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.
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 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.”
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.
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.
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;
• Public Relations;
• Digital Marketing and Social Media; and
• Traditional Marketing.
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.
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+.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.