How to Develop a Social Media Strategy, Not a Bunch of Tactics

A lot of “how to” posts about social media offer insights on how to conform to community values, how to save you time, how to save you money, or best social media practices. These posts focus on tactics: plans for promoting a desired result. Tactics are actions supporting a strategy.

In this post, I’m going to break with convention and discuss strategy: what attributes are specific to it, and what tools may help to develop a social media strategy.

“Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” – Sun Tzu

SWOT Analysis

Tactics and strategy are military in origin, but their business application is quite similar. In an Army Operations Order, for example, the first paragraph is called the “situation” and assesses the strengths and weaknesses of an enemy much like a business might conduct a SWOT analysis (SWOT = strengths weaknesses-opportunities-threats). It further recognizes any additional resources available similar to a business budget.

Through the process of a social media SWOT analysis, you might find that one of your strengths is that you have 1000 Facebook fans. But, one of your weaknesses would be that it costs $X per post to reach them. You may use the Facebook ad planner, Twitter’s ad planner, or one of many others to zero in on the reachable target audience on these platforms. SimplyMeasured offers a great complement of competitor social media reports to inform the SWOT process, and for Twitter specific research TweetArchivist is a great tool that you can use for free on their website. The point is that you should understand your resources and competition thoroughly prior to planning anything.

It’s also important to understand what these channels are capable of and what they’re aren’t. Rand Fishkin wrote a guest post in the Wall Street Journal blog recently where he discussed strategy and tactics. Here’s what we had to say about conversion:

“Do not expect social media traffic to have high conversion rates. Social browsing is a very different activity from search.”

There are other very reputable studies such as Forrester’s Purchase Path of Online Buyers that substantiate Fishkin’s point.

Developing a Strategy

Once you have a good sense of your organic resources and your competitor’s social presence, you may be ready to develop a strategy.

In an Army Operations Order, the second paragraph is the mission. The mission contains the who, what, when, where and why – in other words: the strategy. Everything else in an Army Op Order details the tactics to accomplish the mission, and that’s how your strategy should work. Your social media activities should contribute to the success of a strategy. For example, Jim using ManageFlitter to grow a Twitter following isn’t a strategy, or if it is it’s a pretty pointless one.

But it might be a completely appropriate tactic to support the company’s strategy for Jim to increase year-over-year revenue by 5% in the Greater Cincinnati area.

One of the best recent examples of developing a social media strategy is the shipping company Maersk Line. They worked with McKinsey to benchmark other people’s successes (here is the McKinsey report they used as a baseline). They worked with highly regarded social media strategist Jay Baer to on-board their employees. And they zeroed in on four areas of emphasis (communications, customer service, sales, and internal), utilizing ten social platforms. In two years, they’ve created one of the most admired B2B social media properties in the world. They utilized tactics to support four strategies, some that weren’t exclusive to social-media.

Another example of a well-developed social media strategy was Walmart’s campaign to “share corporate news and build public goodwill by sharing information about how Walmart is helping society.” With the goal of reputation management, for low costs, Walmart achieved a battery of impressive KPIs around communicating Walmart’s philanthropic work.

Incidentally, one of the many cool apps that Vocus offers (for free) is a strategy tool that helps to develop a social media strategy and determine the appropriate channels and tactics to achieve strategic goals. There are plenty of similar tools, all with the caveat that you get out of it what you put into it. Research is crucial.

One last point on tactics

Because I think the military analogy is apropos, let me say something about tactics: the more tactics that you use, the more difficult it is to control them. In lean manufacturing for instance,  simplification is a cornerstone for quality control, cost savings and management.

This is why so many businesses are using social CRM tools like the Vocus Marketing Suite. Using two or three platforms for social care is difficult without tools to consolidate them. Vocus allows you to do social care, acquisition, email marketing, press releases and content research in the same platform. The effectiveness of any given strategy relies on efficiency tools like these, and they enable you to accomplish more than you otherwise could.

In a Harvard Business Review article on social media strategy, they describe companies without a social media strategy as a “free-for-all,” noting that “free-for-alls rarely succeed.” Sounds like a pretty good reason to put some time, effort, and resources into developing one.

“All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.” – Sun Tzu

Jim Dougherty is an expert on social media and technology who blogs at Leaders West. For more marketing advice from Jim, click here.

Illustration by Xhienne via Wikimedia Commons



  • http://twitter.com/NeerajT4 Neeraj Thakur

    Great post Jim, very helpful guideline for people without an MBA !

    • jimdougherty

      Thanks Neeraj! A very nice comment and I appreciate it!

  • kit kat

    Great post!!! Gotta get the uppers to listen -_-

    • jimdougherty

      Thanks for you comment – I agree that buy-in is crucial!

  • Cynthia Hartwig

    Hi Jim. Another way to think about strategy vs. tactics: tactics are usually specific actions (like “push” an offer with a dedicated landing page and CTA on our web site, or “create video testimonials from customers on our YouTube channel,” etc.) To me, a strategy has a larger scope and encompasses a variety of activities. Your ex. of Walmart’s strategy to “build good will by sharing info about how the company is helping people through its philanthropic efforts” is a great ex. Really appreciate the Maersk case study and affiliated research.

    • jimdougherty

      Thanks Cynthia for your comment and clarification. I love the way that you describe strategy and tactics – I wish I were so eloquent! :) Great points!

    • Cynthia Hartwig

      You’re quite eloquent on your own, Jim. One thing I like to do in my posts is to bring it down to specific examples as often as I can. You do that beautifully in this post with your links. I wonder if it would work for your to include more pull quotes with examples to give readers a quick sense of “great info here.” The other thing I would do is break up your posts with more subheads that allow scanning by readers. They will read deeper if they care, and if they don’t, you’ve still given something of value. Everybody is so darn busy.

  • Seth

    Fantastic approach – many thanks for all the links to other great resources as well.