Open-Source Marketing Plan: How a Growth Agency Grows Itself

Interested in a PDF version of our Marketing Plan?


As the co-founder of a growth marketing agency that has spent over $25,000,000 on marketing working with over 100 different companies, I’ve written a lot of marketing plans.

I’ve also seen the how bad things can get without one.

Without a well-written marketing plan, you’ll make avoidable mistakes, spread your resources too thin, and ultimately fail to hit your growth goals.

Taking the time to define your strategy up front can keep your team focused on doing the right things to grow your company, giving you a real competitive advantage.

The problem is that most people don’t know how to make a technical, data-driven marketing plan. They Google “Marketing Plan” and get a list of contrived, theoretical, impractical templates.

Very few businesses are willing to be transparent about what’s working for them, for fear of giving competitors an upper hand. After all the old adage says all warfare is based on deception.

If you read our blog, you know our thinking isn’t that outdated. However, NDAs with our clients stop us from sharing any of the 30+ marketing plans we generate every month as examples.

I’ve tackled this issue before, but that was built entirely from publicly available information. To do this right, I needed a business willing to share all of its confidential marketing data.

Eventually we had a brainwave: why not open-source our own marketing plan?

At $5k per month budgeted plus a full-time marketer on the books, we were big enough to actually be a client of our own agency. #meta

You’re reading that plan.

…but it gets better.

If we just stopped there, we’d already be providing some of the most useful content out there on how to create a marketing plan. But as a single snapshot in time, it’d of limited use.

After all, not everything will go according to plan.

mike tyson

Which is why we have this hanging in our office.

What you really want to learn is how to roll with the punches.

So we’ll take it another step further. Every single week after we publish the plan, we’ll provide a weekly update on how everything is working, and how we’re adapting on the fly.

Yep, that’s right; you’re going to get a front row seat to how a marketing plan actually goes from strategy through to execution. Every week. For a full year.

We’re going to treat you as if you were the client -- give you all the numbers, the justification for changes to the plan, and share all the big wins and own up to the stupid mistakes.

This is going to be the best way imaginable to learn how we actually do marketing at Ladder.

If you want to follow along, sign up now:

The good news is you don’t have to use our technology to follow along… we’ll walk you through how to replicate everything yourself with free / cheap tools.

So let’s get started.

User Guide


This plan is a BEAST. At exactly 37,464 words spread across 9 different blog posts, it took us more than 100 hours to put it together. Bookmark this post and treat it as a table of contents. As we walk through the process we’ll link out to relevant blog posts where it explains how we did the bulk of the work.

Don’t feel like you have to read everything or follow along with the whole process religiously. Unless you’re starting from scratch you’ve probably already done pieces of this. For example the first few sections in particular can be abandoned if your plan is for internal use and your brand is already well established.

You should also expect 6 out of 7 of the tests in your plan to fail. This doesn’t mean planning is a waste of time; thanks to proper planning our failure rate is 30% below the industry average. You’ll notice that over 75% of this plan relates to research or auditing, before you get to the actual ‘plan’ at the end. This is intentional; the more of this you do, the higher your success rate.

Finally, if you start reading this plan and get overwhelmed; don’t worry. It took millions of dollars and thousands of hours to build this expertise. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be a valuable skill. If you’re interested in getting us to do it for you, sign up to talk to a strategist on our website. If you’re doing it yourself and getting stuck; Tweet at me and I’d be happy to help.

Index

Brand Positioning


Central to our marketing strategy is figuring out who we are and we do. Defining our positioning gives us the context needed to make strategic decisions. It’s vitally important to build a shared vision of our history, present and past that’s written down and agreed at the highest levels.

These pieces might at first glance seem ‘fluffy’ or useless - I certainly thought so when I was first starting out in marketing. However they’re actually highly functional; in fact it can be very difficult to do your job as a marketer without these building blocks being in place.

The ‘elevator pitch’ and ‘blurb’ translates into website copy; our style guide helps us stay on brand with our ads; analysis of our unit economics gives us an idea of what we can afford to acquire a customer. More importantly these documents serve as a reference point for everyone who touches marketing, employees, freelancers, vendors, on exactly the same page.

Market Research


The next step is to explore what’s possible in the current market. If we can build a picture of what audiences are possible to target, what value propositions our competitors are using and the influencers that might impact our persona’s decision to work with us, we can come up with a lot of ideas for potential marketing campaigns we should be running.

Marketing Audits


Up until now almost everything we’ve done has been with publicly available information; it’s essentially similar to what I did in Marketing Plan And Chill. However we don’t have to stop here. We’re in the fortunate position of actually having marketing activity running, and we’re willing to share everything with you! We audit every aspect of our marketing activity to get a complete picture of what’s working (or not).

INDEX:

netflix and chill

We’ve broken this down into several sections. First we check out our analytics; is this accurate enough for us to confidently report on performance? Next we tackle the UX (user experience) and what happens in terms of CRM when you sign up. We then focus on SEO; are we doing anything stupid to harm our organic search traffic. Finally we audit our PPC accounts; this is where we’re spending money so it deserves a lot of our attention.

Analytics, Tracking and Tools (ATT)

The first step should always be to audit your analytics, tracking and what tools are on the site. Without taking this step first, you can’t be sure that the numbers you’re seeing are trustworthy.

In this piece I walk you through a simple process for debugging what events are firing on the website, using free tools. This pairs nicely with our event tracking post if you need more depth.

analytics audit

Summary: Our analytics was mostly in good shape. We were using Google Tag Manager, firing useful events, and nothing weird was going on with our traffic. A couple of misfiring events were found and we explored our advanced setup for connecting marketing and sales.

Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO)

The conversion journey is incredibly important to optimize, because it makes every single one of your marketing channels perform better. We can pay more for clicks, if more clicks convert.

We put ourselves in the shoes of the user who’s navigating the site for the first time. We make a note of every issue, bug and potential improvement, as these translate directly into test ideas.

user experience

Summary: After being humbled by user testing, we turned a critical eye to our homepage. We use heatmaps to see what activity is happening on the actual page. There were a lot of elements to tighten up here, but largely we were following good practices.

Customer Relationship Management (CRM)

Email is one of the best performing and most effective channels, and like CRO, it amplifies the performance of every other channel, by increasing the lifetime value of a user.

We walk through Ladder’s set up, both on the product side with behavioral emails, and the sales side with our drip sequences. We tell you what’s good about it, and what can be improved.

email marketing

Summary: Our sales setup is pretty decent, but could do with more segmentation. Our product setup is great, but we’re only just scratching the surface. Our broadcast emails are killer, but some work better than others and there’s room to improve.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

FREE TRAFFIC! Ok, of course it’s not that easy. But once you do put in the hard work and effort necessary, organic search can be a sustainable source of traffic you don’t have to pay for.

Mostly this involved looking at the technical setup of your website to make sure we weren’t doing anything stupid (hint: we were). We also look at link profiles and other opportunities.

seo audit

Summary: we were making some pretty basic mistakes in accessibility, but thankfully they’re easy fixes. We spotted one big issue with fake URLs still resolving as pages and getting ranked. Also that our meta titles and descriptions needed work, and we need to build more links.

Pay Per Click Advertising (PPC)

Google Adwords / Facebook Ads are an important area to focus on, because it’s where a lot of our budget is spent. Any changes can immediately save us money or drive more leads.

Because these platforms are so measureable, you have a lot more data to help you decide your strategy. We can see exactly what keywords, adverts and other factors performed best.

ppc audit

Summary: We found a number of quick wins to put in place, and came up with plenty of ideas to test in the next few months. Our creative needs more diversity and testing, but largely our account is in pretty good shape and we have lots of room for expansion.


Marketing Plan


Finally, this is the part where we pull everything together. We have researched every opportunity, audited every account and found all the issues on our website. As we’ve walked through each audit and research piece, we’ve been jotting down ideas for tests. Our job now is to prioritize them into a meaningful plan focused on growing faster for less resource.

Tracking Plan


First, before we jump into the tactics, we need to make sure we have the right tools for the job. We noticed a few different issues with our tracking setup when we audited it, but nothing major. That’s not normally the case for our clients; we typically need to write them a full tracking plan.

To give you an idea of what that looks like we decided to write a plan around installing Segment, a more advanced tag management tool. Because they have direct integrations with lots of analytics (and other) platforms, it sets us up to work with any vendor we want to in the future.

https://drive.google.com/open?id=14GrTCY6XEJNtUg5LpdptmJ59HUfboRWmtGIWm6WZrS0

Tactic Backlog


Here it is; the master list of ideas we generated from all those hours researching and auditing our accounts. After a brainstorming session we got to over 100 tactics in total! The majority are to get more traffic, which makes sense for a small new business looking to grow.

Now we prioritize these tactics by choosing the top ones to test based on our experience. Some people use more formal methods of rating by impact vs cost, but I’ve always found those values arbitrary; you make up the numbers to represent the priority you wanted in the first place.

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1c2lJhRF8zpsu3CyFIm2A7oH9vCGwk7DCl3y-e8QFGtA/edit#gid=0

Summary: We came away with almost 40 new audiences to test on PPC, over 20 SEO tactics and 10 more ideas for blog posts. We have a small amount of impactful CRO tests that would make a big difference, and a couple of more zany ideas, like a Ladder slots machine widget.

Month 1 Plan


This is the part you’ve all been waiting for; the final plan for our first month. We rarely plan further ahead than one month, because as we start to get data from these tests we learn more about what’s working, what isn’t and what new tactics we could try because of it.

Every month we dig into what tactics failed, and come up with new tests based on those learnings, to test next month; every time getting smarter about what we pick. Remember that 80%-90% of marketing experiments fail. All this research will have improved our odds, but we expect to be wrong more than we’re right.

These are the 12 tactics we chose to run for our first month of executing our 2017 marketing plan:

12 tactics

Why 12? Well, after a lot of testing at Ladder we’ve found a sweet spot at the 12 tactic mark, for a business our size. For some of our larger customers, we test more than 12 tactics, and for some of our smaller ones focusing on one channel, we test less, but 12 gets the best results.

Here's a quick explanation in the form of hypotheses for each tactic:

  • Emoji vs. No Emoji Subject Lines: We're not yet sure whether emojis in subject lines actually work well with our newsletter audience, so this test will determine that (via Mailchimp A/B testing of subject lines).

  • Homepage SEO - Meta Title + Description: The idea for this tactic is that we had some wonky SEO problems on the homepage and playbook that needed fixing. This tactic is designed to help us better capture some long tail keywords we use in the Playbook and to have a more relevant meta description in Google searches.

  • Hero Copy - Current vs. New Meta Description": We're writing out a new meta description for Google search results for Ladder.io. Let's test whether that copy change will drive higher conversion rates on our landing page if we place it as the hero copy. Testing it vs the current version via Google Optimize.

  • Scroll Box + List Builder Copy: Our SumoMe Scroll Box + List Builder copy needs a refresh. Let's test a different approach at gathering emails with the popups across the blog and Ladder.io homepage against what's currently running. Goal: 10% increase in conversions w/ new copy.

  • Port AdWords Campaigns to Bing: Our AdWords campaign perform well, so we should try to expand them over to a new ad platform - Bing. It's easy to do - just import directly to Bing with one click. We'll be using 20% of our AdWords daily cap as budget here as Bing gets 1/5 of the traffic Google does.

  • Playbook SEO - Image + Description Tags: The idea for this tactic is that we had some wonky SEO problems on the homepage and playbook that needed fixing. This tactic is designed to help us better capture some long tail keywords we use in the Playbook and to have a more relevant meta description and image alt tags in Google searches.

  • Quuu Content Promotion: We have 10 remaining Quuu Promote credits that we can use to drive traffic to different Ladder blog posts, social posts, etc... If we get at least 50 sessions per credit used, then Quuu will be worth exploring further.

  • Marketing Strategy Landing Page: Currently, our top-performing AdWords keyword is Marketing Strategy. Our ads lead people straight to the Ladder homepage, but we might get better performance with a more relevant landing page that's specific to the keyword. If we get a higher CTR and CVR at a lower CPA than the original, we'll know that the LP is effective and a better alternative to ladder.io.

  • Accelerator Interest Audience: Accelerator interest has worked well in growing Instagram via Instagress. Let's try running actual ads on this audience in Facebook in the UK & US. If we can get 30 leads at a $30 cost per, we know this audience is worthwhile.

  • LinkedIn Startup Founder/CEO Audience: We're testing out LinkedIn as a platform, and since most of our current clients are startups, targeting founders and C-level marketing execs is a good first stab at a LinkedIn audience. We should get 5 leads at $50 CPA for this test to be successful. We'll run this test for 2 weeks.

  • "ROI-Driven" Vs "Data-Driven" Ad Copy: "Everybody is data-driven. That means nothing these days. Ladder is ROI-driven." - common statement around the office. SO! Let's see if ROI-driven actually performs well with our audience. We'll test the two copy approaches against one another with the same audience, and we'll run it on Facebook. We'll go for 10 conversions at a $50 cost per, and run the test for 4 weeks. If ROI-driven beats Data-Driven, we'll know if we're on to something.

  • B2B Marketing AdWords Keyword: We're getting lots of B2B and SaaS leads and clients, and should try to run some ads on the B2B marketing keyword to see if we can reach this targeted audience.

Ladder Planner

Up until this point, I’ve been walking you through how to do this yourself. So far we’ve used no specialized tools other than off-the-shelf ones that are provided free via the advertising platforms or are cheap to buy.

However we’re about to get into the weekly updates, and when we walk you through what we’re doing, you’ll notice something different; our technology. The Ladder Planner is an internal tool we developed to make this whole process more efficient.

At it’s core, it’s a drag and drop marketing planning tool which helps us keep track of what we’re testing and why.

plan page

Rather than storing lots of information in Google docs and it getting lost, having the wrong formatting or not being filled in correctly, we store all this info in our Planner.

test script

Our clients can log in and see what we’re testing, why we’re testing it, sign off creative and let us know if they spot any potential issues.

test assets

We can also go back and see what tests we ran in the past; which ones were winners and which tests we should probably avoid. This knowledge never gets lost if your marketer changes roles.

review tab

Additional to the planning functionality, we also have a database with over 1,000 proven growth tactics; everything we’ve ever tested in a plan, as well as how well it worked.

tactic database

Each tactic has a full illustration and description of how it works, as well as links out to learn more about where we learned about that tactic.

marketing tactic

When a strategist doesn’t know how to execute a tactic, we walk them through it with step-by-step instructions specific to that tactic (about 10% of our tactics have this so far).

Our performance data feeds into a marketing recommendation engine which gives us tactic ideas based on what has worked well for similar clients.

tactic recommendations

We’ve run over 2,000 tests for over 100 clients now, so our data set is starting to get pretty useful, particularly for eCommerce and B2B companies.

tactics shipped

All of our reporting is also done in the Planner. Using a service called Funnel.io (a great reporting tool in its own right) we pull in all of our data from Facebook, Google and others.

Currently most of this functionality is only available to our internal team at Ladder; you have to work with us as an agency to get access. However we do have a handful of self-serve users in our beta, so if you’re interested in finding out more:

Weekly Updates


A major part of this plan will be actually going out and executing the marketing tactics we chose for each month. Most companies shy away from talking about execution because there are both ups and downs, successes and failures, and it's difficult to keep track of what's going on at all times.

But the Ladder Planner makes that last point easy for us, and we're committed to being as open and transparent about our marketing plan as possible. After all, open-source means open-source 😉.

So make sure you keep coming back for weekly updates and sign up for our newsletter to be notified when we publish the process and results from our latest week of marketing plan execution:

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