Strategic Thinking vs. Tactical Acting

by John Furgurson on February 26, 2013

The single most popular article I’ve ever written focuses on the difference between marketing strategy and marketing tactics.

Seems there’s a bit of confusion there.  For example, I saw a blog recently titled “Top  10 Social Media Strategies.” But the list was purely tactical. Not a strategy to be seen.

So if you’re one of thousands who is still a bit unclear, you can read the original article. Or here’s another way to look at it…

At BNBranding we talk about Insight vs. Execution. Insight being the crucial strategic thinking that has to happen before you execute the tactical plan. Think, then act.

Graham Robertson of Beloved Brands talks about the difference between strategic thinkers and tactical implementers. He writes…  “To me, the difference between a strategic thinker and a non-strategic thinker is whether you see questions first or answers first.”

Strategic Thinkers ask a lot of “what if” questions before they begin to develop solutions.  They think, they reflect, they plan and they stew on things before they act. In fact, many never act at all. They deliver a report and walk away, or they delegate the execution to the tacticians.

Tactical people jump right into answers. They believe that doing something is better than doing nothing at all. They opt for action over thinking, so it often turns into a “ready, fire, aim scenario. They are impulsive doers who often get frustrated by strategic thinkers.

It’s like Dr. “Bones” McCoy in an old StarTrek episode yelling at Spock; “What we need now, Spock,  is a little analysis and lot more action!”  Spock was the strategy guy. Captain Kirk the execution guy.

There are many business owners with A-type personalities who fall into the category  of non-strategic  implementers. They’re the ones who quickly jump on every new marketing bandwagon that comes along, hoping for a home run without ever taking batting practice. They do a lot, but without clear direction they often do a lot of the wrong things. They’re all over the place.

Strategists, on the other hand, often think themselves to death and never get anywhere.

My firm is often brought in for tactical projects because many clients don’t think they need the strategy help. But in most of those cases, we  have to work our way “upstream” to answer those key, strategic questions before we jump into creative execution of a website, ad campaign, social media effort or whatever.

Tactical implementers never paddle upstream. They just go with the flow.

To be a great marketer you have to wear both hats. “While pure strategy people make great consultants, I wouldn’t want them running my brand, Robertson said. ” They’d keep analyzing things to death, without ever taking action.  And while tactical people get stuff done, it might not be the stuff you actually need done.  I want someone running my brand who is both strategic and tactical, almost equally so.”

A tall order for most marketing people. In fact, Robertson estimates that only 15 to 25% of all marketing people  at legitimately “strategic”  in their approach to their jobs. There are far more tactical marketing implementers than there are strategic thinkers.

If you’re building a career in marketing you need to pinpoint where your strengths lie. If you’re more of a manager, organizer and list-making delegator, you’ll probably want to find people for your team who can fill in the strategy gap.

You can’t just suddenly decide to “be strategic.” Being strategic means reading between the lines, delving deeper than just factual data, and trusting your instincts. That takes years of practice and a certain personality type. Don’t try to be something you’re not. Besides, there’s nothing wrong with being a good tactical implementer who gets a lot of stuff done.

There are thousands of successful design firms and small ad agencies that have no strategic thinkers at all.  The account executives work with the client and  coordinate the list of tactics they’re given.  The creative specialists — writers, graphic designers, web programmers, SEO guys, photographers,  and social media specialists execute those tactical projects.

That can work well for companies that already have a well-defined brand and a clear-cut marketing strategy. But it doesn’t work if the business owner doesn’t have her story spelled out on paper. In that case, those creative implementers will spin their wheels and go through a lot of false starts before they hit on something that strikes a chord with the client.

Launching a FaceBook contest is not a strategy. It’s a tactic. (And by the way, it’s not an effective tactic if you think it’ll replace other forms of paid advertising.)

“Content Marketing” is not a strategy. It’s a tactic. One of many things on your to-do list that will help you achieve your marketing goals.

Producing and running a Super Bowl commercial is a tactic.

Deciding which product or service to focus on, in that Super Bowl commercial, is strategy.

The most common strategic mistake is a lack of focus. A strong strategy demands focus, but a most business owners want to be all things to all people in their particular niche.

I was talking with a real estate firm the other day and they had all their “specialties” listed on their site; “First time home buyers. Second time home buyers. Golf homes. Down-sizers. Upscale, low scale, middle of the road scale. Nothing was left out, which made the whole idea of specialization ridiculous.

Time to start swimming upstream!

But strategic thinking is tough. It involves hard decisions and thoughtful contemplation that many business owners simply don’t have time for. The most important strategic “what-if” question you can ask yourself is this: What are you going to hang your hat on? What’s the ONE thing that you can shout from the rooftops? What if it’s this? What if it’s that?

Imagine that you can only advertise your business on billboards along the freeway. You get one idea and one idea only. Five words max.  Otherwise, no one whizzing by at 65 will see it. Good luck with that. Distilling your strategy down to that level is a rare talent.

If you make the strategic decision to NOT specialize, your tactical execution will suffer dearly.  Generalizations never work as well as specifics, and when you’re “targeting”  ”men and women age 35 to 64″ you’re really talking to no one. In that case, a good advertising team will simply ignore the strategy-that’s-not-really-a-strategy, and hone in on one very specific idea.

Occasionally, some great business strategies come out of this process. Purely by accident.  But it’s much more efficient to have your strategy mapped out first and then match the tactics to that.

Think strategically. Act Tactical.

 

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Graham Robertson February 28, 2013 at 4:49 am

John, Thank you for quoting me. I’m thrilled. I might have to write a few of them down so I can say them again and again. There’s a phrase in accounting called “Activity Based Accounting” and I’m afraid we in the brand side are doing the same thing. We think action is good….I guess it keeps us feeling like we are doing something. But what I think we want to make sure is that it’s the right something. Too many people are thrilled by the breadth of social media yet very few ask, “so what’s our goal, where is our consumer, what type of message would capture them…etc etc”

Kumar Gauraw February 28, 2013 at 5:14 pm

Think strategic – Act local. I love this idea. Also, I liked the statement that said, “Being strategic means reading between the lines.”
Wow! Incredibly powerful post and I really enjoyed. Thank you very much.

Frank Pollock March 11, 2013 at 2:32 pm

John,
I enjoyed this blog post as well as the original. Many of my friends are internet marketers and I’m constantly asking them to take a step back and think about why they are doing something, not just how to do it. They call me an old school marketer and I always tell them that they are modern marketing communications experts.

Nick Shields May 10, 2013 at 2:26 pm

This was a great read. I as a Social Media Marketer can get to bogged down in executing for the sake of executing. I am trying hard to retrain my brain to think more about the overall strategy of why I am doing something rather than doing it it just to do it. This article really helped to put things in perspective!

7.0.6 unlock March 10, 2014 at 4:19 pm

Thankfulness to my father who stated to me about this blog, this blog is truly amazing.

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