How to Create a Marketing and Communications Plan: The Thought Process

I totally understand: making a marketing and communications strategy can be daunting or feel inauthentic. It’s a field overrun by buzzwords and jargon, with advice that is often geared towards large corporations rather than arts and culture organizations or creative small business.  

Good news: creating a communications and marketing plan doesn’t have to be headache inducing! Marketing does not have to be complex to be effective. Communications need to be authentic to the person, organization/company and its mission. And it’s not really about advertising, brochures, or social media. Good marketing is about communicating with the right people, with the right message, in the right ways and places for them, in the best timing for them – to inspire action. 

With that in mind, I’ve created a framework for developing a communications plan that is simple, effective, and most importantly, realistic for the average cultural worker, artist, or small business owner. There are five core sections in my approach to creating a marketing and communications plan. It can be for a small business, a non-profit organization, a festival, a concert season, or a one-time exhibition — this framework can be used for all kinds of campaigns and any amount of budget. 

I’ve been teaching versions of this structure for more than 15 years in my workshops and university courses, and it is the framework that I customize creatively and strategically when developing marketing plans for my clients. An added bonus: it has had a very high success rate when used for funding applications, too. 

Without further ado, the five core sections to a marketing and communications plan are:  

  1. Your goal(s) and objectives 
  2. The target market(s) 
  3. The tools and tactics 
  4. Budget 
  5. Timing 

Here’s how I think of it: 

1. Your goals and objectives = Why you are creating a communications plan. This is what your communications and marketing need to do. What are you trying to accomplish? This also includes the numbers that you will use to measure the campaign’s success.  

2. The target market(s) = Who you need to connect and communicate with. This is not some abstract profile, these are real people with real interests, wants, and needs. These are the people who will take the action that fulfills your goals and objectives. 

3. The tools and tactics = How you will connect and communicate with the people who are your target market(s). How you will inform and entice these people to take the action that fulfills your goal and objectives.  

4. Budget = How much $ you can and will spend on the tools and tactics.  

5. Timing = When your campaign tools and tactics reach the people who are your target market(s), in effective timing for them to be able to make the decision and to take the action that fulfills your goals. You campaign timing is based on timing that works best for your target market people. 

Now that we’ve got a rough idea of what we’re working with, let’s delve a little deeper into the thought process and how you can create your own marketing and communication plan.  

Consider before you start 

Does your company or organization have a strategic plan that this communications plan needs to reflect? If so, gather all of the key points in the strategic plan that communications enable or affect, so you can ensure they are addressed in your plan. They might even influence how you structure your communications plan. 

Who all is this plan for? How will they use it? In addition to being your plan for your communications, it might also be used in grant applications, to show sponsors and donors where they will receive reignition and promotional opportunities, it might be used to make a case for budgeting from an executive director, or to clarify who-does-what-when with a project partner. When you know how all the plan will be used, it is easier to ensure that everything that needs to be addressed is included, and that the plan is written and presented in ways that work for those purposes and people.   

The Big Why 

First things first—it helps to understand the “big why.” Why are you really creating this plan? Sure, your objectives will likely be about revenues, attendance, public engagement, and audience or customer development. Beyond that, why are these important to your organization now, for this campaign? Is there a bigger picture problem that you are trying to solve or a need you are working to fulfil? Write the need(s) or issue(s) that you are working to address in your communications. 

Get specific 

Once you’ve sketched out your big why, identify your specific objectives for this campaign. This is what the campaign plan will be designed to accomplish. They could be the number of new clients in a particular time period, the number of people you want to attend an event, click-throughs from emails, revenue for a specific quarter or event, or an increase in social media engagement over a given number of months, just to name a few examples.  

Clarifying how you will measure the campaign’s success will ensure that you create realistic yet ambitious objectives and plan the campaign implementation and budgeting accordingly. 

Be smart 

You’ve probably heard this acronym a hundred times before, but it’s worth repeating: make sure your objectives are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound). Checking off each of these letters every time you list an objective will help to ensure they remain, well, smart.  

Who do you need to connect and communicate with?  

Take a nice long look at your big why and the objectives you just articulated. Who are the decision makers that will take the action required to make you successful in achieving your objectives? This is what – who – your communications plans are really about. Depending on your campaign, these people could be existing and/or new audience members and attendees, partner organizations, sponsors, media or influencers, potential clients, or someone else. Who are the people your campaign will be designed to engage? These people are your target market(s) for this campaign. 

Where can you find them? 

Where can you find and connect with these people? Define a geography range, and brainstorm these peoples relevant interests, wants, needs, and lifestyle factors like local transportation, shopping, eating, socializing, family responsibilities, and how they likely communicate and inform themselves. This could be as broad as the social media platform(s) they are most active on, or what neighbourhoods they live in, whether they walk, cycle, or drive, if they go to a local dog park or playground, what kinds of foods they order or restaurants they prefer, what radio they might stream or tune into, where they likely get their news, what other arts organizations they likely attend online or in person, and so on. The more you can envision about people’s daily lives and interests, the more ways and places you can connect and communicate with them.  

Your communication tools and tactics 

This is the action part of the campaign so people often want to start here – after all, these are the sexy things that people think of as marketing; your social media posts and ads, advertising (digital, print, radio, transit, screen, etc), flyers and brochures, emails, outreach events. How we are going to reach, connect, and communicate with the people (targets) who will take the action that fulfills the campaign goals. But we need to start with knowing why we want to communicate, what we need to accomplish, and who are the people we want to communicate with. Then we can get into the choices of what are the right tools and tactics to accomplish what we have articulated.  You will likely have different tools and tactics specific to each group of people that you are working to connect and communicate with. Where and how you reach different people differs.

So you might be thinking, “but what how do I figure out what I should DO? What WORKS?” Run print ads? Ads on a specific website or Facebook? Do print pieces or posters draw attendees?

The answers are in your brainstorm of your target marketsinterests, wants, needs, and lifestyle factors like local transportation, shopping, eating, socializing, family responsibilities, and how they likely communicate and inform themselves. That is how you know where to find the right places and media to reach and communicate with your audience.

Of course you will want to check the data from the different media companies and social platforms to ensure it really aligns with who you want to reach. I believe that choosing the right tools and tactics is both a science and a creative art form. (As is copy writing.) 

What do you already have? 

Also, don’t forget to take account of what you already have in your marketing and communications toolbox. It helps to make a list of resources, tools, and assets that you have. Like an inventory. What is working well for you? What might need to be shifted or augmented? What have you been wanting to develop? This could be segments of your existing email list, subscriptions to content creation and management systems, files of visual assets, a dedicated ad budget, physical and digital marketing materials already in place, or an established following on your digital channels. Even if you’re starting with a robust marketing and communications toolbox, there is almost always opportunity for growth, repurposing, finessing). It also helps to see the gaps: tools or resources that we might want to invent or develop. 

Let’s have a little check in. At this point, you have identified: 

  • The Big Why: the big picture need(s) or issue(s) that you are working to address with this campaign 
  • Your specific objectives for this campaign, and the numbers you will use to measure your success 
  • Your target markets: the people who will take the action required to make you successful in achieving your goals, and some ideas of where you might find and reach those people 
  • The tools and tactics you would like to use to connect and communicate with your target market(s) where they already are

You also now have:  

  • An inventory of resources, tools, and assets you already have, and an assessment of how you can expand or repurpose those already-existing tools and resources 
  • A brainstorm of ideas for what other tools and tactics might be possible, and what is missing from your toolbox that we might want to invent or develop 

Brass Tacks: your budgets & timelines 

Budget 

It’s super rare to be able to create an ideal campaign plan and get the budgeting to make it all happen. Most likely, you are working with a set budget that feels too small to be able to accomplish everything you want to. The main thing to do here is go back and forth between your available budget and your tools and tactics to ensure that the things you plan to do are the ones most important to you and that will have most impact. Be the most likely to directly create the results you are working for.  

Timelines  

Timelines often get glossed over but they are as critical as knowing who you want to communicate with and how you are going to reach them. Planning your timelines is about rolling out your tools and tactics in timing that is effective for your target market, for them to be able to do what you are working to entice them to do. Timing, along with messaging and imagery, ensures that tools and tactics are effective. I like creating what I call a workback schedule, that starts with the event or marker dates, and work back to create specific timing for marketing and communications to reach people, and continue working back through the production and distribution of each item, right to when it needs to be started. Again, this is all about the people who your campaign is all about – having your campaign items, whether an email or digital ads or brochures or social media posts, reach them in the timing that is best for them.

Some final thoughts: when it comes to marketing, people often want to play with the newest shiniest tool, and that can be fun and worth experimenting with. However, the right choice of tools is what will connect effectively and meaningfully with the people who you have identified as your priorities. We have to generate the most impact and results we can, with the financial and human resources available to us, and that can impact our choices. The “fanciest” marketing strategy isn’t always the most effective (or most realistic) approach, and communications is by no means a “one-size-fits-all” endeavour.  

Also, it’s tempting to try to emulate what others are doing, but that can be stressful if it’s not the right thing for your company and your target market people. Stay grounded in what is authentic, or “on brand”, for you and your organization. And stay focused on the perspective, wants, and needs of the people who are your target market(s). Your success relies on them. 

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