The right and wrong approaches to marketing planning

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Are you using a flawed approach to market your accounting firm? Do you understand the difference between a marketing plan and a business plan?

Let’s start by erasing the confusion. Both are essential elements for growing a successful business. But while a business plan provides insights into the characteristics of a business — its structure, operation, finances and goals — a marketing plan details how it will get to where it wants to go.

All of this takes focus, effort and careful consideration. The most successful accounting firms approach this task methodically, documenting each year’s strategy in a marketing plan and budget.

Through our research at the Hinge Institute, we’ve discovered four basic methods for marketing planning that accounting practices use:

1. Ad hoc: The Latin term for “when necessary or needed” is the perfect description for how many firms approach marketing. When clients suddenly depart or cash flow falters, some practices raise the “we need new business now” flag and try to generate new business through whatever marketing opportunities are available at the time. This is reactive, not proactive planning.

2. Legacy planning: Inertia’s a tough thing to battle. It’s human nature to resist change and not make more work for ourselves than we think necessary. From a marketing standpoint, that often means deciding that last year’s marketing plan will be just fine this year, with a little tweaking. If previous results were not disastrous, little analysis occurs, nor does change. Instead, a ho-hum plan gets reused with the same, predictable, ho-hum results.

3. Consensus planning: Also known as “death by committee,” this type of marketing and budget planning is a mish-mosh of ideas contributed by the various stakeholders of a marketing committee. Eager to get the plan done and approved, the committee works on the premise that everyone gets a little something. The result of this consensus-based approach is an inefficient, ineffective, bloated program that costs a lot and accomplishes little.

4. Strategic marketing planning: This systematic, data-driven approach delivers a solid plan based on strategic business goals and an informed understanding of the firm’s relevant target client groups and their needs. As the plan is implemented, results are tracked and analyzed, enabling the marketing team to adjust the program along the way. By optimizing its marketing plan throughout the year, the firm is able to eliminate inefficiencies and unproductive elements, maximizing effectiveness. The result? A turbo-charged marketing program that delivers significant, measurable success and growth.

Clearly the fourth approach is the most productive and beneficial. Good marketing planning should detail a firm’s strategy for growth and the tools it will employ to achieve it. A carefully thought out, comprehensive marketing plan will identify a target market and audience, explain how the firm will reach and attract prospects, and the tools it will use to convert those prospects into clients. By explaining how the business will overcome competitive challenges, the marketing plan is a key section within the business plan and requires detailed target market and competitive research.

Yes, strategic marketing planning requires some effort and research, but that extra work results in a better understanding of your target audience, its preferences and motivations. That enables you to develop the most efficient and effective ways to reach and influence them. And that, in turn, yields more prospects, more clients and more growth.

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