Lately, I’ve come to find that many digital professionals fundamentally misunderstand the term “strategy” and what it means in crafting digital outreach. In particular, many of today’s “digital strategists” are actually digital tacticians.
Don’t get me wrong; tacticians are great. If digital media is ever going to cement its place at the table with other marketing channels however, we have to understand why there’s a difference and why it matters.
What Strategy Is
To be clear, technical details like how you construct a digital asset and how the user interface should function falls into the bucket of tactics, not strategy. This is not my personal definition. This is the definition used by hundreds of thousands of businesses, worldwide and verified through careful study by business researchers such as Michael Porter:
The difference is that strategy moves businesses forward and makes smarter use of investments. For instance, digital strategy in its purest form takes into account market research, consumer behavior, business intelligence and financial foresight.
Unfortunately, this definition is often glossed over. I’m not sure if this oversight is due to the early nature of the medium or if so many self-titled “strategists” just do not know any better. Regardless, the fallacy of using digital tactics as digital strategy must be felled if companies are ever to truly harness the power of the digital medium.
Strategy’s Impact On Business Results
The rationale behind this distinction is simple. Tactics might, at best be able to generate additional returns that register in the single digits. When you’re dealing with multi-million dollar ad buys, of course every percentage counts. However, what most digital marketers deal with is niche audiences numbering in the hundreds of thousands. At that level, single digit gains are really nothing, particularly when you’re talking about moving awareness and engagement metrics enough to impact purchase decisions.
This is where strategy eats and breathes…instead of just asking “how?” strategy asks “why?” Why does a consumer want to spend their time and give you their attention? Why is what you’re doing actually going to shift their perception one way or another? Is what you’re doing positioned such that is draws a clear distinction between what you are doing and what your competition is doing?
The Danger In Mixing Up Strategy & Tactics
Most digital tacticians don’t know how to answer these questions not because they don’t care but because their focus is more technically oriented. Again, that’s not a bad thing! However, when a corporate manager asks for a recommendation on digital strategic direction, they are expecting more than a user flow.
When they don’t see the thought process brought to them in financial, product or marketing strategy they tend to write off digital as creative fluff. This is a major liability for a discipline that is trying to gain additional share of investment vs. other areas of a business.
The distinction between digital strategies and digital tactics is more than semantics. It’s about elevating digital execution to the point that it is as valuable and as thoughtful as any other part of the business. To claim tactics as strategy not only short-changes the client, it places digital outreach at a severe disadvantage vs. more mature marketing medium.
My advice to digital tacticians is simple. Be be proud of what you do but don’t confuse the process of ironing out technical details with true strategy.