developing a successful marketing strategy.
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When it comes to paid advertising, remember that it should be used to reinforce your existing brand and all of your other marketing efforts. Don’t expect a ton of new target customers to call you from a paid ad, or a dollar for dollar plus return on what you spend. Brand exposure and reinforcement is the goal. When dealing with slick salespeople, remember that you call the shots, not them. Don’t let them talk you into advertising contracts that don’t help you adequately defend your brand. Now’s the time to rely on your target customer profiles to help you make good media choices. Go where your customers go for their news, entertainment and associated services; make sure those venues also offer up content relevant to your services and customer interests.

For most businesses, there isn’t one silver bullet marketing tactic that will both grow and maintain sales. A targeted yet diversified mix of all of the above tends to be the most effective approach.

5. Pay it forward

One of the biggest gaps in marketing strategies within the industry is adequate budgeting for marketing expenditures; in terms of staffing, media buys and website development. Even if you tackle the previous steps listed above, if you don’t hire dedicated staff or a good agency to help you execute the marketing and keep up with digital content, your plans will most likely fall flat.

Marketing is real work that requires real attention from real professionals. Trying to parse out marketing duties to existing staff members who have other job descriptions is most often a recipe for disappointment.

Your plant buyer may seem “young and tech savvy,” but that doesn’t mean she should be managing your social media or writing marketing copy. Nor is there time for her to do so with her other duties. Budget dedicated marketing staff salaries or agency fees under your administrative overhead costs, in addition to your advertising operating expenses.

And what should those advertising operating expenses add up to? The exact percentage of your gross sales will vary by business, marketplace and experience. If you’re not sure where to start, many garden centers average about 5 percent of gross annual sales. But that percentage may need to be higher, for example, if you’re re-launching your brand or introducing new products and services. A new website build may need to be factored in as well as ongoing website maintenance.

Planning for the future and how you’ll market your garden center is essential. Just make sure to give yourself the freedom and flexibility to change course as you and your market changes.

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, digital content marketing, branding design, advertising and social media support for green industry companies. www.lesliehalleck.com