Remember the fire triangle from way back in grade school?

You know the one – it shows the anatomy of a flame:

The marketing equivalent of the fire triangle would look something like this:

  1. Business goals.
  2. Strategy.
  3. Tactics.

Most marketers have goals, but many lack a unified strategy for achieving them. Instead, they skip straight to tactics, which often leads to outcomes like these:

  • An e-commerce site increases its paid search budget but doesn’t see any boost in sales.
  • A SaaS vendor writes hundreds of blog posts in a year only to see a marginal increase in web traffic and no commercial gains.
  • A lifestyle brand’s newsletter doesn’t drive any traffic to the site and has a high unsubscribe rate.

Simply put, tactical marketing and strategic marketing are not the same – and accidentally blurring the line between them could smother any hopes of achieving your goals.

A quick (but crucial) aside about goals …

Increasing site traffic is a marketing goal, not a business goal. Getting more engagement on social media is also a marketing goal – again, not a business goal.

This is an important distinction for the simple reason that all marketing should have commercial value.

A marketing strategy will help you make sure that any marketing goal you set does in fact have value to the business.

In other words, a good strategy makes sure that business goals and marketing goals are always in alignment with one another.

Otherwise, your marketing program risks become scattershot and commercially valueless.

Now on the matter of marketing strategy vs tactics …

A marketing strategy is a high-level game plan for how you’ll reach a target audience and engage them to achieve your business goal. That goal might be to control a larger market share, grow your business, expand into new industries, etc.

Marketing tactics are the activities you use to execute your strategy.

You can have dozens or even hundreds of marketing tactics that make up your marketing mix, but only one marketing strategy.

A good strategy encompasses:

  • Marketing goals: What do you need your marketing to accomplish in order to achieve a business goal?
  • Target audience: Who do you need to engage with to achieve your marketing goals?
  • Brand guidelines: How should you engage your target audience (e.g., what type of brand are you, and how will that reflect in your advertising, digital marketing strategy and/or content marketing strategy)?
  • Opportunities and threats: What are the rewards and potential risks that you need to keep in mind, and what competitive advantage do you bring to the table?

Where does ‘marketing plan’ fit into the equation?

If the strategy is the why of marketing and the tactics are the what, the plan is the how. It’s the phase between strategy and tactics where you decide and document which tactics you’ll use to execute your strategy.

So going back to our fire analogy:

If your strategy is the fuel for your fire and your tactics are your heat source, your plan is where you decide which fire-starting tactic makes the most sense for your situation (bow drill, flint and steel, lighter, Charmander?).

Your marketing plan is also where you decide what key performance indicators (KPIs) you’ll use to track success.

When you’re trying to start a fire, smoke might be a good KPI telling you that your tactics are working. In marketing, the KPIs you need to monitor will vary depending on your strategy and your strategic plan.

What are some examples of strategies and their tactics?

Goal 1: Reinvent or rebrand your business to appeal more to a modern audience.

  • Strategy: Give your brand a complete digital facelift and implement new web-facing services.
  • Plan: Decide what tactics you’ll use to achieve this goal, what your timeline will be, how much budget you’ll allocate, who is responsible for what and how you’ll track progress.
  • Tactics: Create a new website with new content and entirely new UX and design, launch a mobile app and promote your new and improved branding efforts on social media, email and other distribution channels.

Goal 2: Cost-effectively increase revenue with the long-term goal of growing your business.

  • Strategy: Use digital marketing to lower your cost per lead and, more specifically, revamp your inbound marketing activities.
  • Plan: Decide what content marketing and digital advertising tactics you’ll use to improve inbound business, what channels you’ll invest the most time and effort into and how you’ll measure progress.
  • Tactics: Use search engine optimization (SEO) such as targeting relevant keywords in your website copy and blog posts to improve inbound traffic, leverage on-page calls to action to capture leads and implement email marketing tactics (like newsletters, lead nurturing emails and email drip campaigns) to nurture those leads

Goal 3: Launch a new line of products or services.

  • Strategy: Research the competition, identify your target audience and your buyers for this new product, figure out how you want to present your new offerings to them and on what channels and map out the customer journey.
  • Plan: Define your parameters for competitive analyses (what details will you focus on?), identify your audience and your buyers, decide how to best reach them and figure out what your go-to-market messaging should be.
  • Tactics: Create audience profiles, develop buyer personas; define your marketing mix around their preferences; employ your key advertising (display ads, paid search, commercials) and marketing tactics (content marketing, event marketing, social media marketing, etc.).

Don’t be afraid to correct course

If you want to do marketing that has actual commercial value, you first need to understand the difference between a marketing strategy and marketing tactics.

Remember: Build your marketing strategy over business goals, and then introduce tactics that will actualize your strategy.

If at any point you find that certain efforts aren’t kicking up sparks, weed out the tactics that are underperforming.

Keep at it. Marketing is a slow burn.

But do it right, and that fire will stay lit for years on end.

Dominick Sorrentino, Brafton's Brand & Product Manager, is based in Portland, ME. He likes language, playing guitar, birding, taking his dog on scenic strolls, traveling, and a good conversation over a great cup of coffee. He promises he's not as pretentious as he sounds.