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By Scott Harris
Article written for the San Fernando Valley Business Journal.

American business has a way of holding its collective breath in the months before a national election, and because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the uncertainty surrounding the world and national economy, it is more pronounced now than at any time in recent history. However, the campaign that seemed to have lasted forever is finally over. Whether you’re celebrating or licking your wounds, we have a new president and now it’s time to get back to work.

The silver lining to a bad economy is the opportunity it presents to those willing to capitalize on it. Every marketing study in history shows that companies that plan effectively and market aggressively in a down economy are far more successful, both during and immediately following the downturn, than are those that treat marketing as an expense and cut, cut, cut.

The first – and most important – step in taking advantage of this opportunity is to develop a strategic marketing plan. That collective groan is from those whose experience with marketing plans includes hundreds of hours developing lengthy minutia-filled documents designed to predict the future of the economy, your business segment and your company for the next three to five years. Odds are, you might a have such a plan right now, stashed away in a binder somewhere – unused.

Fear not, I’m going to give you a process – based on twenty years of developing these plans for every imaginable type of client – that is relatively painless to develop, allows you to project out for one year and evolves as a fluid, living document that you will use in making every marketing decision, from budgeting to final creative. For those who don’t believe they need a plan, imagine for a moment you’re building a new home, in which case you might be the only one in the country doing so! The actual building of the home is the equivalent of the tactical portion of a marketing plan. The architectural drawings that any rational person has before one nail is pounded in is the strategic plan.

Today, you’re going to get started on the strategic plan. A good solid, effective marketing communications strategic plan consists of four things: Goals, Audience, Message and Vehicles. Today, we’re going to look at Goals and Audience and next month, we’ll tackle Message and Vehicles.

Goals. The cornerstone of any successful plan starts with the Goal. What do we want to accomplish? A Goal is measurable. “We want happy employees and satisfied customers” is a Mission Statement, not a Goal. You need hard numbers, both for today and where you want to be on December 31st, 2009. This can be an increase in sales, by units or dollars, an increase in total customers, margin per sale, etc. Make sure it is a goal that marketing can impact (reducing manufacturing costs would be an example of something that wouldn’t qualify), that the goal is aggressive, but reasonable to obtain and that you have a benchmark (current numbers) against which to judge the success of the effort.

Audience. Who are you trying to reach to meet your Goal? If your focus for 2009 is on increasing business from existing customers, that’s who you want to talk to. It may be that you are looking for new customers in the same markets, or exploring new market segments. Once the market segment has been identified, who within each company do you want to talk to? Purchasing, administration, IT? It is critical that your marketing time, energy and dollars be invested in reaching the right markets, the right companies and the right people within those companies.

So, your assignment for the next month is to establish measurable, quantifiable Goals for 2009 and identify the Audience (segment, company and contact) that we need to reach to accomplish our goals. If you follow this plan (the second half, Message and Vehicles will be covered next month), you can hit 2009 running, taking advantage of the economy to strengthen your position with both customers and potential customers. You will find yourself far ahead of your head-in-the-sand competitors, whose approach to tough times is to stand around and complain.

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