Elements of an Effective Strategic Marketing Plan
Thursday, September 20, 2001
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All too often, CPA firms embark on marketing efforts without doing the proper planning. This is a recipe for failure. Cliff Brownstein of Practical Strategies, who has developed marketing strategies for a variety of CPA firms and other professional practitioners, reviewed the most important elements of a sound, well-developed, written marketing plan.
You can read the complete transcript of this workshop.
Mr. Brownstein provided a step-by-step guide for such a plan, providing workshop participants with information on points to be considered when developing the plan, along with methods for measuring and charting results, and using the plan as a living, working tool on an ongoing basis.
- Get It In Writing
- Determine Your Target Market
- Identify Marketing Roles for Partners and Staff
- Develop Timelines and Budgets
- Make It Measurable
Workshop Moderator: Welcome everyone, and thank you for joining us today! I'm happy to introduce Cliff Brownstein, who will be presenting a workshop on the elements of an effective strategic marketing plan.
Cliff Brownstein is the Principal of Practical Strategies, a management and marketing consulting firm specializing in professional service firms and not-for-profit organizations. He has worked in and around the public accounting profession since 1977.
After serving as Assistant Executive Director of Associated Accounting Firms International (now Moore Stephens, North America), he joined the CPA firm of Aronson, Greene, Fisher & Co., in Bethesda, Maryland as the firm's first administrator.
During that time, he co-founded the Association for Accounting Administration and served as its Executive Director for ten years.
Mr. Brownstein formed C.M. Brownstein & Associates, Inc., a marketing and management company, where, in addition to managing the Accounting Administration group, he also served as Executive Director of the Association of Practicing CPAs, and as a marketing consultant to a number of small to mid-sized accounting firms.
Welcome, Cliff and thank you so much for being here today!
Clifford Brownstein: Thank you. Let's start off with a question. Who on line right now is utilizing a written strategic marketing plan at present?
John Rallis: formulating one for local use, I have one, of sorts.
Clifford Brownstein: Okay. Who has ever utilized a written marketing plan?
Robert Keister: I have a very brief one.
Stephen Riga: I have
Clifford Brownstein: All to often, CPA firms, as well as lots of businesses in general, want to market, spend money on marketing, but get less than acceptable results.
John Rallis: They tend to sit on the shelf or in the to-do box, but are rarely relevant day-to-day.
Clifford Brownstein: This is due to the generally haphazard nature of most marketing efforts. They are not well thought out. They are not based upon factual research. And they are not set in writing. Most firms do what I call "emotional marketing."
They've had some success in a particular market, so they just assume that with more effort, they'll multiply their success. Sometimes this can work, but oftentimes, it is a plan for failure.
Firms don't often use market demographics. They don't assess their competition in as much detail as is warranted, and they don't often exploit their markets in a concerted way.
Okay, so what are the elements of an effective, written, strategic marketing plan? They are:
- Over all objectives
- Target markets
- Financial goals
- Roles of partners and staff
- Action plans/strategic implementation plans
- Time and dollar budgets - and
- Methods for measuring results.
Clifford Brownstein: Everyone with me so far? Don't hesitate to ask any questions.
John Rallis: Cliff: can you give some specific examples of appropriate objectives?
Clifford Brownstein: I'm getting to that in a moment.
Clifford Brownstein: Let's look at each one of these individually.
The over all objectives of a strategic marketing plan should be a summary of the plan itself.
They should include many of the subjects I just listed above, but in abbreviated fashion.
Here is an example of an overall objective statement.
"This marketing plan covers the period January 1, 2002 through December 31, 2002. Our firm has identified the following existing niche markets as ones that we desire to expand upon: automobile dealerships, medical practices, and restaurants. Additionally, our firm has identified the following new markets that we wish to enter: trade associations, construction companies, and motorcycle dealerships. At present, we are grossing $1 million annually. By the end of the year, we hope to gross $1.4 million. The marketing plan will include but not be limited to direct mail and email promotion, speech making, advertisements and newsletters. A budget of $50,000 has been established. John Smith has been charged with overseeing the implementation of the plan."
A statement such as this sets the tone for the marketing effort, is succinct and on point, and contains enough detail so that anyone reading it would have a good idea of where the firm is devoting its marketing efforts.
Clifford Brownstein: How do you develop target markets?
There are really two ways to look at this. One is to assess the relative strengths and experience levels of your firm and match those up with various markets that would fit in with those strengths.
The other way is to determine first, which markets you would like to enter or bolster, and then develop the core expertise to meet those markets? needs.
However, the latter approach leaves you vulnerable to succeeding in obtaining new business that you cannot handle, for want of staff with familiarity in those industries or professions.
I prefer a combination of both approaches, with emphasis on the current experience and skill levels possessed by your partners and staff.
- The initial step in this process is to qualify those industries and professions where your firm either has past or present experience and contacts.
- The next step is to quantify just how much business you do in each of those areas. This is a very important step in the process because oftentimes, how much business in a particular area partners think they are doing is not exactly what they are truly doing.
- The third step in this process is to quantify the number of businesses in your chosen industries that actually exist in your geographic business area. You want to ensure that your perception of a given market is reality.
Next, I recommend that you further hone in on a given market by determining a size qualification. In other words, how large should a business be before it is of optimum size to qualify as a client of your firm?
No doubt, there is always the prospect of starting with small businesses, or at least including them within your market, on the strength of the growth potential they may represent. That is a decision you and your partners must reach when determining your optimum markets.
Workshop Moderator: And is there a consideration for clients that might be too large, as well?
Clifford Brownstein: Absolutely. It's important to determine what the firm can handle, given some stretch. The worst thing you can do is take on a client that is too large and fall down on the job.
Clifford Brownstein: Next, develop a database of companies in your target market that meet your client criteria. There are numerous sources from which you can gather this information, from CD ROMs of the white pages in your geographical area to local trade associations, to Gale's Research, and Dunn's Marketing Services, to name a few resources.
It is critical that this database be updated on a regular, frequent basis to keep it fresh and to enable you to communicate with prospects and not waste a lot of time, effort and money on bad addresses or miss viable prospects altogether.
Establishing financial goals as part of your strategic marketing plan
Clifford Brownstein: For any of you who have developed marketing plans, have you also developed targeted financial goals as a function of each target market that you are promoting to? I'll give you a few seconds to type in your responses.
Clifford Brownstein: No takers, huh?
John Rallis: Yes, sorry, financial goals were included
Clifford Brownstein: We talked earlier about quantifying the business that you derive from various existing markets. The next part of the marketing plan is establishing financial goals for the retention of new business or the expansion of existing business.
Remember out the outset of this on-line discussion, when we summarized the objectives of the marketing plan?
Now it is time to further segment the financial objectives of the plan, by targeted market.
In other words, if medical practices are to be a new market for your firm, determine, based upon your market research, the capacity of your firm to handle increased work, and the potential businesses available to you, how much you would like to grow that segment of your business in a given time frame.
Do this for each separate market area you have or propose to have. Then, periodically measure how well you are doing against the established goals.
What you will find is that you may not attain all the individual market goals, but you will come amazingly close to the new business goal in the aggregate.
Then, you can make adjustments to your marketing plan which reflect the relative attainment of new business in each of your market niches.
We'll discuss measurement of marketing success in greater detail a little later in our discussion.
Another criterion for establishing and measuring the financial goals of your marketing plan is to set them up by functional area, but cross-reference them by target market.
This will provide you with further information about not only the markets from which you are deriving additional income, but what services are garnering you the most new business.
Most firms with whom I work are generally a bit surprised when they quantify and analyze their earnings this way. The areas that they think are doing well oftentimes are not as strong, and they are gaining more in some other service areas which they did not anticipate.
The roles of partners and staff, and how they should be accounted for within the written strategic marketing plan
Clifford Brownstein: I am a big believer in that everyone in the firm should have a defined role in the marketing effort.
In the written plan, I would not get too bogged down in details for each individual on staff. Instead, I tend to keep it more generic and then get specific in the activities section of the plan.
Here are a few examples:
- For partners, I would write something like "It is all partners' responsibilities to obtain new and additional business for the firm. Their work on behalf of the marketing effort may entail any of the following functions: speechwriting and speechmaking before various targeted audiences; article writing; serving as an active participant in designated trade and professional associations; developing business leads and scheduling at least three meetings with prospective clients each week; etc."
- For juniors and seniors: "Responsibilities in the area of marketing on behalf of the firm may include: identifying opportunities for additional business from existing clients; alerting partners and managers to these opportunities; bringing new business leads to the attention of partners for further development, etc."
- For receptionists: "It is the receptionist's role in the marketing process to ensure that everyone who is greeted, whether in person or on the telephone, is treated in a friendly, helpful and accommodating manner. It is important for the receptionist to get people's names correct, not keep them on hold for an unduly long period of time, and to generally be super-responsive. It is also part of the receptionist's role to ensure that there are adequate supplies of firm business cards, brochures, newsletters, and other promotional literature at all times, etc."
All of these role descriptions are essentially job descriptions for that portion of everyone's time that is devoted to the marketing effort.
When you provide people with clear descriptions of what is expected of them, regardless of the levels at which they are operating within the firm, they will usually do a better job. It is when the lines of demarcation get fuzzy that people get confused, which generally results in less than optimum responses and a perception of not doing their jobs properly or completely.
Activities contained within the marketing efforts, which really become the "guts" of the marketing plan.
Clifford Brownstein: These activities should include the actual marketing methods and implementation.
They should be very detailed. If they are left general, people will be confused as to what they should be doing, plus there will be too much left to subjective interpretation.
Let's review an example of how activities should be spelled out in the written plan. Let's go back to the example of a CPA firm that is desirous of expanding its work with medical practices.
Let's say that as of today, this firm is doing $300,000 worth of business annually with medical practices, but wants to boost that figure to $600,000 annually.
Some of the activities to be itemized in the written plan would include:
- Finalize development of database of target businesses. Database should contain email addresses as well as mailing addresses, phone, fax, cell phone, how contacted, referral source, how often contacted, and any demographic financial information possible.
- Update this database by the first day of each quarter.
- Develop a four-page newsletter geared to the financial management of medical practices and mail to clients and prospects by the 15th day of each quarter.
- Develop a series of bill stuffers, each detailing a tax or financial management tip oriented to medical practices and tied into services offered by the firm, and include in all monthly invoices.
- Schedule at least one speaking engagement every month with various professional societies of medical practitioners.
- Schedule at least one article to be written for a medical organization every other month. Article will be limited to 500 words.
- Distribute e-mails to everyone in the database on a bi-weekly basis to keep them apprised of financial developments and ideas.
- Track all activities in the database, including any responses by prospective or current clients that has led or might lead to additional work.
By listing as many details in the written marketing plan as possible, less is left to chance or subjectivity. And the firm has a clearer roadmap of exactly what it is to for its marketing efforts.
And, whoever is heading the marketing effort within the firm will have an objective, itemized list of activities that has been jointly developed by designated leadership within the firm.
Action/strategic implementation plans
These are somewhat different from lists of activities. The activities list is just that - an itemization of those activities to be undertaken by the firm.
The action plan, or strategic implementation plan, describes more details of those activities - namely, how they are to get done.
The action plan lists exactly what person or groups of people are to undertake each activity.
It also further details the components of each activity.
For example, if one activity is to present a speech a month to some medical group or organization, the action plan would spell out how those speaking engagements will be procured, who will be responsible for obtaining the engagements, who will prepare the presentations and who will make the presentations.
The action plans are the real meat of the written marketing plan. They are a step-by-step map of how the firm gets from point A to point B, and so on.
The action plans get very specific as to who is responsible for what.
They are the most crucial aspects of the plan, and significant time should be devoted to planning them carefully, and then of course, adhering to those plans as closely as possible.
Timetables are the next aspect of the written marketing plan.
It is imperative that timetables and schedules be established so that the marketing plan stays on course and people begin to build these activities into their daily and weekly schedules.
It is also extremely important to the individual in the firm heading the marketing effort. It provides this individual with the objective authority to push people to do the things they committed to doing.
One common mistake when establishing schedules is that in its zeal to accomplish things, many firms will front-end load their schedule with too many marketing activities.
Instead, if the marketing plan is a year-long plan, or a two-year plan, spread out the activities more evenly.
Of course, there may be some activities that do get bunched up in the front, such as developing a more comprehensive database, or contacting organizations to identify speaking and writing opportunities.
But by and large, you should be able to space out activities so no one is unduly burdened with too many activities in too short a span of time.
Timetables are also part of the measurement of the attainment of your marketing objectives. If you find that you are not meeting deadlines, and are constantly extending them, you will need to determine why this is occurring.
Sometimes, it can merely mean that your original plan was overly ambitious, and you must space activities out more reasonably. It could also mean that some people are simply not following up on the work they were supposed to handle, but again, this could be a function of too much to do in too little time
At the bare minimum, firm leaders, or the committee overseeing the marketing effort, should get together to review the relative attainment of goals monthly. At this point, adjustments can and should be made to accommodate the realities of the firm.
It is not a sign of failure if deadlines need to be adjusted, as long as marketing activities are, in fact, being accomplished.
If little or nothing is getting done, and as a result deadlines are being extended constantly, then you have an entirely different issue.
Time and dollar budgets
Clifford Brownstein: Developing a budget for your marketing activities is imperative. It is one way of measuring the success of your marketing effort.
It is also important to develop a financial budget so that money is not spent in an ad hoc kind of way without being apportioned to marketing. On the other hand, unbudgeted items that wind up being classified as a marketing expense can be ferreted out more successfully.
At the same time you are developing financial budgets, it is advisable to develop time budgets so that the amount of time spent on marketing can be quantified and does not get out of hand.
It is also an easy way to determine the cost per hour of marketing.
Clifford Brownstein: How much money should you budget for marketing?
Lorie Still: 2 - 4% of estimated fees
Clifford Brownstein: Lorie--you're right there. My experience has been in the 3-6% range.
Clifford Brownstein: Some firms simply determine, on an annual basis, how much they can afford for marketing. This is generally a flat dollar figure.
Other firms have built it into their overall annual firm budget on a regular basis, and have determined that the amount spent on marketing should be a percentage of their total income.
I recommend to my clients that they first determine the overall budget figure, and then go about apportioning the money to various activities within the overall marketing effort.
Lorie Still: Should this amount also include salaries?
Clifford Brownstein: Yes, I've included salaries in that percentage range.
Clifford Brownstein: It can be a bit tough on a limited budget, however.
Clifford Brownstein: Okay, so you've developed your written marketing plan, identified your target markets, created your database, assigned roles to various partners and staff, outlined all of the activities, developed an action plan, and determined time and dollar budgets for all activities. So, how do you know how well your marketing efforts are paying off?
It can get a little tricky. Most CPA firms I've worked with equate each dollar spent on marketing by someone in the firm as a dollar less in billable time. So I think it has to be included.
One thing to bear in mind is that marketing efforts don't bear fruit overnight, in most cases.
It is generally a long, consistent effort that provides maximum results.
Some of your results will be dollar-oriented, and show up in the form of increased business. And some of your goals will be visibility and brand-oriented, and result in the form of greater name recognition, more speaking and writing engagements, and a reputation for high quality service in whatever circles amount to your target markets.
Clifford Brownstein: It is very important that success not be based entirely on dollar results. In fact, you will attain higher visibility before you ever develop increased business, and it takes patience.
Measuring your marketing results takes a number of forms, including:
- New business generated by marketing efforts.
- New business generated in specific, targeted markets.
- More and better speaking and writing engagements.
- More telephone call inquiries into the office about your services.
- More business generated through the introduction of new services.
- More unsolicited invitations for presentations.
Clifford Brownstein: It is imperative that each one of these be tracked in your database, and then analyzed on at least a quarterly basis to ascertain relative effectiveness of activities within the plan.
For example, if you place the same advertisement in several publications, and you use either a clip-out response or a response card, code each of the advertising insertions with a different number so that you know where the response came from.
If you make a presentation before an organization or association, and you provide handouts to participants, code those handouts as well as the business cards you distribute, so that you know where that individual heard of you or learned about your services. It also demonstrates how effective your presentations are.
The same is true for any direct mail pieces that you may utilize from time to time.
Your staff should develop the habit of asking a new inquirer who has contacted your office how they heard about your firm. This information should be relayed to a central repository for insertion into the database.
The same holds true for any electronic communications or solicitations you may make.
Again, use codes to identify the responses you receive.
Tracking all of these efforts and measuring the results will enable you to really home in on which aspects of your marketing efforts are working well, and which ones are not.
Then, you can make adjustments to capitalize on the more successful methods, and not waste a lot of valuable time and effort on the activities that have little or no payoff.
Where firms most commonly fail in their marketing efforts is not have a written plan, not being consistent, not developing time and dollar budgets in a concerted way, and not measuring results in a detailed fashion.
This tends to result in a hit-or-miss kind of effort which most firms have little use for after a time.
Spending more time on the front end of your marketing efforts will greatly enhance your chances of maximizing success and truly providing you with the information that you will need to assess the success of your plan.
And whether you write the plan yourself, or utilize a consultant to assist you, the same holds true. In fact, if you use a consultant, you should insist upon each of these components, and inquire as to how they will help you measure the results.
It's a lot of work, but there will be a lot less waste and a lot less controversy over what's working and what's not if you do it right.
As the saying goes, the devil is in the details. Well, to turn that on its head a bit, the deliverables are in the details as well. The more you know about your firm and your prospective markets, and the more you keep track of your data and use that information as a planning tool, the more successful you will be.
Clifford Brownstein: Thank you very much for your kind attention and participation today. I enjoyed it. If you wish to contact me directly, call me at 301-299-6068 or email me at: email@example.com. Thanks again
Clifford Brownstein: I'll be happy to stay on line if anyone has any additional questions.
Workshop Moderator: Cliff - thank you so much for a GREAT workshop!
Workshop Moderator: And thank you everyone for attending today
Melody Wagler: Do you have a sample marketing plan that you could send us?
Clifford Brownstein: Unfortunately, what I do for my clients is proprietary and I can't share that kind of detailed information.
Melody Wagler: What I'm looking for is more of an outline of how a marketing plan should look like.
Clifford Brownstein: Melody, I'd be happy to provide you with an outline. Email me your email address.
Melody Wagler: Thank you very much! I appreciate it.
Workshop Moderator: Cliff, if you'd like, we can reproduce such an outline along with the story we are running about this workshop.
Clifford Brownstein: That would be fine.
Robert Keister: Cliff - what is your thought on using "non-aggressive" telemarketing to qualify prospects?
Clifford Brownstein: Personally, I'm not a big fan of telemarketing, non-aggressive or not. Think of how much you hate getting those calls yourself.
Clifford Brownstein: Having said that, companies still utilize them, and statistics show they work. I've not had a client that has used them, however.
Clifford Brownstein: Thanks everyone. I've got to run to a meeting.
Workshop Moderator: Thanks again!
Stephen Riga: Thanks.
Cliff Brownstein, Principal of Practical Strategies, a management and marketing consulting firm specializing in professional service firms and not-for-profit organizations, has worked in and around the public accounting profession since 1977.
After serving as Assistant Executive Director of Associated Accounting Firms International (now Moore Stephens, North America), he joined the CPA firm of Aronson, Greene, Fisher & Co., in Bethesda, Maryland as the firm's first administrator. During that time, he co-founded the Association for Accounting Administration and served as its Executive Director for ten years. Mr. Brownstein formed C.M. Brownstein & Associates, Inc., a marketing and management company, where in addition to managing the Accounting Administration group, he also served as Executive Director of the Association of Practicing CPAs, and as a marketing consultant to a number of small to mid-sized accounting firms.
He is a contributing author to the AICPA's MAP Handbook, and also to its publication, "The Marketing Advantage." Mr. Brownstein has also been a featured speaker at numerous state society meetings as well as the AICPA's MAP Conference.
He resides in Potomac, Maryland with his wife Nancy and three (not so young anymore) children. In his spare time, he coaches baseball and softball, works on writing a novel, and rides a motorcycle.