This year, like every year before it, seemed to speed by. Before you know it, it’ll be 2018. Not only will the dates on your checkbook change, your marketing efforts will too.

Whether it’s because of seasonality, technology or just a need to try something new, you can be certain that your efforts in 2018 will differ from those of 2017.

Last month we talked about the importance of a solid marketing strategy. Next step is the marketing plan that builds on the strategy.

The time to plan for next year is upon us... even though you haven’t finished this year and learned all there is to know. No worries, marketing plans should be living, breathing documents that adjust and grow as you test and learn more. There are some elements that are pretty standard, but just because they’re standard does not mean you shouldn’t go through the steps in detail. Additionally, I believe there is information we may not be currently utilizing to drive our marketing plans.

First things first, let’s take a look at this year. You probably have an idea of what worked and what didn’t, but do you know why they worked or not? Take some time to explore the past. Talk to other team members—both inside and outside of your department. Look at the results of your programs, your digital analytics, customer comments and the conversations taking place. Look at both good and bad business results. Did your database experience the expected churn rate? How did you do in your efforts to reactivate customers that had fallen off?

My tip to you: this is about numbers, not about ego. What about your reinvestment? Did you end up where you hoped you would? Be honest with yourself and the numbers. Don’t let your feelings get in the way.

Set some goals and make them measurable. If your executive team has already set the overall goals, this is the best place to start. Build marketing goals that are aligned with and can support the overarching vision. If your property is about to face new or improved competition, you want your goals to align with retaining your business. If you are the one investing in new capital projects, you know you want to grow your business to find a return for that investment. It’s up to you to understand what that growth will look like. Is it additional trips? Extended time playing? New customers?

Clearly articulate your marketing message. This is where it gets a little fuzzy for some people because it’s not as easy as it sounds. Your positioning and branding must support your business objectives. Positioning and branding can be strong tools to compete in a crowded marketplace, but only through clarity of vision.

Let’s take a step back to dig into positioning and branding just a bit. Positioning is the process we go through to determine how to best communicate with customers. It’s how we leverage our unique attributes and communicate with target audiences in such a way that resonates with them. Effective positioning requires you to undertake a good, honest competitive market analysis and determine if your offerings are distinct from the competitors. In an industry such as ours, that requires a little more than saying, “We have the loosest slots or the friendliest employees.” The right positioning can be vital in a highly-competitive environment, especially if you’re not the newest, shiniest casino on the block.

My tip to you: get some views from folks not on your property team. Ask family or friends to visit the competition and your property and give you their honest feedback. See how that lines up (or not) with the SWOT you did in-house. If you have an agency, they would probably love the chance to participate as it will certainly help them assist you in your efforts.

Positioning ultimately centers on the target audience—current customers as well as those we’d like to have. Now, we need to take another step back and talk about the customer point of view. No good plan is built without looking to the voice of the customer. MMRC President Michael Meczka has been talking to casino customers for 35 years. Having logged over 1 million qualitative interviews and more than 2,500 focus group sessions, he’ll tell you, “Customer understanding is what makes the marketing plan sing. If you think you can effectively market without that, you’re sure to be lost in your efforts.”

Having looked at a bigger picture that includes the voice of the customer and an examination of ourselves and the competition, you’re ready to develop the messages that will resonate with those you want to engage. I can promise you that if you follow this path, you will struggle less with your creative because you’ll have focus. I’m not joking when I tell you that I have printed positioning statements and had marketing directors put them up in their offices. Putting that up along with a detailed outline of your ideal customer is invaluable.

Now it’s time to build a calendar and a budget. These steps seem like no-brainers, but they shouldn’t be overlooked or skipped. First, concentrate on the holidays and events that need to be marked because they impact the business. Seriously, do it. I once had a property that forgot about Thanksgiving.

Next, look at the results of your year in review mentioned at the beginning of this column. You know what worked and what didn’t. You’ll probably want to try some new things or improve on others. Go through each of your activities and ask yourself, “Did this help us achieve our clearly defined goals? Did this surprise us in some good (or bad) way?” The answers to those questions can help you decide to keep the activity with the same budget, alter the budget for the activity, modify the activity and/or the budget, or to do away with the activity all together.

Then, ask for ideas. Open this process up to everyone. Your EVS guy isn’t a part of your marketing team, per se, but he sees everything happening on your floor. He talks to customers. They will tell him what they think and what they would like every single day they visit. You can make this a fun internal promotion and award great ideas. Your dealers, the slot techs, the buffet server are all great resources to build a great marketing plan. Give them information about the competition, your overall goals and how you want to position the property. The beauty of this is that you don’t have to use every idea, but if you get one great one, isn’t it worth combing through 20 not so great ideas? Plus, casino personnel will become your biggest and best brand ambassadors armed with great insight.

Start with your marketing strategy and take the time to develop a strong plan for success. Keep in mind that your plan will live and breathe so that you can adjust as the market demands, and because you are focused, your adjustments will always line up with your goals.