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3 Reasons to Build a Startup Marketing Plan

Startup Marketing PlanMany startups aren’t executing against a documented marketing plan. I’ve heard loads of excuses for why a plan doesn’t exist. The 2 most common ones are that things are changing too rapidly to plan or the marketing plan is so simple everyone can track it in their heads.

I’m not a fan of overly complex, long-term (i.e. more than 3 months) plans for anything in a startup. I am however a big fan of having the assumptions and inputs to a marketing plan written down and an rolling monthly operational plan that the team (even if it’s just me) is working against.

There are a bunch of good reasons to create a marketing plan, work against it and maintain it.  Here are three:

  1. Documenting assumptions/expectations– There are a set of inputs to any marketing plan: known information about the segment/buyers, how the buyers see the value of your offering versus alternatives, and the steps in the buying process. There are assumptions around each of those inputs based on things that are very likely to change over time such as the competitive landscape, the current capabilities of the product, and buyer behavior. You, and the other members of the team may not be in agreement on those (or even conscious of them). Getting those documented will both reduce the risk of incorrect or mis-aligned assumptions and will allow the team to recognize and react to changes that impact the assumptionHere’s an example: A few years back I inherited a marketing plan for an enterprise software application that was sold through a direct sales force. Until that time that type of software was purchased by IT departments with only minor input from the department that would ultimately be the end users of the product so the marketing had always been aimed squarely at IT buyers. What I was hearing from customers however was that budgets were shifting and business users were getting more of a say in the purchase process.  I added a “target buyers” section to the plan that sparked a discussion around whom we should be marketing to that started with the head of sales saying “What the *&% – I assumed we were already marketing to business buyers!!” Clearly, there were assumptions in the plan the team weren’t in alignment on.
  2. Keeping folks focused – Some people are naturally organized and very good at working through a plan kept only in their heads. The rest of us however, are easily distracted by the daily crises that form the regular pattern of how most startups operate.  Responding quickly to opportunities and threats is strength of smaller companies but some things in marketing take time to produce results and if you aren’t working against a schedule they won’t get done. Inbound and Content Marketing programs are often the first things to go out the window. It’s easy to skip a blog post, delay an article, not get around to responding to folks on Twitter, etc. when there are events to run and sales folks to respond to and a folks pounding the table asking why are there fewer leads this week than there were last week and FIXTHATRIGHTNOOOOWWWWW! This is the reason you see so many company blogs with only a handful of posts. Working against a schedule with regular checkpoints not only lets you assign tasks and hold people (including yourself) to deadlines, it also helps keep everyone focused on the longer-term (meaning this month rather than this minute) goals.
  3. Visibility into what you aren’t doing – One of the most important inputs to a marketing plan is documenting the customer buying process. Getting your arms around that helps you understand where prospects are getting stuck and what you can do to take the friction out of the funnel. It’s easy to be working on a set of tactics that are all focused on getting buyers from one particular point to another in the path when the sticky point in the process could be up or down stream and requires a different set of tactics to move folks along.

I usually end up having a set of short documents – a customer worksheet, an offering worksheet, a buying process chart, a leadgen spreadsheet, a media relations and speaking calendar, and a content calendar (depending on the tactics of course). Then there’s a spreadsheet and some dashboard tracking metrics.

What are you doing to track your marketing plan? I’d love to hear it in the comments.




  1. Early on, when a startup is in customer discovery mode, the documentation would be more around hypothesis testing – capturing what is being learned.

    Testing ways to reach / engage customers of course would be part of this. I would keep notes for later marketing e.g. verbatim quotes but I would not call this a plan.

    Maybe it’s just terminology but I would start calling it a marketing “plan”, when we have reached a point where we consciously start in customer acquisition / awareness.

    Totally agree though on your main point though. A startup does need a marketing plan. Even though they may remind us of the painful budget exercises in large software companies – they are invaluable to prioritize.

    But in this case it is usually for prioritizing time (more than money)

    • I agree that startups need to do a lot of testing in the early days and I wouldn’t call that a marketing plan either. 
      That said, I think a key component of the plan when you do get past that phase is capturing a set of assumptions that are inputs to the plan. For example, the exact customers you are targeting will evolve over time as you move from early adopters or begin to expand your target segments, the key points of value of your offering will change as both your offering and your competitors’ offerings evolve, the customer buying process might also change with changes in target markets and buying behavior. In my mind the “plan” looks nothing like a budgeting process – it involves capturing a set of inputs around customers, the offering, and the buying process, then selecting a set of tactics with those inputs in mind, executing those tactics against an operating plan and closing the loop with metrics that show me both what’s working and what isn’t but also point to how my assumptions might need to shift.

  2. Hi April – your post is so timely as I am wresting with some of this right now.  You are right that building a plan seems very onerous but I think it’s because some of us were tainted with the ideas of business plans from our MBA days 🙂

    The biggest benefit I see of doing some degree of planning is a) getting everyone on the same page 2) taking big goals (achieve X in sales in Year 1) into smaller bite size chunks that can be progressed in 90 days 3) Covering Your Ass when people conveniently forget what assumptions/direction/strategy was used in the first place.

    That last one is a big tongue in cheek but even for oneself it’s a good way to see a history of how things have evolved over time.

    I like the different worksheets you describe – had not thought of the buying process chart.  I use a single PowerPoint for different sections on messaging, content, events/milestones, sales process and PR but now I’m going to go back and give it the Rocket Watcher once over!

    • Hey thanks Amrita.
      The assumptions thing is a really big one. I’ve struggled with that one in every company I’ve been in. The first problem is that everyone thinks they are aligned when they aren’t and then the second problem comes when everyone is aligned but something changes that requires a shift in that assumption. Either way if you aren’t going back to them regularly, you’re going to have some fights. 🙂

  3. I think this notion punctuates your post to some degree April, but I would articulate it more directly – the notion of accountability.  More and more, with sophisticated analytics plugins and back end features, marketing professionals are expected to track the ROI.  Without some semblance of a plan, you can’t really know what you are tracking and you can’t asses whether or not the allocation of marketing resources supports the bigger picture. 

    • I totally agree with that. Tracking and measurement is really important. In my mind metrics are important for 2 key reasons: they help you look at your individual tactics so you can see what’s working, and what isn’t and try to improve your results, and they also give you an early indication when you have a strategic assumption that is changing (who you sell to, what your key value is about, how people buy, etc.). In the second case that shift may lead to a shift in tactics as well but for different reasons than just tactical performance. 

  4. I am glad to see the blog comments section has been separated from the reaction section. 

    Got any sample lean marketing plans to share?

    I think it would start with 

        – the assumption (we can convert 10% of blog readers to followers 
          by publishing a blog post once a week)


        – the test (look at existing metrics then set a target goal)


        – tactics (brainstump blog post topics, schedule the rough draft, 
          revision, then publish activities)

        – measurement (what are the results?)


        a calendar to schedule all these activities


        a cattle prod to get the work done!

    • Ah yes, I am finally getting around to using Disqus comments here. Took me long enough.
      I have a bunch of templates with examples for this stuff that I am going to share here (for startups, not so much this blog 🙂 I just need to clean them up a bit. Stay tuned. 

  5. Hey @aprildunford:disqus , 

    Thanks for the post. I really appreciate it and love finding out how other companies (particularly startups) are doing it. 

    I’m actually compiling many of the documents you mentioned into one larger Marketing Strategy for the company as we speak. It’s nice to hear that others are doing the same thing and that (it sounds) that I’m on the right track. 

    It’s so important to be held accountable and to just have a visual representation of your goals out  there for everyone to see. 

    Thanks again!

    Community Manager, 

  6. I like writing the plan in 3-month increments. Fights staleness and makes it actionable.  

    I also agree with Giles that in very early-stage startups that marketing is all about experimentation.  However, I personally still lump the planning of those experiments into the more broad characterization of Marketing Plan.  The results of the testing will become the foundation of the plan, and no true plan currently exists, so I’m good with the term- even if it doesn’t fit the traditional definition.


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