In this post we will walk you through a bird's eye view of how to create a business-to-business (B2B) marketing plan. We will start by helping you identify your objectives. From there, you will identify your target market, your competitors, and your market positioning. You will then perform a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) analysis. Finally, you will identify your marketing funnel, and identify the deliverables you will need to complete in order to achieve your objectives.
We will not be covering in depth how to coordinate and communicate planning with your team and with management in this post, since this is a subject that deserves its own post. We are strictly concerned with the steps that go into creating the plan itself.
Let's get started by talking about setting marketing objectives.
Identify Your Objectives
Every marketing plan starts with an objective or objectives. Poor marketing plans fall back on vague KPI-associated objectives like increasing profit. While good objectives should certainly have clearly associated KPIs, they should also give your marketing team a clear destination to work towards.
Some B2B planning guides advise looking at competition and target audience before objectives, but this is often a bad idea. While nothing in the planning phase is ever perfectly linear, and inspiration from considering your target audience and competitors can be helpful, any kind of in depth analysis of either should come later.
Objectives don't need to start out perfect, but you should have some reasonably fleshed out goals in place before you even start delving into your target audience and competition. Analyzing competitors and target audience with no objectives in mind will leave you aimless. Businesses that analyze before setting objectives tend to do so perpetually, leading to a sporadic business strategy.
Here are some of the qualities of good business objectives.
Good business objectives are clear. The best method to achieve an objective is almost always open to interpretation and debate, but there should be very little room for interpretation when it comes to whether or not an objective was achieved. Your objective doesn't need to be clear from the beginning, but by the time it makes its way into a completed B2B marketing plan, there should be near zero ambiguity.
A solid business goal has a limited time-frame: usually within a month, a quarter, or a year. When it comes to goals suitable for B2B marketing, a focus on quarterly goals is often ideal. A marketing team can only influence a target audience so much, and a month is a very tight schedule for gaining any kind of traction. Centering annual goals, on the other hand, can leave you vulnerable to changes in competitor marketing strategy and other shifts in the landscape.
None of this means monthly goals and annual goals are useless for B2B marketing planning. It does mean, however, that monthly goals are best thought of as stepping stones toward quarterly goals, and that yearly goals need to be flexible enough to accommodate a shifting industry, or stand-alone enough to be nearly unshakeable by competition.
A specific person or at least a limited number of people ultimately need to be held accountable for whether the goal is reached. Whether or not a goal is reached is always a team effort, but if the entire team owns the goal, nobody can be held accountable.
An objective doesn't need to be a target metric, and in fact this kind of thinking can be counterproductive. But an objective needs to be associated with measurable figures that can be used to identify whether or not an objective has been meaningfully achieved. In the OKR method, for example, Objectives themselves are not measurable, but the Key Results associated with them are, and Key Results are chosen so that, if they are fulfilled, the Objective will be fulfilled.
Goals set at the individual level should be shared so that individuals can hold themselves accountable, while goals at the organizational level should be communicated clearly enough that employees understand why they are doing what they are doing and so that they can provide meaningful feedback on how best to achieve it.
Setting too many objectives will leave an organization directionless. If more than three to five goals are set, they should be small goals in service of three to five big goals.
In line with choosing focused objectives, objectives should also be interconnected with each other meaningfully and serve the company's overall strategy, mission, vision, and values.
You plan for failure if you don't plan for the resources needed to meet your objectives. An objective isn't properly fleshed out until you've reasonably planned for the resources you will need in order to achieve it. If you don't have the resources, then you will need to set objectives that will get you those resources first, or hone down your list of objectives.
The best objectives are designed to teach you something even if you fail to reach them. When the date set for an objective is reached, it is a time for reflection. If the goal is reached, it should be celebrated. If it isn't, it should have been designed and measured in such a way that you can properly revise the goal itself, or your strategy for obtaining it. Either way, give yourself time to reflect on goals, rather than just chugging along towards the next goal without pause.
Identify Your Target Market And Buyer Personas
With objectives in place to give your strategy direction, the next step is to identify your audience. Some strategy guides recommend looking at competition before your audience. While this can work and is the right call for some businesses, in most cases it is easier to identify who your competitors are after you have identified your target market.
Here are some guiding questions to help you identify your target market.
What Problems Are They Struggling With?
What every member of your target audience has in common is a problem or a need that your products or services can solve or address. What are those problems, and what can you learn about your target audience by understanding that they are struggling with those kinds of problems? Some typical B2B problems are some more specific variation of:
- Time and resources are being wasted
- Revenue is insufficient or stagnating
- Maintenance and short term problems are taking precedence over long term business goals
- Communication is breaking down
- Morale is falling
- Stubbornness is preventing adaptation
- The data needed to make good business decisions isn't available or it is obfuscated
- The talent isn't there
- The business doesn't understand it's audience or competition
It's also important to identify whether the problems your target audience is struggling with exist at the organizational level or the individual level. In the B2B sector we tend to think in terms of solving organizational problems, but B2B products and services can find success by serving the needs of individual executives, specialists, and employees too.
Who Else Is Targeting This Audience?
While we're discouraging doing full competitive research during this stage, the best target markets are those that aren't being properly targeted by any direct competitors. Some rudimentary competitive research during the stage while you are identifying your target audience can be very helpful for this reason.
What Level of Business Are You Selling To?
Who are you trying to reach with your marketing? Are you selling to CEOs? Executives? Middle management? Engineers and specialists? Employees? Will your target audience be buying the product on their own dime or will they need to get buy-in from management? Will you be selling to individual professionals, to departments, or to entire businesses?
A B2B strategy will always be different from a B2C strategy, but the closer your target audience is to the bottom of the management hierarchy, the more your marketing strategy will resemble a consumer strategy.
What Size Businesses Are You Selling To?
Are you selling to start ups, freelancers, entrepreneurs, small businesses, scaling businesses, or to enterprises? Businesses of different size will have different concerns and different budgets. Will they be spending out of their own pockets, cutting into existing profits, or investing venture capitalist money? Are they more concerned with becoming profitable, with scaling, with maintenance, or with staying relevant?
What Do They Specialize In?
Does your target market have any area of specialization? Will you be targeting one type of specialist or several? What is their skill level? What peripheral areas of knowledge might they need to continue their education in?
What Other Interests Do They Have?
One area where a brand can really distinguish itself is by identifying a target audience with interests that aren't as directly related to the core problems your products and services solve. For example, is your target audience interested in environmental sustainability, social justice, minimalism, health and fitness, work-life balance, science and technology or futurism, music and art subcultures, and so on?
While this strategy is more commonly used with consumer audiences, business executives are people too, with their own interests, and of course the businesses they run often have mission statements and values that include less traditionally business-centric ideas.
What Is Their Income?
Faulty assumptions about how much income your target audience has on hand can lead to a disconnect between your messaging and your audience. Remember that in the B2B sector, the price tag on your products and services isn't always the best indicator of how much money your target audience is personally making. Individuals with the power to spend or to influence the spending of large corporate sums are not necessarily, themselves, earning a large personal income.
What Places Do They Frequent?
What online and offline places are members of your target audience visiting often, and why? Will you find them there for business reasons, for personal reasons, or possibly both? Will they make up a large or a small proportion of the people you find in those places? Will you find them there as thought leaders or as people who are educating themselves? Are they publishers or consumers of content on these platforms? Is the communication style on these platforms one to many, one to one, many to one, or many to many? Is advertising or sponsored content in these places viable, or is organic reach the only viable option?
Identify Your Competitors And Market Positioning
Now that you have an understanding your business objectives and your target audience, you can identify who your competitors are and get specific about how to position yourself in the market.
Do Any Competitors Target The Same Audience?
As we mentioned above, the holy grail of marketing is to identify a target audience that simply isn't being served by any other company's products or marketing efforts. This is why some rudimentary competitive research can be helpful while you are identifying your target audience. When you identify a viable competitor who is targeting the same audience, your first instinct should be to look for ways to further differentiate your audience so that you are the only one targeting them, especially if you are smaller than your competitors.
Of course, this isn't always an option. When you can't refine your audience any further, you must identify the ways you are better than your competitors, or problems your competitors aren't addressing, so that you can reach the audience with better messaging.
What Is Your Unique Selling Proposition?
You may not be able to identify a target audience with no competition, but you should be able to identify a specific feature of your products and services that makes them different from any of the competitors targeting them. This is your unique selling proposition (USP), the thing that most distinguishes you from all other competitors in the space. A USP doesn't necessarily need to make you objectively better than your competitors, but what it must do is make you distinct.
No competitor should be able to easily reposition themselves to say the same thing truthfully and without somewhat alienating their existing clients. This is a basic feature of a market when it is in equilibrium. A competitor will muddy its own messaging and potentially hurt its own business more than it will help itself by trying to copy your messaging.
Is Anything Upsetting Market Equilibrium?
When all businesses targeting the same market have identified their own best possible USP, and the market itself isn't shifting, there is very little any individual business can do to change its position.
As we said above, the businesses are positioned so that if they try to copy the USP of another business, they will more likely muddy their own messaging and lose business than successfully steal business from a competitor.
However, when the market itself shifts, new opportunities emerge. This can be a shift in target audiences, technology, the economy, or the political landscape. Whatever the change, opportunities for a new USP emerge, old USPs may become less effective, and it may be a good time to rebrand.
Do A Marketing SWOT Analysis
With an understanding of your marketing objectives, your target audience, and your competition and market position, you are in a place where you can effectively identify your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.
Your goal here isn't to do a SWOT analysis of the business as a whole, only from a marketing perspective. For each quadrant of your SWOT analysis, list points that relate to your objectives, target audience, and market position. Remember to center your marketing objectives while doing the analysis.
What strengths do your business, products, and marketing team have that give you an advantage when it comes to achieving your marketing objectives? What are the unique advantages of marketing to your target audience rather than another one, and what advantages do you have over competitors when it comes to marketing to them? What marketing strategies have you used that have consistently demonstrated a good return on investment? What marketing platforms are you excelling on? This is your opportunity to identify what about your marketing strategy is working well.
What marketing strategies have had inconsistent or negative results in the past? Which potential target audiences do you struggle to reach? For the target audiences that you have chosen to focus on, what unique challenges do they present that aren't common with other potential target audiences? What has been a source of bad press or bad reviews? What resources does your marketing team lack compared to some of your competitors? Where are competitors beating you, and why? Identifying your weaknesses is sometimes a way of identifying ways to strengthen them, and sometimes simply a reminder to avoid investing in marketing approaches that don't work for you. Either way, being aware of your weaknesses is vital, and it's important to be honest with yourself, your team, and your business in this area, so that resources don't go to the wrong places for the wrong reasons.
Opportunities are things your marketing isn't currently doing, but could be. You should center your marketing objectives in every quadrant of the SWOT analysis, but this is the quadrant where objectives take the most central role. What isn't your marketing department doing that would make achieving your objectives easier? Consider whether the best opportunities arise from investing more in your weaknesses, or taking resources out of unpromising weaknesses and doubling down on your strengths. Consider your market position and ways that it could be leveraged differently. What ways might you reach your target audience that nobody else is leveraging? Where might it make sense to emulate your competitors, and what opportunities are their to differentiate? What platforms could you start taking advantage of? Are there any marketing tools or software that would open up new opportunities? What marketing tactics have you not yet tried?
No marketing strategy is free of risk. In what ways could pursuing your marketing objectives lead to disastrous results? What might cause your target audience to turn on you or feel alienated? Could a competitor feasibly steal your marketing strategy without hurting their own brand? Could pursuing an opportunity in a changing market alienate your existing audience? Will your marketing strategy become infeasible if certain members of your team leave, are fired, or die? Are you susceptible to a data breach or loss? You can't prepare for everything, but identifying potential threats can help you build backup plans in case the worst happens.
Construct Your Lead Funnel
Now it's time to look at the actual moving parts of your marketing strategy, identify how it currently works, and what your plan is for modifying it in order to achieve your objectives.
For each state of the lead funnel, consider your objectives, audience, competition, unique selling proposition, and your SWOT analysis. It's time to take the insights from everything you've done so far and use it to construct the desired shape of your marketing strategy.
How can you tweak the awareness stage of your funnel in a way that will help you reach your objectives? Which parts of your audience are struggling to hear about you and why? Are audiences who haven't heard about you yet ready to hear your unique selling proposition, or will you need to educate them before it's value is clear? Consider the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats you explored and how they relate to the awareness stage of your funnel.
Now get into the specifics. What platforms will you be using to spread brand awareness? What concrete changes will you be making to your content strategy, your advertising, your outreach, and your SEO and keyword targets? Set the actual deliverables with target dates that you will need to make in order to reach your objectives on schedule.
What will convince your target audiences to provide their contact information? What differences from your competitors will you highlight on your landing pages? Look for inspiration from your SWOT analysis, and be sure to center your objectives when it comes to developing your lead capture strategy.
Now for the deliverables. What are your lead magnets? What is your traffic strategy? How will you integrate lead capture with the awareness stage of your funnel? What will you be split testing?
A lead becomes a prospect when one way communication becomes two way communication. If your B2B model is rooted in one-on-one, hands on communication, this is when a lead starts speaking with you on the phone, responds to an email, or engages with you on a messaging platform. If your model is more hands-off and consumerized, this is where a lead begins a free trial or takes some other significant step towards actually using your products and services, rather than just consuming your content.
What will appeal to your audience enough to convince them to take that step? What objections will you need to overcome? Why reach out to you instead of a competitor? Is your prospecting strategy actually serving your objectives, and if not, what needs to change?
Time to get specific. List the specific changes you will make to your landing pages, your sales team, your free trials, and your push notifications, email drips, and texts. Put it in the form of deliverables, and at every stage ask how these deliverables will move leads into prospects in a way that serves your objectives.
Your SWOT analysis will be especially helpful at this crucial stage. What will convince your target audience to take the step from communication to money changing hands? Have you been rushing this stage? What objections are prospects having and how can you overcome them? Are there better ways to emphasize your unique selling proposition here, and is there more you can do to educate your target audience so that it hits harder? Is there more work that needs to be done during the awareness, lead capture, and prospecting stages to prepare prospects for the sale? For prospects who aren't ready, what can you do to retain them for a sale at a later time instead of losing them?
List the specific changes that need to happen. This can include sales call training, resources for your sales team, and specific changes to earlier stages of the funnel as they relate to insights from your sales team. Put it in the form of actionable deliverables with a timescale. As always, center your business objectives. Do not sacrifice short term sales for a long term failure to meet your objectives.
A single sale doesn't guarantee a client. Of course, your B2B model may be based on one-time sales, in which case the focus here isn't on keeping a client as much as it is on earning word of mouth and referrals. Either way, the lead funnel does not end with a single sale.
Look at your SWOT analysis and anything that is causing or might cause clients to leave for competitors. The relationship between a client and your business after the first sale is largely the job of your customer service team and your products and services themselves, but the marketing department still plays a role here.
This role can be split into two categories. The first is addressing the objections and issues that cause customers to leave earlier in the marketing funnel and providing better marketing qualified leads. This comes down to targeting the right audience and differentiating yourself from competition in a way that accurately represents the client experience, so that the right people are making it to sales.
The second is by extending the lead nurturing process past the first sale. This includes onboarding so that new clients can make the most of all of the products and services you have to offer. Educating and walking them through ways they can use you to improve their own business results can be vital to maintaining client relationships. It may also include calls to action for referrals, and collecting surveys from current and past clients to better refine the marketing process.
Again, frame everything in terms of highly specific, actionable deliverables that center your objectives.
Now that you've identified the deliverables you will need in order to achieve your business objectives, it's time to put them into your planning or project management software. In the past we have used Wrike for this. Today we use Teamwork. You may also need to put together a slide presentation to present the plan. You can find a good template for one here.
It's important to recognize that a B2B marketing plan is an iterative process. Before even agreeing that the first version of your plan is finalized, you should use anything you learned during the process of drafting it to revisit your objectives, target audience, competition, SWOT analysis, and your lead funnel a second time. You may run several sprints throughout the quarter or year and iterate on the plan each time. We recommend remaining relatively firm on your objectives for at least a quarter, but individual tasks can be expected to change quite a bit as you refine the plan during its execution.
In this post we've walked you through a bird's eye view of how to create a B2B marketing plan from start to finish. We recommend holding onto this. The planning phase of your marketing strategy is one that you will revisit many times. Always remember to center your marketing objectives first, then consider your audience, competition, SWOT analysis, and your marketing funnel, and finally to iterate and apply what you learn during the planning process, and later during its execution.