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SMALL BUSINESS | Business Tools

Programs That Automate Your Marketing Program

October 07, 1998|LAWRENCE J. MAGID | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Marketing is a major expense and hassle for many small businesses. Coming up with a plan to match your products and services to the right markets can be challenging and time consuming. And reaching those markets can be costly.

Software programs and Internet sites can help you fine-tune your thinking, allocate your resources and evaluate whether you're getting the maximum impact from your marketing investments.

Marketing Plus ($87.50) from Palo Alto Software (http://www.palo-alto.com) and MarketingBuilder Interactive ($89.95) from Jian (http://www.jian.com) are Windows programs designed to help small and medium-size businesses analyze current and future products and services, as well as plan how to best bring them to market.

Marketing Plus, which comes from the same company that publishes Business Plan Pro, starts off by prompting you to describe your vision and objectives, asking the types of questions that a marketing consultant might ask a new client.

Next you define your target markets using a built-in spreadsheet model. It asks you to estimate the number of potential customers, the annual growth rate and the estimated purchases per customer (in dollars) so that the software can project potential revenue over time. You are also asked to develop a "strategy pyramid" in which you specify your strategy, tactics and programs to achieve your goals.

Other modules help you create a marketing budget and sales forecast as well as an outline of your marketing organization and the critical issues you expect to face as you bring your products to market. Portions of the program that involve numbers, such as sales or market forecasts, are built around a spreadsheet that lets you see how your likely results change as the assumptions change.

The program's author, Tim Berry, has positioned Marketing Plus as a tool for the "do-it-yourselfer" who wants to take control over his or her company's marketing plans.

Jian's MarketingBuilder Interactive starts out with an interview to define a few things about your company as well as the marketing projects you wish to create. Any data you enter will be inserted into the appropriate places in the plan the software creates.

Based on your answers, the program whips up an outline of the proposed plan allowing you to double click on any listing in the outline to fill in the details or enter numerical information into a spreadsheet.

The spreadsheet tools built into both programs can be used to analyze sales forecasts, marketing expenses and the likely relationship between what you spend and what you get back.

Marketing Plus comes with a user guide and workbook. The guide focuses primarily on how to use the program and is not really a textbook on marketing. However, by the time you work your way through the program, you should have a pretty good sense of how to develop a marketing plan.

MarketingBuilder Interactive comes with a short Getting Started guide and a 273-page Handbook of Marketing that is basically a primer on marketing for small business. It is thorough and well-written but doesn't seem connected to the product itself. It would be nice to be shown how the software can help with whatever topic you are reading about.

If you're willing to put in the time, either program can help you get a good overview of your marketing needs and develop a strategy. But neither provides instant answers. Both require that you do plenty of thinking, planning and research, which could be their most useful feature. They both provide you with a structure and the right set of questions, allowing you to come up with the right answers for your business.

There are lots of Internet resources that can help with marketing. Mining Co. has an excellent marketing guide at http://marketing.miningco.com/ that includes useful articles and links, including sections on planning, coordination and direct marketing.

Home Office Computing's SmallOffice.Com Web site contains a sales and marketing page (http://www.smalloffice.com/guru/) with lots of tips.

American Express' Small Business Resource Center (http://www.americanexpress.com/smallbusiness/) has information on creating a marketing plan, effective trade show planning, sample news releases and advice on using direct mail.

Another useful site is the Edward Lowe Foundation's SmallbizNet (http://www.lowe.org/smbiznet/), which has links to marketing information and other aspects of running a small business.

Find out more about small business and technology at The Times' Small Business Strategies Conference on Oct. 17-18 at the Los Angeles Convention Center. You can e-mail Lawrence J. Magid at magid@latimes.com and visit his Web site at http://www.larrysworld.com. On AOL, use keyword "LarryMagid."

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