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The traditional marketing plan is flawed.

While it does a good job detailing a company’s situation, SWOT, and KPIs, there’s one crucial thing it doesn’t do very well; Adapt. 

Your marketing plan should be a guide that aligns the marketing team and can be followed with confidence to achieve the business’ objectives. It should adapt and improve after every campaign or insight, yet most are updated once a quarter… at best. 

In this guide, I want to introduce you to the marketing plan system that we use at Venture Harbour (called S.T.A.R – more on that in a moment) to align our team and deliver better results from our marketing activity.

What’s in this guide?

The Internet’s full of half-baked marketing plan templates and articles. We’ve gone deep sharing everything; from our processes to insights & tools that’ll help you run your marketing far more smoothly.

Ready to dive in?

What would marketing plans look like if they were invented in 2020? 

Your marketing plan maps your trajectory from where you are today to where you want it to be as a business.

If that trajectory is just 1% off and goes uncorrected you’ll end up miles away from where you intended to be. Which is what happens time after time in every marketing department.

When marketers don’t calibrate their plan often they lose alignment. Marketing teams that aren’t aligned underperform, triggering a nasty cascade of familiar symptoms; Difficulty proving ROI, securing budget, earning confidence and getting buy-in from stakeholders. 

Which makes you wonder – surely there’s a better approach to the ‘quarterly marketing plan in a Google Doc’ that could keep marketing teams aligned and improving over time?

The S.T.A.R Marketing System

The S.T.A.R marketing system is a simple alternative to the quarterly/annual marketing plan that fits into your regular marketing meeting agenda. There are four parts to it:

  1. Strategy calibration
  2. Triage ideas
  3. Action campaigns
  4. Report back

The S.T.A.R marketing system has three main advantages over traditional marketing plans:

1) Consistency – Instead of campaigns being approved politically, with gut feel, or executed without the right level of input from the team, every campaign idea is agreed on merit. 

2) Centralisation – Most marketing teams manage their budgets & forecasts in spreadsheets, create briefs in documents, tasks in project management software and track results in data dashboards. This inevitably leads to a breakdown in communicating results back to business goals and teams becoming misaligned. S.T.A.R centralises each step of the process – from triaging ideas, to signing them off, and reporting back.

3) Continuous – Each campaign, whether successful or not, is a piece of the marketing puzzle helping you complete the full picture. Instead of losing these pieces, S.T.A.R helps you record every insight and continuously calibrate your marketing plan.

Before we dive into how each of the four steps work, we’ve created a free S.T.A.R Google Sheet template that you can access by completing this survey.

Strategy

The purpose of any marketing plan is to ensure that as a marketing team you spend your time and money on the things that will best achieve your organisation’s goals

Your marketing plan’s direction is set by your marketing strategy. 

This is the most important step to get right as it influences all downstream decisions and results. Your marketing strategy must start by answering four questions with absolute clarity:

  • Goal: What is the business trying to achieve?
  • Budget: What time & money should be allocated to achieving this goal?
  • Audience: Who are we trying to reach?
  • Channels: What things should we spend the budget on to reach the audience to achieve the goal?

The answers to these questions are your true north; The plan that tells you precisely what to do to achieve the business goal. 

1. What’s My Goal?

If you’re not absolutely crystal clear on what your business goal is – stop

Brainstorming campaigns without a clear goal is like an athlete starting a race with no idea where the finish line is. 

“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there” – Cheshire Cat, Alice in Wonderland

Finding your true north metric

As a marketing team, you need to know the one metric, that if increased, will achieve the business’ goal. 

While you may have a hierarchy of KPIs, you should still identify the one metric at the top of that hierarchy that the business looks towards to unlock growth.

This starts by understanding where the business wants to go. The timeframe you use for this is up to you, but here’s some food for thought:

  1. How much profit does the business want to be generating – by when?
  2. Therefore, how much revenue does the business need to generate? 
  3. Therefore, how many customers are needed?
  4. Therefore, how many leads are needed?

The specific terminology may vary for your business, but ultimately we’re just trying to connect the big picture aspirations of the business with the one number that marketing can directly influence to create a positive cascading impact.

You should end up with a hierarchy of KPIs that highlights one clear metric at the top that, when improved, delivers exceptional results. 

2. What’s My Budget?

Once you know where the business wants to go and what metric you can influence to get there, you need to know what resources you have available. 

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to set marketing budgets, and one is significantly better than the other.

Option 1: Benchmark budgets

This comes in various flavours from arbitrary percentages (e.g. 7-15% of revenue) to the popular ‘Profit-First’ model of allocating a percentage of revenue that always leaves a profit margin, to a simple fixed monthly amount. 

The benefit for this approach is its simplicity and safety. It’s hard for a company to significantly overspend if its marketing spend is proportionate to its revenue. 

The problem is that it’s not based on achieving an objective. Spending 12% of revenue on marketing every month may seem reasonable, but it may only be enough to keep up with your competitors if they’re also doing the same. It may even lead to losing market share, especially if your competitors are using the following approach.

Option 2: Zero-based budgets

The alternative is to work backwards from your goal. 

We talked about having a true north metric above which requires knowing how much profit/revenue does this business want to generate by when?

Let’s say the business wants to grow by $500,000 revenue in 12 months.

If each customer brings in $2,000, then you need 250 new customers. This means, your breakeven marketing budget would be $500k (acquire 250 customers @ $2k each). 

If you aim for a gross profit target of 50%, then your marketing budget is $250k and you have a target acquisition cost of $1,000. From here you can work out how many leads, demos, or clicks you’ll need to acquire one customer giving you a target cost per lead, cost per click etc. 

But… we aren’t able to get that granularity

If your marketing is relationship-based, driven by word of mouth, or your CFO is a bit… ‘traditional’ this step becomes harder – but stick with it.  

It’ll make your life 100X easier to engage stakeholders by presenting your marketing plan in a way that’s connected to their objectives. 

We surveyed hundreds of C-level leaders about their views on marketing plans and the findings were clear – they want marketers to report their campaign performance on financial metrics (profit, ROI) rather than what they view as vanity metrics (reach, traffic). 

Ultimately, It’s their job to ensure that every $1 spent generates >$1.01. Even if they say something to the contrary, the reason to invest in marketing is to grow the business – and whether we like it or not the CFO has the source of truth; Money in and money out.  

When you have a budget based on a business objective with clear CPA targets, conversations like “What if we increase the budget by 15%?” become more exciting to stakeholders – as they can tangibly see how this connects back to their objectives.

So, for the sake of your ability to engage stakeholders, it’s worth getting this clarity. 

3. Audience

Before we decide where to spend our budget, we must know who we’re trying to reach.

You probably have a fairly good idea of who your target customer is – it’s about to get a whole lot clearer. 

Below is an extensive grid of firmographics, psychographics, demographics and behavioural traits you can use to pinpoint exactly who your ideal customer is and where to find them. 

Using S.T.A.R, you’ll review this customer profile weekly, adding new insights to gradually hone in on who your target customer is. 

CategorySegmentExample
FirmographicsIndustry / vertical:
Employee numbers:
Revenue:
Budgets:
Business maturity:
Business model:
Process / operations:
Job title:
Department:
Professional Services
20-50
£1M – £10M
£100k+ marketing budget
Growth stage
Recurring revenue
Uses a CRM (e.g. Hubspot)
CMO / Marketing Director
Marketing
GeographicsCountry:
Region:
Cities:
Postcodes:
Urban / rural / suburban:
Language:
Climate:
Population / density:
Communities:
United Kingdom
South East
London
NW, W
Urban
English
Fair
Dense
London SEO
DemographicsAge:
Sex:
Gender:
Education:
Nationality:
Race:
Income:
Weight:
Height:
Religion:
Marital status:
Homeowner status:
Parental status:
30-45
Male & Female
Men & Women
Bachelors Degree
Not Applicable
Not Applicable
£60k – £100k
Not Applicable
Not Applicable
Not Applicable
Married
First time buyer
Has kids
PsychographicsInterests:
Beliefs:
Budget:
Motivations:
Emotions:
Values:
Opinions:
Attitudes:
Activities:
Roles:
Wellbeing, foodie
Marketing is maths
High disposable income
Wants career progression
Why am I not hitting my potential?
Honesty, integrity
Anti social media
Left wing
SUP, yoga
Volunteer
BehaviouralBenefits sought:
Occasion:
Intent: 
Device ownership:
Habits:
Buyer stage:
Events attended:
Books read:
Offline Communities:
Online Communities:
More leads
Revisiting marketing plan
Increase website leads
iPhone
Visits pricing page
Awareness
BrightonSEO
Influence, 
EO, The Agency Collective
Online Genius Slack Group

4. Which channels should we test?

How you allocate your marketing budget optimally depends on which stage of marketing maturity your business is at. 

The best performing marketing teams tend to focus on one core channel at a time rather than trying to do a little bit of everything. The table below outlines a strategic approach to budget allocation, based on surveying hundreds of marketing teams.

MaturityDescriptionStrategyBudget allocation
Phase 1We haven’t found our one core marketing channel that drives exceptional results.Invest a small amount of budget in a wide variety of channels to identify one channel that drives disproportionate results.100% on experimentation
Phase 2We have found our one core marketing channel that drives exceptional results.Focus intensely on that one channel until you see diminishing returns.~90% on core channel

~10% on experimentation
Phase 3We have saturated our core marketing channel and are seeing diminishing returnsSlowly diversify your channels, adding one or two new channels that you can double down on, while strengthening your one core channel.~80% on core channel

~20% on experimentation

Phase 1: Find your core channel

If you’re just starting out with marketing, your goal should be to find one channel that will drive exceptional results towards growing your true north metric. Ironically, the best way to find this one channel, is to run a small experiment across multiple channels to see which ones look promising. 

While painful to see budget wasted on low-performing channels, this is a necessary step – and the sooner you get through it, the sooner you get to your True North channels.

So what are you looking for? 

Example: How we found Leadformly’s Core Channel

When we launched Leadformly, we tested PPC, podcast marketing, and content marketing as three channels to experiment on. Podcasts failed miserably for us, and while we scraped a small profit on PPC, it was nowhere near as promising as content marketing. 

  1. Strong economics – A good piece of evergreen content should generate a consistent, or increasing, number of leads over time. The cost of creating content is one-off and upfront, so the profitability of this channel improved over time. 
  2. Growth potential – We brainstormed 100+ pieces of content, making it clear that if it worked, there would be no shortage of content we could produce to scale it up.
  3. Unfair advantage – As we own a network of websites that already reached millions of marketers and small businesses, we had a natural advantage to promote content. 

Phase 2: Focus on your core channel

Once you find the core channel that you’re ready to go all in on, stop everything else. If you decide to focus on Instagram, stop running Twitter ads – even if they perform well. 

As touched on above, when we discovered that content marketing would be our core channel we stopped our PPC ads – even though they generated a small profit. 

Attempting to maximise both channels is a fool’s errand. The increased value you will get from focusing on one channel will outweigh any performance benefit from dabbling across multiple.

Phase 3: Find your next core channel

You’ll inevitably saturate your core channel and begin to see diminishing returns. It’s at this point that it makes sense to go back to a more experimental approach to find your next channel to focus on intensely.

At this stage, you’ll ideally want to find a channel that meets all the criteria in phase one, but also complements your original core channel. 

2: Triage

Once your marketing strategy is clear, it’s time to start brainstorming ideas and triaging them to identify the likely best performers.

Creating a flow of Ideas

Ideas are the lifeblood that fuel your marketing plan. 

Whether your marketing team meets weekly or bi-weekly, one of the main objectives of this meeting should be to leave with at least 10 fresh ideas, optimisations or experiments added to your marketing backlog. 

The goal isn’t to commit to all ten. We’ll get to that in a moment; but to simply create a continuous flow of ideas that the marketing team can pick and choose from.

There is no recommended size or scope for an idea – it could be as small as increasing ad group X’s budget by 10% to run a superbowl ad.

Marketing meetings are for fusion

Ideas should be brainstormed ahead of the marketing meeting in private.

There are plenty of reasons for this, from valuing the input of introverts to avoiding time wasted on half-baked ideas. 

While ideation is far more effective when done asynchronously, there’s still value in discussing and prioritising ideas in the marketing meeting – as this leads to fusion; Ideas combining to form new ideas. 

Prioritising campaign ideas

Once you have at least 10 campaign ideas or optimisations, you’ll want to prioritise these using a prioritisation framework so that you can identify which ones to commit to. 

“All models are wrong – but some are useful”

– George E.P Box

We’re not aiming for scientific precision here – just a general sense of which campaigns are likely going to be most effective. I recommend the ICE-A framework (impact x confidence x effort x audience quality), but you can also use PIE (potential, impact, ease) or ICE. Whichever one you choose, you should end up with a prioritised list of campaigns like this:

Once you’ve highlighted your highest priority ideas, it’s time to promote them to the marketing plan to be fleshed out into more detailed campaign briefs.

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Complete survey to join our beta

3: Action

This step is all about refining your campaign ideas with other peoples’ perspectives and keeping the team aligned.

And that all starts with the brief.

Crafting The Ultimate Campaign Brief

Regardless of its complexity and size, every campaign should at minimum have five elements documented in your marketing plan:

  1. Campaign summary (name, channels, overview)
  2. Expected results (as a range e.g. 50-75 leads)
  3. Expected budget 
  4. Timeframe (start and end date)
  5. Prioritisation score

Like showing your work in maths, this is primarily about helping teammates and stakeholders understand how you arrived at the decision to run this campaign, increasing the likelihood of securing buy-in.

I recommend using a tool like TrueNorth to share campaign ideas for feedback in a centralised place where you record your campaign results.

For more complex campaigns, or those that are more budget intensive, you may want to add additional details, particularly around what resources you require and the creatives. 

The Secret to Making Sign Off Seamless

Getting sign off can be painful; It’s often slow, inconsistent, and prone to decisions being made subjectively – sometimes even politically. 

If the first time a stakeholder sees a campaign is at the 11th hour, your odds of getting the campaign signed off are significantly hindered.

Fortunately, the solution to this is simple. 

Inviting stakeholders to collaborate and give feedback asynchronously (i.e. not in a meeting) on the campaign pitch early creates buy-in and promotes transparency – making it harder for campaigns to be rejected on political or inconsistent grounds as their reasons/comments will be on the record and seen by all. 

At Venture Harbour, we use Slack – and built a (completely free) Slack app specifically for managing campaign sign off. If your company uses Slack, feel free to give it a spin here

4: Report

Many marketers despise reporting. It can feel like time wasted. Time that could’ve been spent on ideation or optimisation.

What’s clear from surveying stakeholders is that reporting is essential to building confidence. In fact, reporting back on a campaign that didn’t perform well builds more confidence than reporting back on only those that have performed well. 

Why does this matter? 

Building confidence is an essential ingredient for three things that will make or break your ability to succeed as a marketer:

  1. Getting budget
  2. Getting sign-off
  3. Career advancement 

Of course, stakeholder confidence will affect almost everything – from how you’re treated in meetings to how seriously your proposals are considered. In short, whether or not you like reporting – it pays to do it well.

Effective “Fluff-Free” Reporting

We’re all drowning in data, yet starving for insight.

Most marketers track user interactions down to a forensic level of detail. Yet, when asked the embarrassingly basic question of whether a campaign generates more than $1.01 for every $1 spent – we sometimes struggle. 

When reporting back on a campaign, it’s important to remember your audience. In almost every circumstance, your boss wants to know if the campaign worked or not in tangible terms. Sugar-coating the results with customer feedback and vanity metrics will do you no favours. So how do you make reporting back effective?

When you refined your campaign in the action step, I mentioned that the ultimate campaign pitch had five essential ingredients:

  1. Campaign summary (name, channels, overview)
  2. Expected results (as a range e.g. 50-75 leads)
  3. Expected budget 
  4. Timeframe (start and end date)
  5. Prioritisation score

The purpose of ingredients #2, #3, and #4 is to level-up your reporting. 

When your campaign has ended (according to the end date set in #4) you should collect your campaign results (using the same KPIs defined in #2) and the actual spend. By promptly sharing the actual results and budget alongside the expected results and budget, anyone in the team can see objectively whether this campaign was a success or not. 

Counter-intuitively, seeing campaigns underperform also seems to increase trust as many stakeholders are skeptical and used to reports being sugar-coated. 

Using S.T.A.R in Your Business

We’re currently in the process of building TrueNorth, a marketing management system that helps marketing teams create adaptable plans, prioritise campaigns, and rally their teams around the marketing plan.

If you’re interested in joining our beta, you can join here. As a Venture Harbour reader you’ll be jumped to the front of the beta queue. 🙌

We’ve also created a free Google Sheet template that you can use to run your S.T.A.R meetings which you can access by filling out the survey here.

Marcus Taylor

Marcus Taylor

Marcus Taylor is the Founder & CEO of Venture Harbour. Marcus is also an early-stage tech investor & the youngest Patron of The Prince's Trust.