Building a Strategic Promotional Plan

A goal is a dream until you make a plan. And the plan needs to be strategic otherwise it won’t work.

A strategy is a direction – a way of heading. This is not something that already has the tactics in place. Think of a chess strategy, or war strategy – these don’t have any step-by-step procedures in place that if a single thing goes wrong the whole strategy falls apart. That same thing is true of any strategy, including your promotional one. The strategy isn’t a tresure map. It simply outlines the direction. A strategy will rarely change, but the tactics you use to implement the strategy might – and probably will – depending upon what happens along the way.

No matter what kind of business you’re in, you need to operate strategically, and that includes the promotional activity you undertake. Too many times a ‘promotional plan’ is hit and miss. It’s buying an ad somewhere or running a competition. If there’s no strategy behind the tactics, then it’s like throwing fistfuls of money into the air. Here’s an outline of the basic steps for creating a strategic promotional plan. It will ensure your promotional activity is targeted, reflects the overarching goals of your marketing plan, delivers awesome ROI, and gives you the best opportunity for success. It works for every kind of business, whether you’re a CEO of a startup, a Fortune 500 company or a mommyblogger wanting to take the next step.

Step 1: Situation Analysis:

If you’re an operating business, you’ll probably have done a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) as part of your business or marketing plan already. That’s where you’ll have looked at the overall place of your product and its distribution in the marketplace. If you’re smaller in scope, you might not have thought too much about it before. That’s not a problem – this is where you start to think of yourself as a company! In your strategic promotional plan you’ll want to do a specific SWOT analysis on how your promotions are working, should work and how you want them to work. Look purely at the SWOT of your product’s promotions and its relationship to competitors promotions. Remember that promotion is a communication, nothing else. It’s about messages and activity directly tied to those messages. Outline what is great about your communications, what isn’t, what opportunities there are and how these could be threatened.

The second part of the situation analysis is identifying, in the most specific way possible, who you are as a company and product, what budget you’re able to work with, who your audiences are and where you’re at in the market and as a business. The more information you have at this point, hard as it might seem to face at times, the easier the other steps become and the more likely you are to reach your objectives. You’ll probably need to do quite a bit of research.

Step Two: Identify Your Objectives

Once you’ve identified where you’re starting from, then you need to identify where you’d like to go. In the strategic promotion plan, you need to have an promotional objective in mind (click on that link to define what types of things could be considered promotional objectives). You might have one or more objectives.

Because promotion is a communication activity, in developing your promotional objective don’t make the mistake of aligning it with anything other than a communication goal – something you can see as being directly tied to communication. If you fail to do that, and you’re employed as a communicator then you’re creating an environment in which it’s hard to prove ROI (return on investment). And to put it bluntly, you’ll need to prove ROI to keep your job, let alone get a bigger budget or more business from the client.

For example, don’t say a promotional objective is to increase sales. There are far more factors in play in your marketing plan than just communication that impact sales (such as what the product is like, the price point, your competitors, the economic environment, and so on). In your promotion plan, we’re only looking at things you can directly achieve with communication.

Ensure your objective is SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-focused. Something like “Achieve 1,000 people to log onto the website and sign up for the alpha invite before 10 August, 2009” is a good promotional objective. Ensure your promotional objectives are directly achieved with communication, and that they support the overall marketing goals. Never think you’ll be able to prove your promotions were directly responsible for an increase in sales – unless you can prove nothing else changed in the environment, business or marketplace. However, your promotional activity should be one aspect which contributes towards an increase in sales. And that activity should have SMART attributes which allow you to prove they were successful promotions (even if other stuff goes haywire).

Remember that Achievable and Realistic are two different things. Sure, sending out 500 samples a week to people in the mail might be achieveable if you never spend time with your family, but is it realistic? Begin with brainstorming some objectives that you’d like to achieve and then start adjusting and tying them down with the SMART criteria.

Step Three: Choose your Tactics:

Think of tactics as tools in your kit that will allow you to implement your strategy, and get to your objectives. There are four general categories of tactics, these are: PR, Advertising, Sales Promotion, Personal Selling (which includes Word of Mouth and online communities – take some time to review each of the links). Some of these have cross over points and grey areas, and when done well, you should use some in combination or at different points in order to achieve your objectives. For example, very rarely do you use a single way of transport to get from one place to another (you might walk, then take a bus, then walk again for example), and the same is true of choosing promotional tactics. You need to select promotions that are directly aligned with your strategy. Think of what each of them will do for you, and then put them together so they become a plan.

Begin with the four big categories and the links I’ve attached to them. Then make a list of what reasonable types of activity you could consider to use, given your budget and situation, that will help you implement your strategy and get to your objectives. PR could include conferences, speeches, media activity, etc. Sales Promotions you might consider are sampling, competitions, etc. Personal Selling includes training your internal staff, internal recognition programs, and these days, word of mouth and user community. Spend some time brainstorming different things. Let me repeat, these four different areas of tactics are very broad and do not have defined constraints. They are, however, foundational points for sparking your thoughts about different activities you can do to communicate messages to different target audiences, and receive information back.

When you have chosen some tactics, put them in order of when you’d like to undertake them. There has to be real consideration given to when is the most effective time to use a particular message and a particular tactic with your market. Remember that promotions are defined as short-term activities. Ads get old fast. So do competitions. Happy Meal toys get rotated every month. Effective promotions don’t run for an extended period. Make them short, targeted and focused for great results.

That’s how you create a plan that is strategic. If you needed to go from your house to your kids’ school, you wouldn’t take an aeroplane, even though it would probably work. It’s not a well considered tool for the job. In fact it could backfire – how would your kids’ friends feel? Your neighbours? Choose the correct tools for the job, to move you along the strategic path toward your goal.

It is really very useful to use a timeline for this. Put a beginning date and the end date (which will align with achieving your objective). Then mark in what activities you’re planning to use, and when you’ll use them. Again, the more specific you are with activities, how they’re going to work with each other and especially, what each of them has been chosen to achieve as part of your strategy, the more likely you are to be successful. Don’t do something just because it’s easy, or the latest trend.

Step Four: Monitoring and Evaluation

This is the trick step. I should probably have started with it! From the very beginning of your planning to after the objective has been achieved you’ll be monitoring how your plan is going. That way you’ll know if you’re sliding off the path at all. It’s far easier to identify where things are going wrong if you do it regularly than looking back over the experience at the end and wonder what happened. You’ll also be able to make alterations to your tactic selection to get back in line with your strategic path if that’s necessary.

When you choose your tactics, it’s based on the information you have on hand right now. Also, it’s done with some expectations about how effective other tactics you choose are going to be. Just say you decided to run a competition as one tactic to get yourself an additional 100 people to try something or visit your blog – and it ended up falling flat. Well, when you’re actively monitoring and evaluating your plan on a regular basis, you could decide to change your next tactic to pick up the pace and get you back on track. You’ll also probably review future competitions and see what you need to change about them or whether to ditch them altogether. You’ll be listening to your audience, but keeping your eye on what your objective is. Your strategy won’t change, but your tactics might – and probably will – as you move along.

Planning your promotional strategy plan will take you some time, energy and thought. Far more so than simply placing an ad somewhere, or running a random competition. But the outcomes will be infinitely better. So what are you waiting for? Get strategic!

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