Your competitor has 10,000 likes on Facebook. They just started a podcast. 10 instagram posts a day, a new blog, a product video series, tweets with clever hashtags. They are hosting events, sponsoring well known industry figures, throwing expensive parties at trade shows, running full page ads in trade magazines.

You have to keep up. They are the gold sponsor at your golf tournament? You have to go platinum. They Have a Facebook group? You need a forum. They have a great new responsive site? You’d better make an app.

Sound familiar?

It’s easy to get into this keeping up with the Jone’s game. I’ve done it myself too many times. But, before you spend any time or money on any new marketing effort, take a few minutes to consider your strategy.

Defining the Terms

Strategy in Chess

One of the most valuable distinctions I’ve ever learned was the difference between tactics and strategy. It’s made a huge difference in how I decide where to spend my limited resources and helped me avoid some wasteful and potentially damaging marketing efforts.

It’s important to start with strategy. Strategy is about why you are doing the things you do. It is about the question, “where are we going”? It’s about mission statements, about long term planning. Strategy is the battle plan you make in the war room before the fighting breaks out. Strategy says things like, “we will grow online sales”, “we’ll make sure every child in our city has access to tutoring”, or “we will save the Siberian tiger from extinction”.

Next comes tactics. Tactics are what you do once you are in the thick of it. They say, “how do we get where we are going”? Tactics are Adword campaigns, blog posts, tweets, mailers, and product descriptions.

If you walk into the grocery store without a meal plan, how will you know what to get? You’ll get some salsa, whipped cream, flour, maybe some pasta. When you get home, you won’t be able to make anything. But, if you make a meal plan (strategy), you can buy the right items in the store.

When you start with strategy, you can better judge if your marketing efforts align. This helps keep you from wasting time and money. Without strategy you will be unfocused and do things that don’t support your key objectives.

And, why would you spend your valuable time on things don’t don’t take you where you want to go?

How about an example?

Let’s say you run an ecommerce site selling vintage action figures. Your goal: increase sales.

Action Figure

You could start a forum. You’ve seen some other companies do it. And people are going to love a community where they can talk with other action figure enthusiasts! It’ll only take an hour a day to get it going. Once there’s a significant following it’ll keep itself going and cost you 20 minutes a day. Now assuming those numbers are anywhere close to accurate (doubtful), remember that your goal isn’t to create a fun online community. You need to be able to answer the question, “how does a forum help you grow sales”?

You could start a blog. A marketing post that said those were really important. You’ve got tons of ideas for really interesting posts. People want to read about the history of toys, how they are made, and each character’s back story. Will these posts get you more web traffic? New traffic? Will any of that traffic translate to sales? If you decide that a blog does support your objective, you can further use your strategy to gauge what post topics are appropriate.

Every new tactic can be judged this way. If it supports your objective it might be a go. If not, you should take a pass.

When to Ignore the Competition

In my experience, we usually give our competition way too much credit. We assume they are marketing geniuses and we need to keep up or get left behind. Of course, we need to pay attention. They are often doing good things that shouldn’t be ignored. But, just as often they are doing tactics that aren’t thought through. You could follow suit, but if those thing don’t support your objectives, they are a waste.

They have a 200 page catalog? Do you need one? If not, it’s okay to let them win the page number war. They buy 8 booths at the trade show? Would 8 booths help your objectives? If not, it’s fine to just have 2. Their church runs billboard ads for Easter Service? If your church is already full Easter morning, there’s no need for you to run paid advertising.

Tactics Change, Strategy Remains the Same

You should not be changing your strategy often. Strategy is long term. You should get some momentum behind it, get your organization aligned around it. That’s hard to do if it’s changing all the time. So give it some serious thought. Time spent thinking about it now will save you countless resources down the line.

Tactics, though, will change. If you give Facebook ads a try and they aren’t right for you, you can stop. If you find out that your target market is getting into Pinterest, you can give it a go. You can start attending a new industry event, change your ad spend, start a video series, stop offering free shipping.

A tactic is only good for as long as it supports your strategy after all.

Strategy Now, Time Saved Later

Tactics are great. I love getting into the digital trenches and going for it. Most of the time, my tactics are probably even helpful and generally taking me in the right directions. Unfortunately, they are sometimes working against me. Tactics can overlap or be at cross-purposes with one another. To keep that from happening and maximize tactical efforts, start from a strategy. Depending on what you doing, this might be thorough, exhaustive, and in a binder or it might just be on the back of the napkin. Regardless, a little planning in the beginning will make everything else easier and more effective for you and your team.