Think You’re Strategic? Think Again.

First published April 17, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

It’s one of the banes of this industry that we often use the words “strategies” and “tactics” interchangeably. Conferences that fly the strategy banner offer a deep dive into multiple tactical tracks. Sessions that promise cutting edge strategies in fact deliver tactics. Now, I have nothing against tactics. The right tactic can be a beautiful thing, when it’s used to execute on a strategy. But they’re not the same thing.

The Dingoes Ate My Strategy

I went off on this topic at the recent SMX in Sydney. I was asked to present at a session that offered out-of-the-box PPC tactics. I hijacked the session and said that it’s hard to know what out-of-the-box is until you’ve defined the box. Strategy defines the box. If you’re building a house, strategy is the blueprint; tactics are the tools you use to put the house together. Apparently I scared a few Aussies by my impassioned plea not to confuse the two.

The reason for my rant? Because all too often in search we get enamored with a brand new tool and forget to look at the blueprint. This is not a new message for me. Check the byline blurb at the bottom of this column. It’s been the same message since I started writing this column, almost 4 years ago now.

I don’t think anyone disagrees with me that strategy is a good thing. But why does our focus so often slip from the strategic to the tactical? Why do we keep losing sight of the forest for the trees? Rick Tobin, our director of research, came up with one possible reason. Tactics are easy to own and even easier to delegate. They’re a “tick off” item on our to-do list. Strategy requires more thought. It’s a lot slipperier to get hold off.

The First Step is Admitting You Might be Making a Mistake

I tend to take a strategic slant when I present at conferences and shows. And because of that, I think I ask more from my audience. I’m asking them to question what it is they might be doing right now, because it might be the wrong thing. Strategy demands that you ask tough questions of yourself. It challenges your beliefs. And that’s a hard thing to ask of humans. We’re wired to ignore anything that might cause us to change our mind.

I know firsthand how tough it can be to keep focused on your strategy and to execute effectively against it. It’s a constant challenge in my company, and the same is true for every company I know that values strategy. You have to think your way through this stuff. You can’t do it on autopilot.

Tactical Mastery or Strategic Stumbling

It’s a lot easier to focus on a tactic. We like to master things, and you can do this at a tactical level. You can be a great link builder, or PPC manager. You can become the wizard of analytics, or the master multivariate tester. And these are the things you’ll find on the typical search conference agenda. I think it would scare the hell out of most attendees to go to a session titled “Strategic Soul Searching: Are All Your Marketing Efforts in Vain?” To be fair to the show organizers, most attendees come looking for tactics. Almost no one comes looking for strategy. They may think they’re looking for strategy, but they’ve mixed up the terms.

Books like “Good to Great” and “Built to Last,” as well as almost anything by Peter Drucker or Tom Peters, ask you to look at things from a strategic vantage point. Even Covey’s “The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People” provides you with the strategic building blocks for a more effective personal life. In his books, Jim Collins warns that this is not a quick process. Companies can take a decade of dedicated persistent effort to really discover their soul and define their strategic direction. You can pick up a tactic in a 15-minute presentation, but a strategy takes a lot more time.

The Strategic Common Denominator

Personally, I’ve felt that by providing glimpses into user behavior, I can help provide a lens to help see things from the outside in, an essential perspective for strategic evaluation. Part of any strategy in marketing always depends on gaining a deeper understanding of the common denominator, humans. The more years I add to my CV, the more I realize we need to spend some time understanding the weird quirks and traits that make us all too imperfectly and irrationally human. And it’s from that understanding that your strategy will eventually spring forth.

To wrap up for this week, I leave you with a quote from Sun Tzu, the military strategist:

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

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