The Ultimate Guide to Building a Successful Marketing Strategy


You may have heard the term “marketing strategy” but you may not be totally sure what it means. Let’s look at the Big Picture Marketing definition and I’ll give you a few tips how to develop your small business or nonprofit marketing strategy.

A marketing strategy is made up of the plan, process and tactics that an organization or business maps out to achieve short- and long-term goals. Typically this plan works hand-in-hand with a sales plan or fundraising plan, and your marketing strategy always comes after your business plan is solidified.

Some of my clients ask if a marketing strategy is really important. Of course it is! Your communications plan (I use marketing and communications interchangeably) is the roadmap that explains to your entire team how you’re going to reach your goals, who is responsible for what, and how you’re going to measure success. Without a clear strategy, you’ll end up wasting time, money and talent.

So let’s dive in! I’ll start with the key steps and go into detail below.

Steps to create your marketing strategy:

  • Define your goals and what success looks like

  • Determine your staff’s capacity for marketing

  • Clarify your audience and develop key personas

  • Identify your content pillars and tactics

  • Track, review, test and refine

  • Stay flexible

How to write your small business or nonprofit marketing plan

Many business owners and nonprofit leaders jump straight to tactics when creating a strategy for marketing. They’ll say things like, “We need a Snapchat account and a weekly email with all of our events!” But this is putting the cart before the horse.

Think about it like you’re building a house. You might look at furniture before your architect has drawn up the house plans, but you wouldn’t buy a couch before you know how big your living room is, right? Or what if you find out you have to squeeze your furniture around a tight corner or haul it up a flight of stairs? That’s going to be important information before you go shopping.

Define your goals

When you’re creating your marketing strategy, start with your goals. How many new customers do you want to bring in? How much money do you want to raise? How many people do you want at your next event? Having clear, trackable goals will let you see whether or not your strategy and tactics are working. Plus, it will save you time, money and lots of headaches!

Determine your capacity and budget

Next, how much time do you or your staff realistically have for marketing? Do you have people whose full-time jobs are dedicated to communications or are those responsibilities divided up among several people? Or are you a team of one who has to do it all (side note: you are amazing!)? Understanding how much time your team can dedicate to your marketing efforts will inform what platforms you can successfully implement.

That’s worth repeating: only take on the platforms and tactics that you and your staff can do well. And remember that creating great content takes time. You want to share, email and post regularly while also engaging with your audiences comments and questions. If you decide to take on a huge number of marketing tactics, then discover that you can’t dedicate enough time to get it all done, your content will probably grow old and your audience will see a platform that’s full of dust and cobwebs.

Start small. Pick one or two social media platforms that resonate with your audience, have a one page website for now, email every quarter and build up from there. Those other platforms will still be around when you’re ready to take them on.

Clarify your audience

Who is buying your fantastic product or donating to your world-changing cause? If you’re brand new, you might not have a lot of data to dig through to define your audience. That’s okay! Check out who’s engaging with your competition or ask friends and family if they’re interested in what you’re selling. Ideally, you want to develop a single customer persona so you know exactly who you’re targeting with your marketing and how to speak to them. If you think you have multiple types of customers, try to limit your personas to a maximum of three.

If you have data, look into the demographics of your idea customer. These are things like:

  • Age

  • Location

  • Gender

  • Income level

  • Education

  • Occupation

Then describe the psychographics of your audience:

  • Brands/causes they follow

  • Personality

  • Values

  • Hobbies

  • Lifestyle

Tool Tip: HubSpot has an excellent free resource for creating customer personas:

You might think, “But everyone is in my audience! I don’t want to shut anyone out!” Fear not: narrowing down your audience doesn’t mean you’re excluding anyone. It’s simply a way for you to shape your voice and your content in a way that engages the largest number of people who are interested in you.

If more unexpected people buy your product or donate to your cause, great! If those people make up a large enough percentage of your sales or donations, consider grouping those people into a new persona.

Defining your audience is most definitely a case of quality over quantity. It will help you find and attract those customers who will ultimately buy your product or give to your cause.

Identify your content pillars and tactics

Whew! You made it through building the foundation of your strategy (goals, capacity and audience) and now you’re ready to map out your tactics. Looking at the work you’ve done above, what platforms (like web, social, email, print) resonate most with your audience, are most realistic for your capacity and get you to your goals the fastest?

I tell my clients to at least start with a website, a Facebook page and a regular email. Your website is your home base for customers or donors to find you online, learn all about you, contact you and buy your product or make a donation. Your Facebook page allows your customers to get to know your brand and interact with you. And your email list is the most precious thing you’ll own because it allows you to communicate directly with your most loyal customers or donors.

If your staff is ready to take on more, consider adding one or two social media platforms, different types of emails (like newsletters, resources, community events), a blog on your website or printed materials. But again, creating excellent content and engaging with your followers takes a considerable amount of time, so only deploy the tactics that make sense for your time and budget.

Next, think through the types of information you want to share and categorize them into content pillars. This might be things like your products, testimonials, behind-the-scenes at your office, events, etc. Organizing your content into categories will help you and your team develop consistent messaging and it will keep your marketing more efficient. Sometimes you’ll have content that doesn’t fit perfectly into a pillar, and that’s fine. Just make sure the majority of your content falls into one of your pillars.

Once you’ve outlined what channels you’re going to use and the content you’ll need to create, look through all the to-dos and assign specific tasks to specific people. Is one person creating content while another is posting or scheduling emails? Or is one person doing everything? The most common reason why marketing strategies fail is because no one determines who will actually execute the tactics.

Track, review, test and refine

You’ve got your social media posts humming along, emails are in the queue and your website is polished. You’re finished, right? Not quite! Your last step is to track the results of all of your efforts and make adjustments based on those results. Look into the analytics of your website, check your email statistics and review your social media insights. Where are you getting the most engagement? What type of content is your audience most interested in? Does a certain time or day of the week stand out as having the most interaction?

How often you look at these numbers is up to you, but do it at least monthly. You’ll see how well things are going and it will allow you to do more of what’s working. Not loving your email open rates? Test out things like different email subject lines or preview text. Got low engagement on your Tuesday evening posts? Try another day. Check your data regularly and make changes as needed to increase your numbers.

Marketing is the long game

The secret to successful marketing is: there is no secret! Just like anything, it takes hard work over time. Make your expectations and your goals realistic for your time and budget. And remember to stay flexible. The beauty of marketing is that you can always make adjustments if something isn’t working. Just keep moving!