780-996-1255 jill@yesthatjill.com

Service business owners ask me how to write a marketing plan all the time. If you’re not paying a consultant to do it for you, it’s difficult to know where to start. (And no, that’s not a pitch. Because I’m about to teach you how to do it.)

The truth is, most people can create a wildly successful marketing plan. It ain’t rocket science. Even if you’re not creative at all. Even if you’ve never been to business school.

Everything I know about marketing has been a process of trial and error. In all that experimenting, one process for creating marketing plans stands head-and-shoulders above the rest. I’ve used this method with dozens of clients, from itty bitty service businesses to offices with 100+ employees, and every time I end up with a thrilled client doing great business.

How to write a marketing plan

The Discovery Phase

The first piece of any marketing plan is checking in with yourself. This part is fun because you ask yourself a lot of really tough questions! (Okay, maybe it’s just me.)

Get your people together, or unplug and lock yourself in a room, and ask yourself these three things:

  • What do you honestly think are your company’s strengths? What is it you do amazingly well?
  • What are your company’s weaknesses? Where do you fall short in serving your clients?
  • What do you think makes you different from all the other businesses that do what you do?

There are no wrong answers, but honesty is important. Be real with yourself.

The Research Phase

In the research phase, you’re going to ask your clients the same questions you asked yourself.

Remember in high school when your teacher made you pass your pop quiz to the person in front of you to grade? They did it because a) they were lazy, let’s be real, but also because b) other people are better judges of your strengths and weaknesses.

Don’t use a survey or another impersonal data collector at this stage! Give your clients a call instead. When you’re able to hear your client’s tone and ask them follow up questions, you’ll get way more from your research.

Some of you might be tempted to visit your clients in person. Don’t. A little bit of distance will make them feel more comfortable being honest. It’s hard for a client to tell you to your face they’re not satisfied, but if they’re not satisfied you really need to hear what they have to say.

The Direction Phase

Alright, so you asked yourself some tough questions, you asked your clients, now it’s the moment of truth. Your direction. When people talk about how to write a marketing plan, this is usually what they mean. Most businesses don’t bother with the discovery and research phases, so their direction is based on little more than a hunch. You’ve done the work, which makes the difference between an okay marketing plan and a wildly successful one.

The first thing to do to figure out your direction is identify the gaps. Gaps exist wherever there’s a mismatch between what you think and what your clients think.

How Gaps Work

Let me show you what I mean. Suppose you run a graphic design business, and you offer a 24-hour turnaround. Here are some gaps you might discover:

  • You thought clients valued your 24-hour turnaround, but most of your clients don’t need things that fast.
  • You deliver two designs for every job, which your clients say makes you different and valued. You don’t mention it in your sales process.
  • You thought timely response to requests was your greatest strength, but clients have had spotty experiences.

In this phase, you’re starting to form the story of what your business is. In our example of the furiously fast designer, you’d put more emphasis on delivering multiple designs, fix your response time issues and probably do away with 24-hour turnaround.

Some of this doesn’t sound like marketing, exactly, but can you imagine trying to sell super fast design to a crowd that doesn’t care? No matter how great your pitch is, your audience is going to go “eh, whatever.” And what about your inconsistent response time? If your client’s experience doesn’t match what your promise, you just lost them (and their trust).

The direction phase is all about finding the things that trip you up, making a plan to fix them, and discovering what your clients value most.

The Tactical Phase

The tactical phase is the actual Doing Stuff part of your plan, where your direction turns into action. We’ve been building a solid foundation, and now it’s time to put up the house.

First of all, don’t bother with advertising.

I know, you’ve been lead to believe that ads are Very Important (by people who sell ads). But service businesses are just different. Your client is (hopefully) paying more than $29.99 for your work. You have to convince people to trust you, because “oh, shiny!” won’t close a sale for services. You’re really marketing your or your team’s capabilities, and to do that there are just three tactics you need to perfect. Ready? Let’s do this.

Touchpoint Analysis

A touchpoint analysis is an audit of all your marketing efforts and your operations. Does every piece of communication show your value? Do your actions live up to your promises? Map out your full sales and service process from your client’s perspective –  from first contact to final invoice – and see where you can fill some gaps.

Thought Leadership

Thought leadership is essentially getting your expertise out in front of people, however you choose to do that. There are lots of options, from digital (think blog posts, podcasts and video) to hands-on (like hosting workshops or giving a talk at a conference.)

If you’re thinking I don’t have any expertise or I don’t know what to share, there’s a free guide to choosing a thought leadership topic in this blog post.


I’m no event planner, but hosting your own events is a time-tested method to get new client leads and build a reputation as an expert. (See #2, thought leadership. I love when things check two boxes.)

“Event” doesn’t have to mean “catered dinner for 200 and a TED talk style presentation”. It could be as simple as a lunch and learn session on a topic you know well, where you invite your current clients and let them bring a colleague or their own client.

How to Write a Marketing Plan: Bonus Round

I know you can do this. You’re definitely not alone! “How to write a marketing plan” is in the Google search history of every entrepreneur I’ve ever spoken to.

In fact, so many people have asked me about it that I’m creating a course on how to write a marketing plan the wildly successful way. The doors open for the first time in April 2017. Click here to be the first to know when it’s live!

Learn more about the Screw Advertising course!


This post is part of my series for service businesses, Screw Advertising. You can find Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.


Leave a Comment

Love this post? Share it!