What does a professional marketing plan look like?

Peter Desmyttere
May 15, 2018
⏱ 13 min. read

… and how do you get started on one? We will give you clear answers to these questions, including links to concrete working documents, questionnaires and tools.

Pssst... We recently wrote a new article about a strategic marketing plan. You can find it here!

A great deal of nonsense is spoken about the usefulness of a marketing plan within a marketing organization. Non-believers say that a marketing plan has lost its value as a strategic document in these dynamic times. Believers adhere to the principle of "failing to plan is planning to fail" and see a marketing plan as a framework for all strategic and operational marketing decisions.

As a marketeer and hands-on expert in marketing planning, I am convinced that the truth is somewhere in between. A modern marketing plan is crucial, but it should be flexible enough that all operational planning data (e.g. campaigns, projects, channels, milestones, tasks, budgets, results, notes, etc.) can be consulted and adjusted easily. When supplemented with strategic medium-term data you will have a modern and workable marketing plan.

We assume, therefore, that a marketing plan is an indispensable part of modern marketing policy. But: what does a professional marketing plan look like and how do you get started on drafting one? We will give you clear answers to these questions, including links to concrete working documents, questionnaires and tools.

The definition of a modern marketing plan

Allow me to start by asking the opposite question: "What does a bad marketing plan look like?". After all, I see many more of these in practice than good, professional marketing plans.

"A bad marketing plan is a collection of separate documents with partial strategic and/or operational marketing data that does not, at any moment, offer a complete overview to the marketeers involved."

There: based on this, we can now define what a good marketing plan is. A good marketing plan:

  • Provides a centralized insight into all ongoing campaigns and/or projects within the entire team (brand marketing, social media marketing, digital marketing, event marketing, test, experience marketing, etc.);
  • Provides centralized insight into the tasks, channels, milestones, budget, KPIs, results and notes for each project or each campaign;
  • Offers a centralized platform from which all marketeers in the team manage the above data; and
  • Contains both operational and strategic marketing data.

"A good marketing plan is, therefore, a central platform or document that makes available all of the strategic and operational marketing data, at every moment and to all marketeers involved in the campaign or project."

Architecture of a modern marketing plan

I have made a start on the content or structure of a marketing plan above. You must have noticed that a marketing plan contains quite a bit of data.

Perhaps you are now looking at your Excel file with the title "Marketing Plan", which contains, at most, projects (e.g. email marketing), channels (e.g. e-newsletter to architects) and milestones (e.g. e-newsletter dated 14 March) with a regretful sigh. This is fine as a basic document, but there are still plenty of marketing questions that your plan does not address, such as:

  • Are there still any tasks for the e-newsletter that have not been completed yet?
  • What budget has been allocated to the e-newsletter?
  • How can we measure the success of the e-newsletter (KPIs and results)?
  • What is our strategy with regard to email marketing and/or the e- newsletter?

In practice, marketing plans do not contain enough information to be complete.

A modern marketing plan is ideally built up as follows:

The operational marketing plan contains:

  • An overview of all ongoing campaigns and/or projects
  • The personal to-do list of each marketeer
  • The entire communication calendar, with all channels deployed and all planned milestones (touchpoints with the customer)
  • The planned marketing budget and the marketing costs already incurred
  • An overview of the most important marketing KPIs and results
  • A place to manage information, notes, links or attachments

The strategic marketing plan contains:

  • The objectives of the marketing plan: where should the marketing plan take us?
  • The company or brand's business model: what are we offering, to which target audience should we direct our marketing efforts, to what do we contribute added value and how do we organize ourselves?
  • The company or brand's communication strategy: how will we approach communication in the next period to come and why are we making those choices?
  • Workflows, processes or procedures (if applicable)

Where an operational marketing plan focuses on the "here and now" (the next few weeks four months), a strategic marketing plan focuses primarily on the medium-term (the next few months up to the next two or three years, at maximum).

Structure of a strategic marketing plan

The strategic marketing plan is that part of the plan that is used least. It establishes guidelines in the medium term and will be updated no more than a few times per year (i.e. in the event of a changed price strategy or if a new target audience is defined).

Objectives are an important benchmark in a strategic marketing plan, because they indicate what we want to achieve with our brand or company. Objectives are usually financial (growth, turnover, returns, profit, etc.), commercial (product, market, added value, positioning, etc.), organizational (operation, sales channels, team, etc.) or personal.

The business model provides an answer to the general marketing questions with regard to a brand or company, such as: "Which products or services do we offer?", "Who are our target audiences?", "What is the price strategy?", "What are our USPs?" or "Who are our toughest competitors?". In practice, I translate these into 20 concrete questions for our clients. Below you will find a link to a PDF document in which I have described and detailed the most significant business model questions within a strategic marketing plan.

The communication strategy provides an answer to general communication-related questions with regard to a brand or company, such as: "What is our Google strategy?", "What is our strategy with regard to social media?", "How are we going to network?", "Where and how will we advertise?", or "How are we going to enhance customer experience?". In practice, I will also translate these into 20 concrete questions for our clients.

Download our whitepaper containing the 40 most important strategic questions which you should answer in your strategic marketing plan.

In conclusion, the strategic marketing plan can be enriched with workflows, processes or procedures. These are strategic guidelines for specific situations, such as: "How do we follow up a lead generated from the website?" or "Which actions should we take in the run-up to a trade fair, where we will have a stand?".

The structure of an operational marketing plan

A good operational marketing plan is built up around projects or campaigns. Common projects within a marketing plan are:

  • Branding & PR projects: logo & house style, marketing tools, press, etc.
  • Online marketing projects: website, SEO/SEA, online ads, social media, email marketing, etc.
  • Events projects: your own events, trade fairs, etc.
  • Advertising projects: online ads, print ads, radio, TV, etc.
  • Campaigns: built up around moments like "Sales" or "Back to school", or product launches, promotions, target audiences, etc.
  • Direct mail projects: house-to-house, flyers, printed newsletter, etc.
  • Indoor & outdoor projects: posters, in-store communication, guerrilla marketing, etc.
  • Sponsoring projects
  • Experience projects

A good marketing plan offers a perfect overview of your ongoing projects and campaigns at every moment and contains an archive of all completed project and campaigns. They are the backbone on which to attach all of the operational data listed below.

The "Project" module allows you to keep a constant watch over your marketing plan.

The most logical next step in building up an operational marketing plan is to draft the communication calendar showing the channels and milestones for each project. Once this is completed, the marketing plan will provide a perfect answer to the question "What are we communicating and when will we be communicating this?". The communication calendar is, without a doubt, one of the most important and frequently used modules within a marketing plan.

You can view your content calendar in the "Communication" module in Husky.

In practice, I see that communication calendars often also contain tasks. This is rather confusing, because communication milestones (when is this item of communication scheduled?) and tasks run run across each other in one and the same calendar. This makes it difficult for a marketer, who has to cross off a substantial checklist of tasks each day. Therefore, I recommend creating a separate to-do list or task checklist in the marketing plan. That is much more convenient, clear and motivating.  After all: what is more satisfying than finishing a day at work with a completed checklist of tasks? Checking off tasks gives every manager or marketer a psychological kick. A good marketing plan provides a perfect overview of the active, completed and yet to be completed tasks within each project, for each individual marketeer, at every moment.

By looking at the task list module you will always know perfectly what you and your colleagues need to get done (plus the applicable deadlines) to turn your marketing plan into a success.

An overview of the planned, allocated and consumed budget should also be included in every marketing plan. I often see a lot of frustration among marketeers because they have no insight into their budgets (both allocated and consumed). A good marketing plan provides a perfect overview of the total marketing budget, all allocated costs and all costs incurred within each project, for each individual marketeer, at every moment.

Husky allows you to keep a close eye on your marketing budget at every point in time.

These days, marketing activities can easily be measured, particularly in the world of digital marketing. But if you were to ask the average marketeer about the KPIs and results within the marketing plan, they will not be able to give you an answer immediately. This is a pity, because this part of the plan validates the effort that marketeers put into their projects and campaigns. It is also often the part of marketing plans that interests marketing directors, commercial directors or CEOs most. A good marketing plan provides a perfect overview of the most important marketing KPIs and the results achieved within each project, for each individual marketeer, at every moment. That way, you can immediately have a perfect dashboard at your fingertips for reporting to colleagues, management or key stakeholders.

After all, measurement is the key to knowledge: keep a close eye on your KPIs.

The last module in the operational marketing plan is where you can keep your notes, attached documents or links. It is much better to update them inside the marketing plan instead of putting them away in minutes, emails or separate memos on servers, where nobody will ever be able to find them again. A good marketing plan provides a perfect overview of all the agreements, notes, attached documents and links within each project for each individual marketeer at any moment.

It is best to keep track of all your strategic objectives in your marketing plan. In Husky, you can do this via the "Notes" module.

An Excel template for creating a marketing plan

The most commonly used tool to create a marketing plan is, without a doubt, Excel. There are probably millions of Excel documents with marketing data worldwide. What about you? How many Excel documents are used by your marketing team or organization? Probably far too many! The benefits of Excel as a planning tool in marketing are free access, a low threshold and the speed at which you can draft a document, plus the fact that you can organize a plan in Excel exactly as you prefer.

However, Excel also has some disadvantages. Every planning document has to be designed from scratch (time-consuming). Also, the use of Excel promotes fragmentation, as before you know it dozens of Excel files will be circulating within the marketing department and nobody will have an overview of or insight into them. Lastly, many Excel files become unreadable over the course of time (for everyone except the author) because they have become too complex.

You read right: I'm really not an advocate of Excel as a tool for marketing planning. I only recommended it in the following situations:

  • When you are taking your first steps in marketing planning and are not yet ready to start using extensive or specific planning tools;
  • If all you need is a very brief or simple plan that makes investing in a marketing planner superfluous; or
  • If you work alone and hardly ever need to report to colleagues or the management.

In all other situations, you will – at a given point in time – run into the limits of Excel as a marketing planning tool. Yourself, your colleagues and/or your management will get frustrated because the diversity of planning documents no longer provides any overview of or insight into your marketing plan. This is when it is time to take the step towards digital tools that approach the benefits of Excel while neutralizing its disadvantages. Do these actually exist? Yes, they do! I will provide an outline of the most commonly used digital tools in the next chapter.

Other tools for creating a marketing plan

Additional tools for marketing planning can, generally speaking, be put into three categories:

  • Specific apps that can help you fill in some of the functions of a marketing plan. Evernote, for example is often used to bundle notes and an app like Wunderlist provides a clear overview of all ongoing and completed tasks. Apps like these are usually also available on a smartphone or tablet, so that you can use them on a 24/7 basis, no matter where you are. Excel does not offer this advantage. Nevertheless, I would advise you not to use specific apps. The reason why? They fragment marketing data into various tools and don't make collaboration with various marketeers within the same team self-evident.
  • Generalist project management tools, such as Trello, Monday, Workflow, Wrike or Asana These tools are either free (for limited use) or quite inexpensive and have a more attractive interface than Excel does. They are based on the principle of project management (as you saw earlier, this acts as a framework, onto which you can attach all of your operational data) and allow extensive task planning within each project. Additionally, they are intended to allow multiple people to manage data on a single centralized digital platform. The solution? Well ... not quite. They are, in any case, a step in the right direction in comparison to Excel. I still don't consider them to be ideal, because they:
    • Adopt a one-sided approach with regard to task planning (which promotes ad hoc working);
    • Hardly provide clear insight into the communication calendar;
    • Don't allow your budgets, KPIs and results, notes and strategic information to be linked (you will need to draw up separate Excel documents for all of these); and
    • Do not offer any support to marketeers aiming to digitize their Excel plans (each of these are self-service tools, which are launched enthusiastically but frequently come to a grinding halt.)
  • Specific digital marketing planners, such as Marmind or Husky As a marketing planner, I consider this the cream of the crop within the world of marketing planning tools for people wanting to draft and manage a marketing plan. Of course, as one of the founders of Husky it goes without speaking that I want to put my tool in the spotlight! Within the world of digital marketing planning Husky combines the convenience of Excel with the comprehensiveness that a modern marketing plan demands. In Husky, you can set up and manage all of the strategic and operational marketing data described above. Every single moment you use it you understand that this is a marketing planner that has been designed for and by marketeers.

So, what's next? Can you get started? I sincerely hope that this article has given you some insight into what a modern and professional marketing plan looks like and how you can start drafting one. And, with the link to the template and tools for marketing planning, you should be able to get started straight away. All the best!

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