How to Create a Solid Marketing Budget and Plan
By Elizabeth Harr, Partner, Hinge | December 2, 2019
1. Begin with business goals
Perhaps it’s no surprise that a firm’s most effective marketing efforts focus on strategic goals, such as: What are we trying to accomplish?, and Do we want to grow, and if so, by how much, and by when? Business goals often identify the best targets for growth based on such factors as where you can deliver the best value, where you’re already experiencing growth, and which undersized segments will be easiest to grow.
2. Do research on your target audiences
One obvious target audience includes potential clients — ideally, segmented by industry, role, or other important distinctions. Other targets include potential referral sources and outside influencers such as journalists, industry analysts and influential thought leaders. In many industries, potential employees or subcontractors are also important target audiences.
How do you research target audiences?
Of the two main categories of research, secondary research involves finding studies that have already been conducted by trade associations or others regarding specific industries, markets or trends. To name one example, Hinge publishes marketing budget research that professional services firms can use for benchmarking. A second category is primary research, in which you commission a study of your target audiences. Although more expensive, primary research directly addresses your most critical, relevant questions.
When we conduct research for our clients, three types of studies are most helpful. Although they overlap a bit, each has its own focus.
- Opportunity Research — evaluating the viability of alternative audiences, or “markets within markets.”
- Brand Research — determining how your brand is perceived in your chosen markets.
- Client Journey Research — understanding the lifecycle of a client’s engagement with you.
3. Build Your Market Strategy
Marketing strategy includes the high-level planning and ideas needed to set the direction for your overall marketing, such as how your firm is positioned in the marketplace and the key messages you deliver to your audiences. Unlike marketing tactics, which are more specific and subject to frequent changes, your strategy should change little over the course of a year (if at all).
We believe an effective marketing strategy should have four key elements:
- Insights into specific target audiences, including which of your services they value most, and why.
- Research-informed firm differentiators. Remember, each differentiator must be true, provable and relevant to clients.
- Your firm’s market positioning. Built upon your differentiators, it gives audiences a cohesive and compelling story that sets you apart from competitors.
- Key messages for each audience. These should be nuanced and specific, and must not contradict each other or your overall market positioning.
4. Choose your marketing techniques
Your target audience research will tell you which communications channels each audience prefers. Based on that insight, you’ll need to balance your offline and online marketing. As Figure 1 illustrates, there are many parallels between traditional (offline) marketing techniques and their digital analogues.
Figure 1. Many online marketing techniques (green) have traditional counterparts (blue).
Through our research, we’ve found that the fastest growing and most profitable firms generally use a mix of both traditional and online marketing techniques. Our research also suggests that certain techniques clearly work better than others, so try to choose those options that have been empirically shown to deliver more impact.
5. Identify specific goals and how you'll track them
At a high level, three areas of tracking make sense for most professional services firms.
- Business Outcome — based on such business goals as revenue growth, number and type of new clients, profitability and new leads; typically, such metrics are trackable in a firm’s financial or CRM system.
- Market Visibility. In our experience, the single best measure for market visibility is external website traffic; more specifically, you should look at such metrics as traffic to your site’s careers section and your social media pages, or your email database growth.
- Subject Matter Expertise. Look for specific, tangible indicators, such as how many people download your white papers, view your blog posts, or attend your speaking events.
You can also track progress on the specific marketing techniques in your plan, such as whether events are happening as scheduled, or whether your designated articles are being published according to plan.
6. Select your level of frequency and effort
How frequently should you publish blogs or offer webinars? What kinds of external resources will you need? For best effect, your marketing team, billable professionals and outside resources must work together. To coordinate all these activities and resources, we have found it helpful to maintain a marketing calendar that lays out who’s doing what, and when.
7. Establish budgets
The last step is to create your marketing plan budget based on the detailed assumptions discussed above.
To do so, ask individual vendors for estimates on specific projects and tools, such as website development or a new marketing automation platform. Estimating the cost of recurring activities, such as blogging or placing articles, can be a bit more challenging and complex. For example, tracking down busy subject matter experts, and managing their critical role in the marketing process, can be time-consuming, and estimating the costs involved can be tricky.
Next, compare your overall spending benchmark with your detailed “bottom-up” budget. If they are relatively well-aligned, you may be good to go. If your bottom-up budget is significantly lower than the relevant benchmark, did you forget something important, or are your costs unrealistically low? Conversely, if the bottom-up approach comes in much higher, make sure you haven’t double-counted some expenses, or estimated on conducting activities more frequently than you need to.
If you need to reduce your budget, try eliminating one whole technique or initiative, rather than trimming across the board. In our experience, doing fewer things, but doing them better, delivers better results.
Best of luck to you on your marketing budget journey!
About the Author
Elizabeth Harr, Partner at Hinge, is an accomplished entrepreneur and experienced executive with a background in strategic planning, branding and growth for professional services. Elizabeth co-founded a Microsoft solutions provider company and grew it into a thriving organization that became known for its expertise in Microsoft customer relationship management.