For small or new online businesses, marketing can be sporadic. You know you need to market your company, but beyond the initial e-mail and social media blast, you're too busy to go beyond the quick self-promotion here and there. Marketing is work, and you've got t-shirts to ship.

Yet no one would argue that marketing isn't valuable. Having a plan in place that outlines your marketing activities on a month-to-month basis assures that a steady stream of promotion enters the marketplace, keeping you in the minds of your established customers and roping in new ones. The more you talk about your company, the more likely people will overhear and become curious.

A marketing calendar is exactly what it sounds like: a plan that covers your marketing activities for the entire year. Like most aspects of a business plan, it requires some initial investment in time and resources, but it pays off later. The time when the marketing calendar is most useful is precisely the moment you have the least time to think about self-promotion.

Outline an overall strategy

Before you create a marketing timeline, you have to decide on an overall marketing strategy. Factors to consider are:

What is your estimated marketing budget? Know what you are able to spend for the entire year

  • How frequently will you promote your company? Determine the frequency of your promotions based on what your resources allow - everything from only promoting at certain times of the year to posting weekly blog articles
  • When is your peak demand? Determine whether demand will rise or fall during different times of the year, such as holidays
  • What types of media will you target? Consider more than just e-mail and social media - look at writing articles, attending conventions, creating videos, etc.
  • Who is your audience?
  • What other resources do you have on hand? You may have a photographer in the family or own a high-end video camera

Once you have a good sense of how to market, you will plan when to market.

Create a calendar

Google and Microsoft both have online tools for creating calendars that are integrated with e-mail and other productivity software. These calendars allow you to set recurring events and automate reminders - especially useful for regular e-mail updates or blog posts.

A spreadsheet is another way to keep a calendar. Spreadsheets allow you to see more information at a glance and are more flexible, but you will lose much of the functionality of an online calendar platform.

Whatever you choose, you must be able to update entries, keep track of milestones and note results. A marketing calendar isn't just for planning future marketing efforts, it is a record of your past efforts, allowing you to note strategies that did or did not work.

At minimum, each entry in the calendar should track the following:

  • The name of the project
  • The date that the project will go live
  • Who is responsible for managing the project
  • Any other employees or contractors needed to complete the project
  • A place to record any reports or results about the effectiveness of the campaign

Once you have a calendar that will suit your needs, fill in events such as holidays, vacations and financial quarters. This is the skeleton upon which you'll hang your marketing plan.

Map your strategy in detail

Based on the questions you answered above, you should have a good idea who, what, when and how you wish to market. Now fill in your calendar.

Recurring events, such as regular blog posts or e-mail blasts, are the easiest. Be sure to set realistic timelines for producing and distributing routine promotions - if you turn them out at the last minute, your audience will know.

Planning when to create larger or more elaborate promotions takes some work. For many businesses, the holidays are the most important sales times. Holiday promotions must be planned and executed months in advance. For instance, it's not uncommon for major retailers to begin designing Christmas marketing efforts in early July.

You may not need to go to such extreme lengths. Just be aware of all the milestones necessary to produce your promotions. Having your content finished early is better than scrambling.

Aside from organizing your promotional milestones and deadlines, a calendar will show you the gaps in your marketing coverage. You will be able to see if there are times when you're not producing any content. You will also see if there are times when all of your efforts are bunched together. Of course, peak times will have more promotions than slow times. Just make sure that your resources are well spent and wouldn't be better used elsewhere.

Learn from your results

Was one particular promotion successful? Put it on next year's calendar. Did another one flop? Try something different. Having a complete and detailed record of your marketing plan provides tremendous insight. Refine your marketing strategy year by year to reach more and more potential customers.

A simple organizational tool, marketing calendars turn haphazard promotion into comprehensive marketing strategies, making your business more professional and visible.

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