When did we forget about strategy?

Does anybody on the digital media scene pay attention to strategy?  Or, are we so determined to lead our clients into social media nirvana that we dance right over that little detail?

Joseph Jaffe, a regular on Mitch Joel’s wonderful Six Pixels podcast series, recently provided a passionate argument for his point that digital agencies seem to have abandoned the idea of strategy.  He would know. He recently served as a judge for a national digital strategy competition and said it was an exercise in picking the least bad submission. “There was nothing there,” he said. “No strategy. No meat on the bones at all.”

This reflects my experience with many clients too. Somehow we got caught up in plastering the world with Facebook pages and lost sight of the true purpose of our business: Create shareholder value through a differentiated — and truly strategic — business proposition.

How are you trying to create strategic competitive advantage?
  • Cut costs?
  • More advertising?
  • Work longer hours?
  • Create a Twitter account?

All of these tactics might provide short-term gains … but they’re not really strategic.  You can’t cut your way to success or even tweet your way to success and your competitors are probably trying to do the same thing, aren’t they? So if they are, how is this going to create ADVANTAGE for YOU?

There is only one way to create competitive advantage in the long-term:

Listen to your customers more effectively and respond more rapidly than your competitors.

That’s it.

I’ve just saved you a ton of money on business books and consultants because every successful business strategy is based on this idea. Every great product innovation has this concept at its foundation.

And it is a continuous process!  Don’t ever assume you know what’s going on with your customers with the speed that the market can shift.  Embrace your customers. Keep listening! Keep responding! Keep innovating! That is the core of strategy.

What has your experience been? Is your company really focused on strategy or quick fixes?

All posts

  • Thank you for reinforcing this. This is something I am extremely cognizant of as I service requests from people in Triberr blogging community. As far as strategies go, you could do way worse than to listen to your customers and respond more rapidly than your competitors.

    Great stuff Mark

  • I love what you say about this being a continuous process.

    It reminds me of the business growth legend, Jay Abraham’s definition of marketing which is “The constant and never ending process of educating clients as to why they should do business with you over anyone else.”

    I totally agree with you. If your communication, indirectly or directly doesn’t accomplish this, it needs to go. Which makes me think of another Abraham quote which is “Communicate with impact or don’t communicate at all.”

  • What a brilliant reminder Mark! Absolutely, that is all that counts!

    In the Buffer it goes, thanks for sharing 🙂

  • In a world that seems to move quicker than our minds can comprehend, we also expect results to happen at the same speed. Years ago, I worked with a guy who had come from a smaller city and I asked him if he noticed we moved faster here. His response – deadpan and all, was swift and clear. “Yeah, but I’m not sure anyone is getting any more done”. True enough. We scramble and claw and rush while we forget the reason we’re doing it in the first place.

    Humans have the collective patience of a three year old. We want our new thing to gain traction from the moment we hit “send” or “publish”. We are racing around chasing the chase.

    We are not strategic creatures, we are tactical animals. We don’t want to go to the trouble of picking the date, interviewing caterers, assembling a guest list and choosing napkin colors, we just want to go to the party.

    Simon Sinek has another theory that was a wow moment for me. For decades, I have said “strategy before tactics” but Simon reminds us there is an essential piece missing and that is why. Do we know why we want to do what we do in the first place? So there are often two steps skipped on the way to the party.

  • Thanks Dino!

  • Love that quote. Great addition to the discussion Lewis.

  • These are all good points Kneale. I think another factor is that social media is “cheap” so you can implement and experiment with little or no cost and fail quickly. Basically throw something out there and see what works. I do think there is a place for that actually but not on a massive scale with your competitive advantage at stake. Thanks Kneale!

  • Sarah Wood

    Articulating a clear strategy in simple terms is a key step in getting all of a company to head in the same direction; if you have a simple statement that can be shared then it can guard against that magpie feeling I am sure we have all been guilty of, which is going after the latest glittery or shiny new toy we see, reagrdless of if it sits well against an overall strategy.

  • I completely agree, Mark. The question I am asked most often is “Will it work?” My response “How will you know if you don’t try?” The social web is a low cost solution but it can’t solve a bad business offering.

  • Mark,
    I agree with your post that many seem to be skipping/avoiding/ignoring strategy, but there is more than the one way to create competitive advantage than you list.


    As an example, Steve Jobs and Apple didn’t really listen to any customers when they created the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, and the App Store.

    Often companies win by creating products that people don’t even realize they need or can even imagine themselves. Zynga is another example that comes to mind. Who told them to create ‘Farmville’? ; )


  • Here here Mark very true. I guess I feel sheltered in my world of direct response marketing where everything is done in order to achieve business goals, namely create business value and bring in leads and sales. That does take strategy, of which social media is only a piece.

    Today’s business has many available channels online and off, and choosing the best means knowing who your customers are and how best to reach them, using their words. However if you don’t have that as a base, all of your efforts are wasted time and money.

    While we do want customers to feel good about us, that type of marketing is ineffective for small businesses lacking the million dollar ad budgets. They need results, and getting them takes strategy.

  • I think I’m in the Mitch Joel camp here in that I’m not totally convinced that listening is of the utmost importance. Now, before you get your pitchforks, hear me out. I’ve spent +50% of my time exclusively using tools like Radian6, SM2, and others for the last 2+ years, and while they provide a lot of value for many users/clients, they don’t always provide value…if for example your market is extremely small or insular, listening tools are probably not valuable on an on-going basis. Additionally, a common refrain now is that having a Facebook page and paying attention to liker comments is the same or akin to defensive branding. Steve Jobs has said that it’s not the customer’s job to know what they want. It’s Apple’s.

    Where I really think we’ve gone wrong is that we’ve confused the value that various people bring to the table. In the past, before the web, the people that brought the most to the table were very often the people with the most information, the people that knew the tools and the how-tos the best. That’s not to say that strategy was not important, but before the internet, it was more difficult to gather as much information as we can now with just a search query. As a result, we valued people that know how to manage social media accounts pretty highly, and we forgot that, in order to get anything out of social media, we really need a strategy, a great website, a solid email program, etc, etc, etc. Good strategists might not always know what you can and cannot do on, for example, Twitter, but if they have a good idea of how new media fit into the sales funnel, the CS process, or donor cultivation, they probably bring more to the table than the person that knows how to set up a Facebook page.

    A little rambling, but hopefully, you see where I’m going.

  • Hi Mark – Great point, as usual.

    I’d like to submit that it’s not just in responding quickly to customers, it’s in how you respond collectively as a company. This seems to be the issue I encounter frequently with clients that want to use social media. They may get the concept and they have goals and objectives but they have no idea how to actually have a digital conversation – what to say, what to do next, or how to create an interaction with a mutually beneficial payoff. Which, of course, goes to strategy and the planning and research/listening discussed in your post.

    Is what you’re saying consistent wtih your company’s voice? Can it be? What needs to shift to get there? How does social media merge with the rest of your marketing strategy?

  • Well said Sarah.

  • Mark you are just way too reasonable. In the “get rich quick” mindset, listening takes way too long. They want ROI – right NOW! The client wants more money, and more clients, and why could you not deliver that yesterday?

    Nobody wants to actually listen. Listening and developing relationships takes time. We want everything overnight.

    I think having a good strategy is the thing most people overlook, but what they miss is a realistic time frame. Nothing works overnight.

    As always, thank you for making me think. My brain needs a workout!

  • You mean you and I disagree? : )

    I don’t think we do. While Jobs famously said that it was Apple’s job to innovate, not the customer’s, their innovations were still based on keen customer insight into un-met or under-served wants and needs. I agree completely that innovation is a key to strategy but think thathose insights are still based on an uncanny ability to detect needs.

    Here is an example. I was on a team that eventually developed that long can-carrying box now known as the Fridge pack. Before that, cans were sold in cubes or with those plastic holders. We got the idea by observing how customers actually used cans and stored them. The innovation on was based on being keenly tuned-in to what the customers were telling us … even if it was through their actions.

  • Thanks for sharing your wisdom on this Robert. Enjoyed talking to you last night!

  • See my response below to Jeremy Victor.

    What Radian 6 does is “monitor,” not necessarily “listen.” The key is discovering un-met and under-served customer wants and needs.

  • Tremendous comment Ardath. Thanks!

  • Mark, this post really got me thinking! I completely agree
    that so many companies lack a strategy altogether, but I also think there is
    another level too: companies that have a strategy (or had one long ago) but simply
    are not executing it. One of the interesting effects of the information/social
    media age is that it has killed strategic execution. Crises are in hyper-time,
    distractions multiply exponentially, technology shifts almost monthly, the
    business/regulatory environment is ever more complicated… the list goes on. The
    tendency to chase “bright, shiny objects” as one colleague I know describes it
    seems to get worse every day.

    However, in disruption is opportunity. I think the situation
    actually creates an incredible opening for those who can take the time to craft
    and have the discipline to execute a well thought out strategic vision.

  • We can call it a matter of semantics if we like because we’re probably on the same page, but I just wouldn’t call that listening. To me, it’s just plain paying attention and doing your research, but again, I think we agree. We just use different terms.

    When it comes to social media, many agencies cave to client needs for lower prices and then can’t offer the crucial steps beyond monitoring or managing because they would then be losing money. To add to that, social media managers often get caught up in the minutiae of every day management and response and don’t budget time for taking what they could be learning in those channels and making something that is legitimately valuable for the organization.

  • Over the years, listening and talking with clients rather than to clients has worked wonders for me and my company. Thank you Mark for your “strategy” reminder!

  • Listen & Engage – that’s the greatest strategy of all! What makes it better is that it costs much lesser than conventional advertising yet highly effective. It’s great to remind ourselves that beyond all the campaigns and “stupid things for people to like us”, it is all about ‘them’.

  • Agree. So if I used “assess customer wants and needs” instead of “listen” you would probably be in my camp, right? I think we’re saying the same thing.

  • I totally agree we often see the manage for the numbers mentality. I’ve been there too. And at the end of the day, you have two choices — be a good soldier or leave! : ) Business is a tough place.

  • Adam, this is such a great comment. Really a stand-alone blog post in its own right.

    Here is the biggest thign that helps the “execution gap” — picking exactly the right metircs and rewarding people on those metrics. Generally, you pick the right metircs and pay people well and things happen : ) Tom Peters writes a lot about this Good to Great, one of my favorite books!

  • I’ll bet you are a MASTER at that!!

  • Hey Jan, I almost didn;t recognize you with that snappy new picture!! Thanks for the great comment!

  • A good reminder, Mark. I just had a great conversation about this the other day. So many businesses get caught up in the shiny tool syndrome of social media. The tools are nothing without a strategy behind them. People just want to have the facebook and twitter icons on their website because they feel they have to without giving a second thought to why they should do it in the first place or how to do it effectively.

    I could go on and on. Point is, this is right on and a lot of businesses have yet to learn this. Also, LOVE the graphic. Too funny!

  • I have my moments, thanks for the reality check Mark ; )

  • I do have fun with the graphics : ) Thanks for the great comment Laura!

  • This works on so many levels, and with most of the digital tools: organic, paid and social. The art is really in how you use the insight you deduce from all that “listening”.

  • Once again, Mark, it’s refreshing to read some reasonable thinking. Allow me to echo everyone here in saying thanks.

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  • OMG – Yes! It’s everywhere; the little guys (microbusinesses/small businesses) are especially “strategy-poor.” I’m constantly trying to put strategy first–starting with overall marketing, which is a hard sell with all the clamoring for social media execution. Nice to have a professional post to point to now. Thanks, Mark!

  • People are so into DOING that they forget that their action has to have a purpose. Everyone keeps telling business that they need to be on Twitter, Facebook, etc. But, people forget that social media is just another communications tool. It might be the new thing, but at its core it is just about communications. If you don’t have a communications strategy, you might as well save your resources.

  • The image that illustrates this post is so true !

    I can see on of our clients doing this.

  • Very well said, Mark. If I have to sit through another client meeting with someone who thinks they should be Tweeting just because the other cool kids are doing it, I’ll pull my hair out!

    By the way, AWESOME blog – how did I not know about you before now? I can’t remember whose link I followed over here, but I’m grateful to them!

  • Glad you’re Herr Danny! Wait until you meet some of the folks around here. An awesome community!

  • C’est vrai. (Did I get that right?). : )

  • Hey Fred! First I just wanted to thank you for becoming such an active member f the community! I’ve noticed your frequent insights and I’m so very grateful you’re spending your time and ending your wisdom.

    I could tell you sow funny stories about this. I once had a customer call me into an emergency meeting because they had to be on Twitter! When I patiently explained that it was no quite an emergency, they told me, “well, you just don get it!” Lots of stories like that!

    Thank again!

  • Hurray! I get to go o your customer meeting with you now! I LOVE it when a blog post helps somebody with their business issue! Thanks for telling me!

  • Very, very kind of yo to say, Mike. Thank you!

  • Perfectly said! That’s why we’re paid one-half the big bucks! : ) What you do with the data and how you respond– that’s where the magic happens! It’s also why I love marketing. Thanks so much for commenting today, Gordon!

  • Mark – Awesome! I love this whole message.

    I often think of tactics before strategy as jumping in the car for a road trip but don’t realize that you’re missing tires on those some of those wheels. There’s a lot of horrible noise and sparks flying all over the place, but you’re not really going anywhere.

    Social media accounts are so easy to set up and get started that it’s easy to delude yourself into thinking that you’re doing the right thing because you’ve joined the fray.

  • LOL! I love that! (Well, love as in misery “loves” company love!) That type of client would be the first one running to get Timmy in the payroll department to prove you wrong. Or, in one of my favorite/worst client memories: getting their niece who “studies this kind of stuff in college and is just a brilliant kid” to weigh in with her opinion!

    Thanks for another great post, Mark!

  • This is the most succinct explanation of social media for business and reason to/not to get engaged that I’ve heard. Brilliant!

  • Anonymous

    Well put, well said!

  • Oui, tu as très bien écrit ça. And it is incredible how companies in Montreal are only starting to think about Social Media implementation. …One step at a time.

  • I love the image too Luis! I was LOL as I went round and round the wheel of absurdity. Except, unfortunately, the illustration is too true!

  • Mark, I agree with Laura: the graphic is icing on the cake!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Mark.

    The word that grabbed me was “effectively.” Too many times when we listen to customers and prospects, our brains jump ahead and fill in the blank. Often with the wrong answer. We don’t hear the real reason for the comment.
    By listening more effectively, we begin to understand the pain points that eventually lead to the innovation that creates the competitive advantage.

    They may not tell us directly what they want, but effective listening gets the conscious and subconscious mind working to create the solution.


  • Strategy…strategy. Is that like, um, so, you sit around, nothing, nothing, nothing, then, “let’s do everything new OMG!!”?

    It’s very interesting coming into the Social Media world as a person who works at a full-service agency. We are steeped in strategy, so it just seems natural to me to consider a plan before jumping in to do anything. We don’t recommend a publication until we’ve researched it. We don’t recommend improvements to a website until we identify how that will affect other marketing channels.

    I would add to your money-saving tip one more thing. Failing to have a strategy when you jump into Social Media can actually cost you more money. You might need to retrace your steps, address an unfortunate PR blooper due to lack of planning, or something else that wouldn’t be planned for because you have no plan.

    The only thing, to me, as important as having a strategy is doing the research before you create your strategy. I don’t believe you can have a truly good strategy till you know all of the information you need to move forward.

  • Interesting Luis. Perhaps they are on European time?

  • Oh My yes. Or somebody I know who has their 13 year old running their web marketing. Ouch.

  • I like that analogy Wendy! : ) Thanks for caring enough to comment today!

  • I am so guilty of this too Don. Sometimes my head is spinning with so many ideas that I literally have to force myself to settle down and listen! In the Toyota Production System, they teach the “five why’s” of problem solving. Meaning, it usually takes asking why five times to get to eth bottom of things. Good for customers too! Thanks!

  • Agree on all counts. It almost certainly costs you more money in the end. Luckily, my customers usually listen to me about this stuff! A great comment!!

  • Krissi

    Hear hear! My company recently jumped on Twitter, over my protests about silly things like lack of content or a solid reason for having a presence there. But, we HAD to join.

  • Well hopefully they will learn and adjust. Hopefully!  : )  

  • Alan Graner

    Right question, wrong answer Mark.

    Strategy is proactive. Your suggestion of listening and responding is reactive.

    Strategy is about producing desired actions: establish a niche, a positioning, a unique value proposition; differentiating yourself from the competition. If all I do is listen and respond, then I allow others who don’t really care about my company to drive my marketing. That’s not marketing, it’s suicide.

    Strategy is the foundation of all marketing, all marketing communications. Social media, advertising, direct mail, public relations, trade shows, content should all be delivering the same messaging.

  • So you are suggesting that a strategy should be produced in a vacuum without knowledge of the market, your customer’s needs, and your competitor’s activities? That is the implication of your comment.

  • Companies and agencies for that matter have thrown strategy out of the window … I think the latter is at greater fault here since the former is somewhat ignorant / captivated by all that’s shiny and new … In this case, social media! I blame agencies for not educating their customers and highlighting the pros and cons of short term tactic versus long term strategy … Client’s seem think social media is some kind of beauty pageant .. All they’re interested in is the number of followers they have on twitter, the fans they have on Facebook …. Etc! I don’t think social media is a numbers game … There’s a responsibility to being present online … And certainly that has to be formulated through a well thought off strategy that aligns with the offline brand direction too!
    Thanks for a great post and I particulary like the illustration!

  • Nice article thanks for sharing….

    webmaster at service.ztronics.com

  •  Simple, but effective Mark – bravo!

  • I just plain don’t like your language, Mr Schaefer. Wanna fight about it? 😉

  • Boy this such a great commnet John!  It is intoxicating for companies to try to get on the web quickly, and it is intoxicating for agencies to try to help them get there — strategy or no strategy. In the end, every one usually ends up disappointed!

  •  I think the missing word here is “tactics”. Yes, strategy is essential but it goes hand in hand with tactics. If you haven’t got the right tactics in place you’re never going to implement your strategy effectively. 

    If I scrutinize my own position here I think I  probably  juggle a mixture of strategy and quick fixes. As a small business I have to keep the money coming in whilst at the same time I’m looking at the long term strategy of where I want to get to and how we’re going to get there. Not easy, but thanks for getting me thinking Mark.

  • I believe this is the best part of this post:  Listen to your customers more effectively and respond more rapidly than your competitors.
    Customer service should be of the highest priority to companies who wish to retain their customers and their businesses! It should be one huge portion of the focus of social media strategies – social media makes it possible for companies to provide impeccable customer service with multiple checks and balances coming in to play when you consider social media and its instant advantages for resolution. 


  • This blog post made my day!

  • Great Kimberly! Thanks for sharing your insight!

  • Anonymous

    This is a test comment for @kaarinadillabough:disqus posted in Internet Explorer 8 on Windows 7. Sorry for the interruption everybody. – @tyler:disqus of Disqus

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  • Awwww…If only “listening skills” were developed into a viable online course, I could think of many online business owners that really need to purchase and act upon this information. Thanks for listening and sharing your enlightening post! 🙂

  • At my former company we actually did have a listening to the customer process which required training! Thanks for the comment Betina!

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  • Great . I like the way you have presented useful information
    in diagrams.

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  • We have clients that are very focused on quick fixes. They want nothing more than numbers. Sure, we could jack Facebook fans up borderline artificially with coupon promos and all but it won’t be a true measure of effectiveness. One client in particular was troubled because their fan count wasn’t quite as high as a competitor. That said, I noted that their page has higher conversation and engagement rates than pages with 10x as many fans. (On a side note, sales for that brand are up :))

  • It is interesting that you posted this today.  On our morning walk today I told my wife that we are overrun with IT gurus who know their tech stuff, but are completely void of business acumen.  The things they teach as “total solutions” are often worthless drivel.

  • Annette Penney

    Interesting. I always start with strategy so this seems foreign to me not to do it this way. Then again, I guess that’s why businesses need social media marketing specialists to begin with 🙂

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