Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2016 and has been updated to be more current and comprehensive.
Brands have a major problem using the S-word. The term strategy is so overused by marketing departments and agencies that it is, in many cases, meaningless. They build marketing or content strategies. They think or act strategically.
Too often, marketers are irresponsibly using strategy and its variants as synonyms for planning.
Plotting out tasks, activities and owners does not mean you have a strategy. It means you have a schedule. Here’s where marketing runs into trouble: They mistake these various actions, tasks and deadlines for results. A long train of post-its snakes across an office wall or whiteboard, detailing the creatives that need to be proofed, the social posts to draft, blog posts written, email campaigns to launch. But nobody bothered to ask why these items are needed or analyze how they drive success when compared with available options.
Outputs, not outcomes, are the yardstick by which marketing efforts are measured when strategy isn’t present. Companies that fail to adequately understand what strategy actually means run into two problems that impact operations: One, they waste time, money and energy on marketing that doesn’t matter, and they lose out on all the activities they could be executing with those resources. Two, they hire someone who knows plenty about marketing, mistaking domain expertise for strategic ability.
Better understanding strategy, its place in your marketing efforts, and how to address a lack of strategy can help avoid one or both of these mistakes.
What is strategy and why should you care?
You can’t throw a rock at a business school without hitting a definition of strategy. As appealing as getting tangled in the weeds of jargon sounds, it helps to keep the definition of strategy simple: It’s the combination of thought and action that achieves a goal.
The word “strategy” comes from the ancient Greek for “generalship,” among other origins. On campaign, a general must plan intimately the details of an army’s operations, including who does what and how they do it. Then, the general must ensure the army executes that plan. This is about as far as marketers with an inadequate definition of strategy get. They brainstorm campaigns, plan out the details and set their army marching.
There’s one more element, though. Generals—and marketers—are judged by how well the plan works.
Plans and execution are critical components of a strategy. But the quality of the thought behind the idea towards which those plans and execution contribute is the final ingredient most marketers miss.
Why does this matter? Because thousands of hours and dollars are spent every year by organizations on well-oiled marketing plans that marshal massive amounts of human, financial and creative resources to achieve absolutely nothing.
Except that saying they achieve nothing is charitable, because the resources sunk into strategy-less marketing campaigns could have been deployed profitably elsewhere—making a lack of strategy not only a real cost, but an opportunity cost as well.
This error manifests itself in many ways. Dumping ad budget into platforms you don’t understand and that your customers don’t use. Producing content that doesn’t move the needle on business fundamentals one centimeter. Spending unholy amounts of time and energy planning campaigns that sound good or make sense, without bothering to stress-test ideas first.
There are hundreds of other instances where many very talented, smart and driven marketers go astray daily. These marketers then receive the go-ahead from very talented, smart and driven executives. In many cases, these errors aren’t caused by lack of information or skill; they’re caused by a lack of strategy.
Put another way: The world’s best-trained army isn’t worth a bag of rocks if it attacks the wrong enemy.
>>>Related read: 15 Steps to Build Your Performance-Driven Marketing Plan
What to do about a lack of strategy.
Tackling a strategy deficit in your marketing organization starts by determining the metrics that matter.
In a 2018 report by CMO Survey, less than half (42%) of CMOs said they use marketing analytics for decision making. What's more is that marketing analytics spend shows fluctuations but little to no increase over the last 5 years. However, the report also uncovers that marketing analytics spend is forecasted to increase by 198% over the next three years— showing a clear increase in interest and importance across marketing teams.
Translating marketing and business goals into measurable key performance indicators (KPIs) is one of the smartest initiation steps an organization can take. It’s not enough to say that marketing should increase the number of demo requests, free trial signups, new leads or blog views. Marketers must obsessively quantify these goals.
>>>Related read: 12 Ways to Apply Structure and Meaning to Marketing Data
What metrics should you measure? What are the monthly, quarterly and yearly historical benchmarks for those key performance indicators? What growth goals are sensible given your available resources?
These questions mark the iceberg’s tip. Beneath them lie more important considerations.
- What activities will impact growth goals along short- and long-term timelines?
- Which activities are forecasted to have the best chance of success?
- What is the ability of your team to execute these campaigns?
- How do you balance building a strong marketing foundation that fuels future growth with the need to prove MROI now?
But keep in mind, data without analysis is simply noise. Attempts to answer these questions without talent that excels at strategy results in the army marching off in the wrong direction. A performance-driven marketing strategy comes from the ability to turn the data into intelligence, the intelligence into action, and the action into measurable outcomes.
Organizations that don’t have this strategic talent in-house must find ways to train for it, hire for it or outsource it.
Spend less time planning, more time doing.
One way to learn where your organization stands is to conduct a Marketing Growth Hackathon™. This strategic planning model created by PR 20/20 is designed to bring together marketers, executives and/or entrepreneurs to solve business growth challenges.
Conducting a hackathon will help you better answer the strategic questions above and identify gaps in your available talent—all before you tell the organization which way to start marching.