Strategy Spotting: How to Tell When You Find One

First published April 24, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

The difference between tactics and strategy can be monumental in the success of any marketing, and search is no exception. So, what are the telltale signs of a strategy? How can you tell when you’re dealing with a basketful of tactics rather than a well-thought-out strategic plan? Here are some things to look for:

Strategies are immutable

They remain constant, and so are expansive enough to accommodate the inevitable tactical shifts that will be required. Strategies provide bearings for the team involved, providing a navigation point that everyone can refer to. Napoleon was one of the best military strategists that ever lived, but he said that he never once had a battle go according to plan. Life never rolls out exactly the way we plan it. But, if you know what your strategy is, you can make the necessary adjustments on the fly and not lose sight of your objectives.

Strategies are not objectives

Strategies are not the same as objectives, but the two are integral to each other.  Strategy needs an objective. And realizing objectives is a lot easier with an aligned strategy. But the two can’t replace each other. A great primer in objectives, strategies and tactics is provided by this supposed quote from Colin Powell during Desert Storm.

In a press conference, asked what the objective was, he replied, “Liberate Kuwait.”

“What’s the strategy?”

“First we’re going to cut it off, then we’re going to kill it [referring to Iraqi forces).’

“What tactics are you going to use?”

“Tactics are Schwarzkopf’s job.”

Strategies are simple yet profound

The best strategies boil down to one absolutely crystal-clear concept that everyone can understand. The more people you have working on a strategy, and the more spread out they are, the clearer your strategic foundation has to be. Airlines provide a good example. Southwest’s strategy? To be THE low-cost airline. JetBlue’s? To make coach suck less. Those are clear strategies that everyone, from CEOs to pilots to baggage handlers, can understand. It also gives every team member the latitude to decide on the best tactical execution to achieve the strategic objective.

Strategies are customer-centric

Strategies have to be defined both from the outside, looking in, and the inside, looking out. Because of this, strategies have to begin with a clear understanding of your customers and their relationship not just with your company, but also your competition. You must be able to see how they differentiate you from your competitors, not how you believe you might be different. Then, you can use this external perspective to define your internal objectives, improving what must be improved and accentuating what is already good. It’s this view from the outside that allows you to determine the things you should do, and more importantly, the things you shouldn’t do. It helps you decide what the really important things are.

Strategically speaking, where do you begin?

So, if after this strategy-spotting primer, you decide you don’t have a strategy, how do you start building one? It’s no quick task. Strategies come from a lot of soul-searching, hundreds (or thousands) of really tough questions, and the courage to say no to things that seem really important. And strategies have to begin at the top. They come from developing a deep and honest understanding of your customers and, more importantly, your own company.

Strategy is hard. Really hard. But no company who has ever made the significant investment required has ever regretted it.

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