Updated: Aug 3, 2021
For many small business owners, marketing usually happens in 1 of 2 ways:
Ad-hoc: initiate marketing when inspiration or desperation strikes
Not at all: no intentional marketing activity
Of course, this is a generalization. Most businesses aren’t quite so extreme. But when I talk about marketing habits with small business owners, it boils down to some version of these two themes.
In the first case, there is an impetus that gets the business owner to take action. They’ve had a slow week or a conversation with a business acquaintance who tells them about some new tactic that seems interesting.
In the second case, there’s almost always an intent to get something out there, but the owner is simply too busy with all the other work of running a small business. There are the rare cases where a business is booming and just doesn’t seem to need any marketing, but that’s a topic for another day.
Be completely honest for a moment and think about which case better describes your approach to marketing. Or is it a combination of both? Since you’re being honest, consider how these two approaches to marketing are affecting your incoming flow of customers.
At this point, I’m assuming we can agree that inconsistent marketing produces inconsistencies in business.
This brings us to our discussion about marketing strategy and marketing plan. I know these technical terms make most small business owners tune out. Please bear with me! I’m going to make this as painless as possible.
The question we’ll try to answer is: Do small businesses need a marketing strategy and/or a marketing plan?
First, it’s important to define the terms. To clarify what strategy is, be sure to read Part 1 and Part 2 of “How to Make a Marketing Strategy.” The basic definition is that strategy is the path you choose to accomplish a goal.
To clarify plan, here are some definitions:
“a detailed proposal for doing or achieving something” (Oxford Languages)
“a detailed formulation of a program of action” (Merriam Webster)
The keyword in both of these definitions is detailed. A plan involves the nitty-gritty parts of exactly how you’re going to do something.
Strategy is what you’re doing. Plan is how you’re doing it.
Now we can move back to the initial question: as a small business owner, do you need a marketing strategy and/or marketing plan?
My quick answer is this: strategy - yes, plan - maybe.
Why you need a marketing strategy
As I mentioned in the blogs about strategy, it’s the path down which you’ll travel in order to get to your end goal. There are several paths you could take, but due to limited time, resources, and motivation, you will need to focus on one (maybe two).
Strategy helps you identify your priorities, which then allows you to set boundaries and narrow down your specific marketing activities. Though this tactic initially feels too narrow to most owners, they typically find it is much easier to stick with consistently. The more things you try to do, the harder it is to keep them up.
For example, let’s say the strategy is to meet industry-adjacent professionals face-to-face to build referral relationships. Based on that, which activity would you choose to pursue?
Place an ad in the newspaper
Attend a networking event
Boost a Facebook post
Obviously, you’re going to choose the activity that gets you in front of other people. See how that works?
Strategy gives you a very clear, first-level decision making model.
Conversely, if your strategy is to use social media to get people thinking differently about a problem, you would have chosen a completely different activity.
The strategy helps you plan how to use your time and resources, and knowing that it serves a purpose will help you stay motivated. Without it, you will pursue any and all random marketing activities which at worst results in inconsistent and frustrating results and at best makes you feel haphazard and a little crazy.
The reason strategy is so narrow is that it is focused on your ideal client. Rather than casting a wide net, you’re engaging in exactly the marketing activity that attracts your target audience. And isn’t that what you want?
Do you need a marketing plan?
Whether or not you should develop a marketing plan depends on many factors, such as the type of business, your size, your resources, and even your personality.
The challenge with a detailed plan is that we cannot know what the future holds. For small businesses especially, it’s very likely that there will be changes that can really impact the business. March of 2020 taught all of us a clear lesson on how easily business can be derailed.
But not all big changes are negative. For example, what if you’re a solopreneur and you suddenly land a really big client? You may no longer have as much time to devote to your original marketing plan. Larger businesses, or those that have been around several years, may have a little more understanding of seasons and cycles, but they are still affected by unpredictable changes.
The second problem with plans for small businesses is that it is very challenging to estimate time and resources. How long will it really take to write, edit, and publish a blog or design and print a brochure? Experience will inform this, so the more you do it, the easier it gets. But many obstacles cause delays, which can really throw off a marketing plan.
Finally, your personality will dictate whether a detailed marketing plan might help or hinder you. For some, a plan can help you keep moving forward, especially when you hit a roadblock. For those who are less able to adapt, however, a plan might have the opposite effect. As soon as you get off course, you throw it all away because you know you can’t execute it exactly as designed.
An alternative to a marketing plan
Over my years of experience, from small businesses to global corporations, time and time again, I have witnessed marketing plans get derailed. This is why I am hesitant now to prescribe detailed marketing plans.
I may be unconventional in this, but I believe businesses need something more flexible than a plan. They need something that accounts for the unexpected and adjusts with the realities of business and life.
What we need is a framework - something that offers structure to our strategy, but without the constraints of a detailed plan that could quickly go awry.
I’ll be exploring this idea of a framework more later, so stay tuned!