Marketing planning in a nutshell

I provide many public training courses on marketing planning in a nutshell. But questions about marketing planning arise in many other public and in-house training courses on business development, referrer management and social selling. And of course people ask me for a standard marketing plan template. But it’s rarely as simple as filling in a form. As with all strategy and planning, much of the value of a marketing plan is in the journey to producing it – rather than the destination. And marketers and business developers will need different things from their marketing plans to fee-earners and it will differ in terms of the level of focus – for the firm, for a market or sector, for a service line or for a particular territory. So in this blog post I attempt to summarise the key points of marketing planning in a nutshell. 

“If you fail to plan, you plan to fail” Philip Kotler

Alignment – start with the business plan

Planning (also called forethought) is the process of thinking about and organizing the activities required to achieve a desired goal.

No man (or woman) is an island. And no marketer or business developer should work in isolation from the business plan for the firm or the department/team. However, often in the professions, the business and strategic plans are often lacking – they show no clear vision, direction or SMART goals for the marketing plan to follow.

Some see this as a problem, whereas others see it as a fantastic opportunity. It means that marketing and business development can take a seat at the strategy table and help craft the firm’s overall strategy and plan before we get to the nitty gritty of a marketing plan. Furthermore, the marketing planning process – in a professional services firm – can help shape that firm-wide strategy as marketing strategy is concerned with what services we promote into what markets and at what price and with what promotion and sales approaches.

The strategic planning process has a number of stages:

  • Strategic intent (Identify, purpose and vision)
  • Strategic analyses (External and internal analysis)
  • Strategic options (Competition, direction, method and values)
  • Strategic plan (Aims and journey, operating plans, initiatives, processes and execution)

For guidance on aspects of developing a business plan see these posts:

Strategy basics (Mintzberg) 

Linking business and marketing strategy

Seven deadly sins of business plans

Leadership in property firms (vision and values)

Balanced score card

There’s also plenty of guidance on strategy development – whether at an organisational or departmental level – from various workshop sessions I run on “Be more strategic”:

Book review on Thinking strategically

Book review on strategy development

Being more strategic workshop – six insights

Strategy development insights – curiosity, challenge, creativity, co-creation and culture change

Strategy workshop – Skills, resources. involvement, tools and journey

Be more strategic – creating behaviour change

Business development vs marketing plans?

There appears to be some confusion about whether marketing or business development takes the lead on preparing plans. For me there are two views about this – depending on your definitions. Some firms consider business development to focus on sales and selling. In which case you have to start from a marketing plan as selling is a part of the marketing mix and secondly, in the words of Drucker “the purpose of marketing is to make selling superfluous”.

However, I define business development as the three processes that lead to business generation in a professional service firm. That’s marketing, selling and relationship management (which includes referrer management and key account management – KAM).

This follows a pipeline model – i.e. identify the target market, raise awareness, position appropriately, generate leads, convert interest and develop/expand the relationship. In this case the people with overall responsibility for the entire business development process should develop the plan as marketing is just one element.

I’ve also written about the need for strategic alignment between sector (segmentation), key account management (KAM) and client experience management (CEM).

Simple marketing planning process

It’s good to keep things simple. So, as I have mentioned in many other posts, adopt a simple approach to structuring your marketing plan:

  • Where are we now?
    • Analyse the current situation
    • Complete a marketing audit (see below) of internal and external factors (some folk use a SLEPT or PEST or PESTLE analysis to consider sociological, economic, political, legal and technological trends)
    • Identify the core issue(s)
    • Summarise the internal strengths and weaknesses and how these translate into external opportunities and threats (SWOT). Of course, things are opportunities when you are proactive and threats when you don’t take action and only react to them.
  • Where do we want to be?
    • The vision and values of the firm
    • The over-riding mission or goals or the owners and stakeholders
    • The financial objectives – preferably by market and service line and geography. Whilst many firms focus on fees and revenue targets, as marketers we must consider both client satisfaction and profitability
    • The SMART (Specific Measurable Achievable Realistic Time-specific) marketing objectives – these might be at a top level of markets and clients or a lower level of traffic and engagement across digital channels
  • How will we get there?
    • The overall choice of a strategy – the headlines of your strategy
    • Remember that marketing strategy is about “the choice of which services we provide into which markets”. This is often the reason why segmentation and sector approaches feature so large in the plans of many professional service firms.
    • Many will base their strategy choices on the marketing mix (product, price, place, people, physical evidence, process or promotion). Increasingly there will be traditional and digital strategies within the promotional or marketing communications strategy
    • Some will focus on the balance between existing and new client relationship development (client relationship management (CRM) and Key Account Management (KAM)) or a referrer strategy (direct and indirect channels). Larger firms tend to focus on existing relationships whereas smaller firms often focus on new relationships
    • Others will concentrate on differentiation (such as brand or thought leadership strategies) and innovation  which might include new product or service development (or even disruption of the current market) or perhaps even client experience management (CEM)
    • In some commercial markets, where there are only a limited number of targets – the strategy may focus on the identification and individual plans to establish contact, build relationships with and generate work (or referrals) from just a handful of organisations. In these situations, it is more like a sales strategy or a series of individual sales strategies.
    • Sometimes the strategy is simply the main headlines of what you intend to do in the short, medium and long term
    • From a firm-wide perspective, there will be strategic considerations about organic growth versus growth through mergers, acquisitions and lateral hires and some firms may consider specialising on a specific segment or specialism to become a more profitable boutique practice (so there may be divestment of non-core services) or broadening their range of services through diversification. Others may concentrate on consolidation and efficiency improvement
  • What will we do?
  • How much will it cost?
  • How do we know we are succeeding?
    • The monitoring section highlights how progress will be monitored and reported – whether this is through tracking process and results against objectives or milestones and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) on major projects

Other pragmatic approaches to marketing plans include SOSTAC (Situation, Objectives, Strategy, Tactics, Action, Control) and ROSIER (Research, Objectives, Strategy, Implementation, Evaluation, Resources).

Some firms adopt a scenario analysis approach to planning for future action. See, for example: Allen & Overy’s use of scenario planning  or read a book on scenario planning.

Text book marketing planning process

Of course, those that that have studied marketing (e.g. Chartered Institute of Marketing – CIM) will have a more sophisticated and complex approach to marketing planning. Whilst the steps are similar, there is much more detail in each step.

You have to be careful not to overwhelm non-marketers with the jargon. And in the professions we are often lacking much of the data and analytics that we need to make informed choices. And as a word of warning, if you are embarking on the marketing planning process in your firm for the first time it is probably best to adopt the simpler approach.

Malcolm McDonald – marketing plan guru – has a couple of approaches. In the first, simpler approach he proposes:

  • Define markets and understand the value
  • Determine the value proposition
  • Communicate and deliver the value proposition
  • Monitor the value (both to clients and to the firm)

I particularly like this process because it starts – as it should – with understanding the markets and client perceptions and needs of value. Value proposition development is notoriously difficult though (see what is a value proposition and how do I create one? and joined up marketing and selling with value propositions. If you are feeling really brave then you might want to read Malcolm McDonald’s recent book on developing value propositions.

Malcolm McDonald proposes the following contents for a strategic marketing plan:

  • Mission statement
  • Financial summary
  • Market overview
  • SWOT analysis
  • Issues to be addressed
  • Portfolio summary
  • Assumptions
  • Marketing objectives
  • Marketing strategies
  • Resource requirements and budget

This version is much closer to a business plan than a marketing plan and is suitably strategic. Most professional service firms have a portfolio of services so it is good to look at the range of products and consider using tools such as the Ansoff matrix (new and existing services into new and existing markets), Boston Consulting Groups (BCG) portfolio analysis and Porter’s generic strategy choices (differentiation vs cost leadership, broad vs niche markets).

Marketing audit

Most marketing planning processes start with a marketing audit. Here’s a six minute video introduction to marketing audits and PESTLE analyses.

Kotler defines a marketing audit as “A comprehensive, systematic, independent and periodic examination of the unit’s marketing environment, objectives, strategy and activities with a view to determining problem areas and recommending a plan of action to improve the company’s performance”.

McDonald has a similar definition “A means by which a unit can identify its own strengths and weaknesses as they relate to external opportunities and threats – a way to help management select a position in that environment based on known factors”.

The marketing audit therefore requires a lot of analysis and research – interrogating both internal financial, work process and CRM systems and analysing the external market. Most professional service firms are good at analysing the internal situation – how they have fared in the past, the skills and services available, client perceptions and satisfaction. Sometimes there is a challenge in getting hold of other internal data – such as the source of past clients and work and the profitability of different markets, clients, services and work types.

Many firms have too inward a view and fail to analyse the external market in enough detail. Here there are two strands to explore. The far external environment – the longer term and bigger trends affecting our clients and our markets (although many will be familiar with the SLEPT or STEP or PEST model – there are various blog posts containing information on these, see for example:

The near external environment will be concerned with competitors – both existing and emerging. In some professional service markets there is much disruption and many new entrants which must be considered. Technology is also driving a lot of competitive challenges. A popular model for structuring your analysis of your competitors comes from Michael Porter. His Five Forces model helps you establish the attractiveness of your market by examining:

  • Rivalry amongst competitors
  • Supplier power (in the professions the main challenge here is competition for high calibre candidates for recruitment)
  • Buyer power (the extent to which customers and clients have power – for example, major clients with a lot of power and influence or in collaborative procurement hubs)
  • Threat of substitutes (of course, clients can always do things in-house but there are other substitutes for your products and services)
  • Threat of new entrants (the digital age has seen a lot of new virtual providers. We have also seen many disruptors – for example, accountancy firms offering legal services and vice versa)

But it will also be concerned with the immediate regional or geographic challenges. This is particularly important for smaller firms who are based in a particular region or location. Demographic and economic data about both the consumers and organisations/industries will be vital here.

Inevitably there will be a lot of data collected during the marketing audit. This is good news for marketers as it means that they are totally immersed in information that helps them get up to speed with the fee-earners who live and breathe in the markets. It also helps provide a rational framework – and hard evidence – on which to base any subsequent decisions and plans. It is easier to persuade fee-earners of a particular course of action if they can see the hard data highlighting threats or opportunities in the market. The information also acts as an important reality check for any aims or objectives that the fee-earners might have.

I’m happy to provide marketing audit checklists to my clients – please email me

Goal setting

Once you know the present position – from your marketing audit – it should be easy to set some goals about where you want to get to. But there are different types of goals. For example:

  • Values – guiding business principles
  • Purpose – fundamental reason for a business’ existence (Simon Sinek’s “Why?)
  • Mission or Vision – A bold, compelling audacious goal

There is a short video explaining these ideas on mission and vision. Sometimes your objectives can be taken direct from the business or department or client plan – the top down approach. But sometimes these objectives are at the highest level of fee and profit targets and you need to do some work on breaking them down on how much fee income and profit from different markets, clients, departments, services or fee-earners.

At other times you need to work from the bottom up – look at what a range of fee-earners or departments want to achieve and consolidate them. This can pose a problem if their goals are substantially different.

But setting clear goals is important for a number of reasons. First, you need to know what it is you are trying to achieve in order to select the right strategy. Second, without clear goals it is difficult to justify the cash and time resources that will need to be invested. Third, without clear goals it is impossible to measure your return on investment and also your progress and success.

Helping fee-earners develop clear goals is also an exercise in expectation management – you need to know what good looks like in order to develop a plan to deliver it.

Here are some blog posts to help with forecasting and goal-setting:

Stepping stones approach to goal-setting

From Jesse J to Einstein – ROI in professional services firms

How do I develop a marketing budget?

Developing and selecting a strategy

The one area where I think that many marketing plans are weak is the successful identification of a suitable segment or client persona(s).

There are numerous comments and links above about being more strategic and selecting a suitable strategy.

Differentiation is also a key component of strategy – whether by branding, positioning, market segmentation or innovation (the CIM course on Innovation is great).

Larger firms will often focus on existing client relationship management (CRM) or even key account management (KAM).  Consider the reasons to invest in a KAM programme. Or look at ideas around Account-Based Marketing (ABM).

Transactional or litigation firms may adopt a referrer or intermediary management programme.

Many firms use thought leadership as an integrating strategy.

Other strategies might include: new market entry and development or new product or service development. Other strategies might include a focus on client experience management (CEM or Cx).

Developing campaigns and content

With the strategic marketing plan out of the way, you then get down to the hard work of planning the detailed tactical and operational work. Many firms will have campaigns and projects to develop – and a content management plan to show what information and messages will be communicated through them.

The journey to developing a thought leadership campaign is summarised here.

There’s an approach to campaign development generally  and an overview of the skills required by marketing and BD staff to support campaign development.

Detailed marketing plan outline

So, if you want a more detailed approach to your marketing planning, these are the sorts of activities you should consider and summarise in your plan. Naturally, it will be slightly different depending on whether your plan is for the firm, a region/office, a market/segment or a service line.

Current situation Internal analysis

–       Culture, values and ethos

–       Historical fee income and profitability

–       Current business position

–       Breakdown of markets and clients

–       Analysis of key clients and referrers

–       Service and satisfaction ratings

–       Source of work

–       Human resources and skills

–       Services and pricing

–       Operations, facilities and efficiency

–       Facilities, premises and administration

–       Past marketing effectiveness

External analysis

–       Environmental audit (SLEPT or STEP or PEST analysis)

–       Market and sector trends

–       Regional analysis

–       Competitors and substitutes

–       Client, referrer and target analysis

Summarise with a SWOT

Identification of the core issue(s)

Objectives –       Firm mission, vision and financial goals

–       Department/team financial goals (short, medium and long term)

–       Demand forecasting and gap analysis

–       Reputation and positioning targets

–       Market aims (e.g. share analysis)

–       (Key) client and target and referrer objectives

–       Communication and engagement KPIs

Assumptions and risk –       Assumptions

–       Risk analysis and management

Strategy –       Selection of markets, sectors and niches (segmentation)

–       Competitive advantage and differentiation

–       Pricing

–       New product and service innovation and development

–       Branding, positioning and communications

–       Internal and external marketing communications and key messages

–       Traditional and digital strategies (including content management)

–       Direct and indirect channel management

–       Pipeline and sales management

–       Balance of existing vs new clients and referrers

–       Client listening, retention and KAM strategies

Action plan –       Information and infrastructure development

–       Research and analysis

–       Key programmes and projects

–       Key campaigns

–       Major tactical activities

–       Timelines and allocation of responsibilities

Budget –       Cash

–       Time

Monitoring –       Information monitoring systems and reporting cycle

–       Contingency plans

I’m happy to provide marketing plan templates to my clients – please email me at

We cover the theoretical basics and practical application of them in the PM Forum course “Marketing planning in a nutshell”

Practical marketing plans for fee-earners

But fee-earners – and particularly those in the property sector – are not particularly interested in the detail of a marketing plan. Being activtists and pragmatists they simply need to know what to do and when in the short term. For these folk you need to reduce down the essence of the plan into a summary and bite-sized pieces with an action orientation.

Some firms have excellent single page summaries for their marketing plans. Containing just three short sections:

  • Where? – markets and clients
  • What? – goals (financial, reputation, satisfaction, target clients)
  • How? – quarterly strategy and programmes

Ideally, there should be a link between any business development and marketing plan and the individual personal marketing plans for each fee-earner.

Getting buy-in for marketing plans

I am often asked about how to achieve buy-in for marketing plans. And there are many blog posts on the topic.

The short answer here is to get fee-earners involved in the marketing planning process from the outset. That way, they are aware of the information and the issues and can make decisions and choices about the strategy themselves with your help. If they have been involved in the process they are more likely to be committed to it and therefore there is less need to consider stakeholder management or buy-in strategies.

There is a short video with an animal magic approach to buy-in techniques. And there are many blog posts on stakeholder management and buy-in:

Bottlenecks, bulldozers and caught in the cross-fire – stakeholder management workshop

Getting it past the partners – all about buy-in 

Oranges, elephants and dancing for buy-in

Dear Fee-earner – Love from Leeds (why you should allow your M&BD team to help you

Further reading

The following blog posts elaborate on some of these marketing planning themes:

10 steps to building a marketing campaign 

Designing a marketing and BD team

Differentiation and innovation

Introducing the marketing planning process to a professional services firm

What managing partners think is great marketing

Integrated marketing – Sectors, Key Account Management (KAM) and Client Experience Management (CEM)

Marketing plan for private client lawyers 

Referrer management strategies

Selecting a strategy 

Strategy development insights 

Themes from a marketing planning workshop