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Perspective: What exactly does "Strategy" mean, and what should one contain?

February 17, 2021
by
Tory Gray
Tory Gray
 “A “To Do” list does not a strategy make.”    

At The Gray Dot Company, we don't use the word "strategy" lightly. We find that too many people use the word to mean a list of ideas or tactics that they think are generally a good idea.

This results in "strategies" that are not well thought out, not well executed, and generally not hitting goals.  

Yes, sometimes spaghetti throwing works - or at least, some of the strands stick! - but for the most part, it's a waste of time and resources that could be better allocated, thus giving your business a better return, sooner.

Whether we're talking about Digital Marketing Strategy or SEO Strategy, here's some insight into how we approach these strategic planning projects, and what we believe they should include.

Elements of a good Digital / SEO Strategy

 1) It's based in your broader business / brand / growth marketing goals, and it's supportive of those goals / initiatives. 

So what is strategy exactly? The definition of strategy is "a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim." But if you don't know what your overall aim is, how the heck can you develop a good plan to hit it?

So many companies want to jump right to a digital strategy, or a channel-specific strategy (like SEO,) without actually defining what's important for their business or why.

Instead, we recommend starting with a solid business strategy that defines how & where you want to grow, save costs, etc. To do this, you need a strong understanding of your brand itself and clearly outlined KPIs (key performance indicators) across all your marketing channels - digital or otherwise. A SWOT analysis that outlines your competitive advantages is a clear starting point for your business plan.

Only then can you align digital or channel-specific initiatives against these goals and define the work that can help you achieve it.

To be clear, The Gray Dot Company does not provide business or brand strategy work. But we’ve seen enough good plans - and bad plans, and lack of any plan! - to know how critical this first step really is. We can make introductions to recommended strategic management vendors if this is a gap you need to fill.

Examples:

  • Do you want to grow brand awareness? Where are your customers? Which channels help you reach them effectively & at a cost you can afford? What messaging do you believe will be effective in those channels?
    Just putting up an ad on Google won't magically result in sales!
  • Do you need to reduce shipping costs? That may mean you need to allocate software engineering resources to website/software updates to achieve this. That means fewer tech resources that are available for, say, SEO updates to your site thus limiting your SEO potential.
  • Are you launching new products? That means you'll need a comprehensive go-to-market strategy.

The critical point here is that you can't build a good digital/channel strategy without a good foundation.

Define your needs/goals, so it's easy to align work with what you are aiming for. This also makes it easier to pivot your strategy/work if/when it's not meeting your needs.

2) It has clearly outlined assumptions/constraints

 Just as important as defining what you want to happen: defining the parameters for how you get there, and anything that's off-limits or not possible/desirable, regardless of the reason.

Common examples of assumptions / constraints:

  1. When budgets are limited, it's that much more critical to make sure your channels are well aligned so all efforts count in >1 channel. E.g. blog content should consider the needs of social media, SEO, email, and more. In this case, an assumption might be that planning content creation around multiple channels is a requirement.
  2. When timelines contain dependencies, this section can be a good area to call them out. E.g. if you plan on rolling out new brand copy on your social channels, you'll need the brand guidelines defined in time for you to work with your copywriting team & graphic design team to create the assets. All of which has to happen before you can actually post a campaign or promotion. A constraint might be that you can't kick off brand messaging updates until brand guidelines are finalized, and therefore you need them by {X} date & time.
  3. Technical or capacity/hiring constraints. Again this is about communication - if you need a critical hire, or your platform isn't capable of something you want to do without doing XYZ, clearly state that (especially as that issue means you have to depend on workarounds, or if it's just a thing you have to deal with that inherently limits growth. When your hands are tied, make sure people understand how & why!).

Why does this matter?

  • It clearly communicates, between the business leaders and the marketing executors, anything that's clearly off the table. This way, you don't *assume* something is off the table when perhaps it's not.
  • If (when!) an assumption turns out to be wrong, it's much easier to identify & update the plan accordingly. Otherwise, it's easy to overlook and not realize the ways in which your plan is tailored around it (which complicates the fix.)

3) It's informed by data

I'm not going to go into too much into this point, mostly because it's so well covered elsewhere (you might have heard of Big Data?!)

Good data is critical to good decision making. Make sure you collect & utilize it when deciding the following:

  1. Which channels you want to spend time & resources on
  2. How MUCH time/resources go into what channel
  3. Who you want to find/talk to on those channels
  4. When determining "what's working" - and what's not (among others!)

Don't forget these obvious ones:

  • Website analytics
  • Keyword data
  • Customer/consumer data
  • Channel data
  • Conversion data, etc.

4) It contains a well-planned Game Plan and/or Roadmap

Within each channel, ensure that you think through all the major elements critical to that channel, and you know when & how to implement them.

In SEO, for example, that means considering technical SEO, content SEO, and any link building plans.

Not every plan has to contain elements for all 3 (Why? Smaller sites are much less likely to need technical SEO and much more likely to require a good content strategy to get off the ground. Larger websites need both. Whether or not you need links depends on how you are doing on links vs. your digital competitors,) but you do need to consider all the elements so anything that's left out is purposeful and not accidental.

In all channels, make sure you define:

  • Channel/work owners
  • Timelines/due dates
  • Specific KPIs people are expected to hit
  • Dependencies & handoff points
  • Deliverables

Additionally, it's important to consider who you'll reach through a particular channel & therefore how you'll utilize that channel. 

A silly example: you aren't going to grow brand awareness via internal email (by definition, they already know who you are if they are signed up for your list!) but you could through advertising on the email lists of others.

Not all channels reach all of your customers at all the stages of the customer funnel. And they don't have to - so long as you have a good plan across channels.

What’s a customer funnel? “a consumer-focused marketing model that illustrates the theoretical customer journey toward the purchase of a good or service.” via Wikipedia. Something like this:

The many stages of the customer purchase funnel.

   

The customer funnel helps you meet customers/consumers/clients where they are, so you can thoughtfully help move them further along (as a part of your broader strategy.)

Consider creating a matrix that contains the following:

  • Which channels you will be using
  • Which customers you reach in that channel
  • Which stage(s) of the customer funnel you are targeting on that channel 

This work helps you ensure that a) you aren't forgetting critical funnel stages, and b) you have a plan for how to transition people deeper into the funnel, and across channels.

Depending on your business model (say, ecommerce or services based,) your strategy should have a clear path to purchase. That may include a merchandising plan, a marketing calendar, a lead generation & nurturing strategy, etc.

5) It's well executed, by well-trained & knowledgeable resources

To state the obvious, a plan is only as good as how well it's carried out.

6) It's iterative & evolving based on results

If you roll out new messaging and no one responds, or your customers respond with dislike... you don't keep going, right? A good strategy can & should frequently adapt based on results.

Updates should be ad hoc (for big, glaringly obvious results or lack thereof), or updated every 1-2 quarters, at minimum.

Needless to say, there’s quite a bit that goes into a solidly defined strategy. If you’d like help defining your digital or SEO strategy, we can help. Reach out to learn more!

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