Strategy vs. Tactics: Warfare or Marketing, Oooff...

Strategy vs. Tactics: Warfare or Marketing, Oooff...
Photo by Brett Jordan / Unsplash

In my days as an Electronic Warfare Engineer in the US Navy, I learned the critical importance of strategic and tactical defense against digital and radio frequency exploitation from radars targeting us and how they would be deployed. It was the "Big Data" of the time. This experience offered me a profound understanding of strategy and tactics, extending beyond warfare to encompass marketing and business. In fact, the military was the best education for marketing I could have ever earned. More than any University or corporate experience could ever garner.

I've always been intrigued by how various vocations use strategy and tactics interchangeably. The terms are widely known, thanks partly to Sun Tzu's "Art of War", Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations", Machivelli's "The Prince" and even more modern renditions, but today in our marketing software landscape, do we genuinely grasp their meanings? How do strategy and tactics influence our customers' (Fortune 1000) marketing approaches, achieving revenue goals, or maintaining ethical business practices? I notice many people in our industry barely understand them or end up mixing the two up. Maybe I got a head start and good street-level, if not warfare-level, education on the subjects.

What is a marketing strategy vs. a marketing tactic? A marketing strategy is the overarching plan or approach to achieve long-term goals, such as market dominance or brand loyalty. It's the blueprint guiding all marketing efforts. A marketing tactic, however, is the specific action or method employed to execute part of this strategy. For instance, if the strategy plan is to increase brand awareness among millennials, a tactic might be to launch targeted social media campaigns. We often use the TACTIC as a Use Case for CDPs and Martech.

I have written about Strategy, how to plan for it, and even how to consolidate it. I could have written entirely on this topic - an endless endeavor. The strategy article is here if you are interested. Arpit Choudhury and his Databeats community more thoughtfully help with these topics.

How do marketing strategies drive tactics? Strategies like data-driven decision-making and customer personalization inform the selection and implementation of tactics. For instance, data on customer preferences might lead to a tactic of personalized email marketing, while a strategy focusing on customer journey mapping might lead to a tactic of targeted online ads at specific touchpoints.

In my Naval experience, I was an enlisted NCO with immense power with my team; we reported to two key figures: the Captain, the strategist, and the Command Control Officer (CCO), the tactician. We distilled mountains of data and sent it back to the NSA to rewrite it into books for Theater(essentially translates into multi-channel or omnichannel) strategies that then were sent back to us, and used to brief the Captian and CCO. Books upon books of Top secret and Secret periodicals that young non-officer 19 and 20-year-old men memorized to create presentations to brief the two people we reported to above - these enlisted men, like myself, were not college educated. We also worked tactically and took orders in the CIC(Command Information Center) from the CCO(Tactician) to execute commands to the various Air, Sea, and Ground channels based on the strategic plans of the commanding officer. We briefed the Captain on how to decide what to do - aka the Plan, aka the strategy for the theater(aka the omnichannel campaigns). This structure mirrors what I've seen in marketing departments, where the CMO develops overarching strategies based on guidance from their direct reports and marketing software vendors. Their direct reports execute the CMO's plan through various channels(omnichannel strategy). The mirroring and terminology are astounding and have fascinated me to this day nearly 30 years later.

How does marketing strategy differ from marketing tactics? The difference lies in scope and duration. Strategies are broad and long-term, often requiring significant resources and commitment. Tactics are more immediate and focused, adaptable to changing market conditions and immediate feedback. They often require 2 budgets or a plan that accounts for the long and short-term aspects.

A strategist, whether a military commander or a Chief Marketing Officer (CMO), focuses on the big picture, orchestrating movements and decisions that align with broader objectives. Tacticians, on the other hand, are those who implement these strategies in specific, often localized, scenarios. They're the ones in the trenches, adapting to real-time situations and guiding the fighter pilots, infantry, or SEAL teams, or in marketing, it's the content creator, email campaign manager, Google Ad network traffic manager, onsite personalization manager, or the Social media manager.

Examples of marketing tactics: Common tactics include search engine optimization (SEO), pay-per-click advertising, content marketing, social media campaigns, and email marketing. Each of these is designed to address specific aspects of the consumer journey, from awareness to purchase.

What has happened, though, is far from this scenario, and we(the software vendors) are increasingly diverging from this in many ways when we pitch best practice approaches that our B2B customers need. We come up with terms like USE CASE or a feature in the product that does X, which does not give the marketer or the CMO the tools they need to develop what I have described above that addresses and supports the strategic plans and the tactics that underly it for full feedback and optimization. Let alone help enable their sales teams(fighter pilots, infantry, and SEAL teams) to sell to their consumers. If I were to ask you the #1 Use case you see in the field - I bet 9 out of 10 of you would say Abandon cart. haha. Is this a use case or a description of behavior? The Best tool I have seen so far is mParticle's Data plan features. This tool helps with the inputs, but the CMO needs to connect the dots downstream to create a plan that maps to the tactics. The Data Plan feature only addresses the data setup. More is needed in this area, and I suspect mParticle plans to add more capability to this and address many of the areas I discuss in this article. They are the only ones seeming to address this with a CX/UI feature that is tangible.

The various strategies in big Fortune 500 companies and industries selling to consumers: Fortune 500 companies often employ diverse strategies, including data-driven marketing, customer-centric approaches, and extensive campaign planning. These strategies focus on understanding customer needs, personalizing experiences, and leveraging data to inform decision-making. The question is, do the marketing software vendors actually support them?

Returning to my reflections, I believe the marketing world, unlike the military, often confuses strategy with tactics because we(Martech software vendors) have poured billions of nonsense(USE CASES and BEST PRACTICES) into their businesses by inundating them with webinars and dozens if not 100s of sales teams calling on them. Our efforts are confusing the marketing depts of these companies and inhibiting them vs. helping them. A good example is a recent article about Salesforce, with multiple sales teams calling on the same companies and departments based on their SKU product lines. It exhausts the marketer (CMO and decision-makers) and clouds (yes, that was a pun - haha) what real foundational marketing should accomplish. Which is: INFORM THE CONSUMER IN A TRUSTWORTHY MANNER - we, as software vendors do not even eat our own dog food or drink our own champagne - yes, some vendors think they have champagne when, in most cases, it is bad dog food.

Ivar Jacobson, the godfather or inventor of object-oriented and UML(unified modeling language), invented the USE CASE framework. He and the others he worked with(Booch and Rumbaugh) drove most of everything we do today - but our industry has lost its way in many aspects of their vision. CDPs and Martech vendors, while pitching slimmed-down use cases that do not even closely follow the real format of a use case, have forgotten how to really educate the buyer on a fully baked use case. I started an article on why we need more Solution Design thinking. Maybe even have more rigor following TOGAF, DORA (Get Better at Getting Better), and SPACE best practices. While we think we are marketing experts, our marketing-domain expertise is not deep enough - maybe the infrastructure runs well but the CX and UX's are terrible for the buyer. We need more rigor and domain experience to guide our customer industries toward better marketing best practices.

We are now the stewards to educate the up-and-coming teams whose careers are betting on our technology. They are relying on our words and our tech. Especially if they want to keep their integrity intact, we need to be much better for them and us. This misalignment leads to inefficiencies and ethical dilemmas. Just as in the military, where strategic errors can cost lives, misguided marketing strategies(collections of use cases) can lead to losing customer trust and brand integrity in marketing.

We can become company and career destroyers if we are not better stewards. Our gargantuan mess has also led to the degradation of privacy, decorum, and overall democracy of true marketing best practices - the bedrock of integrity and trust. One tactical channel in particular has accelerated our technology stack into this misalignment: Social media, but that is another article. haha.

The stakes are high, and financially, our sub-genre within the software industry has become too addicted to greed and the influences it conveys. We are all responsible for ruining the genre.

The financial parallels between the DoD's budget and global marketing expenditure are eye-opening. It indicates a tendency to prioritize spending over strategic value, often leading to the adoption of unproven technologies and methodologies. We can see this in the growth of vendors in Scott Brinker's Chief Martech landscape diagrams or FirstMark's MAD landscape. This pattern is not sustainable within the US Defense Department or in marketing software. It means we just throw tons of money at pursuing B2B buyers and consumers in-lieu of ethics or integrity. In a nutshell, we are the Military industrial complex for Marketing worldwide. We are the arms dealers. The result is more and more bad Marketing software creation - that destroys rather than enhances and helps. As software vendors, we chase this money without even an inkling of the future outcome. Haha, how ironic. How often do we use that phrase when talking to the B2B buyer? "Our software will give you great future outcomes, where our value will give you great ROI". oooff. I bet Lockheed says this to the Admirals and Generals when they sell their bombs.

So, where do we go from here? I am not sure. Based on the colossal budgets in my comparison, both in the US Defense and marketing sectors. In 2023 - Dec 19th, the US Department of Defense was allocated $886 billion, almost mirroring the global marketing expenditure of $840 billion annually. It is INSANE!!! This parallel is alarming, reflecting a possible misalignment in our priorities, just like the misaligned priorities in the US Department of Defense. We are basically chasing the money and sacrificing our integrity and quality because of it. Of course, this spending includes advertising along with marketing software. Google and Meta are vastly guilty of influencing this greed. The ad spending has been migrating increasingly online, perpetuating this land grab by the software vendors because of these two giants. Meta had some of its best profits in years. Social Media collectively had $11 billion in profit generated by under 18yo youth - aka Children per a recent Harvard Study. Marketing technology is directly responsible for guiding these Arms buyers to sell Ads to their advertisers; we are all to blame.

As we move forward, there's a dire need for a shift in perspective. We must create software that supports value-driven strategies(LONG TERM), prioritizing customer (child) welfare and ethical considerations( aka INTEGRITY). In marketing, this means creating software respecting the customer, not treating them as mere targets in a campaign. We must aim for deeper, more refined use cases that are deep and thoughtful and new innovative capabilities in the products that elicit genuine engagement and build relationships based on trust and value.

Our software industry is very broken and, in many ways, highly unethical, illuminating how we are not experts in marketing or even many other business categories. This is reflected in the terms we promote, the tools we create, and even the domains we sell to. I am looking at this strategically in aggregate, not finite and tactically at individual vendors. Again, I do not know the answer, and I doubt it will fix itself or even be repairable – I suspect it's much too late for that, and the dream of what I thought the internet and this software sub-genre would become is long gone. All I can do is incrementally help others learn, be better, and hopefully make enough money to live a better life without sacrificing their integrity. As for the aggregate, it's hard to say what will happen, but hopefully, my small increments can improve the industry ethics, the software designs, and how we approach strategy and tactics for the brands we sell to.

To close out, as marketing software vendors, we must re-evaluate our strategic and tactical approaches, which drive the strategic and tactical approaches for our B2B Fortune 1000 customers. We need to treat what we do like Captains of ships to prevent the cost of lives vs. this willy-nilly unethical lack of integrity approach we use today when creating, marketing, and selling our software - we need to be more serious and more innovative - we need to create GREAT SOFTWARE, not the terrible junk I am seeing today. It's time to move beyond the relentless pursuit of new technology concepts, buzzwords, and the raw pursuit of money. Instead, we must create meaningful, sustainable, innovative technologies and strategies that respect our customers and reflect our humanity, decency, and democracy. Ultimately, this will provide more than enough money for all of us in the marketing software industry.

Let's welcome 2024 with a commitment to be better — better strategists, better tacticians, and above all, better humans.

Happy New Year 2024!


Per my usual requests, let me know if you have any article suggestions you want me to write about. I collect many lists of topics.

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