Marketing plans are essential documents for virtually any business; it is hard to do great marketing without a clear plan. Unfortunately, many marketing plans simply don't work very well; they add little value and end up on a shelf, collecting dust.

This problem spans industries and countries.

Over the past five years I've talked with senior executives from around the world about marketing plans and reviewed dozens of plans. My learning: Most marketing plans contribute very little. As one marketing executive I spoke with observed, "Five percent of marketing plans are good. Most of them suck wind."

My research highlighted five common pitfalls to avoid when creating a marketing plan. Marketing leaders need to be aware of these pitfalls and steer clear.

Pitfall 1: Too Much Data

The biggest problem for many marketing plans is that there is too much data; the marketing plan is so full of facts, figures, and findings that the document gets hopelessly bogged down and the heart of the plan—the recommendations—gets lost.

The role of a marketing plan is to lay out a course of action. A good plan should explain precisely what the business should do to build revenue and profits.

Unfortunately, too many marketing plans focus on the analysis and the data instead of the recommendations. The bulk of the plan is devoted to explaining what the team knows about a business. There is usually a SWOT analysis, a competitive assessment, a review of key market research findings and perhaps a pricing study. This section goes on, and on, and on.

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Tim Calkins ( is Clinical Professor of Marketing at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. He is the author of the new book, Breakthrough Marketing Plans (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).