Marketing Plan: More Method, Less Madness

Customers don't just happen. Use a studied approach to get the most business.
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"Most small companies take a shotgun approach to marketing," says Charlie Cook, who runs Marketingforsuccess.com.

While it's tempting to make marketing decisions by the seat of your pants -- after all, you know what grabs your attention -- you're better off taking a more scientific approach, Cook cautions.

"

You must put time, diligence and effort into the process," says Steve McKee, president of the Albuquerque, N.M., ad agency McKee Wallwork Cleveland. "Companies always get the marketing they deserve."

Here's how to avoid taking a shot in the dark.

Retrace the Breadcrumbs

When customers find you, make it a point to find out how they did it.

Service providers, such as law firms, or business-to-business outfits, such as IT support firms, can use existing customer databases to track promotional efforts, and

CRM -- customer relationship management -- systems, like

Intuit's

(INTU) - Get Report

Quickbase, will provide a record of the materials you sent to any new clients that come your way.

Retailers and other walk-in businesses might take a more informal approach, training staffers to ask all customers where they heard about the company.

Put Your Money Where Your Clients Are

"Look at your planning for 2008 in terms of getting the most bang for the buck," says C.J. Hayden, author of

Get Clients Now

. Ask yourself, "Where can I get by only spending a little time or money?" she says.

Then focus your marketing by determining how much profit per customer each channel brings in.

"A particular marketing strategy can bring you a lot of customers, but if each one spends only a little, that's not as

profitable as a few customers who spend a lot," she points out. CRM systems can gauge how effective various marketing approaches are at generating high-quantity

and

high-quality prospects.

Don't determine how to spend your marketing budget until you know what channels produce the best customers.

Testing

"

When people tell me that a certain type of advertising doesn't work, they haven't tested their methods to find out what

is

working," says Cook.

Once you've chosen your most profitable marketing channel, systematically address each of the materials in your campaign. Don't ditch a carefully crafted message, but test various parts of that message over time.

Say you determine that word of mouth is your most profitable channel. You decide to send postcards to current customers offering incentives for referrals. Start your testing by analyzing the effectiveness of the postcard's headline.

Here's how to do it:

Split the print run in half, giving each batch of cards the same offer but a different headline. Include a tracking mechanism -- a code customers must use to redeem the offer -- that will determine which postcard had the highest rate of response. Then use the winning headline on a new postcard and test a different element of the campaign.

The key, says Cook, is to change only one thing at a time. "It may be painstaking," he says. "But if you can slowly and steadily increase your response rate, you can achieve really significant results."

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Michaela Cavallaro writes about personal finance, business and food from her home in South Portland, Maine.