Maintaining your marketing
Involve your customers as you review your plans
Having an effective marketing plan is invaluable to all businesses. It sets out who your competitors are, assesses your business and its products or services, defines existing customers and identifies those you would like to attract. It also shows the means by which you sell, of course. To stay ahead of the competition, it's essential to review your plan regularly, as Vicki Taylor finds out.
A marketing plan doesn't have to be long to be effective. As a general guide, ten pages should be enough for most small businesses. It should set out who your customers are, what their tastes are and what their opinions are of your company and its products and services. It should also be a forward-looking document identifying potential customers and what your business intends to do to attract them.
'When a business starts up, it identifies a market that needs what it is offering,' says Dr Paul Fifield, president of the Chartered Institute of Marketing's South-East region and owner-manager of marketing consultancy the Fifield Practice.
'Over a period of time, the value that a customer sees in a product or service migrates - what customers wanted in 2003 was different to what they wanted in 2000. If a business doesn't want to be a one-shot wonder, it needs to look over the wall and ask whether things have stayed the same or moved on.'
Of course, the key is learning to do this in advance, so you are always at the forefront when your customers' needs change. Better still, you want to be the company giving your customers things they didn't yet know they wanted.
How often you revise your plan depends on the nature of your business. According to Fifield there are some very fast-moving markets that need to be kept on top of more than others, such as fashion or children's products. 'In general, the more competition you have, the more likely value is to migrate and happen sooner,' he explains.
It is unwise to write or update your marketing plan without talking to your customers first. Without finding out what they actually want you are doing nothing better than making an educated guess.
'The first thing to do is make your sales people realise they are a two-way communication channel. It is part of their job to bring back information on changing customer needs,' Fifield advises.
However, it shouldn't just be your sales team that is out there mixing with the people who generate your revenue, everyone can get involved.
�Get all the people out there who think they are too important to mix with customers.�
'Get all the people out there who think they are too important to mix with customers,' Fifield says. 'Then if there is still information the business is finding difficult to gather, it is worth considering bringing in professional help.'
Quantitative research, such as questionnaires, can be distributed easily to existing customers and people on the street (where appropriate) by staff members. You might need to pay for qualitative information, which includes things like organising focus groups.
'A typical fee for arranging a focus group would tend to be around �2,000-3,000 a session,' said Fifield. 'This would include sourcing the subjects, facilitating the session and writing up a detailed report afterwards.'
Typically a business might need three or four sessions, however, Fifield urges firms to see it as an investment rather than a cost.
'Many small- and medium-sized firms think marketing strategies and the research they require are too time-consuming and costly, but nothing is actually more important than tomorrow's revenue stream,' he concludes.