Strategy and Tactics: No, They Aren’t the Same Thing.  

Strategy and tactics. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people in marketing use them interchangeably. Or say one, and mean the other. Or by strategy they mean “a list of tactics in a GANNT chart” or “tactics mapped against a timeline.”  That, my friend, is not a strategy. It’s a list of tactics. They are, fundamentally, very different things. 

What Comes First — Strategic or Tactical? 

Strategy should always come first. I wouldn’t even call strategy the “blue sky plan” because then, intrinsically, you get pulled into “this is a list of tactics for the best outcome.” No, strategy is the framework. The way of thinking. The why

Tactics are the how, the grunt work, the doing.

Strategy is the thought process you need to preserve to get you to your goal, and your strategy determines what tactics you choose. What you’ll prioritise on the field of battle. Do you push for the big offensive, or do you do lots of small volleys and dissolve the edges of the enemy until it collapses? Do you have the people to tackle it from all sides, or do you need to go with targeted attacks, one after the other? 

That being said, it’s rarely that black and white. Chaos happens. Plus, while Owned Media is a channel in a larger marketing strategy, and a vehicle for tactics, that channel, and the sub-channel of SEO, probably needs its own strategy. As does PPC, as does Social Media, as do a lot of other sub-elements or channels. So lots of things are going to be nested. And a good nested strategy ladders up to its parent, its grandparent and so on. 

What is a Marketing Strategy? 

As I mentioned above, the strategy is the framework and the approach. The angle that you’ll take when making decisions about what to prioritise. It is, essentially, how you get to the target you’ve set off of your primary goal. 

Some people like to say the 4 marketing strategies are the 4 Ps: product, price, place and promotion. These have been expanded to 7 in recent years to include packaging, positioning and people. This is not the strategy. This is the marketing mix. They are part of the research you conduct when creating a strategy. Understanding the balance your company wants to strike of those 4 (or 7) elements is a part of, but not all of, your strategy. 

Specifically for SEOs, things like “Website Optimisation”, “Link Building” and “Content Posting” are not strategies. They’re tactical buckets. Same with on-page, off-page, technical, local, app store, YouTube. Not. A. Strategy. 

Sorry, but most of the published articles out there about “SEO strategy” are basically list-dumps of tactics. Nobody actually seems to share what an SEO strategy is. It’s the approach. The well-researched, data-backed, target-oriented approach. 

Why Can’t I Just Do Tactics? 

Sure, tactics get the thing you want to get done, done. And probably quicker than you would if you took the time to create a strategy first. But are you going in the right direction? Does it line up with your goals? At a business level, do you have buy in from your managers, your team, your leadership? 

Think about it from a personal level. Say you’re about to start renovating your kitchen. Would you just go ahead and rip out the benchtop then and there? Probably not. While it is a thing that needs to get done, you’ll probably have a hard time cooking in your kitchen if you don’t have a bench to prepare meals. If you do it yourself, you may end up ripping something out or breaking something that a professional wouldn’t have. You may not even have the tools and end up spending a lot of time using tools not made for purpose, or buying tools you think would work but don’t actually. And in the rush to be able to use your kitchen after ripping out the benchtop, you choose a replacement that’s good-for-now rather than something that matches the design aesthetic you had actually wanted. 

So there’s nothing stopping you from just doing tactics, but you’ll probably end up ripping up a countertop or two. And if, like me, you’re a consultant, working on a tactics only basis does you no favours: 

Source: https://www.portent.com/onetrick/images/02_01_graph.png 

This is because over time, tactics seem easier and easier for someone other than you (the person they hired) to do. 

So How Do I Create a Strategy? 

Brace yourself, because a strategy is often a lot of research. The things that maybe you avoid doing because it means living in spreadsheets for a few weeks that maybe feel like years. 

And to give credit where credit is due, my approach to strategy is largely informed and inspired by Ian Lurie’s One Trick Ponies Get Shot and the companion digital marketing strategy article. The broad strokes of how I approach strategy is: 

  • Know what you have
  • Know what you’re aiming for
  • Know what’s working (or not)

First things first. Inventory it all. The good, the bad, the ugly. The stuff you thought you got rid of 3 years ago, but it’s still lingering in search results. (Been there, done that). The videos, the images, the articles, the help subdomain. What your website is built on. What you’re reporting with. What activity you’ve run and are running across your channels. The history of the company, the seasonality, the revenue trends, your products, the competition. Everything. 

Because whether we (or our stakeholders) acknowledge it or not, the website and optimising the website (also sometimes called SEO) can and should be in the context of the rest of the business. It’s no longer a neglected-creepy-basement type situation where the Internet drones type away on their keyboard and “hack the Google.” 

Well, I sure hope it isn’t. 

And while oftentimes this goes unacknowledged, I’ll flag this upfront. Finding out some of these things at larger companies may be hard. You may have to call in favours, and seek out new people to get the goss from. You may be seen as stepping outside your box. You may make people uncomfortable because they don’t have that data, when they clearly should. Ask anyway, and do what you can with the information you uncover.

The more context you have, the more informed you’ll be in interpreting and making choices from all the data you gather. Because let’s be honest, if a strategy were only about gathering a bunch of information together in one place, algorithms and computers do that better than us, even at this point.  

NOTE: For a content inventory to be successful, really successful, your existing goal tracking should be accurate within an acceptable margin of error (for Google Analytics, this is usually around 5-7% due to JS and cookie blockers). If that’s not accurate, start there. And if you haven’t reconciled your analytics with your internal reporting associated with that goal (call tracking, form submits or purchases)…since ages ago, I’d suggest doing that first. 

The Context

Analytics

When you review your analytics setup, consider not only what you are measuring and if it’s accurate, but what you could be measuring to enrich your data and inform your decision-making. If you’re only measuring your primary conversions, what about your secondary ones? What about the small conversions that lead up to a big conversion? Or how much a page contributed to someone eventually choosing to convert? Or their age, gender and interests? 

On top of all that, consider if the goals you’re tracking actually line up with the business goals. 

Content

Content audits are a big job, and will likely include some hair-pulling, head-desking moments. Particularly if you’re enterprise, because you’ll probably find dark corners of subfolders and subdomains long past in your Screaming Frog crawl…and then in your strategy determine how you want to deal with them, and how important it is for you to do so. 

The end goal of this is to determine what factors in your content led to conversions, so including a metric like page value is a lynchpin for me. You want to include metrics that showed whether or not your content had impact, so you’ll want to pull in: 

  • Page value: This is a good representation of the impact of multi-touch attribution. You’re not purely looking at last-click “I saw this and bought” conversion rate which is standard for most out-of-the-box analytics systems.
  • Pageviews (sometimes, maybe, with the right context. This isn’t directly tied to impact)
  • Social likes (Ahrefs usually includes this in their reporting: “Top Content”)
  • Reviews on the page, if the page has reviews
  • Third-party calculated authority — whichever tool you choose, use the same one throughout your strategic research & strategy! 
  • Number of words
  • Title tag
  • Meta description
  • Count of spelling errors
  • Top phrases or topic of each page

I also tend to pull content data from multiple sources and dedupe. Now, Screaming Frog can do that, for the most part, with Google Analytics and Google Search Console integrations/APIs. 

I also usually do a manual site:search from Google search results (in Australia is 93% and globally at 91%, so we aren’t missing much not going through Bing or DuckDuckGo results as well). While, again, it takes time, I usually use Moz to pull in exports of each 100-result page into spreadsheets. I’m sure there’s probably a way to do this manually, but if there isn’t, I’m sure someone can build it. 

Product

It may go without being said, but I’ll say it anyway. Know your product. Know where it sits in the market, and how it’s changed recently, if it has. What makes your product explicitly different from competitors and/or how is your company aiming to differentiate? 

This may also include some softer exercises around things like customer sentiment and the emotions your brand positioning is aiming to evoke. 

Competitors

While for your competitor review you don’t necessarily need to go through a whole content audit, you want to see what they’re up to, and where your potential opportunities are within the market. This could include things like: 

  • Who is or isn’t active on social media? Are you? 
  • What kind of content are they publishing? 
  • What kind of media are they investing in? 
  • What are their website user experiences like (including speed)? 
  • What are they focusing on with their product positioning? 

You can absolutely go down the rabbithole, here. Actually you can go down the rabbithole in every one of these different elements of strategic research, so a lot of how far you go will come down to your own restraint and knowing when you’re getting to the point of diminishing returns with the information and data you’re gathering. Likely inversely related to how much caffeine you’ve had or how little sleep you’ve gotten. 

Putting it All Together

Hopefully as you’ve been pulling this data together, you’ve been seeing trends, in both your own positioning, and that of your competitors. You should be able to see the edges of your strategy. 

The Goal

Once you’ve put all the information together, outlined the trends and really know what’s what, use that to set your goals. 

Frequently in larger businesses, company-wide goals are set in a 1-, 3- and 5-year strategic plan. Make sure you have those handy. Tie in your goals to those goals. It’ll help smooth the path when you’re getting buy in for your channel strategy

Whether you’re conservative or ambitious in your target setting, you want to make sure it’s within the bounds of reality, and explainable. So before you show it to anyone, except maybe your work BFF, map it against the incrementality of that goal historically. 

If the forecast goes sharply in any direction, it may be worth reconsidering your ambition. 

The Factors

So you have all the content that exists for your business, where you are in the market and the proto-seeds of some repeatable tactics. Before we start executing though, it’s time to review the data again (by now, yes, you’re tired of spreadsheets. So am I, and right now I’m only writing this article. But push onwards, you’re almost done). 

This time what you’re looking for is what you’re doing that’s working. What amplifiers you already have within your own assets that’s really creating the desire for people to do the thing you’re hoping they do. The multipliers. 

This is because once you know the multipliers, you can multiply them. Enhance them, expand them, build on them. And of course, make sure you track them. 

Now to Measure

You’ve (hopefully) already been measuring goals and goal conversions in your analytics stack. With these new factors and goals, though, you may not be measuring the statistics you need to in order to track progress for those. 

So if you aren’t, make sure you are. Start the conversations on getting that done, if you can’t do it yourself. 

From your factor analysis, you have your amplifiers. But why are those your amplifiers? Look deeper into those sections of the website or those behaviours and when they happen. How is your website behaving?  Who is the customer behind that behaviour? What kind of content were they viewing? 

The analysis of why your amplifiers happen can help you build out your tactical priority. 

The Strategy

You’ve got most of the strategy already, now it’s about pulling it all into something easily digestible. An elevator pitch, if you will. You have your goal, but what’s your angle? Once you have that, you can outline in broad strokes each tactical area, what you’ll focus on, and why. No more than a paragraph each. Your strategy is not a list of tactics. Don’t give them that weight here, because once you go there, it’ll be hard to fight your way back to strategy. And it’s strategy that matters.  

Because the Internet still can be a bit of a here-be-dragons place, outline what could happen that could completely screw with your strategy that isn’t in your direct control. Things that would likely cause you to come back to your strategy and say, “Well, this is useless now.” Terrible news coverage of the company. A product failing miserably. Google turning all of paid media off, or having to exit from your country. 

Also make sure you’re clear on, and share, what it would take to get this strategy done, and the impact of getting it done. For SEO in particular, most of actually executing a strategy requires the cooperation of other departments. Your IT or DevOps team. Your Content team. Your Analytics team. Your UX team. You hand off your baby and work with other teams to bring it into reality. It’s kind of like you’re Dr. Frankenstein, and SEO is the monster you’re sending off into the world. In a good way, of course. 

Knowing the landscape and understanding the context of your business is critical for future success. Embrace the spreadsheet madness that comes with discovery and research, because it’ll help inform the way you move forward with your strategy in fantastic and wonderful ways you may not have otherwise considered. 

With a strategy like this, rather than a list-of-tactics-masquerading-as-strategy, there may be people who baulk. People who misunderstand. You’ll likely have to educate folks. Be just as stubborn as your students, and when that strategy is approved and you’re working through the tactical execution, you’ll have that north star to return to, the angle of approach that’ll give you and your business an edge.