Kath Pay: Lead with Strategy, Not Tactics


Tactics are easy. Strategy is hard. Maybe that's why 55% of email marketers in a 2018 study by Holistic Email Marketing for Tripolis said they don't follow a definitive written strategy for their marketing programs.

I have to admit I was not surprised by that finding. Coming up with a game plan for marketing takes time, energy and focus that many marketers would rather spend on email campaigns. Focusing on tactics is easier and more fun because it delivers immediate gratification – you can see results right away.

What would you rather do: spend an afternoon in a windowless room arguing with your team about strategy? Or trying out the newest cool tactic that you saw somebody talk about that one time at an email conference?

For all that I love today's email technology, there's a real danger in letting technology-driven tactics guide your marketing decisions instead of leading with strategy. Especially now as we roll into the busiest email season of the year, a time when it's much easier to just throw the strategy playbook away and see which tactics will get us through the season.

The problem is that running with tactics without guidance from a well-considered strategy can waste time, money and opportunities. Keep reading to find out why you should lead with strategy instead of tactics and how you can put that into practice.

Tactics aren't strategy, and vice versa

Strategy is your game plan for achieving your marketing program goals. Tactics are the methods you use to carry out your strategy to achieve those goals. Strategy is intangible, while tactics are tangible – and that's their appeal.

But even planning a strategy is not the place to begin if you want to use tactics successfully. What's your strategy supposed to do? Help you achieve your goals.

That's where the work must begin – at the top, with your business goals, which in turn are supported by your marketing goals. Strategic planning comes next. After that, you can start looking at tactics.

Top-down versus bottom-up planning

Efficient planning begins with your goal, or objective. It can be a broad goal – increasing email revenue by 15% for the year or the fourth quarter – or a specific one, such as an individual campaign goal. Whatever the goal is, it will govern everything you do in your marketing program. That's why I put it at the top, and that's why you begin there.

Once you know your goal, you can move on to planning the strategies that will help you achieve it. When your strategies are in place, then you can think about the tactics you can use to help you achieve the strategies that will, in turn, get you to your goals.

When you begin with tactics instead of goals and strategies, you start at the bottom and work your way up. The problem is that you are working in isolation, far away from the goals you need to achieve. To be honest, I’ve seen to many programmes that have tactics which sit in isolation, not supporting any goals or objectives.

Technology like web page popovers, abandoned-cart programs, machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) bring a tactic like website customer acquisition to life, but without guidance from your strategic plan, you might choose the wrong ones.

Or, you choose the right tactic but don't employ it the right way to achieve the greatest gain. Either way, you can end up missing the boat – or, a boatload of revenue!

That's the danger of working from the bottom up, instead of from the top down, where your goals and strategies inform everything you do.


Putting strategies and tactics into action with the popover

Let's say your goal is to increase annual revenue by 15%. One strategy to hit your revenue goal is to sell more products. One way to sell more products is to acquire more customers, and you can acquire more customers by acquiring more email subscribers. (I know this sounds like advice from Captain Obvious, but stay with me.)

So, you focus on email acquisition as one strategy to build revenue. Now you need to find tactics that will put your strategy into action. One popular tactic is the popover, an overlay you can format to collect a visitor's email address and opt-in permission.

Today's technology allows you to specify when and where the overlay appears on the page. Most of the conversation marketers have about formatting popovers centers on timing – whether to show the overlay when visitors arrive on the page, when they leave or sometime in between.

This is a perfect example of bottom-up thinking, focusing mainly on the technology and not on the objective that it is helping to achieve. Although popovers are used most often to collect opt-ins, that's not their only use. Nor is it always the best use.

Think about your customer journey, or your top-, middle- and bottom-of-the-funnel stages. Would a popover placed at a different stage on the journey, or at a lower position in the funnel serve a better purpose? What about multiple popovers? A hierarchy of popovers that shows different content to visitors based on the data you have about them?

If your revenue-objective strategy is to generate more sales, consider an exit-intent popover that appears to customers who have put items in a basket but not checked out. Offer to save the basket or warn them that their baskets will expire in so many days or hours.

Or, offer to email them their basket contents and add an opt-in invitation. This keeps their basket fresh and nets you more motivated subscribers. This is top-down thinking that improves your tactical performance.

It all leads back to the customer experience

When we let the technology lead the discussion, it limits our vision and problem-solving. I'm not bashing email technology, though. I love how far we have come in technological know-how and how accessible it has become for marketers with almost all budgets and abilities.

Rather, the technology-driven tactic is just the tool. When we think only about timing for popovers and not the problems they can solve for us, we don't see the wider picture. It all leads to a less-than-optimal customer experience.

Having an excellent customer experience will help your brand in the holiday crush to come, and all through 2020 and beyond. You can measure the benefit of a helpful customer experience, as I learned in Holistic's research for Liveclicker (read it in this report: Customer Experience Email Marketing: Getting Ahead of the Consumer).

Here's one example: How annoying is it to click from an email message to a website, only to see a giant popover with an opt-in invitation? Can't they tell you already subscribe?

Wouldn't it be a better customer experience to show them a popover with a different message that recognizes subscribers or returning customers? You also could just do away with the popover for existing customers or subscribers.

Your strategy should call for you to examine your customer journey, make sure you are sending the right messages at all the key touch points and choose the best format to deliver each message. (Hint: It won't always be a popover. It might not even be email!)

Wrapping up

A strategy-first approach to solving problems and achieving goals instead of just diving into tactics will help you avoid "shiny new toy" syndrome, in which you pursue a new feature before seeing how it will fit in with your current strategy or whether it will bring additional value to your program.

You'll save time and money because you're using the technology and tactics that fit your strategy. Better yet: You'll enhance the customer experience because your messages will more closely match who your customers are and what they are trying to do on your site. That's the set-up for the best possible outcome!