No matter the size of your business, you need a marketing strategy. You might already have one, but it’s a .doc file that hasn’t been opened since 2011. It cost a lot of money at the time, and it’s 30 pages of strategies, tactics and activities.
The differences between strategies, tactics and activities is an area I see clients and marketers alike struggle to explain. It used to catch me out, too; but knowing and understanding the differences is an important step to using them well, which is why I’ve developed some simple, plain-language definitions. No complicated flowcharts, no infographics.
So, what are the differences?
Positions, maps, and steps
If you take nothing else away from this article, take this:
Strategy identifies a strong position and a route to reach it; tactics are the map; activities are the actual steps you take.
If you haven’t stopped reading, that’s great, because as always — the devil is in the details.
Before we begin, you need a clear and measurable objective: let’s say increasing online sales by 40% over the next 12 months.
Your strategy identifies key positions that will help you achieve that objective, and it identifies the best possible route to take. Unlike an objective, your strategy isn’t a destination: it’s about making sure your business controls as many routes to that destination as possible.
Tactics form your map, with details, shortcuts and landmarks. They’re practical, identifying what you need to prepare to ensure you’ll get to the strategic position. They have a destination in mind, they’re focused, they’re easy to achieve and easy to explain.
Activities are the actual steps you take, and can be planned to the tiniest detail. But they’re also the part with the most variation: your activities can change rapidly depending on any number of factors. It’s a good idea to plan your steps, but you also need to know what to do when the terrain changes.
What do bad strategies look like?
Sales growth is a common and important objective for many businesses, but more often than not, businesses deploy a number of tactics without a true strategy — or, they employ a strategy so broad it’s almost meaningless.
For example, if one of your marketing objectives is to “Increase online sales by 40% over the next 12 months”, many businesses might be tempted to pay for Facebook advertising campaigns, run a friends and family referral competition, or offer ‘first purchase’ discounts. The other direction might be to employ a strategy like “Grow our social media audience”, or even worse, “make a viral ad”.
The trouble with these examples is that, without a powerful strategy, they’re risky, isolated, and poorly informed tactics and activities. Is your Facebook audience reflective of your existing (paying) customer database? What’s going to make these referred friends and family members buy a product? Does your social media audience actually buy anything? And have you got any real idea how to make something ‘go viral’?
A good strategy gives you the answers to all of these questions.
What do good strategies look like?
Powerful marketing strategies do a few very important things:
- Decide your direction and inform future decisions
- Define your competitive advantage and your identity
- Determine where you put your resources — and where you don’t
Let’s take that sales growth objective again: we want to increase online sales by 40% over the next 12 months. How can we achieve this?
The first step should always be to consider your audience. Ultimately, every marketing strategy is about informing and persuading an audience to think, do or buy something.
Since I’m all about content marketing, here’s a little free bit of advice for achieving a growth objective: always start by thinking about your existing customers. They’ve already bought from you — they’re the most likely people to do it again.
With that in mind, our strategies start to take shape. We need to start by putting our energy and resources into existing customers, moving them to the online platform, and then making sure they keep buying.
Now we can firm up these strategies:
- Strengthen online presence within existing customer base
- Develop a new online value proposition
- Prioritise increasing customer lifetime value
(By no means an exhaustive list — it’ll take more work than that!)
Strategy 1 is about gaining a new position by using what you have already — ensuring your existing customers are aware of your online offering.
Strategy 2 is about defining your competitive advantage and positioning your brand.
Strategy 3 is about allocating your resources to growing your most likely revenue source: existing customers.
By employing these strategies, your business now has a clearly defined route to achieve its objective.
But here’s what’s really important: it defines what you don’t do (for now). Mass media advertising campaigns are out. You aren’t focusing on gaining brand new customers. You definitely aren’t going to run a viral campaign. Yet.
What are tactics?
OK, I’ve got some strategies, but what do we do now?
Tactics are a map. They outline what resources you’ll need, and provide a plan for what steps you’ll take. For example, taking just the first strategy:
Strengthening online presence and recognition with existing customers.
…an effective tactic might be this:
Contact database of customers with a loyalty offering of free shipping on their next online order
Note, it’s not telling you how to contact those customers: that’s the next bit. But your tactic sets out a clear map: it’s going to involve contacting existing customers, a loyalty offering, and it’s directing those customers to complete an online purchase.
Great tactics are short, snappy, and direct.
What are activities?
And now, the steps. Continuing our example from above:
Strategy: Strengthening online presence and recognition with existing customers.
Tactic: Contact database of customers with a loyalty offering of free shipping on their next online order
Activity: Create a Campaign Monitor email to existing clients with active email addresses, detailing the offer and linking to the site
These are pretty basic, but you get the idea. Activities are the most specific: they’re the actual steps you must take.
Of course, the real skill with activities is working with the unplanned, like retweeting a great testimonial for your online shop, or sharing a magazine review of your product with a link to purchase.
These things can’t be predicted, so be smart: plan and execute your activities, but keep your eyes on the road ahead.
Understanding the differences between strategy, tactics and activities is vital to using them properly. Even marketing agencies can be guilty of developing weak strategies, and the most common reason for this is losing sight of those clear distinctions. Sometimes this comes from overly complicated language, and sometimes it comes from trying to do too much.
Keep it simple, make it clear. Define your destination, pick your route, draw your map, and start walking.
For small business owners, a powerful strategy is as much about confidence and peace of mind as it is about achieving objectives. Investing in a good strategy is your smartest move, and the best thing is, it’s never too late.
You can also read about my marketing strategy approach over on my website.
Next week’s topic: why is your marketing strategy more than one page long?