marketing strategy

How to Create a Winning Marketing Strategy in 5 Steps (with Examples)

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Marketer and content writer at Ahrefs. Addicted to SEO, aviation, fragrances, sushi and tacos.
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    A marketing strategy is your business’s battle plan that guides your future marketing efforts.

    Having a marketing strategy is more crucial than ever. We’re swamped with new technologies, growth hacks, and “must-try” marketing tactics. A solid marketing strategy will help you to focus on things that really matter and execute them properly.

    Let me repeat that in other words.

    A marketing strategy helps you choose the right marketing tactics, like promoting your blog posts or creating an affiliate program. I need to make the distinction between strategy and tactics clear because you’ll often see people using these interchangeably.

    In this article, you’ll learn how to develop a winning marketing strategy in five steps:

    1. Have your market research data ready
    2. Decide which segments you’ll target
    3. Appeal to your target market with proper positioning
    4. Choose a few brand codes to become distinctive
    5. Set strategic objectives for the year ahead

    Let’s dive into it.

    It’s crucial to build your marketing strategy on data, not assumptions. You’re probably not developing and launching a product into the marketplace without market research—or at least you shouldn’t be.

    Market research is an essential part of marketing and a topic on its own. I won’t go too deep into this, but I’ll provide options to get the needed data. Remember that even cheap, quick, and imperfect market research is better than no research at all.

    Here’s what you should have before developing a marketing strategy:

    Feel free to go with what you deem enough at the moment. You can always come back to the research if you lack data for setting up the strategy. I’m aware that getting all the data right away is off-the-table for many new businesses.

    a) Qualitative market data

    Qualitative data tells you the “why” behind all your market research numbers. It’s essential for understanding your consumers as it digs into their views, experiences, motivations, and feelings.

    Traditionally, the best way to get such data would be via focus groups and interviews.

    Focus groups typically consist of five to ten people that represent your potential customers. The group should be moderated by a professional who knows which questions to ask and how to get reliable and in-depth insights. It’s a great option to get the data but not the cheapest in terms of money and time.

    On the other hand, I would suggest you go out and interview your (potential) customers in any situation. Even better, observe them in places your product is purchased, consumed, or discussed. Take notes on this unfiltered and unbiased information. If you have a SaaS product, you can also record and analyze sessions of your users.

    Here’s an example excerpt from an interview-style survey we did with our customers a while back:

    If you want to get some free and solid qualitative data quickly, look into how people talk about yours and competing products on social media, forums, Slack channels, and other online communities. It’s less reliable than conducting in-person interviews, but it’s still a fantastic qualitative data source.

    Here’s an example of a quick search on Reddit for SEO tool discussions where our product almost always gets discussed:

    b) Quantitative market data

    Quantitative market data provides measurable information about your market. It answers “what, who, how much, and how many” questions to complement the “why” questions from qualitative data. The best and most used method for getting such data is conducting surveys.

    You’ve likely filled customer surveys in various forms in the past. With the ability to conduct easy and scalable online surveys these days, there’s really no excuse not to do them.

    If you already have a solid customer base, email list, or social media following, distributing surveys is easy.

    There are three things you need to pay attention to when creating a survey:

    1. Make sure that you either distribute it to people who qualify as your potential customers or add survey questions to qualify them as such.
    2. Have a representative sample to draw conclusions from. You can get an idea of the sample size you need by plugging your numbers into a sample size calculator. Even if I take the whole US population into account, it only takes 600 survey participants to be 95% confident that the data is accurate within ±4%. You’ll likely need a much smaller sample.
    3. Ask the right questions. I’ll expand on this.

    You should always know why you’re asking a specific question in the survey. Generally speaking, you’ll want to know this about the market:

    • Demographic data like age or income.
    • Attitudinal data, like if they agree/disagree with certain statements relevant to your niche. An example of this would be the following question using the Likert scale:
    • Behavioral data about consumers’ preferences and satisfaction.

    If you have the budget, you can hire an agency to conduct a survey on your behalf or buy consumer reports from research and advisory companies like Forrester. If not, it’s worth spending a little time Googling marketing research reports because some might be available for free.

    c) Market segmentation

    Your goal here is to create a grid that divides the whole market into customer segments that share behavioral traits like product needs. If those segments also share demographic data like age or income brackets, even better, but that doesn’t happen too often.

    This is already an application of the data gathered in the previous steps.

    Here’s what proper market segmentation might look like for an email marketing service provider:

    Note that this example isn’t based on any proper research or actual numbers. It’s here for you to understand the logic behind it.

    As you can see, each segment should be described by:

    • A fitting name describing their common behavioral trait and/or product needs
    • Size of the segment (people or companies)
    • Annual value of the segment
    • Your current market share in the segment

    The most challenging part of segmentation is coming up with the grid itself. In other words, by which behavioral traits do you divide the market? You should get the best answers for this in your previous data research.

    Don’t worry about data accuracy here. Use the data you have about the market, extrapolate from your representative samples in your quantitative research, and make a few guesses. These estimations are good enough for you to decide which segments you’ll want to target.

    We’ll come back to your segments in the targeting part.

    d) Competitive analysis

    You’ll use competitive analysis in every step of developing your marketing strategy. While you’ll inevitably learn about competitors in your data research, it’s crucial to create a standalone overview of the competitor landscape.

    A competitive analysis consists of these eight steps:

    1. Find your competitors
    2. Get background information
    3. Analyze competitors’ products and services
    4. Get familiar with their targeting and positioning
    5. Discover competitors’ distribution channels
    6. Dive into communication strategies
    7. Do some ghost shopping
    8. Conduct a SWOT analysis

    Here’s a mockup of the SWOT analysis outcome for a fictional email marketing service provider:

    This is from my competitive analysis guide, which includes a template to help you get this done efficiently. Go check it out if you haven’t done this analysis yet.

    The second step in developing a marketing strategy is to decide which segments of the market you’ll go after. Or perhaps I should say which segments you’ll ignore as deciding what not to do is often the more important choice.

    But first, let me explain the difference between terms that we marketers tend to use interchangeably:

    • Target segment — a specific market segment you decide to go after.
    • Target market - all your target segments combined, they buy and use the products in the category.
    • Target audience — everyone who resonates with your marketing communications regardless of whether they buy the products. For example, technology fans likely belong to the target audience of Tesla, but only a few of them will ever buy the car.

    If you’ve done a good job with your segmentation, your target segments tend to be pretty obvious and easy to choose.

    To choose your target segments, ask yourself these six questions:

    1. Does your product align with what the segment wants?
    2. Does it bring you the most value if you increase your market share there?
    3. Do you have the sales and marketing resources to increase your market share there?
    4. How difficult is it going to be to increase your market share there?
    5. Does this segment influence any other segments? If so, how?
    6. What are the trade-offs if you shift your focus on new segments?

    Your ideal target segments are those where you can make the most money given the resources available.

    Keep in mind that some segments might influence the buying behavior of other segments. Those can be influential people in B2C or leading companies in your industry in B2B. Consider this spill-over value as well:

    As you can see from my market segmentation example, two relatively small segments influence the buying behavior of a much larger segment. If you decided to go after the “pro small senders” and “pro big senders” segments, you’d get new customers from the “influenced small senders” segment without ever targeting it.

    Regarding the last question about trade-offs, you also have to consider that some of your current customers will inevitably leave for competitors. If you decide to shift your focus and resources elsewhere, it will be easier for your competitors to poach those customers from you.

    Most importantly, keep in mind that targeting everyone is rarely the best strategy. Answering those six questions should make it obvious.

    Positioning is how your target market should perceive your brand. It’s the intended brand image that consists of associations people have with your brand and products. Positioning allows you to differentiate from your competitors, and in some cases, even influence how the target market perceives your competitors.

    For example, there’s a lot in this message:

    Burger King vs. McDonalds’ and ‘Apple vs. Microsoft’ are just famous examples of using the “versus” positioning type. You can easily do this from the position of the smaller player too:

    But you don’t always need to pick a fight. First, it’s not necessary to succeed, and second, you’ll sometimes be walking on thin ice that may lead to bad publicity:

    This is from Techradar’s reaction to Wix’s campaign where they positioned themselves against WordPress. A lot of marketing and web development influencers were not impressed either:

    The thing is that you can succeed by focusing on your brand and products only.

    The power of positioning lies in consistently communicating the few associations throughout all of your marketing channels. If you fail to do this, the market will do the positioning job for you. That will seldom align with your desired brand image.

    So how do you come up with the key attributes that define your communication?

    Dive into three Cs of positioning to come up with the right message

    When you think about positioning, you need to take into account these three aspects of it, also known as 3 Cs of positioning:

    • Company
    • Customers
    • Competitors

    Well, you should know your own company. The rest lies in your market research data again.

    Put all the data together and come up with messages that are:

    • Relevant - does the target segment care?
    • Clear - will they get it?
    • Authentic - will they believe it?
    • Unique - does it stand out from your competitors?
    • Achievable - can you deliver what you claim?
    • Sustainable - can you maintain that position indefinitely?

    While this process seems easy on paper, it requires a lot of thinking and vetting of ideas.

    For example, we don’t have a slogan, but we make sure to highlight these attributes throughout our communications:

    • Being the best all-in-one SEO product
    • Ease of use
    • Makes you better at marketing and SEO

    Our homepage immediately tells you what we do and how you can benefit from that:

    The SEO industry knows us for being a product-led company that continues to grow fast without a sales team, and we don’t shy away from emphasizing this position—often in somewhat unique ways:

    You need to come up with something impactful and not some over-glorified brand purposes or missions that mean nothing to the brand or its customers. Starbucks is a bad example of this, in my opinion:

    I’m sure that everyone buying an overpriced, average coffee thinks about how it inspires and nurtures their spirit…

    You can tell I’m not a Starbucks fan, but even I can think of two better attributes that they could focus on instead—their availability and convenience. It’s somehow implied in the mission statement, but the focus lies elsewhere.

    Have a position for each target segment

    If you target multiple segments with different behaviors and needs, you’ll need to make sure that you communicate what they care about.

    For example, SEO professionals, marketers, and even ‘regular’ website owners all use our product. But their needs are very different. Our positioning attributes work regardless of target segments, but we certainly need to adjust the nitty-gritty separately.

    We reflect that on pages where different segments are likely to land.

    We target the biggest segment, website owners, on our freemium product page. The copy is written for SEO beginners:

    It also utilizes the “versus” positioning type:

    On the other hand, our product page for Site Audit targets more seasoned marketers and SEOs:

    Here’s the interesting thing about this: Site Audit is a core tool in the freemium product. We’re simply addressing the same thing from two very different angles.

    A brand code, aka distinctive asset, is anything that you use consistently in your communications. You can think about it as your sidekick to positioning.

    The most common brand code is your logo and visual style. But that’s about it for most brands. It’s not enough to stand out and be distinctive in the mind of your target audience.

    Your ultimate goal should be that your target audience recognizes your brand even without showing any logos:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tbwoKm5U0tM

    Your brand codes should be unique, which makes you distinctive, and ideally famous, which enables your existing audience to connect the dots easily.

    At Ahrefs, besides our logo and the color blue, we also have two more brand codes. The first is our custom font:

    The second is our bearded guy mascot, often accompanied by a corgi:

    There are no limits to your creativity. All that matters is that you choose something you want your brand to be associated with and use it consistently.

    More examples of brand codes include your own emojis, gifs, unique words, taglines, or even the style you advertise. Just think about Mastercard’s “priceless” campaigns.

    You can stand out by focusing on non-visual things too. We all know McDonald’s I’m lovin’ it jingle as an example of an auditory brand code. But you can even have your own smell, as is the case for some hotels and luxury brands.

    You need clearly defined marketing objectives to guide your marketing efforts and provide benchmarks for evaluation. It’s all that’s left to do for your strategy now.

    Your marketing objectives should align with the widely-used SMART criteria:

    • Specific — clearly stating the desirable outcome, answers “who, what, when, how much, …”
    • Measurable — you must be able to track progress with Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).
    • Achievable — be bold with your goals, but also realistic; use current growth as a benchmark.
    • Relevant - does the objective align with your overall marketing and business strategy?
    • Timely — set up a time frame for achieving the goal.

    An example of such objective could be:

    Grow Ahrefs Webmaster Tools’ verified global user base from 100,000 to 500,000 by the end of 2021.

    You should have one or two marketing objectives for each of your target segments for the year ahead. That would be a part of your marketing plan.

    Strive for a combination of short and long-term objectives. In other words, have objectives that directly translate into more profit and others that help with brand building.

    As a general rule, the ideal balance between marketing spend on sales uplift, and brand building is roughly 40:60. It’s one of the most important marketing concepts to keep in mind.

    There’s an entire publication dedicated to this concept. The key takeaway is that brand building is proven to be the primary driver of long-term growth and success.

    Here’s an example of a marketing objective with a brand-building KPI:

    Increase brand awareness among webmasters in the US from 25% to 40% by the end of 2021.

    Final thoughts

    If you even remotely follow these steps to develop a viable marketing strategy, you’ll be better off than most marketers. Our industry seems somewhat fixated on pushing enticing “must-try” tactics as strategies. We can do better than that.

    Look, if you come across a new cool marketing tactic and it aligns with your strategy, sure, go ahead, give it a shot. But you’ll often find that it’s better to stick with your guns.

    Even though creating a marketing strategy is around a third of what marketing entails—along with research and tactics— its output should be brief and easy to understand. It might take you weeks or even months to develop a great strategy, but you can distill that into a shortlist of target segments, positions, brand codes, and objectives.

    Put simply: doing the research and strategy work sets you up for long-term success. Just revisit it once a year because your business, segments, competitors, and market dynamics evolve. Planning your marketing for the year ahead is also better with fresh data.

    Anyway…

    I need to give credit where credit is due.

    Even though I studied marketing and have experience from strategic marketing positions, it was these four marketing masterminds who shaped my current marketing views the most:

    Mark Ritson — marketing professor, brand consultant, columnist, Mini MBA in Marketing lecturer

    Byron Sharp — marketing professor and researcher, author of How Brands Grow

    Peter Field & Les Binet — marketing effectiveness experts, authors of The Long and the Short of it: Balancing Short and Long-Term Marketing Strategies

    This guide hugely drew inspiration from their articles, books, lectures, and talks I’ve studied over the years. If you want to become a better marketer who uses practices based on actual research, follow them and study their work.

    Do you have any questions or remarks? Ping me on Twitter.

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