“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory.
Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” – Sun Tzu
This is the second blog now where I’ve quoted Sun Tzu, just in case the beard and star wars tattoos didn’t make me into enough of a d-bag...
Anyway, fact is I’m a bit of a sucker for strategy. As a young’un I was practically raised playing Real Time Strategy games like Civ or Empire At War (a Star Wars RTS game that I played till my eyes bled), and I still love those games today.
The reason these games have always been a firm favourite of mine isn’t because they’re thick with plot or overly immersive and realistic - because they’re not - I loved these games for the feeling of accomplishment. That deserving and frankly smug sense of reward after me and my rebel chums executed an ingenious stratagem to liberate an oppressed star system from the cold and mercilous grip of the empire.
Applying a well-planned strategy to your marketing efforts can in fact be as rewarding if not more so, just exchange the nerdy reward of smug self satisfaction for leads, sales or conversions.
Now, just like the RTS games of the mid to late 90s, charging into battle in online marketing (probably mixing my metaphors a wee bit here) without a game plan can be catastrophic. You might ignore the landscape or terrain, you’ll misallocate or stretch your resources to breaking point or even get bogged down fighting forlorn battles you can never hope to win. Simply put – If you fail to prepare, prepare to #FAIL.
Hopefully though, using my years of nerdy Star Wars/RTS knowledge and marketing knowhow, I can show you the steps needed to plan and put together a meticulous online marketing strategy or campaign that’ll help you outperform your competitors - or at the very least make you a bit better at playing naff games like Age of Empires.
The definition of Strategy is: “a plan or list of actions designed to achieve a long term goal or overarching aim”. It may sound blindingly obvious but, before you do absolutely anything, define what it is you want to achieve. And I mean really define it. “More brand awareness” or "overthrow the empire" doesn’t cut it if you’re going to be investing a significant amount of money or time into a campaign or project. Your goals need to be S.M.A.R.T.
S.M.A.R.T is an acronym that has a few different permutations, but here’s the version we like to use:
Specific – remove any ambiguity and clearly communicate what the expected outcome is. Be clear on what you’re doing, why you’re doing it & who’s doing it.
Measurable – whatever your desired outcome is you should be able to easily and actively measure your progress and create some solid benchmarks and targets to strive towards.
Attainable – is what you want to achieve actually achievable? There’s no point in being totally unrealistic and setting the bar too high, look at your existing performance and set some sensible goals.
Relevant – your goal should make an impact on your businesses performance somehow, make sure you can justify doing what you’re doing. If you can't answer the question "why are we doing this?" you need to go back to the drawing board.
Timely – set a date. When do you expect or plan to see your desired outcome? When would you like to review your progress? Make sure your plans are time specific.
So, “increase brand awareness” following the S.M.A.R.T. model would instead be: Increase website traffic (Specific) by 500 unique visits (Measurable & Attainable) to increase sales (Relevant) by the end of the month (Timely).
If you want to be even more diligent during your planning phase you can even whip out a trusty S.W.O.T. analysis where you list and evaluate your business's/team's Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities & Threats
I'm not going to go on and tell you to do a P.E.S.T. or P.E.S.T.L.E. (Political | Economical | Socio-cultural | Technological | Legal | Enviromental) analysis, we're not in the public sector and there is such a thing as over planning...
Pick Your Battles - Choose Your Targets Wisely
I’ve been in too many meetings where we’ve asked prospects “who’s your target audience?”, only to have them tell us “errr…well, it’s everyone”. Not only is this absolute rubbish, it's frankly impossible to target demographics that are that broad. Be realistic. If you’re an e-commerce shop selling handmade dining chairs at £500 a pop, you’re not going to be selling to skint first time home buyers.
When you’re planning your strategy or campaign you need to do some actual audience research and get intimately familiar with your buyers, customers & clients.
What are their pain points? How old are they? What’s their income range? Do they have kids? What newspapers do they read? What tone of voice do they respond to?
All of these questions help you put together a fairly decent representation of your ideal customers. We call these representations "buyer personas". Forming detailed buyer personas will help focus your marketing efforts and make sure you only spend time utilising channels and tactics that really matter and generate quality leads. It’s pointless writing oodles of unfocused blogs and sporadically catapulting them into the Twittersphere if the lions share of your audience is engaged and interested in articles on LinkedIn.
It can be hard knowing where to start when putting together your personas, to give you a helping hand I thought I’d share a guide I've put together. It goes step by step through the process and even has some example persona templates to boot. Just click on the image above to download.
Do Some Recon – Competitor Research
Knowing your audience is one thing, knowing who you’re up against is another. Just don’t forget that your enemy is often a lot closer than you think… take heed of Jon’s favourite quote from marketing maestro Dave Trott:
Two explorers are walking through the jungle. Suddenly, they hear a tiger roar. One explorer sits down and takes a pair of running shoes out of his backpack. ‘You’re crazy, you’ll never out-run a tiger,’ says the other explorer. ‘I don’t have to out-run the tiger,’ he replies. ‘I just have to out-run you.’
In essence marketing is a relative exercise, we don’t need to focus on or outrun the big dogs (or in this case big cat), we just need to overcome and outrun the immediate competition. Google your service and area of business, the top 5 in SERPs are more often than not the ones you want to focus on.
Performing competitor research is a great way to not only size up the competition, but also evaluate your own efforts. You can use your research to set some realistic benchmarks and targets and potentially seize any opportunities or tactics your rivals may have capitalised on.
For social media analysis you can’t really go wrong with a tool like Rival IQ. We use it when we on-board all of our new clients to help gauge their competitor’s performance. We end up gaining some really meaningful insights from the data which often helps inform our next steps and plan our initial social output or content campaigns.
For rankings and search term research, SEMrush is your go-to tool. It's great for checking the search volumes for particular terms, but also immensely useful to see what phrases your competitors rank for and to gauge how winnable those phrases actually are.
If you’re looking to boost your site's domain authority, slap your competitor’s URL into a tool like Majestic (not the wine merchants…). You’ll get a decent look at their backlink profiles, see which referring domains have previously linked to their site and potentially sniff out some juicy content or backlink opportunities for your own site.
Assemble The Fleet – Pick The Best Tools For The Job
This is the stage of the planning process that can make or break your marketing strategy. Once you’ve refined your audience targeting you need to decide which avenues you want to go down. Your target personas should ideally dictate which social platforms you’re going to use, but we need to go a little bit further than just saying “we’re going to focus on Twitter and Facebook with a little bit of email marketing thrown in for good measure”.
The tools I want to focus on all revolve around measurement and tracking progress, after all marketing isn’t just about throwing mud at the wall, it’s about seeing which mud sticks.
For social output, use a tool like buffer. Firstly, it’ll help you schedule and plan your posts across most social platforms. Secondly, it gives you a fairly comprehensive social analytics dashboard that will let you monitor interactions and evaluate your most successful posts.
If you’re looking to track link clicks to your website, make sure you’ve got Google Analytics configured correctly and use UTM tracking with a tool like Professor Traffic. UTM tracking means all your tracked campaign link clicks will show up in the referral traffic section in GA. As a rule, when it comes to Google Analytics you need to setup goals or some form of event tracking. It could be as simple as URL visits or, if you’re aiming for conversions, set up a contact form submission goal.
The other tools you should consider using relate to planning. If content is a big part of your strategy maybe try a tool like trello that will let you assign topics to external writing staff and help keep on top of editorial deadlines.
Plan Of Attack – List Your Actions + Delegate
You’ve picked your tools/weapons, defined your goals, chosen your target and gathered as much intel on the opposition as possible. It’s time to rally the troops and plan your attack.
One of the first things you’ll notice is how you now have all of this great information but lack a structure to follow. A good project management system will allow you to see what you need to do, when you need to do it and who is the best person for the job. We use Wrike Trello at NLM (in the time I’ve been working here, we’ve actually been through 4 different task management systems 🙈) it allows us to delegate and assign responsibilities to individual members of the team, meaning someone is always held accountable for delivering a task or piece of work and that it’s done on time. A flexible management tool that allows you to create task dependencies, track project hours or even create gant charts will really pay dividends in the long run, as you efficiently organise your team's workloads and make your processes more efficient.
Mission Debrief – Review, Improve, Repeat
“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” – Winston Churchill
To avoid getting sucked into an endless and repetitive cycle of mediocrity, plan in some time at the end of your campaign or project to review your overall strategy. What went well? What could’ve been done better? What should we avoid doing next time? Should we assign more budget to PPC?
Get everyone who worked on the project involved in this process and make sure they give you their two cents, it’s a great opportunity to recognise outstanding individual contributions as well as carry over learning for your next big project.
All image credits go to Wookieepedia