Above the Noise

By: Sharon Berman,

A Well-Defined Marketing Plan Can Set You Apart From the Competition

Writing a marketing plan often falls in the same category as going for a regular physical or getting your car tuned up—you know you should do it, but you always seem to find excuses for putting it off. However, just like the physical and the tune-up, it is time well spent that will pay off in the long run.

Think about the advice you give to clients regarding their businesses. You urge them to carefully monitor their costs and profit margins and stay on top of their ratios. The result? Improved profitability and a more secure financial future.

It’s the same with a marketing plan. Your investment of time and effort can yield much greater benefits than a haphazard approach to marketing your services.

If you’re daunted by the thought of writing a long, voluminous plan, change your mantra and think – streamlined. Create a straightforward document that maps out your marketing efforts.

Treat your plan as a living document that you can reshape as your business changes, or as you identify key trends that may provide opportunities. By setting goals in your marketing plan, you can assess how you are doing and readjust your goals and plan as the months unfold.

A marketing plan can help you get more bang for your marketing buck by keeping you focused on your goals.

Like a balance sheet, a situational analysis provides a picture of where your business stands today. However, you’ll also look at where your business has come from and where you want to go. This is the foundation for the rest of your marketing plan.

Determining your professional strengths and weaknesses. What activities in your work do you enjoy? What do you dread? It’s important to be honest because most people excel at the things they enjoy. You’ll give yourself a strategic advantage by concentrating your efforts in the areas in which your enjoyment – and attention – give you the greatest opportunity for success.

Next, take a look at your business and the marketplace. What does your organization do best? Consider, too, your firm’s marketing strengths and weaknesses. Are you great at creating relationships, but not so good at keeping up with them in the long term? Maybe you are skilled at planning wonderful campaigns, but not so good at executing them.

Take a look at your firm’s financial data. What can you learn from your billing patterns and the types of services clients have been buying – and when? Don’t be afraid to ask your clients about what they buy and why.

Next, compare your services against your competition. Look for overlaps of service and – most important – market niches that are ripe for a new service that you might be able to supply.

Finally, broaden your research to encompass your entire profession. Talk with referral sources, clients, colleagues and competitors about professional trends and hot issues, new market opportunities and technology that relate to your area of work.

As you begin to study the elements that make up yoursituational analysis, you’ll start identifying problems in your business that need solving – as well as opportunities that your competitors are missing.

This is the “who” of your plan. Who is going to buy your services? Think broadly across geography, industries, company sizes, etc. Divide your group into primary and secondary markets, and don’t forget your current clients and referral sources. Segmenting your markets can help you decide how to best divide your marketing dollars to have the optimal impact.

This is the “what” of your plan and can include both sales and marketing goals. Set both short-term goals (a year or less) and long-term goals. Set your targets for the year, with interim quarterly objectives, then project out. Be specific about dollar amounts and time frame.

For example, one marketing objective might be to gross $600,000 in tax consulting services over the next year, 10 percent of which will come from companies involved in new technology, an underdeveloped niche you discovered during your situational analysis.

To set realistic sales goals, examine your financial picture and doing some massaging. First, look at the trends in your overall sales and your sales by service line for the past few years and project them out for your proposed time period. Reconcile the two numbers to come up with a top-line forecast figure.

Second, do a bottom-up prediction by factoring in the amount of business you and your colleagues realistically plan to pull in, projections of repeat business and estimates of other new income. Consider talking with clients about their projections regarding the extent of your services they intend to use.

Your top-down and bottom-up numbers are likely to differ, but you can find a common ground by considering market factors, trends, your company’s future plans, etc. Your business sense will guide you in finding an appropriate final sales goal.

As far as marketing goals, you’re looking at what you want the target markets to do. Outline the actions you want them to take.
You might want current customers to consider purchasing particular services, such as financial services if you’re branching into this arena. Your marketing objective might be to have 10 current clients become full-service clients, where they are turning to you for investment or insurance advice.

Don’t jump the gun yet and begin picking the specific tactics you’ll use to get new business. First, look at the marketing process from a broad strategic perspective. One of your strategies might be educating your clients about the full scope of your services; perhaps you need to increase your visibility among a specific target market; or maybe you’ll need to provide services that are located more conveniently to your target audiences.

The key messages you want to get out about your business should be modified slightly for various target audiences, but the essence of the message should be consistent throughout all your communication. Your goal here is to create a memorable and positive position for your services in the minds of your target audiences.

The range of marketing tools is broad including advertising, direct mail, relationship building, media relations, publicity, corporate identity and website. Be prepared to make detailed plans for each tactic and include your objectives.

For example, if you select direct mail as a tactic, set your objectives for its use. What do you want to achieve with it?

Your marketing budget and timetable go hand in hand. If you plan your marketing activities to take advantage of special rates, low-season discounts, etc., your budget will stretch farther. For instance, find out if display listings in the Yellow Pages cost less if reserved in advance.

Also consider how you can make the most impact. You might be better off investing time in writing articles that are published in local newspapers than advertising in those same newspapers. Positioning yourself as an expert and purchasing reprints can be among your best spent and least expensive marketing dollars.

Advertising on the other hand can be ineffective unless you have a sizable budget that will help you secure the frequency you need to get meaningful market saturation. A small print ad once or twice a year in the newspaper is a waste of money unless it is a special section that your target market will refer to often.

Share the wealth. Everyone in your firm should have a role to play in executing the plan, which helps to build accountability among your colleagues and staff.

Don’t leave this crucial step out. You’ll learn much from an examination of what worked and what didn’t. As much as possible, your measurements should be quantitative, but some will, of necessity, be qualitative. Ongoing assessment is also what helps to make your plan a living document, not just something that sits on the shelf gathering dust.

Marketing Tips for the Small CPA Firm

Here are some strategies to help small CPA firms stretch their marketing dollars farther.

Keep your goldmine clean. Is your firm’s database clean and up to date with prospective clients, current and former clients and referral sources? Do you have e-mail addresses for everyone? If you’re on a board, are your board colleagues in the database?

It’s the little things can make for big business. Focus on the small things that can add up to better marketing. For example, if you have an attention-getting, yet professional logo with a memorable tag line, it can make an impression that sticks. And don’t forget to use it as an e-mail signature. An investment in the small things can add up to a better bottom line.

Calendar time for marketing strategy. Making time to plan your marketing is a priority. Put it on your calendar and commit to it. Don’t wait for that “free” time that never comes. Smaller blocks of time on a consistent basis can make a tremendous difference.

Leverage your marketing. “Milk” your marketing to get the most out of it. When you’re asked to give a talk, turn it into an article. When your article is printed, reprint it and send it to your mailing list.

Make your website work for you. Your website is a tremendous way to differentiate yourself. Make it look professional and keep it fresh. Regularly add new material and let your clients, prospective clients and referral sources know by e-mailing them with a link.

Think like your own “secret shopper.” Listen to the way the phones are answered. What would you think as a client? What about your reception area? Sit across your desk where a client might sit. Are you happy with the view?

Measure your marketing. Develop a simple system to track where your referrals and business comes from and review it a few times each year. For example, does one source give you fewer referrals, but they more often turn into business? This information can tell you where you’ll get the most from your marketing.

Sharon Berman is principal of Berbay Marketing & PR, a marketing consulting firm specializing in working with professional services firms. She can be reached at berman@berbay.com.
The firm’s website is www.berbay.com.

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