Business Basics
5 steps to building an intentional marketing plan

5 steps to building an intentional marketing plan

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Marketing and accounting aren’t two words that often go together naturally. For decades, business for accounting firms was built on word of mouth and new clients walking through the door. Oh, how times have changed.

Today, marketing is (or should be) core to an accounting firm’s business model. While word of mouth may help you get started, it isn’t going to fuel your growth alone. Business is more virtual, and individuals and companies are spending most of their time researching companies online long before reaching out. Fast-growing firms today understand the power of marketing and that driving traffic to their business is largely done online these days—including social media, Google Business Profiles, email marketing, online advertising, and more. Intentional and frequent marketing is what gets the word out and builds a brand.

But even with all its power, marketing doesn’t come naturally to many accounting professionals. It’s often out of their comfort zones, they don’t have time—or somewhere along the line, they started from the end by pushing out a random ad or email, and then gave up when it didn’t work. And the mere thought of creating a marketing plan? Definitely a task to be avoided.

If this is where you land, you’re in the right place. Here are five steps to building a sound marketing plan within a budget that’s doable for small firms. And it’s not scary at all.

The 5 steps to marketing success

Before we delve into the five steps, it’s important to note the value of writing it all down. Before you send out that first email campaign or launch that social media blast, you need to think through and identify your business and marketing goals. And yes, write everything down.

A written account (be it handwritten, voice recorded, or notes taken on your tablet) will help you build out a marketing plan that works best for you. It will also keep focused and on track. The value of recording your goals can not be overstated. Just consider a few recent statistics:

  • Marketers who set goals are 429% more likely to report success than those who don’t.
  • Marketers who document strategy are 538% more likely to report success than those who don’t.

So, with your pen or keypad posed and ready, let’s dig into the 5 steps to building an intentional marketing plan.

Step 1: Define your story

While it may seem counterintuitive to think about your own company before you think about your audience, it’s important to define why your company matters first—your story. When you know who you are, it’s much easier to communicate your value to your target markets.

Your story is the core narrative that informs not only your entire go-to-market plan, but it also tells your clients why they should choose you over anyone else. It’s what makes you stand out from every other firm that, from a client’s perspective, offers the exact same services. Your story is the foundation on which your marketing program is built.

Don’t mistake a bullet list of services, a table of features, or bragging rights as your story. Your story is driven by your passion for what you do. And when you get it right, you appeal not only to a client's sense of logic (e.g., “Those services are just what I need”), but also to their emotions (e.g., “This firm understands my pain points so I want to do business with them”). And because the brain reacts to emotion first, it puts you a step closer to being the provider of choice.

Tip to get going on Step 1: To help define your story, perform a SWOT (Strengths, Opportunities, Weaknesses, Threats) analysis. Ask customers, ask associates or colleagues for their input. This will help you map out the parts of your story that are important. The end goal is to clearly articulate why you rock!

Why do you do what you do sheet

Step 2: Understand your audience’s story

When you’ve defined your own unique story, you can then begin to identify the clients you wish to target. To do this, you must first understand the traits of those who make up your ideal audience. What are their beliefs, habits, pain points, and needs?

From there, you can begin to align your story with that of your audience’s. If told right, you’ll answer some big questions for prospective clients: Why do they need you? What issues do you solve for them? What pain points can you remove? How can you make their lives easier?

The bottom line is that you want to make a connection with your audience. You want to be clear on how you can help them with their unique needs. Your vision of the world makes their world better and allows them to do what they love most.

Tip to get going on Step 2: Develop client personas to identify the unique traits of your ideal client/market. This helps you see potential clients as people and not an abstract. Start with a few current clients that you view as ideal and pull out the persona specifics. Next, develop marketing messaging around personas to clearly express how you can make the client’s world better. For example, you take back-office work off their plate so they can focus that extra time on what they love—whether that’s spending more time with family, working on their business, or both.

Customer persona worksheet

Step 3: Develop your big ideas

This step represents the meat of your marketing plan. This is where you’ll ask and answer the big questions around developing a marketing plan:

  • What goals will your marketing efforts achieve this year?
  • Where does your story meet your audience’s story?
  • What messaging will help you get to your goals and speak to your target audience?
  • What strategies will you implement to deliver on your marketing plan?

To explain Step 3 clearly, let’s look at an example and walk through each step:

Marketing goals: To bring in 50% of new clients from a target niche market and increase qualified web traffic by 20%.

Where the stories meet: Review your own story and pinpoint where it connects with your audience’s story. Ask yourself: How can you help these clients where no one else can? For example, if your audience needs to outsource the back-office function (accounting, tax, bill pay, payroll), wants to collaborate via advanced cloud-based technology, and work with skilled staff, then you’ve found your connection.

Messaging: You’ll take the key connections identified above and use them as the foundation of your messaging. For example: You make easy work of outsourcing accounting tasks via a structured client onboarding process. You have highly qualified professionals to support the client, and you work within an advanced technology ecosystem that offers unprecedented efficiency of service delivery. To further set yourself apart from competitors, you’ll also want to identify the right tone and personality. What does your voice sound like (funny, serious, confident, calm)? This is where you make that emotional connection.

Strategies: This where you identify how to get your message in front of your ideal audience. This includes figuring out such things as their trigger point (what flips the switch in the decision making process) and how they consume information (where they go to find out more, such as social media, news sites, and Google). Then, you have to evaluate your own readiness, resources, and time to ensure you can do the work.

Tip to get going on Step 3: Follow a structured strategy formula for marketing to your ideal audience. First, pinpoint their trigger point (e.g., the client needs to get paid faster, so you introduce advanced apps like BILL). Second, you identify how information is consumed (e.g., heavy user of LinkedIn). Next, identify your firm's readiness (e.g., do you already have a robust LinkedIn profile set up?). Finally, identify if staff has the skill and time to carry out the marketing (e.g., who will write and push fresh, relevant content out to LinkedIn).

Step 4: Tackle the tactics

Ahh. The part most of you are waiting for—because I hear often that most people think this section, the tactics, the channels and what you say, is the marketing plan. Let’s be really clear—all 5 elements are your marketing plan. You won’t be able to build a solid tactical plan if you can’t articulate your firm’s story and differentiators, your customer’s story, and how those stories come together.

But the good news is that if you’ve done the work above, the tactics and project plan for delivering your message become much simpler. The tactics are about how you get the plan accomplished, not what the plan is.

Before jumping into the hows and the wheres, take a look back at everything you’ve done so far. Your strategy? That will define what needs to be done. And when you know what needs to be done, you can break that down into the elements that need to be built or created.

Your budget is going to help you determine what channels to use and where to focus. And by “budget”, I don’t just mean money. I mean resources and money. The time you spend is valuable, and the time your team spends is valuable. A general rule of thumb for budget (monetary) is 5% of your total revenue against marketing. If you really want to aim for growth, go to 10%. While that varies by industry, it gives you a benchmark with which to start. From there, look at what you can outsource/hire for and what you can do yourself. When it comes to choosing the tactics to deliver on your strategy, you should ask yourself what you can deliver on well, consistently, and with as little effort as possible?

From there, you break down each tactic and channel you need into a set of items that need to be accomplished. If you want to add a blog to your website, for example, there’s a clear checklist of items you’ll need to work through to launch that successfully. Think of your tactics as before, during and after:

  • What needs to be done before it launches?
  • During?
  • And how do we keep the conversation/engagement moving after?

Tip to get going on Step 4: Apply a simplified template to get to the right tactics. Fill in the blanks to the sample tactics template below. Do these repeatedly for each tactic you put against your strategies. This can help you define the marketing calendar of activities and timelines of getting things done.

Step 5: Cash in on the big payoff

Likely, this is your favorite step. Who doesn’t want to cash in on their hard work? But to get to that payoff, you have to keep doing the work. A marketing plan is not a one-off task; it requires ongoing maintenance and improvement to reach set business goals. This is where measuring results comes in.

A big part of successful marketing is identifying what doesn’t work. To really know that, you have to go back to the beginning and look at your business and your marketing plan goals. What did you want to achieve? What metrics can you look at to help you determine if you’re on the right track? Every strategy you put in place creates a customer journey: What are the points on that journey? What can you look at for each point to determine how it’s doing?

For example: If you launched a blog on your site to draw in traffic, you could look at a number of things along the pathway that a visitor might find you:

  • You published a new post: How many page visits are you getting? How long are they staying? Are they going anywhere else on your site?
  • You shared that new post on LinkedIn: How many people interacted with it? How many clicks did you get from that? 

If numbers aren’t strong at any of these touch points, it gives you a place to improve. Shift content focus on the blog, or maybe try new social media posts. These elements are going to be the evergreen, ever-moving part of your marketing plan: optimizing and adjusting. Learning.

Tip to achieve Step 5: Measure, measure, and measure some more!

Wrapping it up…

Marketing is a strange animal to most in the accounting space. But if you break it down to the heart, it’s about connecting with your customers. And accounting professionals have that part down. Using these 5 steps will help you connect your passion for your customers to how to reach them, interact with them, and bring more of them to you.

When you follow a guided path, the journey to becoming a strong marketer gets much easier. If you’d like to hear more on this (including an example I take through every step of this plan, be sure to check out the on-demand version of our webinar here. The key to success? Start from the beginning of your plan, not the end. Each step adds to the next and can help clear away the confusion.

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The information provided on this page does not, and is not intended to constitute legal or financial advice and is for general informational purposes only. The content is provided "as-is"; no representations are made that the content is error free.