How to Write a Creative Action Plan You’ll Actually Follow
By no means am I all “death to the business plan!” or anything dramatic like that; I just realize that many of us feel overwhelmed by blog business plans and freelance business plans. Sometimes, we just want an action plan that tells us what to do and when to do it in the simplest format possible.
I get that. I love business plans, but I also love action and simplicity. So today, as a part of my blog series on going independent and transitioning to working for yourself full time, I’m bringing you action and simplicity. We’re going to make your Creative Action Plan by asking 10 simple questions and discussing lots of fun options/answers you can go with. Can I get a “Wooo hooo, planning is the best, and I really love Regina today for making me plan” . . . ? Huh? Can I get that one more time with a little more feeling? Thank you. Oh, and if you want to check out the first post in the series, that covers freeing up more time + money for your creative business, then yo, I support that idea.
What is a Creative Action Plan again?
I’m glad you asked. A Creative Action Plan (CAP) is a document that you add to and access regularly that contains action items in 10 key areas of your business so that you always have steps you can take to move forward.
Have you ever been sitting around and found yourself wondering what you should be doing to grow your business, or how to get more of your audience to buy from you, or how to streamline your processes? I think that most of us can come up with awesome ideas in these areas, we just need a little nudge, inspiration, and jostling of the creativity.
So, let’s get started. And yes, I have some worksheets for you. I’ve made this into a multi-sheet series if you choose to download it and follow along. You don’t have to hand over your email address or pay for it. And no, I know what you’re thinking to yourself right now, but please allow to me correct that thought . . . you don’t have to name your second-born child after me to get the download for free. Though if you choose to do the right thing, I want you to know that I’m open to her middle name being Regina; it doesn’t have to be her first name. I’m cool like that. You’re welcome.
Also, to be honest, I do recommend eventually making your CAP into a digital document (maybe Google Docs?) that you can access and change at any time. I know some of us creative types like pen and paper, or like to brainstorm first, so please feel free to use the worksheets below with the questions and ideas below below.
Section 1: What can I do to build more of an audience?
A // On your worksheets, brainstorm and write down all your ideas for increasing your audience size (blog traffic, email subscribers, social media followers, etc.). Try to write and think for 10 minutes straight, without stopping, and without using the tips below first.
B // Next, do some research. Look up all the business owners and brands in your industry and see what methods they use to grow their audiences. What initially caught your attention about the brand? How did you hear about them? If you find that a particular brand you love is doing Instagram really well (or YouTube, or their blog, or emails) try to go back to the beginning of their account to see how they built from zero. Pull out concepts, ideas for quality, and inspiration from these brands. Copying their playbook and look = no bueno. It doesn’t do either one of you any good. Now add your notes to your worksheet. Psst–print multiple copies of the same page if you need more space.
C // Now, the fun part. Find your off-niche inspiration. Pick an industry that you have a lot of interest in, that is not your industry and not a close sister/brother of your industry. For example, my off-niche inspiration is food blogs (with interior design coming in at a close second–I mean–hello Decor Fix by my buddy Heather Freeman). One thing that I pulled from food blogs early on is that they didn’t mind taking up all the space with long, vertical images. Not just on Pinterest, but on their actual blog too. At the time, nobody in the biz blog realm (that I followed) was doing that. At first I thought that meant it was a bad idea, but then I was like, “WHY? Why is it bad?” I started doing it, and I love it. Hence, every blog post that I’ve ever written in my library. Okay, granted, I opted for squares on my library page, but you get the point.
D // Check out your favorite sources for learning (on the topic of audience growth). It’s always good to have a few learnin’ blogs, and books, and classes waiting for you. “What are some articles I recommend on the topic?” you say. Please allow me to share:
Section 2: What can I do to build deeper and better connections with my audience?
A // Take out your worksheets and flip to the second page, but, before you start writing, think of the best customer service experience you can remember and the worst. Also, think of the physical store or digital online presence that creates the best experience for you. Mine would be either my fancy schmancy movie theater (that I rambled on and on about in this post on how to create an experience), a local bookstore, or the pedicure place I go to (once every five years) that serves margaritas.
When you’re done thinking about what creates a great experience for you, as well as what creates a bad one, write down all your ideas for customer service, increasing the quality of first interactions, and consistently wowing people when you connect with them. Think through all the following platforms that you leave an impression and build community in:
- blog comments
- Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and all your social media accounts
- email list emails
- one-on-one emails
- online communities you’re a part of
- Q+As, office hours, or FAQs
- anywhere else online or in real life that you talk to members of your audience or people who might follow you or buy from you
For each of the categories above, think: How long are your responses? Do you use people’s names? Do you check out other people’s sites before you comment or reply? How long does it take you to respond?
B // Time to do your research. Just as with Question 1, look at others in your industry who do this whole “connecting + interacting” thing well. Look at people who don’t do the best job at it. Record notes on your worksheet about what you do and don’t want to carry over into your brand in your own way. Be authentic yo, everything else simply takes too much energy.
C // Look to your out-of-niche inspirations and see what they’re doing. Told you ’bout my friend Heather, right? I love how she gets to people’s comments even though she’s a busy mum with a business to run. I definitely love how she answers questions and is genuinely helpful. And I definitely don’t expect her to keep up the same pattern on her posts that have hundreds of comments–it’s about consistency and doing what you can to make people feel cared for. Oftentimes I go connect with people on Twitter after they’ve commented, instead of the blog.
Don’t forget to record your notes and observations from other industries on your worksheet.
D // And now, let’s do the “continuing ed” part of this section. Head to your favorite business sources that give tips on how to up your customer service, delight on social media, and be awesome at life. Below are a few sources I recommend, and here is the first book I can remember that changed the way I thought about social media: Likeable Social Media, Revised and Expanded (psst: it’s an Amazon link and I’ll make 1.5 million dollars if you click and buy from it–muwahhh hah hah–okay, more like $.63, but whatever, wanted to practice my evil laugh). But hey, I included a picture for you below as photographic proof that I own this book–it’s the bottom one in the pic. Again, you’re welcome.
Section 3: What can I do to streamline my processes?
A // Okay, I’m gonna be honest with you here (as if you don’t know this) >> there are a lot of “processes” in business. And instead of getting overwhelmed by trying to streamline all of your processes at once, I’m going to encourage you to focus on one or two at a time. Then, as a part of Section 10 of your Creative Action Plan (when you’re identifying the things you can do when you “just don’t know what to do” with your business), 1 of those things can be figuring out how to streamline another one of your processes.
Let’s look at the different types of processes you can streamline (through actions, tools, automation, organization, and/or hiring someone), then let’s discuss the process for actually streamlining one. As you look at the items below, identify the ones that annoy you, that seem to take an unreasonable amount of time, or that you feel could run in a much smoother way than they do now.
|accounting||email responses||client intake||email list management|
|social media posting||social media image creation||blog posting||blog post image creation|
|photography (or obtaining photos)||document creation||product packaging creation||product or service promotion|
|video editing + exporting||podcast editing + exporting||taxes + paying bills||affiliate account management|
|customer service + requests||analytics + brand auditing||finding clients||client project management|
|product development||to-do list management||shipping of products||delivery of digital goods|
|data entry||scheduling of appointments or calls||course or community management||payment processing|
|blog post + resource editing||client feedback + referrals||client contracts||subcontractor payments + agreements|
Pick one of the processes above to start with and to have in mind as an example for the rest of these mini-steps that will help you fill out your worksheet.
Get out some moveable pieces of paper (index cards, sticky notes, etc.) or your favorite app or word processor, then record the steps you take for the process you’ve chosen. Let’s say you’re working on scheduling client appointments right now. You might come up with a list (or cards that you rearrange in order) such as:
- Client submits a form or question on my site.
- I respond to the client via email to ask them a few more questions to see if they’re a good fit.
- I read the client’s response to my email. If the client is a good fit, I send them an email with the days that I’m open for a call.
- The client responds about which time is best for them.
- I confirm our meeting time and then ask the client to send me a Skype contact request.
- I store the meeting time in my phone so that I won’t forget (then I prepare an agenda for the meeting).
- I accept the client’s Skype request.
- I send a reminder email the day before or the day of the call. This helps confirm time zone and other details.
- I call the client on the correct day at the correct time.
Hey, and don’t laugh. This is how I used to schedule client calls, all the time. I didn’t even realize how much time I was wasting until I discovered Calendly. But honestly, it’s in needing to transcribe your process that you often see how many steps are really involved. One piece of software and one Calendly link (that you can send out or have available on your site) replaces at least seven of the nine steps above. Can someone say “#Winning” right now?
On your worksheet for Question/Section 3 of your Creative Action Plan, write down ideas for how to streamline your one or two processes that you’re addressing right now.
Do you need to simply find more efficient actions/steps?
Do you need to hire someone for part of it?
Can you automate the process somehow?
Will a physical tool help?
Can some of the steps be consolidated or eliminated?
Do you need to organize the process or components into a different order?
Can you actually transfer some of the work to your client or customer (if applicable)?
Note: Make sure you are not automating/outsourcing/modifying anything that contributes significantly to the quality of your work or to your audience’s positive experiences with your brand.
B // Research how other people in your industry handle the process you are trying to improve right now. People often share what tools they use. If you happen to find some awesome ones during your research, write them down on your worksheet.
C // Research how people in other industries accomplish similar results. Thinking and looking outside of your niche can often cause you to come up with something innovative and epic. Record any ideas on your creative action plan worksheets.
D // Turn to some of your favorite resources for doing business and being awesome. Below are some articles to check out as well as some sites where you can take creative classes that might help you streamline some of your processes.
Section 4: What improvements can I make to my online presence in terms of functionality and organization?
A // What are the top five reasons someone might land on your site? What are the top five referring sites/sources people will be coming from? Depending on where a potential visitor has come from, what their expectations are, and what their goal/reason for checking out your online presence is, you have the serious potential to delight, overwhelm, answer, confuse, excite, annoy, or simply whelm–is that a word? It’s not overwhelm or underwhelm, just whlem. Don’t whelm, my friends. Help your people out.
Just recently I finally finished The Library, which makes all of my posts easy to access. Formerly that page had been seriously underwhelming. I also added some questions to my contact page, but plan to redesign it to be a bit more like my friends over at Station Seven Creative. Is that page not one of the best contact pages ever? It helps people get to what they really want to know and it saves the owners tons of time.
Think about your own site for a few minutes and use your worksheets to brainstorm and write out some things you’d like to change. For the top five reasons people are visiting you and coming from the top five referral sites people are coming from . . . are you meeting expectations? Are you helping? Is the organization sensible? What’s the wow factor? Is your website being a good employee?
Use your site for a few minutes from the perspective of a first-timer, and a tenth-timer, and a person who wants to do business with you. Try to stretch yourself to write down at least 10 things you want to change. Perhaps all the changes aren’t necessary after deeper reflection, but try to stretch your thinking. You are always growing as a business owner, your brand is always growing, and your presence and content are likely going to need to grow and morph to keep up.
B // You probably know what I’m going to say next. Research time. Head to your favorite, superstar brands in your industry and use their sites for a few minutes as a first-timer, and a tenth-timer, and a person who wants to buy from them. How simple is the process? Could you find everything you needed? Were the functions you expected all present? Did anything not function well or frustrate you? Are there some concepts you can pull out and put your authentic spin on? Make some notes.
C // DEFINITELY check out other industries for this category. You might find some cool page/post ideas, some unique ways to organize or present your content, and perhaps even some new-fangled functionality stuff that would be epic for your niche.
D // Check out some suhweet blogs with advice in this area. I’ve got some greatness for you below.
Section 5: What improvements can I make to my online presence in terms of availability and quality of content?
A // Whether you create content at a quick or slow pace, whether you spend two hours writing a post or 24+ hours (or you spread the writing of a single post out over days and days–mighta kinda done that with this one), you have to create enough quality content that is easy to find and access in order to keep your people happy. You surely know the ancient phrase:
Do you need to start blogging more often? Me too. Do you need to start blogging more purposefully? Do you need to take a new approach to how you put together your posts so that they can be ridiculously valuable and share-worthy blog posts? Do you need to create an eBook or epic resource that really opens doors for you or increases your subscribers/fame? Do you need to add HTML emails to your content creation goals?
Can you guess what I’m going to say next? Use your worksheets to write down at least 10 ways (stretch yourself!) that you can improve your online presence in terms of quality and availability of content.
B // What do others do really well in your industry in terms of content? Do they only post two super helpful posts per week instead of spreading their time between five? How do you think that would work for you in terms of traffic? I definitely am not a fan of changing strategies each week based on the latest thing we see, but I am a big fan of really reflecting on what’s necessary, what’s wise, and what’s best for you and the people you serve. Write down a few notes of what you do and do not want to do with your brand based on what you see others do.
C // Check out other industries and do the same analyzation you did in B above. Any magnificent ideas popping out at you? Record them.
D // And now, for some of my favorite resources from bloggers in the same industry:
Section 6: What improvements or additions can I make to my online presence in terms of design?
A // Can I say something really honest and perhaps really not nice? I don’t do it on purpose. I promise. But, it’s really hard for me to stay on a site that has poor design, or distracting design, or 15-years-too-old design, etc. Design is just so crucial to the way people interact with your brand. Design honestly makes such a difference for so many people that they will not stick around and consume your content if your aesthetics are off. Judging a book by its cover (in this sense) saves your visitors tons of time in their often fast-paced lives.
Now, if there was nothing you could do about your design, and tools such as Squarespace and Canva didn’t exist, then I would be all for the whole “Shouldn’t the content be what matters? Can’t people look past the surface?” argument. But the truth is–business is not your childhood soccer team where everyone got playing time no matter how much they didn’t want to play or how much they kicked the ball directly to the other team because they thought those jerseys were prettier. No. Good design is attainable and free (or seriously low $$) these days, so a brand’s lack of decent design messes up its image and typically its earning potential as well.
Be honest with yourself and record some notes on what needs to change about your design. Even if you’re not sure how to make it happen yet, write down your ideas for making it better for your audience. Do you need less color? Is it distracting? Does it not match the impression you are trying to leave with others?
B // Briefly check out the designs of others in your industry. I say briefly because I think you should spend more time being inspired by brands that are not in your same niche/space, but it’s probably a good idea to at least be aware of what others in your industry are doing.
C // Now, spend some legit time looking at your favorite niches not really related to your own. What are they doing with design? What works for you when you see it? What confuses or repulses you? Make notes on things you want to incorporate in your own brand.
D // Check out some of the epic FREE resources from my friends below to help you with design.
Section 7: What can I do or create to help more of my audience take action on my paid products and services?
A // I’m gonna lead straight in with a shameful example from my own brand on this one >> until last week at some point, I didn’t have an eBook store page on my website. What?! I’ve shared with you how eBooks and printed books made up $36K of my income in year one. Why in the world would I not build a page for my eBooks and make it much simpler for people to find them? They were previously jumbled together on a page with my other products and they were hard to purchase. Booooo, Regina. I mean, I knew it was bad when someone emailed me asking me where on my site they could find my books. I thought it was so clear, but no, that was just an overwhelmed entrepreneur talking.
All the while, much more responsible entrepreneurs such as Ciera Holzenthal had a pretty shop page to preview her products, and my new best bud Lisa Butler took the time to create a beautiful freebie and attractive landing page for people to sign up to be notified about her Get Your Website Together course. These ladies are super smart.
So, let’s take a look at your products and services. Consider asking yourself:
If the only thing leading people toward your product is a menu link that says “store,” or “shop,” that’s likely not enough to drive the sales you want. Take some time to explore the ideas above and anything else you can think of, then write them down on your worksheets.
B // Now, let’s look into how other brand owners in your space are guiding people toward their products. You might consider singing up for the email lists of other similar brands and checking out their websites, social media accounts, online events, and communities. How do they sell? What path do they set out for their clients? Does it feel authentic to you? Too pushy? Not purposeful? Jot down some notes on what you will and won’t consider for your brand.
C // As you may have guessed by this point in the post, it’s now time to check on some brands outside of your industry. How do they lead people to buy? If Ramit Sethi’s epic epic page on his site on How to Start a Successful Business Online isn’t the most enticing and cool thing to get people into his system and on the path to one of his courses, then I forrealzies don’t know what is.
Write down some ideas of how you can translate other industry practices into your own authentic thing.
D // I’m partial to my online buddies (I’ll admit), but I really do think I’ve compiled some legit pieces on creating + selling awesome products as well as attracting clients to your goods.
Section 8: What can I do when business is slow to still feel accomplished?
A // As you establish and maintain a creative business, you’ll likely notice that some periods are much busier than others. When you’re not as busy with client work and various projects, there are still tons of things you can do to grow your business and stay positive. Can you brainstorm some things you might want to do when business is slow?
B // Use the articles below (among any other resources you can find) to record several things you can do when your customers and projects are all taken care of for the moment. This portion of your creative action plan will be an excellent place to return to again and again so that you learn to really take advantage of slow periods.
Section 9: What administrative and backend tasks can I do now so they won’t be hanging over my head later?
A // Even if you love the heck out of your business, there is probably some portion of what you have to do that is not your favorite. And the hilarious thing (which is actually not funny at all) is that most of the tasks you hate don’t take forever and a day–we always seem to build up things we don’t like or fully grasp as much more than what they actually are. Jot down the backend tasks you don’t care for or that you often forget. Record the items that you’re neutral or excited about too; write down everything administrative-y that goes into running your business.
B // Ask around for recommendations and processes that other entrepreneurs use to get their administrative work done or to complete tasks their not excited about.
C // Check out some of the ideas and tools in the posts below on backend tasks, auditing, cleaning, organizing, and more, for inspiration on the best way to tackle these projects.
Section 10: What can I do when I don’t know what I should be doing?
A // Use this section as your cheat sheet section of your creative action plan. Basically, if you only have a free minute or so, but want to make sure you’re on track with your business or that you know what to pursue when it feels like there is nothing to do, this is the one section of your plan you’ll turn to.
B // Compile 5 – 10 of your tasks from the other sections that are simple to understand, 5 – 10 that can be accomplished quickly, 5 – 10 of the most important tasks, and 5 – 10 other items you care about. You’ll always have a strong list of items waiting for you if you replace the things you complete with new ideas.
C // Check out the sources below for tips that you might want to include in your “don’t know what I should be doing” category.
Final Step: Let’s Make It Actionable
Take your notes from these 10 sections/questions and compile them into a digital document. Rewrite things as actionable steps and tips. Start your sentences with verbs and commands: Write five more . . . Do a . . . Email three . . . and so on. I recommend you record at least 10 items per section/question above. This way, every time you access your Creative Action Plan you’ll have actionable commands and actual items to cross off then replace.
If you keep an ever-changing doc, then you’ll always have business goals that are simple to understand. You’ll always have steps or items you want to and need to carry out. Having a creative action plan (even though I do love me some business plans too) was a large part of helping me move into my business full time and I hope this process will really help you too.
Photo: (c) show it better