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The difference between strategy and planning: a marketing manager’s guide

by Richard Willner, Head of Strategy
05th Jun 2017 - 6 min read

Strategy and planning: two key components of any good marketing, yet still either not fully understood or simply ignored by some marketing managers.

Some will choose to ignore one of these two – mostly the strategy element – because it’s not easy, it can be time consuming and it asks a lot of an organisation. Some ignore both and believe that all you need to do is get into ‘doing stuff’ and you’ll be fine.

Yes, you might get lucky. You might stumble on the right tactic which grows your business in the short-term, but you’re highly unlikely to be successful adopting this approach long-term.

Understanding your current situation, creating a direction of travel and then planning and employing the tactics to deliver is much more likely to lead to success.

In his masterpiece, The Art Of War, the ever-quotable Sun Tzu says:

“Now the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat.”

Strategy versus planning

Strategy is about evaluating the situation and making key decisions on your direction; planning is about making those decisions real by detailing actions.

So, why do some marketers struggle with this concept? It may be that some are paralysed with fear around these terms, particularly ‘strategy’. It feels big, grandiose, complex, something that can only be the preserve of the most senior personnel.

That’s nonsense.

Yes, a situation analysis can take time – time that bosses are often unwilling to spend – and needs depth so that you can make sound decisions. But no-one should be fearful of creating a strategy. After all, we create strategies every day in our general lives. Granted, these are often more simple than creating a digital marketing strategy – but it gives you a flavour of strategy versus planning.

Picture the scene: it’s winter, your hands are cold (situation analysis) and you want them to be warmer (strategy). So, you need to put gloves on (planning).

Without the situation analysis, strategy and planning – all completed in a nanosecond in your brain – you might put on a scarf, and your hands will stay cold.

How about a sporting analogy?

After a considerable amount of scouting, a football manager believes that stifling the opposition and preventing them from fully displaying their talent is the way to win a match. That’s strategy.

The same football manager decides the way to see through on this strategy is to mark the opposition’s key playmaker, play without wingers in order to narrow the playing area and order his full-backs to defend first, attack second. That’s planning.

Football pitch image to illustrate the difference between strategy and planning

What is a digital marketing strategy?

So, what about when it comes to digital marketing – when things are a little more complicated than putting on a pair of gloves?

As an example, let’s say you work for a B2B company with a website that exists to generate leads. Growth has been steady without much marketing and the company is ready to grow through online techniques.

Where do you start?

You have to conduct a form of situation analysis to give you a strong sense of where the company is, where the opportunities are for growth and what you need to do to achieve it.

Ideally, this will cover customer profiling to understand who is buying from you, why they are buying and how they are buying – and a deep analysis of the performance of your website, competitors and the market.

Armed with this information, you are in a great position to create your strategy.

First, you set your objectives – let’s say you want online lead generation growth of 15% – and then your situation analysis shows that your search visibility could be vastly improved.

A perfectly suitable strategy in this scenario would be to run a three-month pay-per-click (PPC) trial and gain an understanding of the keywords that are valuable to your business. Then, improve the organic search visibility for the topic relating to these keywords while continuing your PPC activity until you see organic search improvements.

Ensure that you build in the appropriate measurement of key performance indicators (KPIs) to track progress, and conduct reviews every three months.

Congratulations – you’ve got yourselves a digital marketing strategy.

What is digital marketing planning?

Once you have your strategy, your next step is to plan the activity that will help you achieve your goals:

  • How are you going to set-up your PPC account for the three-month trial? Are you going to constantly test and tweak, review at the end of each week/month or leave for the entire three months?
  • Are you going to run the activity in-house or outsource to an agency?
  • When it comes to ramping up your organic search efforts, where are you going to begin? Are you going to start on-site by regularly posting content to your blog? If so, are you going to (and you really should) create a content strategy to stay on track?
  • Have you got your brand guidelines and tone of voice agreed?
  • Are there technical elements of your site that are negatively affecting your search visibility?
  • Are you going to actively outreach content you create to gain coverage within your industry online publications?

The work you did for your situation analysis should offer answers to some of the above – but you’ll still need to make key decisions on others, particularly on the question of in-house versus agency. It could be that you use an agency to set you on the right path and then you manage the delivery in-house.

The path to success

Hopefully, you’re now able to see why you need both strategy and planning for a greater shot of success – and how they work together. The last word, however, shall be left to Sun Tzu:

“All men can see the tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.”

 

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