Social Media Strategies and Tactics Are Not the Same

Let's Not Confuse Tactics with Strategy

If I learned one thing in a previous life as a Tactics Coordinator in my old Navy squadron, it's that Objectives, Strategies and Tactics are distinctly different concepts.

This point came up today during a wildly fun and respectful debate at a business mastermind group I contribute to on most Saturday mornings.  One of the key takeaways I came out with is that it can be dangerous to confuse Strategy with Tactics.  (Download the interactive mindmap notes below that highlight today's mastermind meeting. )

SMMOC Meeting Notes 06-18-2011 (v-2.0)|1.89 MB|downloads: 885
You must use Adobe Reader (not Preview or other viewers) to view this document. Interactive mindmap of the highlights from Orange County's Social Media Mastermind (SMMOC) group. Opens in a PDF player. Interactive, with expandable branches and live hyperlinks to key resources. (If you find this useful, I'd appreciate you helping out by: 1. Liking the article and 2. Telling your friends!)

All too often, we hear about social media consultants / experts / coaches / (insert your favorite noun here) espousing the need for a "social media strategy."  Only to then move forward and describe these strategies in terms of tools and techniques for using some new shiny social network, online service or blog plug-in; tools to automate or otherwise greatly enhance some online activity.

I'm not debunking the great skill with which some of our friends wield these tools.  It's great, in fact, to have that kind of proficiency with a vast toolset.  But, as far as those go, they're tactics.  Not strategies.

Why Should You Care?

Ask any military person with field/operational responsibility, and she'll tell you that Objectives and Strategies (also distinct from each other) should dictate tactics.  Tactics should never dictate strategy.  (Lives have been lost that way.)

Objectives vs Strategies vs Tactics

(Click to enlarge)

The image above is one way I might suggest viewing the distinctions.  Read some of the examples (click to enlarge) and let me know what you think.

What would you say are other examples that could help paint a picture in the minds of our clients and executives about the differences between a social media "strategy" and a social media "tool" or "tactic?"

Related posts in this series

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About Mel

Mel is the online training architect and screencasting wizard at Kareo, one of Forbes' 2013 list of 100 Most Promising Companies in America. He's also the creator of Digital-Know-How, a training website devoted to developing learners' skills for screencasting and web video course development. Mel is also the chief blogger of; Mel's personal blog. The comments and opinions you read here are Mel's and not associated with any other company.
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10 Responses to Social Media Strategies and Tactics Are Not the Same

  1. Dave Cole says:


    First off – love the video! The BBQ looks awesome… Makes me think maybe one of these days we should have a parking lot BBQ for SMMOC.

    Really great points on the way to differentiate objectives / strategies / tactics. I think it’s important to also note that these things work in both directions: i.e., strategy can and should change with a feedback loop provided by tactical activities.

    As another side note, I downloaded the PDF, but it didn’t display in my Mac “preview” (just a blank sheet). But, the video & the post content was great!

    Have an awesome weekend

    • Mel says:

      Hi Dave. Thanks for commenting. You make an absolutely good point. Sound strategies should have feedback loops — but also with a thought out rule set — that help determine when a strategy should be re-evaluated relative to the objectives.

      On the Mindmap download (I’m assuming here that you have the latest Adobe reader), sorry about that. I have a mac also and notice that, while the mindmap does come up, it’s taking about 10 seconds on average to do so. Methinks it has to do with some large images I initially embedded into the map. (They’re the ones I took of the notes on the whiteboard.)

      First, dinner and beer. Then, I’ll republish later (or tomorrow morning) and re-upload a smaller file size.

      Thanks again, my friend. I love the mindshare we have.

      • Dave Cole says:

        I think one thing that trips people up is that they think “Strategy” and “Objective” setting requires putting things in stone, and that’s just not the case. Every battle plan is great until the first bullet is fired.

        The only thing I really wanted to add to the discussion is that objectives need to be established, strategy needs to be defined, and tactics need to be attempted. But then, once those tactics are employed, the result of those activities need to be pushed back up the planning chain to better reflect reality.

        For instance, my objective might be to sell 1000 widgets. My strategy might include putting those widgets online with a buy it now button. My tactics might include buying Adwords. But, if my ads cost more than the profit on my widgets, the tactic not only failed, but the strategy may be flawed as well (perhaps nobody wants to buy those widgets online). The strategy needs to be realigned to reflect the realities of the marketplace (battlefield).

        Like I said, I think you’re covering a very important topic, and really making a great case. I just want to include the measurement / feedback / refinement model. Strategy should be nearly as fluid as tactics – especially in high-velocity marketplaces like social media and online advertising.

        Have a great dinner Mel! Enjoy your evening.

        • Mel says:

          Hi Dave,

          I do agree that strategy should be adjustable. And, of course, such adjustments would come on the heels of assessments based, in part, on feedback from the field (i.e., micro variables). I think you’d agree, however, that there are also macro variables that could also compel reassessing strategy. Economic, political or even natural forces come to mind. The current Japanese environment is an example.) Anyway, on this point we agree.

          But, while it pains me to say so, 😉 I don’t necessarily agree that changing strategy “…should be nearly as fluid as (changing) tactics.” I think that that scenario actually runs dangerously close to the tactics-driving-strategy syndrome.

          Using the example you outlined: If the KBO (Key Business Objective) is “sell 1000 widgets,” then one Strategy might be: “Sell 50% of our target widgets through social media channels.” While a second Strategy might ALSO be in play stating, “Sell the other 50% of our target widgets through outbound call centers.” (I would argue that the example given of putting them online with a Buy It Now button is actually a Tactic, not a Strategy. Strategies are more complex and coordinated plans–aka campaigns–designed to meet an Objective. They can — and often do — leverage multiple tactics in their execution.)

          As such, Strategies wouldn’t–and probably shouldn’t–be as quick to change. Though the underlying tactics would (and should) be.

          By the way, there’s a great book out right now that I think is one of the better texts on this genre in a while. That is, ROI and its dependencies on KBOs and KPIs (Key Performance Indicators).

          Not since Donald Kirkpatrick’s “Evaluating Training Programs: The Four Levels” have I been aware of another text that described a layered/organizational approach to ROI assessments. The book is “Social Media ROI,” by Olivier Blanchard. I’m putting it squarely on my required reading list. :)

          Thanks again, my friend, for the great exchange of ideas.

  2. Robert Watson says:

    Thank you for this excellent post about strategy Mel! You are an inspiration and excellent business coach.

    • Mel says:

      Thanks, Bob. Of course, you know my respect for you trumps any inspiration I might otherwise hope to offer. Thank you my friend. :)

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  4. Cindy says:

    Mel and um Dave,
    First off, I can’t thank you enough for discussing this topic. I had never really defined each piece of the puzzle as you have and with Dave’s additional remarks, I think we should delve further into this subject next week. This is a valuable discussion and piece of the pie that we each need to fully understand before we implement strategies and tactics. Thanks for the great content.

    • Mel says:

      Thank *you*, Cindy. I agree — as I can see you and Dave do, as well — that this is indeed an important subject matter that often gets glossed much too quickly.

      Thanks for throwing your hat into the ring. And, in preparation for more discussions on this topic, you can bet that I will be posting a few more articles on this subject. :)

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