SMART Action Plan — Using SMART Goals to Guide Your Marketing

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(Just FYI, I’ve included a link to a downloadable SMART action plan at the bottom of the page. Click the button to grab your free action plan. Or, if you’re ready to make the most of your goals and turn them into real results for your business, check out our marketing ebook Analyze Your Marketing — 13 Steps to a Clear Marketing Strategy)SMART action plan — blue outline of a person's head with simplified football strategy with x's and o's and an arrow showing a route.

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Instituting a SMART action plan is probably one of the — smartest — things you can do as a business owner…

As long as it’s followed by action.

Sounds silly and repetitive, but let me explain.

A SMART Action Plan — Creating a Plan Means Nothing Until You Set It in Motion

SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Agreed Upon, Reasonable, and Time-Bound. It’s an acronym that’s been around for a long time, and it is generally associated with goal setting, though, as you can see, the acronym can be applied rather broadly in a business setting.

Now, I will note that the version of SMART I’ve listed above isn’t a standardized interpretation — in fact, over the years, SMART has come to be acronymized in a variety of ways. Around here, however, we’ve chosen that interpretation for a specific reason — if you have questions about why we chose “reasonable” over “realistic” or “time-bound” over “timely,” just ask in the comments, and I’ll be happy to explain.

Now, about that action plan…

A SMART action plan is the method by which you turn your SMART goals into reality.

This may sound a little ridiculous, but here’s the truth:

Most people who set goals in a business setting don’t achieve them — and those who do often achieve them by accident or were already on the way to achieving them before they set the goals.

Setting the goals did basically nothing.

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Tell Me If This Situation Sounds Familiar

You’re sitting around a table with the boss, and the boss wants results.

  1. The boss spouts off some absurd growth figures off the top of his or her head, usually based on nothing more than the boost they got from their cup of coffee that morning, and leaves it up to you to figure out how to achieve them.
  2. Or maybe the boss gives you a series of goals to achieve but is extremely vague about what those goals actually look like in practice — you and your coworkers have no clue what they even mean.
  3. Or maybe the boss sets some goals that are basically meaningless — they have nothing to do with actual growth or anything beyond vanity metrics, and achieving them won’t mean much for the business in a practical sense.

In all these cases, the boss basically just walks off without any plan of action.

In the first case, you do nothing, because the goals weren’t SMART — they were stupidly unachievable, and they mostly just give you low-level anxiety.

In the second case, you do nothing and create no action plan because you have no idea what you’re trying to achieve in the first place.

In the third case, again, nothing is done — why bother? Who cares if we get 10,000 likes on Facebook? Or if we get 100,000 impressions, or even clicks, on an ad, without any sales? These things don’t matter to the bottom line, and so, you do nothing.

Or, you know, just feel really bad about doing nothing.SMART action plan — arrow hitting a target, thumbs up, clock, simplified graph

And, in all these cases, even if you were to create an action plan, it wouldn’t make much difference — though it might make the boss happy.

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For a SMART Action Plan to Mean Anything, It Has to Be Based on SMART Goals

The reason I just blathered on about all these absurd situations is because they happen, they happen regularly, and, in the rare event that they generate an action plan, the action plan is meaningless for a variety of reasons.

In all these cases, the reason the plan is meaningless is simple — the goals aren’t SMART, for one reason or another.

Before you put together an action plan of any sort, you need to ensure you goals are Specific, Measurable, Agreed-Upon, Reasonable, and Time-Bound.

If we look at the goals listed above, we can see how those goals fail and why any action plan based upon them would itself be meaningless — or doomed to failure.

In case #1, the goal is certainly specific and measurable, and perhaps even time bound, but telling someone to “figure out” how to grow a business by 100% — especially without any sort of time constraint — is just silly. Mostly, this is a way to drive off a good employee.

The goal will never be agreed upon because anyone with half a brain in their head is going to reject the goal. The goal is entirely unreasonable, which means there’s no point in working toward it.

In case #2, we have goals that can’t reasonably have an action plan formed around them — they’re too vague. No one knows what action would be required to make them happen — why bother making a plan of action to achieve something no one can define?

In case #3, we have goals that, while both specific and measurable, will never be agreed upon — the savvy employee will know that trying to pump up vanity metrics is ultimately like building a castle on sand. One day, the whole thing will fall apart, and everyone will wonder how a business with 100,000 likes on Facebook failed.

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Is Your SMART Action Plan Based On SMART Goals? Good — Now It’s Time to Make Sure It Means Something

The phrase “action plan” is a bit repetitive — all plans require action. Without action, they’re meaningless.

This analogy helps me to visualize the problem:

You’ve got three frogs on a log in front of a beautiful pond. All three frogs make a plan to jump into the pond.

How many frogs are in the water?

None, because they haven’t taken any action.

Now, imagine that those frogs sit there, on their little frog log, with their little frog plans, and never actually leap — how long until they throw their plans into little frog trash cans and realize that they’re never going to make it into that pond?

That they’ll never become fearless, carefree pond frogs because they didn’t take the action.

That they’ll always be boring ole’ log frogs.

SMART action plan — example page from the worksheet

If your goals are specific, measurable, agreed upon, and reasonable, the only thing that keeps them from being an actual plan, in and of themselves, is the last letter of SMART — time-bound. Once you set a timeline, you’ve got a destination.

Of course, you can’t reach a destination without the details of how you’re going to get there.

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Flesh Out Your SMART Action Plan With Specifics

Ultimately, you’ll need a plan that’s a lot more specific than the goals it’s based on. You need a plan that has specific dates when certain portions of the plan should be achieved.

You need to know what specific actions are going to be taken, and by whom, and in what time frame, and with what budget, in order to make the plan have any sort of meaning.

Fortunately for you, we’ve created a downloadable SMART action plan worksheet — just click the button to get your free worksheet now.

Happy planning, marketer.

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Adam Fout

Adam might be a little crazy, but we love him anyway.   Weaving beautiful paragraph-baskets into blog posts ain’t easy, but we couldn’t think of a better job for a recovering tech writer.   Follow him on Twitter @adamfout2, LinkedIn, Facebook, or our blog if you like valuable information accompanied by snarky simplifications of complex subjects. If you're feeling adventurous, check out Adam's fiction and poetry on his author website at adamfout.com

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