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Field Notes

Field Notes #011: Strategy – What Most People Get Wrong

strategy - what most people get wrong

I’ve heard the word “strategy” repeated to obliteration. Ask anyone how they define strategy and you’ll get different answers.

Why is this important to talk about?

There are many frustrated marketers who don’t agree with leadership decisions or are confused why they’re being told to work on something.

That’s often a result of bad or unclear strategy. The worse thing is, if leadership can’t clearly define a strategy, then their team doesn’t have an example of a good strategy to model.

My goal with this newsletter isn’t to give the be-all end-all of strategy but to give you some tools that will help you get clarity on the importance of your work or realize that the current “strategy” needs to be refined.

I’ll start with what strategy isn’t.

  • Strategy is not a list of tactics.
  • Strategy is not a desired outcome or a goal.
  • Strategy is not compromise.

Since we mostly talk about marketing, demand gen, content, and SEO, we’ll use some potentially familiar examples of what is not a strategy.

  • “Our strategy is to grow organic traffic.” – This is a goal.
  • “Our strategy is to decrease customer acquisition costs.” – This is a goal.
  • “Our strategy is to invest in social media, content marketing, SEO, and email.” – This is a list of tactics. It’s also a symptom of bad compromise because someone couldn’t decide on a smaller set of things to focus on and now they’re trying to do everything at once.

Here’s what strategy is (at least in marketing).

Strategy is a set of decisions and policies made based on available information with clear reasoning for why that is the best course of action to win the market.

A good strategy has 3 components:

  • What are we going to do?
  • Why do we believe that to be the best course of action?
  • How will we measure success?

You can often get down to the strategy by using the 5 Why’s to those bad strategies above.

I have this conversation frequently when working with clients on content and SEO strategies so let’s use that as a scenario.

  • Potential client: We need to publish more content to grow organic traffic.
  • Me: Why?
  • PC: Because we want to get more leads.
  • Me: Why do you believe organic traffic is the way to get more leads?
  • PC: Because we need to grow the top of funnel.
  • Me: Why is the top of funnel most important?
  • PC: Well, generating leads and pipeline are most important. (These are the success metrics!)
  • Me: Why do you believe content is the best path there?
  • PC: Because we want to become a thought leader and educational resource in our industry. And we’ve been too reliant on paid ads. We know that investing in content now will help wean us off paid and decrease acquisition costs over the long-term. (This is the what!)
  • Me: Why do you believe that’s an opportunity?
  • PC: Because our competitors’ content sucks and we have strong opinions about where the industry is going and how things should be done. (This is the why!)

There it is.

So their strategy is actually:

We’re going to (what) become a trusted resource and thought leader in our industry by producing thought-provoking content that generates organic traffic that converts into leads. This will eventually decrease our acquisition costs. We believe (why) this is an opportunity because while there is a lot of content already published, none of it is interesting and they all sound the same. It’s a chance for us to showcase our expertise and differentiate ourselves in a crowded market. It is also necessary to reduce our reliance on paid marketing. Our measure of success (metric) is if in 1 year, we’ve shown we can grow organic traffic and convert that into leads.

That was a mouthful but it’s much clearer what they are aspiring to do why they believe it’s the best course of action.

The immediate criticism might be, “But that doesn’t say how they’re going to do it.”

True. But remember that strategy is a set of decisions and policies, not a list of tactics. It provides a guardrail for execution which is where the tactics and the how come into play.

Now we can start asking questions like:

  • What topics should we write about based on the buyer’s journey?
  • How many articles do we need to publish a month?
  • Who will be interviewed for thought leadership articles?

People often make the mistake of starting with the tactics instead of starting with the why.

Here’s another example of a valid content strategy:

We believe (why) there are a lot of gaps in the existing content landscape from competitors and related publications. We want to (what) fill those gaps and build a strategic moat that will be difficult to copy. We want to capture mind share of people who are part of the buying process but also people who may not be in those buying roles yet. Ideally, by the time they are ready to start evaluating products, we are top of mind as a trusted resource. So, while it would be nice, we don’t care if readers convert (yet). (Metric) We will not obsess on growing traffic but if we see our content shared on LinkedIn, Twitter, in Slack channels, and spur discussion, we know we’re on the right track.

That’s a very different strategy than the first one, but still a reasonable strategy that many companies have executed beautifully on.

That all being said, are you clear on what strategy is defining your projects right now?

1. Good Strategy, Bad Strategy – One of the best books to learn strategy deeply. Provides a lot of concrete examples so it becomes less hand-waving buzzwords and more tangible.

2. A Plan Is Not a Strategy – A short (9:31) video from Roger Martin, former dean of Rotman School of Management at University of Toronto, that breaks down strategy vs planning (another common mistake).

3. Content Barbell Strategy – One content strategy framework we often recommend to our clients that has generated results like these.

David Khim

David is co-founder and CEO of Omniscient Digital. He previously served as head of growth at and Fishtown Analytics, and before that was growth product manager at HubSpot where he worked on new user acquisition initiatives to scale the product-led go-to-market.