Strategy versus tactics

There must be thousands of blog posts out there about the difference between strategy and tactics. You can find 'em in a Google search, but don't bother. I'll save you the trouble.

See, they all pretty much follow the same formula. They start off by bemoaning the fact that nobody else in the WHOLE WIDE WORLD understands the difference between strategy and tactics. They usually cite a few examples in here of poor, misinformed clients, colleagues or even bosses, to illustrate their point that they are SO MUCH SMARTER than everyone else and that this mysterious distinction is something that only they can get. They then proceed to give their own definition, which is accurate to varying degrees, tends to make some sort of reference to ancient Chinese warfare, and is of course illustrated by an example or two. Finally, they wrap up with an admonishment against using the wrong lingo, and usually a self-plug about why they can develop kick-ass strategies that really, truly are strategic. (And not the least bit tactical.)

Here's the thing, though: Most companies don't want strategies. Most companies want tactics.

I know that sounds like a strange thing for a digital strategist to say. So let me explain:

Really great strategy is invisible. It's seamless. It exists as an idea that is the foundation that holds up the house. It's absolutely necessary, because without it, the whole structure falls down.

But at the end of the day, we don't measure strategies. We measure tactics. And when companies approach you seeking "strategies" for how to go about accomplishing their goals, what they're really expecting you to produce is not a theoretical strategy, but an actionable, implementable, tactical plan. They want something that they can start doing. You don't do a strategy. You do tactics.

A really great strategy is one that is worked on, developed, thought out, planned, stated… and then built upon. If asked to build a house, would you come back with nothing but a foundation? Of course not. You have to provide the bricks and beams and roof and chimney… otherwise, it's not finished.

Ditto with marketing strategy. Especially in the digital world, where things change so fast that your carefully-constructed strategy could be obsolete by the time you get around to implementing it if you're not careful.

Wait too long to develop the tactical plan, and the strategy becomes worthless. Or, in the words of the immortal Ferris Bueller, "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

So next time you hear someone confuse strategy and tactics, instead of getting hung up on semantics, ask yourself: Which do they really need? Maybe they're not the ones who are confused after all.

2 Replies to “Strategy versus tactics”

  1. The way I always thought about it is that strategy is the guidelines of what you are trying to achieve long term and tactics are actually the small tangible actions taken in order to implement the strategy. Then again I’m not sure about the business terminology, sometimes they seem to make things up as they go along just to look like badasses during powerpoint presentations.

  2. What, us marketers, make things up as we go along? *Gasp!* Never! (And, Phil, are you suggesting that I’m not badass?)

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