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How to create a small business marketing plan

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Tired of losing business to missed opportunities and bad timing? Relying solely on a short-staffed sales team to generate revenue? Or worse — being bested by your biggest competitor? If so, you’ve come to the right place.

Building a marketing plan doesn’t have to be expensive or overly complicated. But it’s something every entrepreneur should do. Without it, your business is like a ship without a sail, drifting aimlessly at the mercy of wherever the wind and tide choose to push you.

Let this be the year you chart the right course with a small business marketing strategy that:

We’ll provide a robust, step-by-step overview on how you can get there. Let’s start planning!

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Find out who your customers are and what they really want

When it comes to high-level planning, it may be tempting to think of your customers as a single bloc of people with similar needs or characteristics. But to create a really strong marketing strategy, you need to dig past surface-level demographics and really think about who your customers are and what drives them. In addition to understanding their gender, age range and location, take the time to discover their behaviors and desires by asking:

  • Who do they buy from now?

  • How often do they buy?

  • What would make them switch to you?

  • What product or service do they want that you could provide?

  • What are the drivers (emotional and rational) in a buying decision?

  • What are their pain points?

  • Why would they want to buy from you and not others?

  • For your business specifically, what value do they get and in exchange for what?

You can plumb the depths of your own experience to get these answers. Conducting surveys is a good idea, too. Ask your sales reps, customer service teams and your customers themselves for input. Once you have the details, you can use them to combine similar customers into buyer groups called personas. Personas act as a sort of human profile for different buyer groups and can help you create buyer segments, which will come in handy once you get into the weeds of your marketing plan. You’ll also need personas as a point of reference when creating your unique selling proposition (USP).

Need help writing your plan? Find the solutions (and more) in this free course.

Uncover your business’ unique value and competitive edge

“Uncover” may seem like a strange word to use here. After all, you know how and why your product or service should matter to your customers. Your business’ reason for being isn’t hidden. It’s not lost. Or is it? If it only exists inside your head and isn’t documented in mission and vision statements, you could be missing a foundational piece to your business’ overall success.

If they are documented but have been buried by the everyday grind of just running the business, no one could blame you. But leaving them there is a mistake. Pull your vision and mission statements out from underneath the bottom of the pile because you’ll need them to create your unique selling proposition (USP).

Ask yourself why

Your USP is a statement that highlights the unique and compelling benefits your business offers as opposed to your competitors. It should answer the question: Why should a customer choose my product or service over all others? Sometimes finding an honest answer can be surprisingly difficult. If you’re stuck, ask yourself: Why should people buy from you? Why now? Why should they do anything?

Perform a competitive analysis

In addition to brainstorming, a little fact-finding about your competitors is in order too. After all, you can’t truly call something unique if you don’t know much about what everyone else is doing. That’s where conducting a competitive analysis comes into play. The deeper you can dive into your competitors’ worlds, the more informed — and effective — your USP will be.

Some businesses hire consultants to get information. Others invest in tools like Semrush, or ask employees to conduct research and use secret shopping tactics to obtain details. If you don’t have the resources to go for the gusto, that’s OK. Even a cursory sweep of competitors’ websites, social media accounts and online customer reviews will provide valuable insights.

Craft your USP

Once you’ve brainstormed, looked at the research and let your thoughts marinate, it’s time to bring it all together — including your personas and target audience — in a written, detailed way. The stronger it is and the clearer you make it to the world, the more effective your marketing will be.

There’s no one right way to write your USP. But a common formula looks like this:

Target audience

Target audience

Unique features

Unique feature

Customer benefit

Customer benefit

Appeal to emotion

Appeal to emotion

So what does that look like in real life? Let’s say a hypothetical “greens and grains” restaurant is launching a new meal prep and delivery service. Because this type of offering is hardly groundbreaking, they need a dynamite USP. After some research, they come up with the following details:

  • Target audience: Busy professionals

  • Unique feature: Chef-prepared, nutritionally balanced meals, delivered right to customers’ doors

  • Customer benefit: Time-saving, healthy eating

  • Appeal to emotion: Customers’ desire for convenience and wellbeing

When you put it all together following the formula, their USP would look something like this:

For busy professionals who want to stay healthy and fit, our service offers chef-prepared, nutritionally balanced meals delivered right to your door, so you can save time and feel great.

After formulating your USP, it’s important to get feedback and refine it. Test it with your team, customers or even focus groups to gather input and make adjustments as necessary. Once it feels like an honest and accurate representation of your business’ reason for being, it’s time to lay the foundation for your marketing strategy by conducting a SWOT analysis.

Arm yourself with valuable insights

SWOT is an acronym that stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. You can also use it as a framework to reveal areas in your business that need improvement and those you can leverage. Performing a SWOT analysis is pretty straightforward.

Gather leaders from across your business. It doesn’t matter if they’re meeting in a physical room or via video conference as long as different departments, teams or functions are represented. It’s the only way to get a comprehensive view of your business. For example, managers from the fulfillment department probably have insights that sales doesn’t, and vice versa.

Next, on a physical white board or a free digital one like Jamboard, Mural or Canva, make four columns with each one of the SWOT components at the top. Then, ask your team to think of any and every way those words apply to your business. Your sales team may share that product quality is a strength while the technology you use to run your business is slow and clunky; a weakness for sure. Whatever the case, write those things down in the corresponding columns.

Four people gather around a conference table planning and pointing to documents.

Try not to shoot down ideas in this stage of the process, especially if two different teams think the same attribute should fall into different categories. For example, salespeople may think your generous refund policy is a strength, while your bookkeeper deems it a weakness. That’s OK. Document each idea and work through culling them later as a team.

Once you’ve narrowed the list to only the most accurate and important elements, don’t leave it on the white board to die. Record it in a document. You can choose to express the analysis as a story about your business. Or you can keep it simple with a bulleted list of ideas organized into the appropriate categories. However you do it, put it at the top of the document you want to serve as your marketing plan. You’ll need to reference the SWOT analysis many times as you develop the rest of your strategy.

Set clear direction and expectations

Earlier, we described businesses without a marketing strategy akin to a ship without a sail. And that aimlessness happens to a lot of businesses for a lot of reasons. But perhaps the most common is a lack of clear, specific objectives.

You likely want to get more leads, sell more units or increase revenue. No kidding; so does every other business on the planet. But specificity is what separates the wheat from the chaff. Small details make a big difference when it comes to building a plan that does everything you need it to and nothing you don’t. When setting your objectives, make sure they are:

  • Specific

    Use numbers to set a goal your team can devote meaningful effort toward and feel accomplished in achieving. Instead of saying “increase sales,” rework it to say “increase sales by 20%.”

  • Realistic

    While it’s good to aim high, your objectives should be attainable. If you want to increase sales by 20%, but have struggled to do so by more than 5% for the last six years, you may want to rethink that percentage. Unless you’re getting enough resources to turbocharge your efforts, you risk burning out your team and setting yourself up for failure.

  • Relevant

    It seems like this should go without saying: Your marketing objectives should align with your business goals. But you would be surprised at how easy it is to go off the rails. Marketing and advertising are full of flashy things that would be really fun to try, but can end up wasting time and money. If your business wants to target 50-65 year olds for a new product, driving traffic to your new shop in the metaverse isn’t a great idea.

  • Time-bound

    Set a clear timeline for achieving your objectives to maintain urgency and momentum while keeping marketing at the top of the priority list. Instead of “increase sales by 20%,” upgrade it to “increase sales by 20% in the fourth quarter of 2023.”

  • Measurable

    To know whether you’ve accomplished an objective, you must be able to track your progress in some way. Want to increase brand awareness? Counting the reach you received through earned media, or the number of brand searches you receive can help you see how well you're performing. It’s important that every objective you set can be measured by some type of metric or key performance indicator (KPI).

Lastly, it’s crucial your objectives are in line with your marketing budget. Take a look at the resources you’re willing to invest and break them down by different marketing activities. If digital advertising is too expensive but likely to deliver the largest number of leads, you may want to adjust lead-based objectives according to what you’re willing to spend.

Reach customers where and when they’re ready to buy

Now that you’ve laid the groundwork, it’s time to think about how you’ll go to market. Consider following these steps to build your plan.

1. Define your unique marketing mix using the four P’s


This describes what you want to sell. And it doesn’t have to always be a tangible thing. Depending on what you do, services, experiences and even ideas could be products.


Whatever your product is, how much will you sell it for? Will you offer discounts or use pricing tactics to increase revenue?


This describes how you would like to get the word out. Commercials, customer referrals, social media advertising, events, a skywriting plane: they’re all examples of potential promotional channels.


Where and when are your buyers most open to your message? In the evening, relaxed and comfy on the couch, scrolling through Instagram? Or between school pick-up and soccer practice drop-off, sitting at a red light in front of a billboard? If you use your personas to decide, you’ll be more likely to spend money on the right things.

2. Identify the marketing channels that will reach your target audience

Digital channels like social media, email and your website may be viable channels for your business. Print ads, flyers or even events may be effective too. It all depends on your budget and where you want to reach your customers.

For example, our hypothetical “greens and grains'' restaurant may choose to invest in search engine marketing (SEM) and programmatic digital advertising as their primary channels. Why? Because they want to target white-collar professionals who are on a computer for most of their 9-to-5 workday. They may choose to run ads for a small window, closer to the end of the day when an ad about food delivery feels like a helping hand instead of an annoying interruption. Choose all of your channels with your personas, their needs and your budget in mind.

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3. Fortify branding and messaging

Chances are your business already has a distinctive color scheme, vibe, tone of voice and logo. Make sure your marketing efforts lean into that as much as possible.

It only takes people an average of 7 seconds to form an impression of your brand, but 5-7 impressions for consumers to recognize your company logo. Repetition is the key. Commit to a narrative, color scheme and tone. Then use it over and over and over again. It’s the best way to create connections in the minds of your customers.

4. Create a content strategy

Running ads that outright sell your product is a great way to drive revenue and create some serious short-term wins. But when it comes to capturing customers who are ready to buy, competition is fierce and expensive. That’s why in addition to snapping up warm leads, you need a long-term strategy that delivers them on almost a residual basis. A content strategy is the answer.

Building a content strategy introduces your brand to a potential customer before they’re ready to buy. Why is that important? Because eventually, they will be. And when they are, they’ll choose a company they recognize or have a relationship with. One they trust. So whether it’s a weekly blog post by your founder or videos on social media helping prospective customers learn how to do something, it’s important to share content that enriches their lives.

5. Build a timeline and milestones

Now that you’ve chosen your channels and content, it’s time to schedule, launch and mark important points in the journey. What that looks like will depend completely on your individual plan. But examples could include mapping out how long ads will run, how many emails to send and if they should go out weekly or monthly, and when invites for a trade show or event should go out.

Marking and celebrating milestones is important too. Not only does keeping an eye on your progress keep your teams accountable, it helps you adjust your plan on the fly. Not hitting the lead number you wanted as soon as you needed to? It may be time to shift funds from one type of marketing activity to another.

Calculate and measure real ROI with KPIs

The last — but certainly not least — part of your plan involves establishing and monitoring your key performance indicators (KPIs).

The KPIs you choose will depend on your objectives and the nature of your business. But common ones include:

Icon Sales revenue

Sales revenue

This KPI measures the revenue generated from marketing activities and helps assess the overall impact of marketing on the bottom line.

Icon ROI


This measures the profitability of marketing campaigns by comparing the cost of the campaign to the revenue generated as a result of that campaign.

Icon CAC

Customer acquisition cost (CAC)

CAC measures the cost of acquiring a new customer. It’s calculated by dividing the total marketing and sales expenses by the number of new customers acquired during a specific period of time.

Icon Conversion rate

Conversion rate

This KPI tracks the percentage of website visitors or leads that become customers.

Icon Website traffic

Website traffic

This monitors the total number of visitors to your website and helps gauge the effectiveness of your online marketing efforts.

Icon CTR

Click through rate (CTR)

CTR measures the percentage of people who click on a specific link, like in an email campaign or online ad. It helps evaluate your call to action and the relevance of your content.

Icon Bounce Rate

Bounce rate

Bounce rate indicates the percentage of visitors who leave your website without navigating to other pages. A high bounce rate may suggest that your content or website needs improvement.

Icon Social media

Social media engagement

Metrics including likes, shares, comments and follower growth on social media platforms help measure the level of audience engagement with your content.

Whatever KPIs you choose to monitor performance and keep your teams accountable to the activities they’re managing, remember to choose ones that align with your objectives and channels. It’s important to regularly check in and analyze KPI data, so you’re always making educated decisions and optimizing your strategy over time.

Take control of your marketing and your business’ future

When it comes to achieving your goals — increased revenue, brand awareness, market share and more — they’re too important to leave to chance. You need a map to navigate the rough waters of competing in today’s crowded bazaar. A well-designed and strategic marketing plan can help you get there by providing clarity, direction and above all, a purposeful approach to growing your business.

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably feeling overwhelmed. Maybe even thinking there’s no way you have the time and energy to follow the steps in this article. If so, ask yourself: What could possibly be more important than preserving your business’ relevance and success in an ever changing world?

Smiling man sits at desk across from a window and types on laptop keyboard.

If the answer has anything to do with the day-to-day administrative work of running your business, your marketing plan will need to look a little different than what we’ve outlined here. Instead of starting with understanding your customers, your first step should be to get out from underneath the daily grind by investing in technology.

For example, if you’re constantly having to check in with your bookkeeper to actively manage cash flow or dig into A/R and collections, you’ll likely benefit from automated billing. Or if product overages or shortages are a familiar challenge, adopting a powerful POS that lets you keep an eye on your inventory across different stores in real time may be the answer. Lastly, allowing employees to manage their own schedule and automating payroll can free you from the back-office, giving you the time and energy to focus on bigger initiatives.

Automating and streamlining your operations will help you focus on the strategic work that will really move your business forward. To learn more about how Heartland can help, contact us today.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this document does not, and is not intended to constitute legal advice; instead, all information, content, and materials available are for general informational purposes only. Information provided may not constitute the most up-to-date legal or other information, and readers of this information should contact their attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular legal matter, in the relevant jurisdiction. All liability with respect to actions taken or not taken based on the contents here are hereby expressly disclaimed.

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