Strategy vs. Tactics 

In just about every discussion I’ve had with fellow marketers in recent months the topic of strategy vs. tactics has come up. All too often, people think that there’s one tactic that will help them win the marketing war. That line of thinking is not only unrealistic, but dangerous. When it comes to marketing, there’s rarely a panacea that will solve all your market share problems or a silver bullet that will slay the competition. However, a sound strategy will give you a fighting chance. Unfortunately, people often dismiss strategy because, unlike tactics, it can take time to have demonstrable returns.

However, like in all wars (and marketing is indeed a battle for mind share), a sound strategy will always beat out a series of clever tactics in the long run (assuming those clever tactics are not founded in solid strategy).  To use another analogy, a good tactic could give you a burst of energy much like a caffeine or energy drink will before a race, but its effects may not be long lasting.  Winning the race takes training and discipline, not just a burst of enery that could wear off in a short amount of time.

So what’s the difference? Several marketers of note have tackled this question, including Seth Godin. In the higher ed space, Tim Copeland wrote a great piece on the importance of thinking strategy first when it comes to investing in CRM. But one of my favorite descriptions comes not from a marketer, but from Alan Emrich’s course on the Principles of Game Design. On his course web site, Emrich writes:

Strategy is immutable; it is a Big Picture look at a problem that focuses upon the entire forest and not individual trees. Military concepts such as objective, offensive, simplicity, unity of command, mass, economy of force, maneuver, surprise, and security represent the timeless principles of strategy. Why do you think Sun Tzu’s The Art of War has been a best seller for thousands of years and translated into every imaginable language? Because it teaches strategy and the lessons of strategy are timeless. They are bound to our very nature as humans.

Tactics vary with circumstances and, especially, technology. If I were to teach you how to be a soldier during the American Revolution, you would learn how to form and maneuver in lines, perform the 27 steps in loading and firing a musket, and how to ride and tend to a horse. Naturally, yesterday’s tactics won’t win today’s wars – but yesterday’s strategies still win today’s wars… and will win them tomorrow and into the future.

So before you launch that next email, write that next blog post, or tweet that next tweet, think about your strategy first. What problems are you trying to solve? How can technology help you solve them? Is technology even the right answer?

You’ll always be able find the right tools to support your strategy once you have one in place, but you won’t necessarily find the right strategy just because of the tactics you’re using.