Lee Odden

Strategy vs. Tactics. Does Your Digital Marketer Really Know the Difference?

Lee Odden     Digital Marketing, Social Media

Going Digital

Recently I’ve been doing a number of audits for prospective clients, surveying their presence on the search and social web, how they are “known” and taking inventory of digital assets and the overall experience across their owned, earned, paid and shared media.

This exercise has reinforced to me that digital marketing agencies like ours are going to be busy for years to come.


It’s the difference between tactics and strategy.

More often than not, it’s clear that companies are executing tactics with no cohesive strategy to tie their marketing activities together.  Blogs are often started without regular posts and those that are published: pure self promotion.

Social network profiles offer inconsistent visuals (we are guilty of this!) and in many cases, Facebook cross posts to Twitter which is cross posted to Google+ and a LinkedIn company page.

Even companies that are doing a good job of curating useful content across their social channels and blog often do little to engage those audiences. Or they focus solely on Facebook or LinkedIn and simply view other social networks as places to push links as if they were just a RSS feed.

Why does this happen? Is it a lack of resources? Is it a lack of marketing funds?


It’s a lack of vision. It’s the absence of a strategy. It is marketing without empathy for the customer experience.

Intelligent business professionals all know they need to identify what it is that they and their brand stands for. They understand it’s essential to define how the brand should be known amongst a target group of customers. They can visualize the problems their solutions solve for customers and what they want customers to do after consuming marketing content. They even understand the value of establishing key performance indicators to monitor progress of their marketing activities in order to adjust and optimize marketing performance.

These are the basics of a digital marketing strategy that we can pretty much agree on and yet it’s simply not happening to a large degree.

I think part of the problem is that a lot of marketers are spread thin because of chasing shiny objects. They’re distracted from core marketing.  They’re tourists in the digital and social world without taking the time to understand what the locals do and care about.

The good news, is that there are many companies doing it right. There are agencies like ours that have helped some of those companies do it right.  The important thing is to recognize that first important step:

What does your brand stand for and how do you want to be known amongst what target group of customers? What plan can you create that coordinates the creation of owned, achievement of earned and participation with shared media to create a congruent and meaningful experience across the web?

Yes it takes resources, but more importantly, it takes a vision and leadership.

Have you made those choices? Have you committed to them and turned it into a strategy that you can act on?

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Lee Odden About Lee Odden

@LeeOdden is the CEO of TopRank Marketing and editor of Online Marketing Blog. Cited for his expertise by The Economist, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, he's the author of the book Optimize and presents internationally on B2B marketing topics including content, search, social media and influencer marketing. When not at conferences, consulting, or working with his talented team, he's likely running, traveling or cooking up something new.


  1. This is an awesome article. I plan on sharing it with my clients frequently. Thanks Lee!

  2. Great article Lee. Amazing that companies don’t start with a strategy before investing tens of thousands of dollars of resources into social.

    • Thanks Ryan. Social is new territory but the commitments to “what do we stand for, who are our customers and how do we want to be known” seem to be tough for a lot of companies to make. Even if they do, the content and actions they take in their marketing and PR don’t reflect it.

      • I’ve noticed that too. Thankfully, I think companies are finally shifting away from letting interns manage their social media activities because they see the importance of brand consistency and vision. Focusing on likes or self-promotion really detracts from the value of social media and companies are now paying the price for poor engagement as a result with the new Facebook updates. There always has to be something in it for the customer or they’ll be gone.

  3. Good to see you sharing this information Lee. It certainly hits the nail on the head. There is a huge ability for companies to take advantage of digital marketing if they have the vision and clarity on what it is they want to accomplish. Great article and I look forward to sharing.

  4. Avatar Chris Mack says

    The problem with all these strategy first articles – is how does one develop a strategy without understanding the space first? You either need to hire a consultant (and hope they know what they’re doing), or get your hands dirty with tactics first that THEN allows you to take a step back and create a strategy. Not saying one is better than the other, it completely depends on the organization involved.

    It’s no different from any other learning process.

    • That’s a great question Chris.

      I think the most important thing to do is define what the company stands for, why is it in business? What problems are they trying to solve for what customers? Answering those questions seems fundamental to having a business. Those answers also support a fledgling strategy that gives purpose to the inevitable experimentation every company should be implementing to find their marketing stride. Answering why is the most important part of creating a strategy of how.

      • Avatar Chris Mack says

        Sorry, when I said ‘space’ – I meant online marketing, not the particular industry of the business.

        What I mean is – without an understanding of online marketing, how could you (as a business owner) come up with strategy first? I don’t think you can. I think you’d have to hire a consultant, and then your results will only be as good as the consultant. Also raises the question for the business owner – how do I tell a good consultant from a bad one? Referrals seems to be the only decent answer.

        I’m always curious about this, because I see the same patterns repeat over and over again:

        1. Hire a consultant and hope they know what they’re doing.
        2. Take a bunch of courses and hope you learn what you need to learn to create a strategy
        3. Get your hands dirty by implementing tactics that have worked for others, see what works and what doesn’t, then take a step back and create a strategy.

        None of these are particularly great options (unless you can identify and hire a great consultant!). Always trying to find something better.

        • Hey Chris, that makes more sense to me. I think concurrent experimentation and strategy development is most practical. This post in particular is about the absence of a digital strategy altogether in the execution of tactics, whether it’s a mature business or a start up.

          • Also, without an understanding or accounting or finance or manufacturing, how can any of those things be accomplished by a business? It’s a cost of business having to learn about those things as well as online marketing. The homework that goes into developing a new business has to consider how the business will go to market. From that, there should be some kind of initial plan or marketing strategy. Test, learn, grow and iterate.

          • This is why I help businesses develop a marketing feasibility study the day I sign them (because I have yet to see a client that brings me one!) This is something too few business owners do. They “Google” phrases to see who shows up higher than they do in searches and call the results their competition. It really is not that simple.

  5. Avatar Chris Reich says

    Lee, you are right on the money. Strategy first and then tactics. So few businesses want to take the time to develop and refine the strategy before rushing into “doing stuff”. After wasting money, they always ask why their efforts didn’t produce more results. No strategy.

    It would take an entire book to explain everything that goes into developing a strategy. Everybody wants quick results and marketers are pressured into doing things the client can “see” even though the thinking piece will produce more fruit and with greater sustainability.

    I fired a client recently who kept jumping blindly into tactics without any consideration of strategy. That business will fail soon. I wanted off the ship while there were still life boats. The owner will learn there is no glory in going down with the ship. Far better to think strategy and save the business.

    • Thanks for commenting Chris. You bring up good points about spending money on tactics without really having a plan. I think a business can go pretty far with a running strategy/hypothesis that drives coordinated marketing efforts. As you say, a full fledged strategy can take a lot to create. That’s not always practical with pressures to perform. So you make due with what you have and build on it, refine and optimize.

      • Avatar Chris Reich says

        True—There needs to be prudence. And a full strategy can develop as tactics are deployed. The main point is that most people don’t understand the difference between strategy and tactics or why one must precede the other.

    • I have also let a few clients go for the same reason. I want to work with people I can help — who will let me help them. When I had one client start tweeting every five minutes about his dogs, football, and other personal stuff from the business account, it made things a lot harder. He also refused to let me acknowledge anyone else on Twitter by retweeting, replying, or favoriting (he believed this was only helpful to the competition.) I liked him, but had to let him go. He is now on his third new marketing company after we parted ways a year ago.

      It does matter what you say — and tweeting 10 times an hour without purpose does more harm than good.

      Thanks for another great article, Lee.

  6. Avatar Keenan Wellar says

    I work in the non-profit sector, and one of the biggest challenges (as I am sure is experienced in other sectors) is that there has often been an absence of marketing awareness for many years, perhaps combined with massive mission drift (if not in delivery, then in communications), and so adopting social media tactics accomplishes little except to further expose that the agency doesn’t have much to talk about. “Please give us money so we can keep doing the stuff we’ve always done because we know it’s good” gets really tired really fast.

    Thankfully, more often than not, they just need fresh eyes to see that their daily work is worth sharing, and once that is established, it is time to explore strategies and tactics.

    • Thank you for sharing that Keenan. I agree, companies that are doing good always have stories. It’s often a matter of appreciating the value of stories and sharing them. That realization and acting on it to achieve a goal can be a good starting social strategy.

  7. Avatar Pontus Staunstrup says

    Great article, Lee, it’s so important to clarify what strategy is and the need for it.
    When you say that the marketing people that don’t take the time to develop a strategy do so because lack of vision etc, I would like to offer a slightly different perspective. I’ve worked on strategy with a number of organizations and found that one of the biggest reasons why they lack a strategy is fear. Because a key aspect of a strategy is that it forces you to make decisions, to define your brand, to identify target groups (and not target everyone), to select tactics, channels, KPI’s etc etc. You have to commit yourself, and as long as you don’t do that you can get pinned down or criticized if things don’t work out the way you planned it. This scares a lot of people. And one of the most important things we can do as advisers is to help our clients look past this fear – to understand, for example, that a brand that tries to speak to everyone really doesn’t reach anyone at all.

    • Excellent point Pontus. Perhaps a strong vision with consensus makes those decisions and commitments easier to make?

      • Avatar Pontus Staunstrup says

        Spot on, Lee, and coupled with educating our customers about what strategy really is, and how useful it can be. I’m a big fan of Rumelt’s Good strategy Bad strategy. It does an excellent job at really breaking down what strategy is and why it is a necessity.

  8. I am glad you touched on “self promotion” which is perhaps my biggest concern for businesses who only toot their own horns rather than participate in a larger community. All satisfying relationships are reciprocal in some way — offer something beyond “we are great and here is why,” allow for exchanges; acknowledge those who take the time to comment. Too many people see social networks merely as another soapbox — big mistake!

  9. I agree with your point on blogs that are published either for self-promotion or not updated with new posts. My view as an online marketer is this: Before promoting a product or a website, it is important to analyse what is needed and how can this be promoted. After all, coming up with a strategy without any form of analysis is useless. After the analysis, a plan must be created. Referecing related resources can be a huge help on this. And once you are ready, you can start implementing your promotional plans on your blog.

  10. Great post and one I think many people need to read. I think strategy is often overlooked and underutilized because it takes hard work and plenty of time to not only create a good strategy but actually implement it and it also takes strong leadership to stay the course in implementing the strategy. But meanwhile churning out tactics and chasing the shiny new thing is a much easier road to follow.

  11. Avatar Christi Humstoe says

    Great Post Lee Odden

    In present all knows where to do, but not think think about what to do on the platforms.

    Thanks for sharing

  12. Just spent about 15 minutes trying to remember the name of this post so I could link to it. It becomes more relevant every day. Doing a bunch of things because it’s the cool thing to do can solve problems by accident at best.

    Everything falls into place when you know the Whys of something and then plan and act with that in mind.