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Those Mysterious Marketing Plans

Every business needs a marketing plan. The most compelling reason is that a good marketing plan keeps you from wasting money and time. When you have a good plan, you can avoid scatter-shot activities that don't produce a return. A written plan acts as a road map from you, keeps you focused, and keeps you from forgetting to pursue effective marketing activities at the right time.

So what exactly is a good marketing plan?

Definitions vary from field to field, and writer to writer, but the one most applicable to equine business marketing is featured on wikipedia.org:

“A Marketing Plan is a written document that details the actions necessary to achieve a specified marketing objective. It can be for a product or service, a brand, or a product line. It can cover one year (referred to as an annual marketing plan), or cover up to 5 years.”

Wikipedia goes on to say:

“A marketing plan may be part of an overall business plan. Solid marketing strategy is the foundation of a well-written marketing plan. While a marketing plan contains a list of actions, a marketing plan without a sound strategic foundation is of little use.”

This is a great “quick and dirty” definition. This little nugget is so important it bears repeating: “Solid marketing strategy is the foundation of a well-written marketing plan.”

In it's simplest form, implementing a marketing plan is implementing the marketing strategy. So you can't have an effective plan without the strategy.

If you have a business plan for your equine operation (which you certainly should), it likely contains a section called “marketing” or “marketing plan.” These things are technically marketing plans, but in this context are generally not written with enough detail to be of much practical use in the marketing of your business. They are generally prepared considering long-range objectives, perhaps five years or more. And the reason they are not usually good marketing plans in practical application is that the marketing concepts have not been fully thought out and developed. While the business plan elements have been thoroughly worked through, the marketing section is rarely given enough attention to be a good marketing plan.

For example, a business plan marketing section might include a line such as “will use direct mail to reach potential customers.” A well-conceived and well-written marketing plan that is based on a solid strategy, would expand on this statement, and answer questions such as:

  • What is the specific purpose of the direct mailing?
  • What kind of direct mail (post cards, brochures, letters, etc.) will be sent?
  • Will there be a single item in the mailing, or a full direct mail campaign with several pieces mailed over a period of time?
  • To whom will the mailing be sent (where is the mailing list coming from, what demographic groups does it cover, etc.)?
  • Who will design, produce, and distribute the mailed pieces?
  • How much of the marketing budget will be used for direct mail, and how much will this particular mailing or campaign cost?
  • When will the mailing be sent, and will it be repeated?
  • How will the response to the mailing be measured?

This is not to say that a business is limited to one plan. For the long-range, a business plan marketing section may be adequate. But in my experience, really useful marketing plans are written for the shorter term: one year, one quarter or industry season, even by the month or by the week. So certainly have a long-range plan, but develop short-range marketing plans as you go, as you implement previous plans and evaluate how well they work for your business.

Even if you start with the general terms for the long-range actions, for your effective short-range plan, you are going to have to do the analysis and formulate a specific action list if you want the plan to be useful. Or you can hire a consultant to do it for you. But it has to be done—there is just no shortcut around this step.

Every month, several people stumble across Equinnovation.com searching for “horse marketing plan template” (I know this from checking my web site statistics...). They don't find such a thing on the site. Because it is shortsighted to try to market your business using someone else's canned plan. And they won't find an EFFECTIVE horse marketing template for their business elsewhere, either. Each business is unique and to be truly effective, the marketing plan must reflect all of the business' characteristics and outside variables that affect that business.

That said, there are numerous canned outlines for marketing plans that show the basic sections a plan may contain. Some plans have more sections, and have more or less formality, depending on whether the plan is developed for in-house use or must be provided to financiers. Some are really far more complicated than they need to be to be useful tools in operating the business. Formal plans include other sections that are generally covered adequately in a good business plan. If you don't have a business plan, you need to consider that information as well.

But more important than the exact format, particularly when preparing a detailed plan for in-house use, is the thought beyond the writing. Each of the sections is more than a couple of paragraphs tossed under a heading. They reflect research, strategy, and thought specific to the particular business.

Here is a breakdown of the essential points to consider when formulating a good informal plan for in-house use:

  • Term of your plan (what period will your plan cover);
  • What is the product or service you are selling (for example, vitamin supplements, equine chiropractic services, dressage horses);
  • Current industry and market situation — what is going on in the industry for your product? Are there legal issues? Governmental regulation? Over- or under-supply of your particular kind of product or horse? What is the size of the market for your product? How is it segmented? How does the economy affect your market?
  • Objective and scope of your marketing — specifically, who are your customers (private owners of horses with a certain deficiency, horses with specific health or performance issues, professional and serious amateur dressage competitors, etc.); What needs and concerns do your customers have? How does what you are selling fill those needs?
  • Competition — who are your competitors? What do they provide? How much of the share of your market do they have? What unique benefits do they offer your market? How do they get their customers?
  • Strengths and Weaknesses — what are the strong points of your business and what you offer, and in which areas do you have weaknesses? What do you have that is unique? What do your competitors have that you don't?
  • Opportunities and threats — what is going on in your industry and with your competition that can impact your business? (When the Dutch Warmblood registry in the U.S. added a division for hunters, a new market was opened for Dutch Warmblood breeders to market the horses they had bred that were of hunter type. The National Research Council will be issuing new guidelines for the Nutritional Requirements of Horses in the next year or so, offering opportunities to feed and supplement manufacturers. But pre-regulatory actions involving the sale of nutraceuticals caused concerns and limitations for some manufacturers. What is happening that opens doors, or potentially closes doors, for your business?);
  • Your business' current situation — what marketing are you doing and have you done, and how has it been working for you? What actions are worth continuing and which new tactics can you try? How much can you invest in marketing for the plan term?
  • A strategy to market your products or horses to each of your specific groups of customers.
  • Outline of specific marketing activities — for each marketing activity, break down the elements and answer the questions what, to whom, where, how, and when (as I did with the direct mail example above). Get specific and schedule each part of each activity. How much of your marketing budget has to be committed for each? Can you do all of the steps yourself or do you need outside help?
  • Metrics — What are the results you expect to achieve from each marketing activity and all activities over the term of the plan? How will the results from each marketing effort be measured, to determine whether the campaign was successful?

Once you have done all of the thinking, and research into certain issues as needed, writing a plan you can use should be straightforward!

Copyright 2005. This article first appeared in The Equine Business Edge, Equinnovation's complimentary newsletter (click to subscribe).

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