One of my favorite things to do is get lost in a new city. I love to leave the guidebooks at home, toss the itinerary, and wander, stopping into places that look interesting, making decisions as I go, and seeing what I find.

This can be great for an adventure, but it's not so great for getting where I want to go. If I want to visit Los Angeles, hopping on the closest "West" labeled Interstate won't automatically take me there. If I want to try the best restaurant in town, wandering down the street and choosing one that looks cool doesn't mean the food will be top notch. While I love to explore, when I have a specific destination in mind, the planner in me comes alive. I do research, create itineraries, print maps and go in with a plan. Sure, it's extra work, but in the long run, the results are so much better.

The same is true for marketing. While you can fly by the seat of your pants, creating brochures, videos or other materials that look good, it doesn't mean those will get you where you want to go. Many organizations take a tactical, reactive approach to marketing – much like traveling without a map — and then wonder why they don't end up where they were trying to go. Like travel, truly effective marketing requires research, a strong plan and a road map to help you get there.

In fact, strategy and marketing plans are so critical that we rarely provide marketing support for an organization if we don't create a plan first. Here are the things a good marketing plan should tell you:

  • Goals: Where are you going? Your goals are the destination and everything you do should help you get there. Laying out goals helps you determine which strategies and tactics are necessary and which are fun ideas that can wait. It can also help you prioritize your goals. Few organizations have the time or budget to do everything at once, so sketching out the immediate growth opportunities will help you know where to start.
  • Audiences: Who are you trying to reach? What do they care about and what messages do they need to hear? Some strategies and tactics are created uniquely for an audience, while others are tweaked to tailor messaging to each audience. Either way, in today’s data-centric, highly-personalized world, blanket marketing doesn’t work, and we have to understand target audiences before we can build a true plan.
  • Strategies: Strategies are high-level recommendations that provide direction for key steps to help you reach your goal. For example, if you want to increase enrollment for a youth event, a strategy might be to raise awareness among parents or youth leaders. Strategies are the big picture look at what you’ll do.
  • Tactics: Tactics are the how’s that support the strategies. These are the step-by-step directions and specific details to help you get where you’re going. In marketing, brochures, press releases, videos, events and social media all fall into this category. Think of tactics like the tools in a toolbox. They're all important – and ultimately what you use to get the job done – but if you don't know what you're building, the tools mean nothing (and can actually cause more damage than good). A good marketing plan should outline tactics but always place them in context of how they support the larger strategy, which supports the larger goal.
  • Timeline: Once you know where you’re going and how to get there, you need to map out when you’ll do what – an itinerary of sorts. A timeline keeps you honest and helps you anticipate deadlines so you don’t miss any opportunities.

A marketing plan shouldn’t just be a set of ideas; it should be a comprehensive plan where all ideas all work together to provide an integrated approach to marketing. When we create a plan, we draw a literal map of it, showing how each tactic supports a strategy and each strategy supports an audience or goal. If we can't connect an idea to the whole, we toss it – not matter how fun or creative it is. 

So the next time you embark on a new marketing adventure, go in with a plan. It will make the journey smoother, help you get to your destination and give you the best results. 

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