How to Build a Marketing Plan That Actually Works
by Elise Dopson Marketing Nov 3, 2021 19 minute read Leave a comment Email Pinterest Facebook Twitter LinkedIn
A marketing plan is the strategy a business uses to get its products or services in front of its target customer.
But no matter how much you stick to your plan, things go wrong. As the famous quote by US President Dwight D. Eisenhower goes, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
The purpose of a marketing plan isn’t to create a step-by-step, never-fail manual. It’s to have a roadmap to help you accomplish the best-case scenario, while also being realistic with your expectations and having 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 plan projects 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 game plan? This guide shares the answers.
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Why marketing plans often fail—and what to do about it How to create a realistic marketing planMarketing plan templates to help you get started
Why marketing plans fail—and what to do about it
You can have the best intentions in executing a new marketing plan. But as we briefly touched on, platform algorithms change, plans go south, and global pandemics throw even the most watertight plans into chaos.
Let’s take a look at the most common reasons why marketing plans fail—and what you can do about it.
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.
The same thing happens to marketers. We tend to overestimate what we can do, resulting in marketing plans that are unattainable and unrealistic.
Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in 10 years.
If you’ve ever run a marketing campaign that was a total flop, investigate why it happened. If there were no disastrous errors—such as COVID-19 closing down your stores—it may be because you overestimated the ROI of the campaign.
While it’s unlikely that we can solve overconfidence bias completely, there are steps we can take to make sure our marketing plans aren’t set-up for failure because of it.
The first: Be conservative with your expectations. It’s good to be confident, but high expectations often cause disappointment when they are met. That disappointment is magnified in a marketing plan; stakeholders or founders will have already bought into unrealistic predictions.
Model your forecasts around any historical data. If you know your click-through rate for Facebook ads is 0.1%, for example, don’t stray too far from that baseline with your Facebook marketing plan. The same goes for website content optimized for search: if you’re currently getting 10,000 visitors per month from Google, scaling that up to one million is a tough battle. The 50,000 visitor mark 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 whatever you can get your hands on: running Facebook ads, tweeting like crazy, writing daily blog posts to get your SEO going, and making constant changes on your site to improve your conversion rate.
If you’re very lucky, one of those 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.”
The Pareto principle means 80% of your results come from 20% of your actions. Applied to marketing, most businesses find most of their existing customers come from a handful of core channels.
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 by adding more channels into the mix.
A marketing plan could literally just be:
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
Leaving no room for flexibility
As we touched on earlier, the purpose of a marketing plan isn’t to create a never-fail manual. Whether you’ve fallen victim to completion bias or focused too heavily on one channel, a major mistake is leaving no room for flexibility.
As Jeff Moriarty, marketing manager at Moriarty’s Gem Art, says: “When we first launched our Shopify ecommerce site, we planned on focusing it on local customers only. They could shop online, we’d ship it to them, or they could pick it up in our store.
“We started getting more sales from around the country, then around the world, so we changed our entire focus outside of the local area. This is not something we expected! Now about 50% of our annual sales come from outside of our city.”
Since COVID, we pivoted slightly and started doing monthly online shows to sell our items for those not wanting to visit our store, but still wanting more information than just what is shown on a product page. This is implemented through YouTube. Each show gets close to 2,000 viewers and sells over $20,000 for us, so it is something we have decided to keep going through 2022.
Even if a global pandemic isn’t throwing your marketing plan into pandemonium, you likely have seasonal patterns in your business. For Imine Martinez, Rainbowly’s assistant manager, “Our regular campaigns targeting mainly birthday celebrations and anniversaries offered poor return on ad spend and inconsistent results over the months.
“That said, during festive seasons, such as Christmas or New Year’s, our targeted campaigns were particularly profitable, achieving five times return on ad spend with much cheaper cost per click and impression.”
Continuing with the same marketing plan despite collecting this data mid-way through would only result in heartbreak. Rainbowly would be pouring money down the drain on ads that don’t perform just because its marketing plan said to do so.
It’s why Imine says the brand has “paused all our campaigns and are making plans only to launch ads during festive season, advertising on our special time-limited products release. We have also started looking at editorial features and various sales distribution channels as affiliate partners to bring in more reliable traction.”
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.
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 being marketed. Include any special features, competitive advantages, or customer product favorites that your marketing messages 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. 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 this 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?
Write the executive summary last once you know what the marketing plan contains. You can copy and condense some elements from your business plan.
One mistake marketers make when creating a marketing plan? Going overboard with assumptions. The end result is a marketing plan that doesn’t result in revenue.
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 in. 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?
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 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.
Be careful not to confuse this with your target audience. Children would be the target audience of a toy brand; parents are the buyer persona.
Run a SWOT analysis to uncover your competitor’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Remind yourself of the business’ or product’s unique selling proposition (USP). Tailor your marketing plan around each.
It was a total pain to start collecting and understanding and using it, but now, no marketing plan starts without it.
Find a collection platform. Incentivize the F out of user surveys. Repeat.
— Grace Clarke (@graceclarke) September 15, 2021
This section of your marketing plan defines the tactics you’ll use to get the word out. We can break a marketing strategy down into three parts: channels, formats, and messaging.
Channels are the platforms you’ll use as part of your marketing plan. Go back to your target market research and uncover the online and offline channels they use to get entertained, inspired, or shop.
Some of the most popular channels for ecommerce businesses include:
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 increase how big a part social media plays in their marketing plan. Search engines. Almost half of online shoppers start their research on search engines. By optimizing your website for SEO, you could reach people when they’re actively looking for your products or services. Email marketing and SMS. An email or text message inbox are two of the most sacred places for a marketer to reach. A phone number or email address gives you a direct line of communication with your target market if they opt in to hear from you. Podcasts. Reach the six in 10 Americans who listen to podcasts by recording conversations you have with your team, customers, or experts in the industry. Offline channels. Get in front of people when they’re not using the internet with offline channels like word-of-mouth recommendations, radio, billboard, or TV campaigns.
As part of your marketing plan, state whether you intend to use each channel organically or boost it with advertising. Most channels allow businesses to run sponsored content, which is guaranteed to reach your target market across online and offline channels like social media, TV, billboards, radio and more.
There’s a sweet spot with how many channels your marketing plan should include. Go too wide and you burn resources on channels retrieving poor returns. But become too reliant on one channel and you’re at risk.
Algorithms power most digital marketing channels. They’re praised as the type of technology that delivers personalized experiences for their users, but any changes to an algorithm can make marketing plans utterly useless overnight.
Take Facebook, for example. A decade ago, brands invested heavily into growing an audience on Facebook. Marketers were almost guaranteed to reach a brand’s followers whenever they posted new content to a business’ page. But Facebook changed its algorithm to force more brands into paying for advertising. As a result, marketers can expect to reach just 5.2% of the potential customer base a business has built for its page.
If you rely on SEO, then any algorithm updates could potentially cut your revenue for months before you recover. If you rely on paid ads, then any changes to privacy policies can cut your revenue. If you rely on email marketing, then any ESP policy changes can cut your revenue. Diversifying your acquisition is crucial in a fast-paced digital marketing world.
Footwear brand Hippy Feet was one ecommerce brand that failed to diversify channels. “The original marketing plan was to drive traffic to our Shopify store through ads—relying heavily on paid Facebook and Instagram traffic,” says Sam Harper, Hippy Feet’s co-founder and CEO. “While this is still a major component of our marketing strategy, the decreasing effectiveness of these ads has forced us to expand our marketing efforts.
“A diverse media strategy is crucial to helping an ecommerce business survive in this highly dynamic market. By driving traffic through SEO, email, and media coverage, we’re more resilient and less impacted by a single tech platform changing their algorithm in a way that may be harmful to us.”
So why is your marketing plan staying the same?
— Shama Hyder (@Shama) January 11, 2021
For each channel, define which content formats you’ll use to capture attention and drive website traffic. That could include:
Audio. Reach podcast and radio listeners with audio content. Images. Capture visual learners on visually dominant social media sites with infographics, GIFs, and memes.Video. Get listed on YouTube, the world’s second largest search engine, with explainer videos and product demonstrations. Many social media platforms—Instagram and TikTok included—are also evolving to prioritize video content. Written content. Most search engine results retrieve links to optimized written content, such as blogs, transcripts, or landing pages.
Content marketing is a beast that constantly needs to be fed. Customers want newer, fresher, more exciting content on a regular basis. That’s demanding for a small business to keep up with.
Consider a strategy to collect user-generated content from existing customers. The more they share their experiences with others, the more content you have to repurpose on each channel. It’s a route to scale content creation if your internal resources are limited.
Don’t have time to invest into promoting the content you create? Partner with popular influencers in your niche—those whose loyal audience overlaps with your target market. Have them distribute content for you. Not only will you tap into their loyal fanbase, but an endorsement from someone an ideal customer trusts goes a long way in building brand awareness and credibility.
Regardless of the channels and formats included in your marketing plan, you need to be consistent across each. Mixed messages on what you sell and what the brand stands for will only confuse potential customers.
A simple way to refine your messaging is to become more something than anyone else. Costco, for example, is cheaper than its competitors. Harper Wilde’s products are comfier than any other bra retailer. Lorem Dripsum is punnier than other coffee brands. Find the marketing channels each retailer uses and you’ll see all messaging is centered around its adjective.
If you’re unsure what this adjective should be, consult your customers. Research is the biggest part of any copywriting process. Survey people who’ve already bought from you, run an Instagram poll to discover why people follow your brand, and go back to your SWOT analysis to see where your competitors’ weaknesses lie. Look for adjectives that crop up frequently during the process.
You could have the best mattress in the world—one made with 100 springs and cotton stitching, vigorously tested by sleep experts. But you’d struggle to market it if you lean too heavily on product features. A customer cares more about getting a peaceful night’s sleep than the nitty-gritty product specifications.
“Every great marketing plan needs one thing first: a product that is 10 times better than the next,” says Nick Saltarelli, co-founder of Mid-Day Squares. “Once you have that, marketing is about deep human connections.”
Reality TV shows like Shark Tank and Keeping Up with the Kardashians have skyrocketed in popularity. Because of this, Nick says “it felt obvious that there was a sweet spot somewhere in between: people who wanted to follow along, and a true behind-the-scenes look into building a massive chocolate business from the ground up.”
As a result, Mid-Day Squares’ marketing plan focuses less on promoting its products. It now “focuses on getting people to fall in love with us, the founders, to scale the human connection,” Nick says. “We use all the social channels available to shoot and put out mini-episodes of reality-TV-like entertainment on a daily basis of all the hurdles, success, and evolutions we go through as a company. We focus less on the product and more on telling compelling stories of how we’re building Mid-Day Squares.”
A marketing budget is the dollar amount you expect to spend executing the marketing plan. If you’re bootstrapped, you can run a marketing plan on a tight budget.
“I apply for any competitions, press opportunities, and awards to get my small business out there at any given opportunity,” says Terri-Anne Turton, founder of The Tur-Shirt Company.
It’s a strategy that worked: the Tur-Shirt company has won a Junior Design Award for best fashion newcomer and a shoutout from media entrepreneur Steven Bartlett after entering his #DeserveToBeFound competition with Facebook.
“I focus on those my target market knows of to build credibility,” says Terri-Anne. “Plus, most of the awards I enter are free or low-cost; they just need some time investment and creativity to take part. It proves my USP to my target market—that my kids’ clothing products are unique—without investing thousands into advertising.”
While you can run a strategy on little-to-no budget, this section of your marketing plan needs to account for more than any planned advertising spend. Time is a resource that needs to be managed and accounted for. Detail how much time you plan to spend executing the marketing strategy.
Goals and measurement
Speaking of investment, the final stage of your marketing plan is a breakdown of how you’ll measure success. Most often, we measure this using return on investment (ROI)—the revenue you expect to generate after spending your marketing budget.
It’s every marketer’s dream to get $100,000 in sales from a $1,000 marketing spend. While that isn’t the most realistic expectation, knowing your target ROI will prevent overspending. If your ROI is hurling beyond your prediction, you can better allocate that budget to be spent elsewhere.
But there’s more to marketing measurement than dollar returns. Revenue isn’t always the end goal. Brand awareness, website traffic, and social media followers are short-term marketing objectives that aim to get new people into your marketing funnel. Nail them early on and you set your business up for success later down the road.
Let’s take a look at some other key performance indicators (KPIs) to consider in your marketing plan based on the funnel stage you’re targeting.
Top of the funnel
People at the top of your marketing funnel don’t understand who you are or what you sell. Social media, podcasts, and video content play huge roles here. Each channel is used by potential customers looking to learn or be inspired.
For this stage, rely on metrics that give insight into how people are engaging with your top-funnel content, such as:
Page viewsVideo viewsWebsite clicksClick-through rate (CTR)Cost per click (CPC)
Middle of the funnel
People reach the middle of the funnel when they know they have a problem that needs to be solved. Look at the channels and formats you’re using to target these people. Most often, it’s search engines and retargeted ads.
Google Analytics is your best bet here. While the dashboard can feel overwhelming for a lot of people, you don’t need to look at every report in there. Use the following metrics to see how people engage with your middle-funnel content:
Bounce ratePages per session Users by traffic sourceEmail subscriber conversion rate
To track the data above, especially for advertising campaigns, make some extra tweaks:
Enable ecommerce trackingAdd the Facebook pixel to all pages of your storeAdd UTM tracking to all URLs
Bottom of the funnel
Going for the hard sell? For any marketing messages where the only goal is to convert your audience into paying customers, consult the back end of your ecommerce store. It’s home to sales and product-related data that helps you understand whether your marketing plan is successful, such as:
Number of ordersAverage order valueSales conversion rateAdded to cart conversion rateReached checkout conversion rate
Planning to build a steady stream of paying customers off the back of your ecommerce marketing plan? It’s easy to assume that revenue growth comes from audience growth. But oftentimes, the easiest way to grow your revenue is by focusing on the people we forget about: existing customers.
Resist the temptation to focus on flashy metrics like social media followers and YouTube subscribers. Instead, involve existing customers in your marketing plan. Use them as a source of testimonials and word-of-mouth referrals.
“We’ve been asking for more reviews from satisfied customers,” says Chris Campbell, partner at The Charming Bench Company. “We’ve managed to get them to be more vocal about their experiences, rather than focusing on promotional content or paid advertising as our top investment priorities.”
According to Chris, “Happy customers have been powerful word-of-mouth catalysts for our brand, and it has made sense to keep them engaged. We’ve been getting a steady stream of five-star ratings on websites and social media, which we then share on our Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram profiles. It’s a great alternative to pushing loud sales messages that don’t always work.”
Marketing plan templates to help you get started
Creating your own marketing plan is no small job. You’ll put hours into customer and competitor research to find the channels likely to have the biggest impact on your marketing goals. One place you can save time, though, is with a template.
Ditch the intimidating blank screen by building a marketing plan inside one of these premade templates.
Marketing plan template by G2Marketing plan template by Monday.comMarketing plan template by Evernote
Regardless of which one you use, remember that not all ecommerce businesses need a lengthy and complex marketing plan. The founder of a lifestyle business won’t need an executive summary on the team involved in turning the plan into action. Similarly, a publicly traded company would need to expand the goals and measurement section to get stakeholders’ buy-in. Tweak each marketing plan template based on the sections you do or don’t need.
Canva also has a range of marketing presentation templates you can use to summarize the main takeaways from your marketing plan. It beats lengthy Word documents when communicating the top-line actions from your marketing plan with other departments.
Learn More: 7 Inspiring Marketing Plan Examples (and How You Can Implement Them)
Marketing is hard. Creating a pretty plan is the easy part
A lot of hard work goes into a successful marketing plan. To create an attainable one, you’ll need to spend hours diving into competitive research, audience data, and channels your target market consults when researching new products.
Keep an eye out for the six mistakes we’ve mentioned, from overconfidence bias to little wiggle room to pivot. That way, you’ll create a marketing plan with the best shot at success—not one that ends up in your desktop trash can two months later.
Most importantly, know that marketing is unpredictable. There are thousands of scenarios that fundamentally change the marketing strategy that’s best for your business. Global pandemics, PR crisis, and the emergence of new social media platforms are unpredictable.
Treat your marketing plan like the best-case scenario. Plan realistic goals and strategies, but don’t expect to follow it to a T.