Creating Your Strategic Marketing Plan

Recently, I did a presentation with SDA. SDA is “a professional organization that has promoted education and best practices in management and professional standards of design firm administrative personnel for 60 years.” At their yearly online conference, I had the opportunity to speak about strategic planning. Although planning can sometimes be something people dread doing, I think some of the best planning sessions happen when they start with a lot of great questions. In this post, I’ll focus on four key elements of strategic planning for marketing which include: research, SWOT analysis, the marketing plan, and reporting.

Take Some Time To Do Research for Your Strategic Marketing Plan

Research is so critical to a plan, but a lot of teams choose to skip this activity due to time constraints. Research typically falls into two categories: Primary and Secondary.  

Research is key to a great plan.
The Key to a Great Plan is Research

Primary Research

Primary research is research the firm performs itself.  I think one of the best ways to conduct research is to debrief potential customers after a win or a loss and for marketers to speak to existing customers and learn more about why they chose to work with a particular firm. Reach out to your top five to ten customers and find out why they buy your services. Are they currently happy with you? Are there things that you could be doing better? Are there opportunities your firm is missing to address the needs they have? These questions are a great place to start your research. 

Does your firm do a lot of public work? If so, there is typically a plan for such expenditures. Researching the Capital Improvement Project plan for specific municipalities may be a good idea to get a gauge on how many opportunities might be available to you in the upcoming year.

Secondary Research

Secondary research is typically research conducted by another entity other than yourself. Prior to planning, I try to make sure I have stayed informed of industry trends through professional journals and economic thought leaders. Have you been keeping up with the trends? Do you know where the economy is headed? Depending on your specialty, here are a few resources that I’m a fan of for keeping track of trends in the AEC industry: Zweig Group and PSMJ have some great resources.

If the topic of research interests you, you may want to check out the AEC Marketer’s Podcast Episode 50: Demystifying Market Research with Sarah Kinard. I think Sarah does a great job of helping listeners understand market research so they can tackle some of their more challenging business questions. I think one of the best features of the podcast is Sarah’s three questions to respond to those who might ask, “Why do marketing research and why do marketing research right now?”

1. Did last year change how your firm looks at its markets and services?

2. Did your markets’ behaviors surprise you?

3. Are you having difficulty recruiting?

Most executives and marketers would answer yes to all three of the questions above to which Sarah proves her point that marketing research is a critical component of any strategic plan, “We live in a world where change is a constant, and information has to be compass on how to manage that constant. You simply can’t rely on the past anymore.” 

SWOT Analysis

Analyzing a firm’s SWOT or Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats is also a key component of marketing research. It is essentially your GPS and gives you an idea of where your firm is starting from and the direction it’s trying to go. 

Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats


What are your firm’s strengths? Are you a firm that chases a majority of public work and is a women-owned firm? That could be a huge asset. Do you have a great culture and are currently attracting great talent out of universities? Fantastic! Do you have an innovative process or approach that sets you apart from competitors? Great! Make sure you document all of these strengths. You can document this information by pen and paper, an excel sheet, or a platform like Miro.


We know what your strengths are, now let’s think a little more about your firm’s weaknesses. Although no one likes to admit that they may be struggling in a particular area, every firm has weaknesses and it’s important not to pretend that they don’t exist. Some examples of what a firm’s weaknesses might look like are:

• “Our staff is pretty young and we don’t have as much depth on our team as some of our competitors.”

• “We’re a small firm and don’t have extensive resources.”


Opportunities are externally focused. Does your Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) research tell you that several municipalities have projects coming out in the next year that would be a good fit for your team? Make sure you jot those down here, as those could be great opportunities. 


Threats pertain to external issues affecting your organization. Is there a new competitor in your area that is starting to do similar work? Is there an economic factor that may affect future opportunities? Possible threats may be things like the port closing down if your firm does a lot of work for a nearby port, labor shortages, and new regulatory issues that may impact your firm’s business. Make sure you write down these threats and don’t avoid discussing them with your team.

Marketing Plan

After you’ve done your research and SWOT analysis, it’s time to work on creating your plan. Your marketing plan should contain tactics and goals for achieving success in each of these core areas:

• Business Development; 

• Pursuits;

• Public Relations;

• Digital Marketing and Social Media; and 

• Traditional Marketing.

The Marketing Mix as part of your overall marketing plan.

Business Development

In AEC, relationships are the foundation for achieving your revenue goals. The business development components of your plan should include which clients you’re targeting, professional organizations you’ll engage with, conferences you’ll attend, lead generation, and prospect meetings.

Sample planning sheet for Business Development.


In this section of your plan, you want to identify how you’ll qualify for opportunities, what kinds of proposal materials you’ll need to support your efforts, how many opportunities you’ll need to pursue, and what your shortlist rate will look like. Again, you can use your baseline growth number as an estimate of what these efforts will look like but take a look at what your shortlist and win rates were like last year. If they were low, or you were shortlisting on 30% or less of the proposals you went after, you may want to actually look at reducing the number of projects you are going after and doing a better job of qualifying opportunities. If you’re looking at streamlining your proposal efforts and improving the quality of your proposals, you may want to look at a tool like ProjectMark’s Design+.

Sample planning sheet for Pursuits.

Public Relations

The public relations components of your plan should include which professional organizations your firm will pursue and any boards members of your team can serve on. In addition, setting goals for press releases is a good idea. Also, depending on the growth strategy for your firm, it may make sense to look into hiring a consultant to help get your firm more media attention.

Sample planning sheet for Public Relations.

Digital Marketing and Social Media

Depending on what market you’re serving, your approach to digital marketing will vary. If you’re working for a civil engineering, architect, or general contracting firm, there may be a little misunderstanding about the benefits digital marketing efforts can have for your company. Most digital marketing strategies have long-term benefits despite needing a day-to-day effort to manage. You always want to make sure you set goals for website content improvements, blogs per year, and the number of social media posts you’ll target for the year.

Digital Marketing and Social Media Planning Sheet
Sample Digital Marketing and Social Media planning sheet.

Traditional Marketing

Traditional marketing includes all the “stuff” you usually think about when it comes to marketing: job signage, business cards, brochures, advertising, employee and company swag, and client appreciation gifts. It’s important not to forget about the client appreciation gifts as these usually come up at the end of the year….” thanks for being our client and here’s a notepad with our logo.” Company swag is not the best idea for a holiday gift, so it’s usually best to start planning earlier in the year for what you’ll give to your best clients.

Sample Traditional Marketing planning sheet.

Metrics and Reporting

When you work on the marketing plan, your goal is to create a document that communicates marketing responsibilities and goals for the firm. To set these goals, we want to try and use SMART goals when possible. SMART is an acronym for:






Metrics and Reporting slide.

Revenue Goals

Although we can sometimes get overly ambitious when it comes to a revenue goal, it doesn’t hurt to start with what was achieved last year and add a percentage growth for what the AEC industry as a whole is projected to do for the upcoming year as a baseline. This approach will not give you a glamorous goal (unless your firm’s last year was an amazing number), but it gives you a good idea as to what is achievable. With that as a baseline, go ahead and add your lofty goal as a stretch number. 


After walking through the steps of building a marketing strategic plan, it’s taken some of the fear or anxiety out of doing your next planning session. Taking the time to work through the tough questions and think strategically about where your firm is headed, will only lend itself to a productive and less frustrating year. If you enjoyed this post, you may want to check out my book, Sink or Swim Faster: Making a Splash in Marketing Professional Services.


5 Common Questions About CRMs

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems are a hot topic of discussion among AEC executives, seller-doers, and marketers. There are five common questions that commonly come up when discussing CRMs and this post will provide answers to each of them.

Which CRM Should I Use?

The short answer is it’s not the CRM it’s more about where the data currently exists and the internal processes in place. Many firms will go down the path of creating a requirements document and trying to find the right CRM software. However, a better approach is to first look at the firm and its data. Which department has what data? Are there silos? Are there reasons some data is harder to track down than other types of data? For example, the accounting department may have project numbers for all the projects completed, but the marketing department has a separate numbering system and naming convention for the same data in the marketing drives. If an executive decides to buy an integrative CRM solution that can connect with the ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) or financial system the firm uses, this won’t really matter if there is not a standard numbering and naming convention for the project data accounting and marketing use. It would serve the firm better to create an internal team or hire a consultant to review the data for the firm and map out the processes a firm currently follows and how once the CRM is implemented, documentation on how the processes will change.

Do We Really Need a CRM?

If your AEC firm is between 3-5 people, you may not need a CRM yet. However, as a small firm, one of the best things a firm at this size can do, is to begin organizing their data for the day when they grow large enough to need a CRM. Microsoft Outlook, Excel, or Google spreadsheets are perfectly acceptable ways to organize data at this early stage of a firm’s growth. Once a firm grows beyond 5 people, a simple CRM solution with a good mobile app and email plugin would be a good way to go. When a firm is at this stage of growth, typically everyone is a seller-doer. So, a solution that offers multiple ways to enter data as easily as possible is a great way to go. Insightly, Pipedrive, and Tiny+ offer great solutions for firms at this stage.

Are We Ready to Implement a CRM?

Many firms jump into implementing a CRM before they are truly ready to do so. Implementing a CRM solution takes quite a bit of time and resources to ensure the process goes smoothly and training is rolled out in a way that maximizes a return on the initial investment made. However, many firms skip the necessary steps to ensure success during their implementation by not having clean data to work with from the start and not having clear documentation of their internal processes to support the CRM once it’s implemented. The best way to implement a CRM solution is to reduce the amount of data a firm intends to bring in from the very start. Company data should be consistent and scrubbed for consistency: Able Contracting, Inc. should not have any other variations: Able Contracting or Able Cont. should be changed to the same version otherwise it’s possible to have multiple duplicates once the data is imported into the system. Contacts should be scrubbed in the same way or Samantha Davis and Sam Davis will be brought in as two different contacts even though they are the same person.

Another factor to consider before implementation is the process used to capture and modify contacts and companies. Is one person going to enter all the companies and contacts? Is everyone responsible for modifying existing companies and contacts? Is there a naming convention for companies and contacts? Are all company and contact addresses to be spelled out completely or will the firm use abbreviations? All these things seem tiny, but when you multiply every variable of a company or name, you can see how duplicates happen. And when your data isn’t clean and there are a ton of duplicates, system users start to doubt the integrity of the information. When users start to doubt the integrity of the system, they stop using the CRM and that is exactly what you don’t want to happen! Make sure you clean your data first!

What Data Do We Need to Bring into Our CRM?

If the steps above to clean your data prior to implementing a CRM seem impossible due to the current state of your data, you may want to consider starting from scratch, to begin with. Nowadays, many CRMs offer plugins with Gmail and Outlook, so contacts can be added easily with a few clicks. In addition, many of these plugins have duplicate checking built-in, so you can make sure that your users only add new contacts and companies to your CRM (and no duplicates).

If your CRM features a module for completed projects, you may want to consider only bringing in the last five years. Most proposals in the AEC industry request projects that have been completed within the last five years.

Do We Need to Change CRMs?

After reading the responses to a couple of the questions above, you may realize why your firm is now at a point where you may need to change CRMs. Perhaps when your firm first implemented a CRM, the onboarding team tried to bring in too much data, or employees were not careful when they created new data and a lot of duplicates were created. There are many reasons why your current CRM may not be working anymore but many of these reasons go back to messy data and a lack of process. If your firm doesn’t take care of these two issues prior to changing CRMs, your firm will find itself back in the same predicament.


A CRM is a powerful tool that can help many organizations leverage the power of their relationships to win new projects and maintain strong client partnerships. To best utilize a CRM at your firm, start with clean data and a great process so that your executives, marketers, and seller-doers have a head start on your competition.


Great Proposals Start with a Long-Term Strategy

I can’t believe it was almost 17 years ago when I started at Burns & McDonnell, a civil engineering branch office in St. Louis, Missouri as a Marketing Coordinator. Even then, it was so challenging trying to get project information for the first proposal I was working on. I wish I could say that times have changed. Unfortunately, those same struggles I faced then, seem to be prevalent in our industry now. But we all know, in order to create great proposals, we need great information. Winning proposals start with great data. In this post, I’m going to talk more about how to get great information for your proposals and also some other tips and tricks for taking your proposals to the next level!

Getting that Dang Project Description!

I wish I could tell you that it’s as easy as offering your project manager a beer in trade for that project description, usually it’s not that easy. Over the past 17 years, the best way I’ve found to get the marketing data I needed was the process that was in place at Lend Lease (or Bovis Lend Lease – 15 years ago). When I worked as a marketing coordinator at Bovis Lend Lease, whether or not a project team or the principal of an office got their entire bonus was tied to whether or not the marketing team had the key project information for that specific project or the projects for that office. Our marketing director tracked the information in a simple spreadsheet and the information that was required was: final project sheet created with final photography signed off on, project start and completion dates, project construction value, and project description. Because I was younger and new to my career, I didn’t realize what a gift having this process in place was! Now, as I’ve looked back over the years, I’ve realized how brilliant that process and bonus incentive was. Each quarter, I didn’t have to beg project managers for the information I needed. The principal asked me where we were at or what percent of the information did we have completed and then he would reach out to the assigned project managers for each job. The bonus incentive for project data still remains as one of the best ways to get this information to marketing teams. 

The Infographic Cover Letter

So many clients are used to our standard cover letters, “We are pleased to submit our response to the XYZ project. Enclosed you will find evidence of our ability to perform on similar projects on time and within budget.” Oy – hit the snooze button. There is nothing technically wrong with the words written above, they are just echoed by many marketers. Next time you write your cover letter and executive summary, use it as an opportunity to do more of a magazine-like design spread with a lot of high-impact graphics, and images to convey your story. 

Show Them Don’t Tell Them

Graphics increase reader retention, stick in long-term memory and will help communicate your messages faster. Not only that, but graphics also can help with writer’s block. If you’ve ever started working on a project approach and find yourself blocked, a great way to get unblocked is to find a great image of the project you’re writing about or some element of the project you’re writing about and it can really help get those juices flowing again. Not only that, but your reader will thank you for breaking up the text a little with an interesting image.

It’s About Progress Not Perfection

We can be really hard on ourselves when it comes to our work. After reading Dorrie Clark’s The Long Game: How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World I realized how long it takes to really perfect the proposal process for not only an individual but for any AEC firm as a whole. It can take years of refining the sales/marketing proposal process, messaging, and graphics to get to a result that resonates with a particular market. I think it’s harder for newer marketers and younger firms to realize that what they see the more established firms produce took years and not months or days to create. In order to excel in producing excellent proposal responses, it takes a team of people, each doing their part along each step of the process in order to craft a proposal that will win. 

Specialize – You Don’t Have to be an Expert at Everything

When I first started out in the industry, I didn’t know I was allowed to say “no” or “that isn’t really in my job description.” If someone decided that it was marketing-related, I just took it on. Not a bad way to get started in the industry, but I wish I would have let myself early on focus on what I was really good at and learn how to delegate the rest. 17 years ago, there weren’t such great digital tools out there and now there are so many it can be challenging to figure out which tools are right for you and your firm. I’ve always enjoyed writing, and I found my writing skills to be very valuable at most AEC firms. However, engineers and contractors didn’t always care how “beautiful” something looked and it was quite different when I worked for architects. Looking back, I would say if you lean a particular way as a marketer in the AEC industry, whether that might be graphics or more towards a writing focus, stay true to that and find tools that support your weaker areas.


Taking your proposals to the next level requires a long-term approach but it doesn’t have to be a boring journey to get there. Next week, try pitching the idea to your executive team about making space in the bonus structure to capture marketing information or try making your cover letter and executive summary a little more visually captivating. Read Dorrie Clark’s book about becoming a Long-Term Thinker in a Short Term world, and maybe take a class on a topic that really interests you. No matter what you do, remember to drop me a comment or give me a shout on social media to let me know what worked for you! 


Lessons Learned from Writing CRM or Die

After writing my first book, Sink or Swim Faster: Making a Splash in Professional Services, I did not think I would write another book so soon, but then Covid hit and it seemed like it might not be such a bad idea if I was going to be stuck inside for a while. After letting all the feelings go from the first book, I was ready to tackle the second. This time around, I had a few ideas on how I wanted to do it differently:

  • Write with a friend;
  • Find a good editor;
  • Ask more people to review the draft sooner; and
  • Don’t try and format the book yourself.

Write with a Friend

It really is no fun living inside your head for extended periods of time. While writing, that’s kind of what you do. After my first book, I realized during the editing process as I was giving out copies of my drafts for people to read, that it really helped me to discuss the ideas in the book with another person while writing it. I had so much fear while writing my first book, I didn’t want to share it with anyone until it was pretty close to done. I definitely wasn’t going to do this the second time around. I found a great partner: Courtney Kearney. Courtney and I had started working together while I was at Cosential (now Unanet) and we really had similar philosophies on working with CRMs: from implementation to management, and automation. Not only do we share similar ideas, but she is as passionate as I am when it comes to managing a firm’s data to enhance customer relationships. Since we had a lot in common, outlining the book, discussing what would go in and what we should leave out became much easier. So grateful she decided to take this journey with me – it was definitely worth it!

Find a Good Editor

As I mentioned above, when I was writing my first book, I basically hired a line or copy editor to review my draft prior to giving it to some of my colleagues. Fear kept me from reaching out to more people and finding the specialists I needed! Not the second time around. For CRM or Die, I reached out to Karen Rowe, who I met at a networking event. Courtney and I read her book, Behind the Cover to help us structure our book. After reading Karen’s book, we had a great first draft, which made the first round of edits with her team much easier (the first round is what most editors would call a developmental or structural edit). After that round of editing, Courtney and I took the feedback and made tweaks to our draft. Next, we did the copy or line edit. During this edit, Karen and her team did corrections for grammar, spelling, punctuation, and a review of the overall sentence structure to make sure the content was as good as it could be. Since Courtney and I worked together on the book, it was great to have her review my content and vice versa during the entire process coupled with Karen’s editing team. The process of editing and discussing the concepts in the book brought more clarity than I would have ever thought possible. When I write my next book, I’ll definitely utilize Karen’s team again (if they’re available – they’re really good).

Ask More People to Read Your Draft Sooner

Do not be afraid to let people read your book even before it’s done cooking yet! I can’t stress enough how important it was to have Courtney and other colleagues read our draft during the editing process. It’s okay if your draft isn’t perfect, but working with others and getting their ideas can help you do a much better job of making sure key components of the book are discussed in a way that is clear to both readers familiar with the subject and those that may be a little newer to it. All of the questions we received and feedback on the draft during its various states were so key to making it the best it could be.

Don’t Format Yourself

After the writing and editing process, trying to format the book yourself is a headache waiting to happen. Since I had spent a lot of time formatting proposals in my previous life, I thought formatting would be a breeze. Never again. Courtney was kind enough to take on the formatting of this book through with Ingram Sparks Book-Building Tool but I think that she would agree that formatting after writing is a huge pain and it’s better left to someone that hasn’t been slaving away on content for months.

In Closing

If you have dreams and aspirations of writing a book, don’t hesitate to get started! There is nothing better in this world to have someone read something you’ve written and tell you how it’s helped them with a challenge they are facing in their life. It’s an amazing feeling and I hope you get to experience it!


I Just Published My Second Book!

I am so excited to announce that I have written my second book with my close friend Courtney Kearney! 

The book is called CRM or Die: Manage Your Client Relationships or Perish and it is available on Amazon. Here’s the link to purchase it.

CRM or Die is about implementing, maintaining, and automating any Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system at your firm. It focuses on our experience in implementing CRMs and helping clients manage the systems they currently have in place. After you read this book, you’ll have all of our tips and tricks for making sure you select, implement, and maintain your CRM in a way that will be beneficial for your firm. Click here for more.

Oh, and did I mention all the free resources that come with the book? Click here and scroll down once you have a copy and you’ll be able to access all the free resources!