Is your digital activity strategic or tactical?

Written by Nate Wood - 07 Oct 2020

Strategy. It is starting to become one of those cringe-worthy words. You know the words I mean: "circling back", "data-driven", "transformation", "synergistic", "low-hanging fruit" - the words that make the nails-on-a-chalkboard sound in your head when you hear them in a sentence.

There is nothing inherently wrong with these terms (although "circling back" does need to end, quickly). These words have valuable meaning, they have an important application, and they have practical relevance to the digital marketer.

The problem with some of these buzzwords is that they are often used to make a mountain out of a molehill. When you want to get stuff done, you now have to think of the synergistic opportunities available in going for the low-hanging fruit. And of course, you need to have a transformation strategy before you can do anything. They are massively overused and often misused to the point where they start to lose that meaning.

The word “strategy” is perhaps the current poster child for misused digital buzzwords, often being used to describe tactics, and vice versa.

It seems that everything is strategic these days, there’s a strategy around every corner. You cannot sit through a digital marketing meeting without at least one drop of the word "strategy". It seems that digital cannot get by without it.

So what is digital strategy, do you need one, and at what point does the strategy become tactics?

An understandable confusion

The use of dictionary definitions for words is also massively overused, but I'm afraid we can't avoid it with this one. When you look up definitions for strategy and tactics using the Cambridge Dictionary, the language used overlaps:

  • Strategy - "a detailed plan for achieving success in situations such as war, politics, business, industry, or sport, or the skill of planning for such situations."
  • Tactics - "a planned way of doing something."

Aren’t they saying the same thing? The language itself is vague. The common descriptor in both cases is "plan", which itself has a pretty ambiguous definition: "a set of decisions about how to do something in the future". We can't blame people for being confused. In fact, "strategic" and "tactical" are used as suggestions for each other in a thesaurus

Let's look in the Collins Dictionary and see how they fare:

  • Strategy - "a long-term plan for success, such as in politics or business."
  • Tactics - "the plans and methods used to achieve a particular short-term aim or task."

The Collins definition is better. The difference between the two seems to rest on a timescale, long-term or short-term. But who decides what is long-term or short-term? The definition implies you can't have a quick-turnaround strategy, but I've seen games of chess that have a strategy behind them that haven’t lasted months. Perhaps the timescale is relative? I've seen short-term strategies applied successfully.

It's no wonder that strategy and tactics are misused terms, they're too similar. And it gets more confusing when you realise that strategy and tactics are entirely relative.

Strategy and tactics are defined by perspective

Business strategists will often state the difference between the two in terms of scale.

  • Strategy - the big vision, the macroscopic objective
  • Tactics - the individual actions required to deliver the strategy

The distinction is apparent - strategy is the overarching stuff; tactics are the actions that get you there. But even this evident differentiation changes when you look at it from different perspectives.

Let's look at a hypothetical example. The executive board defines the business strategy for the next five years, profitability targets, headcount and resource allocation, overall budgeting, etc. The business strategy is then executed by the various departments – finance, marketing, HR, production, IT, etc. If we focus on the marketing aspect, the CMO will look at the business strategy and produce a marketing strategy for the coming year. The strategy might include who to market to, what the messaging will be, how to position the product range, etc. From the perspective of the CMO, this is a strategic plan that has long-term, high-level objectives. However, from the perspective of the board, this is one of several tactical plans from each department to deliver the overall business strategy.

The CMO delivers the marketing strategy to the respective marketing teams. The head of digital will produce a digital strategy, and this will outline the channels to use, the objectives for digital, etc. From the perspective of the head of digital, this is a strategic plan. It has long-term, high-level objectives. From the standpoint of the CMO, it is a tactical plan, which sits alongside the tactical plans from the other marketing teams to deliver the overall marketing strategy.

The head of digital delivers the digital strategy to the digital marketing teams. The search manager produces a search strategy, which identifies how to balance paid and organic search, which keywords and content require focus and how to proportion budgets. For the search manager, this is a strategic plan with long-term, high-level objectives and KPIs. For the head of digital, this is a tactical plan, which sits alongside the plans from other digital disciplines to deliver the overall digital strategy.

Each of these levels of strategic documentation is perfectly valid, they are strategic approaches, but they are also tactical, depending on your viewpoint. It doesn't matter whether the CMO calls the strategy a tactical plan or a marketing strategy plan; it's irrelevant. What matters is that, like Russian dolls, everything fits nicely nestled together, and ultimately everything rolls up into the same bigger picture.

Russian dolls

Timescales

The timescale differentiation is useful if we realise that there is a natural order to things. The strategy sits above tactics. You cannot have tactical actions that have timescales more extended than the strategy they are going to deliver against. At this point, it doesn’t matter if your strategy is five years, 12 months, one month or two days, it’s irrelevant. As long as the actions to deliver the overall goal are on the same timescale or less, then there is a legitimate strategy and structure for tactics.

Strategy and tactics are the same animal

Picture a person wanting to start a journey. They need two things: a destination to aim for and a method for getting there. With no end destination, they wander without purpose. With no way of getting to a destination, they never reach it.

Likewise, a strategy without tactics is futile. It's all well and good having a vision, but if there is no mechanism to realise that vision, then it's nothing more than a pipedream.

Tactics also cannot correctly exist by themselves. Of course, you can optimise a channel, but to what end? What are you trying to achieve? Efficiency? To what level? When do you know when to stop? The strategy sets out the direction and the destination point. Without it, the tactics wander without purpose.

Strategy cannot work without tactics, and tactics cannot work without a strategy. They are two ends of the same animal and define each other. Knowing which end is which is quite important, but more important is knowing that the animal doesn’t come in two halves. You don't get one without the other.

Digital strategy - two ended animal

Some strategic/tactical advice

Ultimately, everything has to roll up to the overall business strategy. Like nested Russian dolls, each strategic plan should fit nicely into the next level up, which in turn complements and inserts into the level above it.

Strategic plans at one level are the tactical actions at the next until you reach the top. As such, every strategic level must be defined by the one above it. If this doesn't happen, you end up with a disjoint where the actions are not trying to accomplish the bigger picture.

Digital marketers often get caught up on what is strategic and what is tactical. Honestly, it doesn't matter; it's just buzzword BS. Just define what you need to accomplish and how you're going to go about delivering that accomplishment. If the upper level of that plan is labelled as the strategy, while the more in-depth detail is called tactics, then so be it.

With the busy schedules that everyone has, getting that plan down on paper is often overlooked. Channels operate without clearly stated objectives, or multiple areas don't roll up to shared goals and objectives.

The lack of a plan leads to a lack of integration and the all-too-common siloed operational structure. It doesn't matter what you call it, but have a plan that you can refer back to as a reference point.

Do I even need a strategy then?

You need a plan, absolutely. Without it, your marketing will drift, becoming highly reactionary and never really pushing forward. Don't worry about whether it's technically a strategy document or a tactical plan. Just pull a plan together that is aimed at achieving what the business needs.

Any plan that you create will almost certainly contain a series of actions (the tactics) that you will endeavour to undertake to accomplish overarching goals (the strategy). It is really difficult to produce one without also producing the other, it just comes naturally. These tactics will require prioritisation because otherwise you may be wasting resource and reducing your effectiveness by focusing on the wrong things at the wrong time.

You will also need to document your plan so that you have something to refer back to or share across a team. A plan sat inside your head cannot be easily shared. The document you produce can be relatively simple, even on the back of an envelope if you must, and may consist of a simple statement of those top-level objectives and then the actions you're going to take to deliver on it.

To help you along on your planning journey you can download our template for prioritising tactical actions from our website. You might also find some of our other digital marketing resources useful.

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How to prioritise digital marketing tactics