Strategy vs. Tactics

I’d like to thank Paul Sherman, Principal at Sherman Group User Experience for the following analogy.  It came up in a recent session at Online Marketing Summit ’09 and presented a glaringly simple way of looking at how strategy and tactics relate to one another. Here goes:

Go from the San Diego Airport to the Westin in the Gaslamp Quarter.

View Larger Map


1. Starting at the airport, head west 387 ft
2. Take a slight left toward N Harbor Dr. Go 0.2 miles.
3. Take a slight left toward N Harbor Dr. Go 0.2 miles.
4. Turn left at N Harbor Dr. Go 2.0 miles.
5. Turn left at W Broadway. Go 0.6 miles.
6. Turn right at Broadway Circle. The destination will be on the right

Is this too simple? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

In my field of work in marketing, a strategy will usually show the path between where the company currently is and where they want to go. The tactics required to get there will be numerous, some more detailed than others – things like increasing web page conversion rate, developing the right messaging, finding the right events and publications for your market, and hitting the targeted audience with effective ads.

It is normal that tactics change frequently, especially in online marketing. This is because technology changes so rapidly. The tactics you used five years ago were good then, and won’t be nearly as effective today.

But when you do embrace a new tactic such as the latest, world-changing, high-octane social networking tool, try to put it in perspective of your overall marketing strategy. Does it fit into the big picture? Does it lead to the end goal? Tactics are very important and must be carried out well. But if your strategy is off you have a bigger problem. To quote Seth Godin, “The right strategy makes any tactic work better. The right strategy puts less pressure on executing your tactics perfectly.”

Let’s have a bit of fun with the original map analogy to demonstrate how tactics can change over time, given the same strategy.

Getting from the airport to the Westin in the year 2049:

1. Starting at the airport, get on your rented hover board
2. Head southeast across the water 2.5 mi.
3. Enter W Broadway and proceed down the street 348 ft
4. The destination will be on the left

How about 2109? Assuming we’d still even use airports for long range travel, it might be:

1. Proceed to the short-range transporter beaming station at the airport
2. Enter the destination code for the Westin Gaslamp Quarter: WGQ42
3. Five seconds later, proceed from the arrival station straight ahead to the check-in desk (40 ft)

7 thoughts on “Strategy vs. Tactics”

  1. It’s an interesting analogy, but I think that the challenge is that it assumes perfect knowledge of (a) the destination and (b) the details of the route. To me, that’s management more than strategy. To take the analogy a bit further, it would be more like a similar combination, but in the days of settling the west.

    – Go West, Young Man

    – get covered wagon
    – drive to western edge of town
    – keep going west
    – avoid any disasters that arise on route
    – repeat steps 3 and 4

    The tactics will get you directionally closer to the strategy, but you are unable to see the exact destination or the exact path.

  2. As a student, this is probably the most direct way of describing the differences that I’ve come across. Great!

  3. Strategy is that top level goal while tactics are the tools and techniques to get there. It seems that many in social media start with tactics like Facebook or Twitter and sort of fumble along. Much better to spend some time on research and strategy development before jumping in.

  4. Good article, Andrew. To my way of thinking, what you are calling ‘strategy’ is really a goal, because it identifies only the destination without any plan for reaching it. Strategy should incorporate both the goal and the general plan that takes into account our available resources – the things we will do and the things we won’t – within which specific tactics are employed as appropriate. I would suggest something like:

    1. Goal: Get from San Diego airport to Westin in Gaslamp Quarter (within a reasonable time)
    2. Strategy: Rent a car at the airport and drive to the hotel.
    3. Tactics: as described in the article.

    If we chose a different strategy to accomplish the same goal, such as hiring a taxi, our tactical focus changes since we no longer need to be concerned about specific route directions (assuming we trust the taxi driver to get us there without running up the meter!). So now our tactics may be: watch to make sure we are headed in the right direction, discuss with the driver if necessary to make decisions that will expedite our progress to our goal.

    I think this fits in with your comment ‘strategy will usually show the path…’.

    I believe it is also useful to look at strategy as cascading down an organization: company strategy leads to marketing strategy, which may lead to a) a twitter strategy (if appropriate) that leads to twitter tactics and/or b) an SEO strategy that leads to SEO tactics, etc. This provides a framework within which the different levels of decision-making are connected to each other.

    And, of course, measurement is required from the tactical level on up to ensure that tactics are getting us closer to the strategic goals, or if not, we are changing tactics accordingly.

Leave a Comment