Why digital marketing is a tactic, not a strategy

By Richard Fouts | April 10, 2012 | 10 Comments

I continue to see job openings for head of digital strategy; I get calls from clients inquiring “what should my digital strategy be?” I see piece after piece talking about digital strategy, social media strategy, mobile strategy. Folks, I’m here to tell you digital marketing is a tactic. Social media is a tactic. Mobile is a tactic.

You already have a marketing strategy. How can you extend its intent, its goals, its objectives with the unique attributes of a digital technique? I don’t mean to split hairs, but crafting strategies around tactical tools is exactly what gets marketing executives into trouble. It’s the type of thinking that leads to silos. It’s the type of thinking that leads to dashboard reports that show email marketing is the cheapest tactic of all, causing your CEO to say, “well …let’s just move everything to email.”

Let’s look at some examples. You might have a sales goal, driven by marketing to reduce the length of your sales cycle. How can digital can tactically help you do that? Advocacy marketing for one. With the social web, you can find your advocates online and leverage them in your marketing campaigns. Research shows the advocacy of another customer can bring a sales cycle to a halt faster than anything else. Now when you report up to the CEO, you show how sales cycle time has been reduced, something that helps both revenue and cash flow. How did you do it? Who cares? It worked (if he’s really interested I’m sure you’ll tell him). 

Or,  you have a marketing goal of improving brand awareness. So you use digitally-enabled word-of-mouth marketing to help you do that, through viral campaigning, customer advocacy platforms or with Youtube. Or you get involved on leading blogs in your space to spur inbound inquiries (the type of leads that tend to be more qualified than other types of leads); hence you used social media as a tactic to help you improve lead quality. Make sense? Get the picture?

CEOs can relate with these types of scenarios. What they can’t relate with are deep dive discussion into digital marketing strategies, that talk more about how digital works, that how it helps you achieve results.

10 Comments
  1. 11 April 2012 at 7:21 am
    Karthikeyan Palanisamy says:

    Very true, Richard. There can be various means of attacking the market. A strategy may adopt various tactics and we cannot call these tactics as our strategies. Looking at tactics will not let us look at the big picture i.e. strategy

  2. 11 April 2012 at 11:06 am
    Aubrey Phelps says:

    I love digital marketing, especially the viral side of it. It just seems way more exciting.

  3. 11 April 2012 at 8:13 pm
    Doug Hadden says:

    Yes, marketing follows strategy. And, what marketing people often call strategy is tactics.

    But digital represents strategic disruption. Social, mobile and digital makes broadcast – hence traditional marketing – obsolete (in the McLuhan sense.) Digital introduces business pivot opportunities.

  4. 13 April 2012 at 7:57 am
    Neil Hopkins says:

    I partly disagree.

    Yes, digital marketing is a tactic. In exactly the same way as print, radio, ambient etc are tactics.

    And digital should enhance the overall strategy.

    However, I believe that tactics should still be deployed strategically in relation to their individual channel characteristics. So a print tactic will have a different deployment strategy to a digital, for example, due to the different nature of the medium and the consumption of that medium.

    So the question “What’s my digital strategy” is worthwhile, so long as it is a clear subset of the overall directional strategy.

  5. 14 April 2012 at 4:22 pm
    Michael says:

    Thank you for sharing your point of view, Richard! Your post definitely got me thinking, so I appreciate that.

    One challenge that most business owners face is that they don’t have a strategy for their marketing. Having businesses look at Digital Marketing as a tactic, whether it is or not, is a huge mistake. Simply saying I am looking to bring in new customers, and work-of-mouth is our strategy, and digital marketing is our tactic is way off.

    Let’s say, your objective is to bring in customers via word-of-mouth, your strategy IS to create a digital marketing campaign using YouTube, Twitter, Facebook to start the word-of-mouth movement, and your tactics are specifically what are you doing in YouTube, Specifically what are you doing in Twitter, and in Facebook to execute your strategy to meet your objective. Tactics are action items. Strategy is what are you going to do to meet your objective and your goals/objectives are the reason(s) why you are marketing and what you are looking to accomplish.

    You’ve really got me thinking about this, I would love your feedback and I will probably write my own post on this in the future.

    Thanks, Richard!

    Michael R. Hunter
    Director of Marketing Strategy
    Entourage Marketing, LLC
    http://entouragemarketing.com
    http://facebook.com/entouragemarketing

  6. 15 April 2012 at 11:42 am
    Richard Fouts says:

    Imagine this scenario. The Board of Directors has given the CEO a mandate to grow revenue by 30%. As the CMO, I’m asked to produce some ideas and a strategic plan.

    I see that 25% the qualified leads I generate are converting to deals. Some quick “what if analysis” shows that if I can move that needle by 15%, I can reach our growth objectives. How will I do that? What’s the strategy?

    Further research shows: the deals that do convert have several things in common, one in particular is higher levels of engagement. Those that convert spend more time on my web site, get engaged with my interactive tools, assessments, games; they’ve engaged in pre-sales workshops. Those that don’t convert don’t do these things.

    So i conclude that the more TIME I spend with a prospect, delivering real value (not sales pitches) the more likely they are to buy (leading marketers often use predictive modeling to arrive at this type of scenarios that answer the question “why do some prospects convert while others, just as qualified, do not?”)

    So ….I share this with my CEO … concluding, “if we employ a strategy of higher customer engagement, one that will allow us to get more intimate with customers, spend more productive pre-sales time giving them insight into solving their problem, the more likely they are to convert. Great, he says….. how will do fulfill this customer intimacy strategy of yours?

    Then I talk about several tactics I’ll use: I’ll provide tools, assessments, games – things on our web sites and in our social marketing that will get propsects more engaged. I will tactically change our event marketing to include one-on-one sessions with prospects; I’ll put more self-assessments in our print materials, I’ll restructure our sales call format to be more prescriptive, less “pitch”.

    All the time I’m deploying this strategy …. I’m tracking how well these increasing levels of intimacy are working. And I find that the apps and tools I’ve provided have become effective tactics for increasing levels of engagement – which is fueling higher conversions.

    IF i tell my CEO that my strategy for growth is to deploy better print materials, better mobile apps, more email campaigns, more blah blah blah … I’ll lose him. What he cares about is growth, pipeline, revenue. So I tell him how I will strategically deploy print, mobile, email, and he’s getting bored .. thinking, “so when do we get to growth?” And he starts showing me the door…..because nothing I’ve told him is going to satisfy the BoD.

    So the question is … which digital tactics serve my strategy of achieving higher levels of engagement ? Which tactics will advance this strategy?

    When marketers start creating digital strategies they lose sight of business objectives, they just get enamored with the digital channels, vs the digital customer. They deploy digital strategies and “hope it works.” And as a wise marketer once said, “Hope is not a strategy.”

  7. 15 April 2012 at 11:51 am
    Richard Fouts says:

    Michael .. my humble advice to you ….push your thinking up one more notch or two. Your objective is not to reach out to people over WOM or Youtube…your objective is to fill the pipeline, convert more prospects, raise awareness, etc. You have strategic choices to achieve that .. namely Ansoff (sell more existing or new products to existing customers .. or sell new products new existing customers and new buyers).

    After weighing your strategic options you now have to execute them (if you don’t execute you really don’t have a strategy). For example, you might tactically get involved with leading bloggers in your space to raise awareness. You might optimize one of your campaigns to go viral, to drive more traffic to your web site, and capture more prospects. Tools are not strategies in themselves, they are enablers of strategies designed to grow revenue.

    The reason I spend so much time with clients helping them discern this…. is to help them achieve their goals, to help them develop better relationships with the CEO … to get them always thinking in business objectives, not digital channels.

  8. 25 May 2012 at 9:00 am
    GJ says:

    I wholeheartedly agree that digital is not the strategy, it is the channel through which marketing strategies are executed.

    However, I’d like to broaden the conversation out and express there there is, in fact, a digital strategy discipline that is based in setting a vision for growing those channels to meet the changing landscape of media consumption and online user behavior. Digital strategy is incredibly important for maintaining the integrity of your:

    – Systems architecture and integration
    – User experience and interface engineering
    – Content strategy and CMS implementation
    – Information architecture and SEO engineering

    And other platforms through which you interface with online consumers. Without a deep knowledge and investment in the “how” of execution, you won’t be able to achieve greater results. So, whether you call it user experience design, digital strategy, whatever – it is as important as marketing strategy itself.

    Thanks for letting me express my $0.02.

  9. 25 May 2012 at 9:10 am
    GJ says:

    I should also mention that while I do think we’ll eventually get to a landscape where marketers and communicators will have digital as a part of there roles, most organizations that want to hire “digital strategists” right now are seeking help with:

    1) the selection and implementation of technologies,
    2) the expertise in the mechanical barriers of online interaction for users,
    3) help understanding new technologies and guidance on adoption,
    4) tactical training in things such as web standards and better writing for the web.

    Until a majority of our marketers and communicators are conversant or fluent in the above, it’ll fall on the shoulders of a select few who are comfortable with, rather than intimidated by, all the options. The digital strategist weeds through, sorts and rules out low-ROI tactics. Unfortunately, many marketers are still very low in their digital literacy because of, as you cite, very narrow, silo-ed ways of thinking.

  10. 6 June 2012 at 3:05 pm
    Richard Fouts says:

    I agree that all organizations create technology strategies, mostly in the form of business alignment approaches and the setting of technical standards for developing, deploying and supporting business systems and applications. A digital strategy however creates risk of creating silos, something marketing executives find themselves plagued with due to lack of integration.

    Interesting to note that the things digital strategists help with in the list above … are tactical decisions.

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