Startup Marketing Plan

When I ask startup folk if they have a “Marketing Plan” I get a range of reactions from a slightly embarrassed “Yeah we probably should have one but we aren’t doing much marketing so…” through to the more assertive, “Dude we don’t do plans, because we’re like, you know, a startup!”

At my first startup we didn’t have a marketing plan. We were a small team working on short-term tactical projects. Those tactics changed every couple of weeks and we didn’t see a need to document anything. My first encounter with a marketing plan came after we were acquired by a global company. The experience was awful. The plan was done yearly and had 50 sections, starting with a (completely arbitrary) revenue goal and drilling all the way down to every specific tactic (including PR, email, advertising, events, everything) to be executed across the entire year. The most frightful thing about the Marketing plan was that it wasn’t approved until March, and by June we’d started building the plan for the following year. The exercise seemed pointless to me.

At my next startup however, I found that there were moments when I missed pieces of that marketing plan. I missed having a work plan that tied the schedules for content creation, campaign execution and sales enablement together. I missed having the clarity of approved campaign components like target markets, messaging and goals (at least for the next month or so), and I found I needed a revenue model that mapped my lead generation plan to expected revenue. I wanted a plan that kept the good bits of the big company plan and threw out the useless stuff. I’ve done marketing plans ever since. Interestingly, most of the good startup marketing VP’s I know do similar stripped-down planning. Here are the common components I’ve seen across plans:

Components of a startup marketing plan:

1/ The Inputs: Positioning and Messaging

Things are moving quickly at a startup and I’ve found it’s important to get agreement on the basic underpinnings of the marketing plan. This will save you from starting out with tactical execution, only to have everyone disagree later with the basics of copy or content. The first input is the company Positioning.

I generally capture this in a one-page positioning sheet that looks like this and contains:

  • What do we do?
  • Who are the prospects we are targeting right now?
  • What market are we in?
  • What are the competitive alternatives to our solution?
  • What is the essential value we deliver?
  • What is our main differentiation from the alternatives in our market?

The second input is a short Messaging document. This builds on the Positioning components and provides the baseline that will be used for copy and content in campaigns. My version of this is usually only a couple of pages at the most and covers:

  • a 1 line description of the solution
  • a 25 word description of the solution
  • a 100 word description of the solution
  • 3 key value points of the solution – 1-2 sentence expansion on the value that your customers will see from your solution
  • The features that map to the value points above (what does your solution do differently that allows you to deliver that value)
  • The proof that backs up your value claims – this is usually data from customers, statements from 3rd parties like reviewers or other supporting numbers or statements that prove your claims.

2/ The Tactical Work Plan

This is how you are tracking the list of programs, campaigns and experiments you have running at any given time. There are loads of tools you can use to keep track of this stuff but I use a spreadsheet with a bunch of tabs. I start with a tab for each major tactic group (such as PR, Events, Email, Social/Digital, Referral/Influencer, Website, inside sales calling, etc.). Each tab has a timeline of what is happening when, owners and due dates. Content crosses almost every tab so I usually have a master content plan on a separate tab so I can see exactly what content is being delivered when. Then I have a summary tab shows the master calendar across the month and the quarter.

I generally have a bunch of experiments running as well (tests on parts of the website, tests on new acquisition channels, tests that are trying to streamline our lead to close process, email tests around timing or segmentation of the lists, etc.). Those are tracked separately and winners are folded into the plan.

3/ The Results/Revenue/Budget Model

The last thing I’ve got is a Dashboard that is tracking results across all of my tactics against my targets. I’m usually showing results for what’s happening now but also a prediction of what the resulting revenue should look like based on my assumptions around conversion rates downstream. I’m also tracking my budget/spending across each tactic.

This is essentially a predictive revenue model for the business. What happens if we drop events? What happens if we increase our spend by 5K on advertising? I can give you my best guess by changing the inputs on the model. I can also track the assumptions and model what a change in a conversion rate at any stage in my buying process will have on revenue (for example, if we increased trial to purchase conversion from 30% to 35%, what would be the lift on revenue?).

Instrumenting this is sometimes a pain depending on where you are pulling data from. I usually end up with a master sheet in excel that’s pulling from whatever tools I’m using to capture metrics. The tools don’t matter as long as your report/dashboard is up to date and accurate.

Iterating on the Plan

Most of what made my marketing planning experiences at big companies so painful was the timeframe (a year is eternity for an early stage startup) and the static nature of the plan. I am usually doing a review of my tactical plan every week or 2 to see if there are things we can pull in from our successful experiments or things that we might want to pull out because the results are falling behind other tactics. I also do a regular checkpoint on my inputs. Is the market shifting in a way that might impact my target segments? Have we learned anything that might indicate we need to shift our messaging or positioning? Static plans are useless for a startup – an agile planning process on the other hand is indispensable.