How To Write A Startup Marketing Plan

Lessons from a winning military strategy

When someone asks you for a Marketing Plan, your first instinct will be to create a laundry list of things you think it makes sense to do. If you’re any good you’ll define budgets for each line item on your list, and eventually you’ll convert that list into a 63-slide PowerPoint deck. The second-to-last slide will be a “High Level Gantt Chart,” and it will look great and make you feel like a real marketer. The last will say “Next Steps.”

Congratulations. You’re an amateur.

The right way to create a startup Marketing Plan is to begin by reflecting on the work of the great Prussian military strategist Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke, considered by some to be the father of modern battlefield strategy. While the name may not ring a bell, you’re likely familiar with his most famous quote: “No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength.” As simplified through the ages: “No plan survives contact with the enemy.”

Some people interpret this statement as meaning that planning is a waste of time, whether for marketing, or for something…er… important. But the quote above was only half of Moltke’s central thesis. The second half was this: “Strategy is a system of expedients.” No simplification of that phrase survived into folklore, but what Moltke was really saying was that military strategy had to be understood as a system of options, since only the beginning of a military operation was plannable. He wasn’t against plans… in fact just the opposite. Moltke considered the main task of military leaders to be extensive preparation for all possible outcomes after the initial engagement. Our own Dwight D. Eisenhower summed up the concept rather elegantly, 100 years later. “Plans are worthless,” said the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, who as President oversaw one of the greatest periods of American expansion and prosperity in our history, “But planning is essential.”

OK, so enough with the history lesson.

A startup Marketing Plan “Moltke-style” starts with defining 6 terms that are too often conflated by young marketers:

  • goal — what we hope to achieve.
  • objective — how we will measure success in reaching our goal.
  • strategy — an approach we think will meet our objective.
  • tactic — execution to convert our strategy into action.
  • program — a collection of related tactics.
  • plan — what needs to be done when, given the above.

A great startup marketing plan starts with a clear-eyed consensus on the specific Goals of your marketing effort. Think big for now, about what you’re really setting out to accomplish over the next n months. When I started at Actifio, the marketing plan we created had 5 goals:

  1. Deliver leads that support our sales goals.
  2. Develop tools that make sales more effective.
  3. Establish copy data in the market conversation.
  4. Build infrastructure to support scaled growth.
  5. Shape culture to reinforce brand and values.

You can take each one of those goals and translate them into specific and measurable Objectives. This won’t always be easy… but remember the purpose of objectives isn’t to provide legal proof of success. It’s just to get consensus on specific metrics that will be useful in focusing the strategies you’ll define next with the goals you’ve already put to paper.

Next come the Strategies themselves. Expect a range of high and lower level ideas here, but keep it simple and stay focused on what will be required to meet your agreed-upon objectives. More examples from our original plan:

  1. Simplify and Align Actifio Positioning & Story
  2. Refine Inside Sales Model
  3. Shift Focus of PR Effort
  4. Launch Community Marketing Program
  5. Improve Global Marketing Collaboration

Under each of these strategies is a set of Tactics, actual stuff people need to go do to make it happen. Those tactics tend to be grouped in natural clusters called Programs that require some kind of coordinated execution. Finally you need a Plan to assign resources to these tasks, and keep everyone on the team aligned with everyone else.

But remember your Moltke, folks: No plan survives contact with the enemy, so strategy is a system of expedients. Focus your time and energy on getting alignment on and clear definition of your business Goals and Objectives. After that make sure the quality of your execution against Strategies and Tactics is good enough for you to learn what works and what doesn’t, then adjust your plan accordingly as you go.

That’s how you win the war, baby. And that’s what makes you a Startup Marketing Pro.