Marketing strategy vs. tactics: Which one should you focus on first?

Two sides of the marketing coin.

Marketing strategy vs. tactics: Which one should you focus on first?
Strategy is where you want to go. Tactics are how you get there.

There’s a tension many marketers feel when it comes to planning.

On one end of the spectrum, there are the big, lofty goals we want to strive for that could lead to radical change. On the other end, there are quarterly deadlines, monthly meetings, and short-term KPIs we must meet in order to keep the company afloat.

In the best cases, these objectives work together, with each small initiative moving the grander plan forward. In the worst, they counteract, leading the business in a direction it never intended, like a ship drifting off course.

In this article, we'll dive into the relationship between tactics and strategy in marketing, explain why you need both, and offer actionable ways to rewire your energies to achieve what you're really after.

What is the difference between marketing strategy and marketing tactics?

After spending several years in SEO and content marketing, I discovered the best way to explain these differences (especially to non-marketing professionals) is with the following three comparisons.

Long-term view vs. short-term view

The most important differentiator is the time horizon each one takes. When crafting a strategy, you’re usually talking about a more complex goal that requires multiple steps, people, and resources to come together.

For example, you don’t need a strategy to drive to your local grocery store. You’ve likely done it countless times and can get there and back in a few minutes without using a GPS. But, driving from Boston to San Diego in an electric car would require a strategy for a few reasons: it’s a much longer trip, the number of electric charging stations is limited, and you would likely need to stay at hotels along the way.

The tactics are the details of these smaller steps with shorter timeframes. Choosing which hotels to stay at, which charging stations to utilize, and how many miles you intend to drive each day could all be classified as tactical components because they help you reach the strategic goal but are not the goals themselves.

Ideas vs. actions

Another comparison I like to use is to think of strategy as an idea and tactics as actions.

When creating a strategy, you want to think big. Creativity is an asset for this part because, often, the best strategies diverge from industry norms. It's not just about thinking outside the box — what would you do if the box didn't even exist in the first place?

Once the larger strategy is in place (e.g., the guiding idea), it’s time to nail the how, as we've mentioned before. The action steps, milestones, and factors required to bring your vision to life constitute the tactics.

Every action step should move the strategy forward. A great tactic that’s unrelated to the larger goal is useless. More companies would do well to remind themselves of this point!

Destination vs. deliverables

Finally, the last elements that help me visualize the difference between tactics and strategy in marketing are the following questions:

  • How will I know when I’ve accomplished my strategy?
  • How will I know when I’ve accomplished my tactic?

Most often, the answer to the first question is, “I’ve reached my destination.” Similar to the cross-country trip mentioned above, a strategic achievement should get us somewhere we weren't before. The difference before and after should be clear to both insiders and outsiders of the organization.

The answer to the second question is usually, "I delivered what was promised." The result of a tactic might be a boost in certain metrics or the creation of a new product. It's often measurable, assignable, and repeatable.

Examples of strategy versus tactics marketing

I only included items I had personal experience with for the following two examples, as you'll see.

Example #1: Branding vs. content marketing

Branding, the process of shaping how people think about your company, is a strategic endeavor that encompasses many departments, such as design, communications, customer service, and more. A good branding push can take several months, if not years, especially if the shift in messaging is drastic.

On the other hand, content marketing is a tactic. It's a medium that can be used to communicate branding — a deliverable that can be measured, assigned, and repeated.

Example #2: Positioning vs. paid advertising

Positioning is the process of finding your advantage over competitors. It's typically accomplished through a combination of pricing, speed, quality, and longevity. You can be the cheapest, oldest, or most exclusive version of your product — but you can't be everything to everyone. Choosing which is a strategic decision.

A tactic that can accomplish this is paid advertising. Using Google Ads or social media influencers to reach specific demographics can be an excellent method for reaching your target demographic. But this action only works if it's clearly aligned with an end goal. Advertising for the sake of it is rarely a good use of funds.

We can go one step further with the previous example. Suppose your strategy is to become the most affordable option in the market. In that case, two tactics you might consider are lowering production costs and sharing coupons in your marketing campaigns.

Is strategy or tactics more important?

Hopefully, you can see how the two require one another. Tactics are aimless without a strategy, and a strategy is empty without tactics to bring it to life. But as you think about the differences between these two, there is one last piece of advice I would offer.

Be stubborn on strategy but flexible on tactics.

Trust in your destination, keep your eye on it, and allow yourself to adjust your path as needed along the way. When you combine persistence with creativity, there's no limit to what you can achieve.