One area where many entrepreneurs and small business owners struggle is marketing. In fact, this struggle isn't exclusive to small businesses. Many business spend years of blood, sweat and money in creating a great product or service, and then expect the world to naturally appreciate (and purchase) it. The sad truth is that consumers are lazy. For better or worse, we all depend on marketing to tell us about the latest and greatest. Business is all about planning, and marketing becomes much easier when you have a plan. In this article we'll look at five steps for creating an effective marketing plan for your small business.

Who Is Doing the Buying?
The first step for any marketing plan is to figure out who is going to be buying the product or service. Even if you really believe that everyone, regardless or age or gender, is going to be purchasing your product or service, you need to focus in on a segment that either makes up a majority of buyers or represents the greatest potential market. Everything you do in your marketing plan will be about reaching that segment and fitting your promotional approach to their preferences.

What Is the Buy Trigger?
People don't lay out cash for a product or service just because they are running out of room in their wallets. A purchase decision is triggered by something immediate – something that makes now the time to buy. This can be a seasonal reason, such as tax season resulting in people needing accountants and tax software, or it may be everyday things like needing a quick meal on the go, the discovery of a weird thumping when turning left and on and on.
There is always a set of circumstances that result in a customer needing a product or service. The circumstances influence what a consumer wants in a solution – is fast and cheap the major concern or does the consumer want quality that will last? By identifying the circumstances and the key buying criteria used in those circumstances, you'll have a list of traits that you should emphasize in your promotional materials (high-quality, reliable, fast, no-hassle, etc.).

Who Is Involved?
No one buys alone. To effectively market a product or service, you need to know who is influencing the decisions of your target buyer. Is this a purchase where the consumer is likely the main user and only relying on peers and online reviews? Is this a purchase that impacts the family?

The individual versus family can change a marketing campaign completely. Food products tend to focus on women in their mid-30s as the main buyers of products, but a happy family is always featured as the end result of buying the product. Marketing campaigns for alcohol are focused on the individual male (mid-20 to mid-30s) but do so using a group of peers enjoying parties/wild adventures while consuming the product. This doesn't mean that men don't eat or women don't drink, it just means that the market research suggests a woman is more influenced by family preference when selecting food and a man is more influenced by friends when buying alcohol. Paying attention to the influencers while crafting promotional material will increase the impact it has upon your target buyer.

Where Do Customers Get Their Information About Your Product or Service?
Finding out where your target buyers are getting their information from is probably the most practically important step as it identifies areas for reputation building and opportunities for advertising. Are there review websites that allow you to submit your product or service? Are there resources that you can contribute to in order to educate your target demographic on how to select the best product or service? Don't be shy about putting yourself out there as a resource. When you see an article in a local paper or online about how to choose the right windows for your house, there is a good chance that it is written by someone selling windows. Having a better-educated consumer helps them make informed decisions and builds your reputation as a provider.

What Is the Timeline?
Knowing how long you have to convert a customer will help you cull inefficient approaches and fit your marketing campaign to their decision making process. Selling food relies on quick sale volume and aggressive techniques, whereas selling financial services is a more gradual process of trust and reputation building where a "sale" may last years.

The timeline from need to purchase is one of the best filters for what kind of marketing you'll be doing and where you should concentrate it. When people get hungry, they don't wait two days to eat, so an independent restaurant doesn't benefit as much from a billboard 40 blocks away as it does from one 10 blocks away – and, more likely than not, the online review with accurate hours and information matters much more than both. A car dealership, however, works on the opposite timeline where a buyer is going to take days, weeks or months of looking around before buying, so the area to market to can be much larger.

Bringing It All Together
Asking these questions about your product or service will help filter between different marketing techniques. You will know who you are targeting, what their circumstances and key criteria are, who they are listening to, how they get their information and how long you have to convert them. Once this profile is created and you've a list of potential techniques, it all comes down to implementing your plan and measuring the results.

The Bottom Line
If you are unsure of any part – such as who is the target buyer or what information source is most important – you can test two different marketing campaigns and make changes according to the results you see. The reality is that a marketing plan can be created but it is never finished. Your marketing plan is a living document that will evolve with the product or service you are selling, so you may be asking these same questions over and over again.

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