Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. 

– Sun Tzu, Chinese general and philosopher

As a military strategist who lived 500 years before the birth of Jesus Christ, Sun Tzu could not have imagined that we’d use his advice to talk about content marketing on the internet, but that’s exactly what we are about to do. We don’t want to talk about content marketing as a battle, though, because it’s not. It’s not war, it’s not strife — it’s an opportunity. Content marketing provides companies with a chance to make a real, human connection with a potential customer in a way that no other kind of outreach can do. But that chance will be wasted if you simply throw a bunch of tactics and methods out in to the world without first developing a mature content marketing strategy. Reaching your target audience means cutting through the noise, not adding to it. Not understanding the difference proved to be a $100 million mistake for one company.

What’s the Difference Between Strategy and Tactics?

Virtually all businesses today (as many as 91 percent, according to one study) use content marketing to reach consumers. They don’t all find equal success, though. And the difference between the winners and losers very often comes down, as it does in many areas of life, to planning. Perhaps they planned too much and acted too little; or maybe they had the opposite problem of having a lot of disparate ideas with no central focus.

The companies that regularly succeed at content marketing are those that can articulate a smart strategy and then employ tactics to support it. Every marketer knows they need to produce content, so many of them just start churning it out. But without first developing a well-rounded strategy, they simply are taking shots in the dark, hoping something catches on.

It’s not enough just to have a goal. How many of us say we want to get healthier? That’s a goal. But unless you develop a strategy for doing that and then tactics to support that strategy, your goal will remain elusive. Think of it like this:

Goal: Get healthier

Strategy: Lose 20 pounds, sleep 8 hours every night and lower cholesterol by 5 points

Tactics: Walk 5 miles per day; go to bed at the same time every night and cut out caffeine after 2 p.m.; swap beef in diet for chicken or fish

Depending on the time window you set (that’s also, obviously, an important part of goal-setting), the tactics applied every day to the strategy will eventually result in the goal being achieved. Content marketing operates on the same principle. You set a goal, you outline your approach to meeting that goal, and then you establish the specific steps you’ll take.  

What Strategy-Less Content Marketing Looks Like

The internet is littered with failed content marketing efforts, but one stands head and shoulders above — or below — the rest. On Sept. 9, 2014, iTunes users were gifted a new album from U2, titled Songs of Innocence. The problem? Nobody really asked for it, and for those with automatic downloads enabled, the album simply showed up on their devices. There was nearly immediate and universal blowback, and Apple quickly put out instructions on how to remove the album from devices that had downloaded it.

As a Wired columnist wrote amid the controversy, “The delivery mechanism amounts to nothing more than spam with forced downloads, and nothing less than a completely indefensible expansion by Apple beyond its operational purview.”

Why was this such an epic fail? Well, all fails are epic now, thanks to the internet, but the biggest problem here is the company and the band had an idea they didn’t examine objectively. Had they asked even the most basic of questions — are we giving people something they want (the band’s previous album had sold only 1.1 million copies) — they surely would have reconsidered their approach, or at least thought ahead to how people might react upon something they didn’t ask for being foisted upon them. Unless Apple’s content marketing strategy is to piss off millions of people, it’s unlikely this particular tactic was based on any well-considered strategy.

The single most important part of any content development process is understanding your audience. It’s the only way you can reach them. The general public is far too broad an audience for almost any product to have success with, let alone something as personal as musical tastes. It’s difficult to imagine any band or artist — yes, even Beyonce — attempting something like this and not generating a ton of bad press. Apple was reported to have paid as much as $100 million for the rights to exclusively release the album. And while the tech giant remains one of the most popular and profitable companies in the world, there’s no doubt that from concept to execution, the U2 partnership simply was a terrible idea that never would have gotten off the ground if Apple were following a smart content marketing strategy. Would your company recover from a $100 million-plus blunder?

We’re Not Saying You Shouldn’t Have New Ideas

Outlining and documenting a content marketing strategy that includes diverse tactics doesn’t mean you shut off your brain or go into autopilot. In addition to regular execution of your tactical ideas, there’s also monitoring to ensure what you’re doing is working, but you also need to remain flexible enough to know if a different tactic will better serve your strategy and, ultimately, your final goal.

Let’s revisit our getting-healthier plan. Our strategy was to get healthier, in part, by walking 5 miles every day. And we’re doing that like clockwork. But we’re not seeing results on the scale. So what’s the problem? Because we have a clear strategy that employs multiple tactics, we can simply examine our results, safely pivot and potentially rework a tactic or add a new one. Sure, we’re walking 5 miles every day, but it turns out they’re pretty leisurely miles. So we slightly alter our tactic to 3 miles walked and 2 miles jogged. And then we start the metric watch all over again. The only reason we had any idea the tactic didn’t work is because we first had a sound strategy and a metric to tell us something wasn’t working.

So a good strategy doesn’t absolve you of doing the hard work it takes to achieve a goal, nor does it hamstring you in the event of technological changes or trends in your industry. Quite the opposite, really. A good strategy frees you up to have those great ideas that marketers are sometimes known for — and to know what’s working and what’s not.

Conclusion

Fewer than 1 in 3 B2B marketers say they have a very well-developed content marketing strategy, so chances are your organization is among those who need to grow up a little when it comes to content marketing. For every piece of content that goes viral, there are hundreds that don’t. Unless you understand the difference between strategy and tactics, it’s likely your content marketing efforts are being wasted. After all, isn’t it better to work for a paycheck than hope you’ll hit the lottery?