Strategies and tactics are often confused with one another, and often when one is wanted the other is actually provided.
As a result sometimes when top down planning is needed (e.g the big picture / the strategy) it’s actually bottom-up planning that is actioned (lots of individual tactics) because perhaps in the short term it’s quicker and you feel like you’re getting more from your effort? But I think that this is misguided, and very short-termist.
Recent events have got me thinking about this a little more, and I felt compelled to explore the issue in a blog. So here we are…
Ensure you get added-value by working with an agency
We get plenty of clients coming to us asking for a digital marketing solution to their brief. In many cases the solution has already been decided and they just want someone to activate their ideas, plus throw a bit of expertise into the implementation as we go to achieve the best results, for the lowest investment of course.
Whilst we could happily take their money, do what they ask and achieve results, we’re conscious of our ability to add value, and this approach isn’t conducive to that. As a strategist I’m a thinker, I’m curious and I like to ask questions and explore opportunities to ensure we’re doing the best thing. This can be said for many roles in marketing, but I’m responsible for championing all digital channels, not just PPC or SEO or email...
I like to know a business’s plans, especially growth plans and targets, as well as understand the macro environment in which they operate in order to appreciate the challenges and the opportunities.
Now when a client comes to us with a prescriptive brief I always like to unpick it, delve deeper and understand the why. Why this budget? Why these targets? Why now? etc.
This could be construed as a waste of time, especially if nothing changes with the brief after the exercise*, but I feel it’s important that these documents are challenged, especially if they’re produced with the intention of engaging with experts and specialists. The reason we’re being approached is because we’re good at what we do, so let us ensure that we’re going in the right direction together and are on the same page.
So whilst we strive to be strategic, we’re often showered with tactical briefs and problems.
*Our experience has shown that only in very few cases is a brief left un-touched. There is nearly always extra information/insights to share, and teasing out of true objectives and targets from which to judge success and manage investment expectations.
Why a (digital) marketing strategy shouldn’t be viewed as a luxury
I often feel that having a (digital) marketing strategy is viewed as a luxury by many. It’s not a quick process, neither should it be rushed, especially when there is a lot of data at your fingertips to collate, analyse and interpret. As a result whether it’s an internal (client) responsibility or commissioned to an agency, it requires a fair few man hours and a committed resource, so it’s usually not cheap! But that shouldn’t mean it shouldn’t be done, nor should its value be questioned.
The purpose of a strategy is to define the big picture (incl. SMART objectives), the size of the opportunity and to focus the business on specific audience segments, market definition(s) and its positioning within. Ideally it would be a view of the next 1-3 years.
Given recent events it’s hard to look beyond a year right now, and even that feels too ‘long term’ given the state of flux we all feel in. But that being said, it’s good to have a goal with some longevity in mind, and enough time to work towards it and make changes in order to achieve it.
Having this in place means everyone is working towards the same goal, targeting the same audience and promoting a consistent message. Therefore what could go wrong?
The business wants sales for example, but what is the best way to achieve these sales? An increase in repeat customers, pressure to deliver new customers or diversifying your product or market portfolio to do both? Who could your new customer base be?
Unfortunately all too often, we’re not faced with discussing these aims, these audience groups and market dynamics, we’re straight into the detail about what digital channel to use, how big the search volume is or whether we should be using social advertising or not.
These are tactics. Within each channel there may be a strategy, an approach to how things are done, and there is nothing wrong with this, but on their own they are not a (digital) marketing strategy.
Don’t expect a bottom-up planning approach to work forever
We can all fall foul of jumping the gun, and arrive at a solution before we’ve explored the opportunity. We’re quick to think that if you have a website you should be active in search and invest in SEO and/or PPC. That may be the case nearly every time, but is this really where your audience expects to find you and more importantly is it worth the investment?
This is where we can all get too caught up in ‘bottom-up’ planning. Compartmentalising each digital channel and planning in silos in accordance with platform forecasts and benchmarks. But this can run the risk of a fragmented approach, duplication of effort and often a confused audience. At the very least it feels inefficient and if it's currently working, I’m pretty sure if you want to scale your business you may struggle to do so with this approach because it’s almost as if there is a ceiling on each channel and a limit to what each can achieve on their own.
If you’ve got the budget to test and learn, or maybe you’re already successfully operating in certain marketing channels, then perhaps bottom up is the way to go for now. There’ s nothing wrong with being agile… but at some point you will need to swap tactical planning with strategic planning to make sizeable shifts and break those performance ceilings.
When that time comes, look for a strategy not tactics!
Why you should invest in strategy
As an agency which focuses on digital marketing, we have specialists working in PPC, SEO, email marketing etc, and we have some clients who only use us for one service, whereas others use us for quite a few. The role of the specialist is to champion their discipline, but they are also encouraged to collaborate with one another.
As Strategy Director, my role is to facilitate this; to spark conversations with clients about wider sales and marketing and/or business performance; and to champion the target audience in everything we do.
In the absence of a strategic marketing plan and to avoid siloed tactical planning and a fragmented approach, our integrated team offers clients an interim solution (a stepping stone if you will) and I can proffer a digital strategy of sorts.
We can of course cater for bottom up planning to get things moving, and to start delivering on results and achieving targets (jumping straight into implementation of our bread and butter disciplines), but I also wonder how much more effective we could be if we pause, reflect and gather the intelligence needed to initiate a strategy that would make the day to day far more rewarding and efficient...
I’m in no way criticizing our guys, they do a fabulous job under the circumstances, but they are often at the mercy of a lack of foresight and strategic direction, which is as a result of a lack of value placed in strategy development by clients (and their investment in it). I’d love to offer my services for free when I notice that this could be holding us back, but if I did that, I’m also under-valuing strategy and my expertise… who values anything that comes for free, right?
So if you’re a client, I implore you to consider investing in the future of your business, and by doing so not under-value strategy development of any kind.
Kickstarting strategic thinking
Here are some thought starters to get you thinking more about strategy:
- What are you trying to achieve?
- This is a really broad question, but how well can you define what you are hoping to achieve? Clarity here will help with everything else!
- What is your business plan?
- What are your sales targets?
- How do these differ from previous years? Has anything changed in the business since these were achieved that could affect the status quo?
- Do you have a new product range that you would like to launch? If so, when?
- Audience pain points? Why are they coming to you? Price? Need? What’s the trigger? What are their barriers, objections and hesitation points? How do they make decisions?
- What’s your audience’s perception of the brand? Is this good or bad?
- What are your competitors’ behaviour, initiatives, perception, performance like? How do you compare?
- What’s the size of your market. How much of a share do you have at present? What opportunity is there to grow, and what effect would this have on others?
These questions are by no means an exhaustive list, but they’ll hopefully lift your head above thinking about search and social media, and allow you to formulate some targets from which these channels can feed into. This will establish how diverse your channel planning should be, or how deep your pockets need to be. They may also help to root your plans in audience insights and competitor intelligence which could unlock opportunities to carve a niche for yourself, or at least stand out from the crowd.
Start your strategic journey now
So to conclude, bottom up planning can get you from nowhere to somewhere at a pretty steady rate, but there'll definitely be inefficiencies along the way and a ceiling to your efforts. When you start to require shift changes or an injection of growth, it’s wise to embrace a top down approach and invest in strategy development.
I’d recommend starting sooner rather than later with this though so that you don’t find yourself “wishing you’d done it sooner” when the time finally does come to deploy this level of strategic thinking. Hindsight is a wonderful thing...