Tuesday, August 11, 2009

No, Social Media is Not A Strategy

Social media is NOT a strategy. It never has been. It never will be. Any more than broadcast is a strategy, or print is a strategy, or chartreuse sidewalk chalk written upside down in Portuguese is a strategy. Seth Godin nailed it in his recent post When tactics drown out strategy"Building a permission asset so we can grow our influence with our best customers over time" is a strategy. Using email, twitter or RSS along with newsletters, contests and a human voice are all tactics."
It might also help to think about it this way (credit to Denise Kohnke at Laughlin Constable for this metaphor): A goal is quantifiable. An objective is what you plan to accomplish...the top of the mountain. A strategy is the road you are planning to take to get there. And a tactic is simply the vehicle on the road, be it social media tools or any other toolset. 

Last week, that there was quite the robust discussion happening at Shannon Paul's blog about "Is social media is a strategy or a tactic?" But if I am deeply honest, I have to admit that I also find it somewhat surprising that a group of such highly regarded professionals would feel the need to debate this question quite so ad nauseum in the first place. 

Now, don't misconstrue that remark. I'm not saying it out of arrogance. I still know I am not the smartest person in the room. It's not that I don't think this group of really smart folks understands strategy. I suspect they do. And I'm all in favor of open and candid debate, and people having the resources to get their questions answered. But here in the fishbowl, there is a tendency to analyze everything past the point of slow, painful death. 30 comments later -  has the definition of a strategy and a tactic changed? No. As Beth Harte astutely points out in her comments on Shannon's blog, strategy vs. tactic is not a negotiable construct. It's a timeless and permanent one.  

Mind you this is not to say that you don't NEED a social media strategy, but social media itself is the car, not the road. 

To be continued...


  1. Interesting article. To quote my blog: "It isn't merely a marketing tactic, nor is it a business strategy; Social Media is a medium that is bringing fundamental changes to the way people communicate, gather information, form opinions, and foster relationships."


  2. Well said, Augie. I agree that it is a medium, and a powerful one at that, but a medium is still a tactic in my opinion.

  3. Question: Should someone create a separate social media strategy at all, or is that just part of a larger brand strategy?

  4. Ooh a question. I'm so excited. And it's a great one. Thanks Tim. I'll be writing some follow up posts and this would be a contender. The short answer: it depends.

    For some brands, social media is so integral to what their brand is that it could be an effortless extension of their brand strategy. An example of this would be Threadless, which exists to be an "amazing community of talented artists". That brand idea that is at their core is extended into social media tactics. Teecycle would fall into this same category, I think.
    This kind of "auto-integration" (a new word that I just made up and kind of like) is best case scenario.

    Most brands, though, stand for something other than "community." So a social media strategy (or strategies) needs to be defined that articulates how social media fits into the overall marketing strategy and brand strategy. But it's still not "separate" - it flows from the rest of the marketing/brand plan.

    Does that make sense/help/answer your question?

  5. Love you folks, great Q n A here.

    I urge a short investment of time into this:
    http://bit.ly/phaseII while we wait for Sue's extended answer.


  6. The napkin illustration is brilliant – a clear, concise pictorial! Also serves as a good reminder as to why marketers need a clear, concise strategy; without it, money gets funneled into costly fender benders and near fatal collisions.

    In your opinion, what marketers do you believe are doing a good job of using the tactics of social media within an overall strategy?

  7. Ryan - LMAO at that one - CLASSIC. Thanks for sharing it. I'm a South Park fan to begin with, and that clip is so perfect. I very well may have to incorporate that into a future post.

  8. Linda -

    Thanks so much for stopping by and the kind comment. I'm working on a presentation right now that answers that very question and you are forcing me to speed up my game, which is awesome. I'll be presenting it a few places in the area over the next few months. So my answer will likely evolve and I suspect you guys will help me think it through. In the mean time, here's what I think is one of the best examples.

    Southwest Airlines is a brand that's always been about making air travel more accessible, "democratic" and even - gasp - fun. So social media is a logical extension for them, too, and they have done a great job in my opinion of executing social media tactics that integrate seamlessly with that strategy. They have gone far beyond nuts and bolts like Facebook, letting their internal culture shine through in employee-driven social media tactical mega-hits like their Rapping Flight Attendant video (see May 28 post on Brand Personality if you're interested). How many other airlines (um, all of them?) would have stifled a flight attendant that wanted to rap the pre-flight instructions for any number of corporate policy reasons? Recently they even had a group of their senior execs listening in on Twitter for public feedback, which I thought was quite impressive.

    It's no coincidence that most of the brands that have successfully integrated social media tactics into their overall strategy are brands that focus strategically on creating a killer customer experience in the first place, like Southwest, Dell, Ben & Jerry's. That alone doesn't make it a no-brainer though; there are other brands, like Harley-Davidson, with a killer customer experience that have started using social media as a "voice of the customer" tool, but it's been less organic for them. And, of course, brands with customer experience issues have a whole host of issues - pushing the boulder up the mountain more or less.

    Thanks for the great thought-provoking question. If there are brands you think are doing a great job I'd love to talk about them.

  9. Nice post Sue.

    Two thoughts to add.

    First, love the fish bowl comment. So often we in SocMe love to hear our own voices don't we? We argue points just to hear ourselves type. No social media isn't a strategy. It's a channel, just like broadcast, print, etc.

    Second, I do think there is a conversational strategy. Most likely this strategy of engaging consumers via conversation will occur in traditional social media channels like twitter, facebook and blogs. But just the same, it will occur in more traditional channels like customer service phone numbers, feedback cards, and surveys.

    The point being, agree that social media isn't a strategy so much as a channel that is simply a more real-time and sexy cousin to established conversational marketing tactics like those feedback loops I mentioned a minute ago.

    Looking forward to seeing those presentation decks on Slideshare....

  10. Great post.. and great discussion. As someone who lives in that gritty layer of business below the national brands and big CPG marketeers, I appreciate the fact that the discussion is even taking palce. Most small business owners wouldn't know a "strategy" if it bit them in the butt. When they come to me, they just want to know if they should be using Twitter. If I have to help them define a Social Media "Strategy" to make them see that Twitter is just a tactic, I've brought them further than they've ever been before. Some will scoff, but if I have to choose my clients' success over a semantic debate with purists, my choice is always with my clients' bottom line.

  11. Tom Martin -

    Fantastic build. Thanks for adding it. I couldn't agree more, and there's a huge fringe benefit of looking at it that way, as a broader conversation and engagement strategy: might make it less scary for some clients than "HERE IS YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA STRATEGY". Might also alleviate some of the tendency in a "Social Media Plan" for some clients to want to micro-plan social media tactics on a level that just isn't realistic. Really helpful, as usual.

  12. Tom Snyder -

    You are not alone - we get the same requests all the time. "I need a Facebook page." I have clients who think they should be on Facebook who really shouldn't and others who really should be on Twitter but won't do it. It's the most challenging education process I've come across in my 20 years in this business. I think Tom Martin's input of reframing that client conversation to "Yes, you need to engage with your customers and prospects. Now let's evaluate ALL of the available tools for doing that, including social media." is pivotal. What do you think? (And you will find no scoffing here. I'm with on your "bottom line" comment for sure.) Thanks for participating here!

  13. Social media = tactic. Period.

    How do we know? Use one lovely, little, powerful word: why. You need to keep asking why until you can't anymore. Each layer of the conversation represents a different level on the mission / goal / objective / strategy / tactic mountain.

    "I need a Facebook page." (tactic) Why?

    To use your example, Sue: "So I can engage with my customers and prospects." (strategy) Why?

    To jump a few stragies: "So I can bring X amount of dollars in the door." (objective) Why?

    And so on.

    Eventually, asking "Why?" leads to "so I can stay in business," or something similar. And once you're at that level, you're at the top of the mountain.

    To look at it another way, if you--or your client--is suggesting social media or one of its tools and you *can't" answer "Why?", it's time to back up and get your strategies (and objectives, etc.) in place.

  14. Tamsen, Brilliant add. Totally get it and agree. Being linear myself, I usually start from the top down. Might be an interesting exercise to actually start from the bottom up sometime to think like some (not all, thankfully) clients think. Just for something different. Great stuff.

  15. Viewing social media as a tactic in need of a strategy, I think this post and discussion is great. Sue, as you note in your response to Linda, there are some brands (like Harley-Davidson) that are associated with amazing customer experience, but use their social media in a more promotional manner. Any thoughts on how to best encourage brands like these to take their social media presence up a notch from communicating to the consumer to more fully engaging/conversing with the consumer?


  16. Sue,
    I love how you've extended this conversation over to your place. I was just as surprised as you were to see the kind of debate that erupted from that post. In fact, usually I respond to comments but in this case, I wanted to see where others were going and plan to write a follow-up post.

    The real takeaway for me is that these words seem nebulous and vague to so many people that it's become necessary to define our own understanding of these words each time we pitch a new strategy or tactic. Whether we like it or not, the definitions are not as cut-and-dry or agreed upon by everyone in our own professions, let alone across other departments, business units or industries.

    The debate is lively and the discussion is robust, but rather than argue over what's correct (although definitions are helpful) I think it's better to remember the importance of including our own definition as part of any presentation of a specific plan as a means of clarifying this for the intended audience.

    Good stuff!

  17. Kim, First, thanks for taking the time at the end of your to come back and comment. I appreciate that a lot. You raise a great question.

    I've attempted to have this very conversation with H-D (although I should be clear that I'm not a representative of their Social Media agency). I interviewed H-D's Director of Electronic Advertising and Direct Promotion for my first real post, back in April, if you're interested. I didn't want to say this in the post, but I'll say it here. I think his title alone is extremely telling about how they are currently approaching the social medium. I've also attempted to have the same conversation, via Twitter, with Specialized bikes (@specialized). They just keep pumping out their rider "blog" posts, which typically don't expect comments, and not doing much conversing. They have a new person engaging now, so I'm hoping that may change, though it hasn't yet.

    My point is, both of these examples perceived that their barrier to more fully engaging was staffing and time. "We'll get there eventually." I don't think that's a valid excuse, personally. I would rather see them engage less often, but with more humanity. Social media "quality time".

    To (finally) answer your question, though, like strategy or anything else, there are some people, and some brands, that just "get it", and some that frankly just don't. It's up to all of us to try to help them along the learning curve. It is a challenging education process. It involves doing everything we can to get the brands participating themselves, so they can better "get" the mindset. Coaching them, sharing articles and examples, taking them to conferences, etcetera. I'm finding this is a great way to cultivate my patience :-)

    What are your thoughts?

  18. Shannon, Thanks so much for stopping by! I've been wanting to connect with you but with your schedule that hasn't been easy. Thanks too for clarifying that you usually respond to blog comments. As a relative newbie to this, I was wondering about that. I'm learning from you. You make a great point and I totally get it. It really doesn't matter if I am convinced that I have the "right answer", if clients or whatever audience I am trying to engage don't have a shared understanding. Hopefully the great discussion on your blog, and the discussion here, will help people come to their understanding. Thanks for sharing your insight with us!

  19. Sue,thanks for your response to my question. Wow, that is an interesting title for the role at H-D!

    I agree with you that it is an education process (with emphasis on the word process). I think sharing examples is a good way to help the process along and have tried to do this myself. I'm also interested to see whether greater personal social media use on the part of those individuals who seem most resistant to the brand's conversational use will help them to "get it".

    I think some brands (and people) who don't get it are more receptive to change than others, and I think the change barrier can be a huge one to overcome. Patience and perseverance is definitely key.

  20. You know, I should be more fair about the title at H-D. The person in this role handles web advertising, some other direct response in addition to social media. Social media was the last role added. So, while the title reflects that H-D has not quite achieved "social business" status yet, they should get credit for using the tools and trying to get there. They are learning, like the rest of us. Just setting the record straight.

    Kim, I d-e-f-i-n-i-t-e-l-y agree that greater personal social media use is key. There is simply no way that someone can truly "get it" without participating.