Updated: May 24, 2021
Ah, the question on everyone's lips! Or not. But it's a really important one, especially for business owners who want to get ahead of their competitors and take things to the next level.
Before we get into literal definitions, here's a quick analogy to show what we mean by these terms.
Imagine it like this...
Think of your marketing strategy as a destination - a description of where you want your business to be in, say, a year from now - and why. The more compelling your destination, the more motivated you'll be to get there.
To get to your destination, you'll need to know the best route. Think of your marketing plan as a map that shows this route, ideally broken up into a series of stages. The clearer your map, the less chance you have of getting lost.
Now you know where your destination is and how to get there, you'll need something to transport you. Think of your marketing tactics as a vehicle. The better your vehicle, the quicker, safer and more comfortable your journey will be.
So your strategy is the 'where' and the 'why'. Your plan is the 'how' and the 'when'. And your tactics are the 'what'.
Say bye-bye to the competition
This is the point at which you can move ahead.
Because the vast majority of businesses - including those of your competitors - don't bother with the 'where', 'why', 'how' and 'when'.
They go straight to the 'what'. They're so impatient to get moving, so excited to start selling, they just jump in the car with wide eyes and a manic grin, slam their foot down, and disappear into a cloud of dust. Often never to be seen again.
Or they may eventually end up back where they started - hubcaps loose and engine rattling - frustrated that for all their effort and movement they haven't actually made any progress.
It's hard to make progress when you haven't figured out where to go, a compelling reason to go there, and a plan for how to do it.
So, what's a marketing strategy in literal terms?
A marketing strategy is a top level summary of how your marketing efforts are going to align with and contribute to business goals within a given time period - typically a financial year.
It's an overall game plan built around two or three broad objectives, and as well as the above includes things like:
Budget - and roughly how it will be spent, e.g. x% on new customers, x% on repeat business, x% on brand awareness, and split further by channels.
Target audience - the types of people who you believe will get the most value from your product or service.
Competitive analysis - who is similar to you, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and how you can do better.
Customer value propositions (aka CVPs) - which translated into English means the reasons your business should be the first choice for your target customers.
Purpose or vision or mission or whatever you want to call it - in essence, a succinct summary of why your business exists and its ultimate ambition.
'Tone' and 'look & feel' of your brand, and how to ensure it all remains consistent across channels and over time.
Marketing strategies may be tweaked but it would be unusual to make significant alterations on a regular basis (if you have to do that, something is wrong). And while your goals may change year to year, unless what you sell drastically shifts, you shouldn't ever need to make serious changes to things like target audience and CVPs.
And a marketing plan?
The marketing plan is informed by the strategy. It brings the strategy a step closer to being actualised, acting as a bridge between the yearly goals and the day-to-day tactics that will cumulatively achieve those goals.
A marketing plan is organisational in nature and usually takes the form of a monthly timetable that lays out what tactics should take place, on what channels and when, and what indicators of success to measure and track.
Marketing plans can be a bit more flexible than strategies, and it's not unusual to alter or optimise things even mid-month if the desired results aren't being achieved.
The tactics are all the stuff you actually see as a consumer (which incidentally is the reason non-professional marketers tend to only focus on tactics - it's what they know, and they're simply not aware that tactics are only the tip of the iceberg).
We're talking social media posts, emails, website copy, competitions, blogs, sales ads... the list goes on.
You have hundreds of tactics at your disposal when it comes to digital marketing.
Unlike strategies, and to a lesser extent plans, tactics are very flexible. Facebook ad not getting much attention? Try editing the copy to make it more engaging. Only a few people opening your emails? Try playing around with subject lines to make them more 'clickable'. Blogs not showing up in search engines? Try adding more copy and keywords.
The tactics you use to get your message out will depend on your plan, which will depend on your strategy, which will depend on your business goals. The general point is that there is a system, or a...
Chain of accountability
Your marketing tactics are accountable to your marketing plan.
Your marketing plan is accountable to your marketing strategy.
Your marketing strategy is accountable to your business goals.
This hierarchy is easily visible in big businesses which have the luxury of entire departments for things like marketing.
The Marketing Executive is responsible for the marketing tactics. Although they will be conscious of the wider strategy, their focus will typically be on the day's work, rather than the monthly results. They report to the Marketing Manager.
The Marketing Manager is responsible for the marketing plan. Their focus is slightly longer term - they spend their time reviewing monthly results and planning activities for the month ahead, in line with the strategy. They report to the Marketing Director.
The Marketing Director is responsible for the marketing strategy. Their focus is even longer term - they spend their time looking at the year as a whole, ensuring everything is moving in the right direction at the right pace. They report to the CEO.
The Marketing Director may not be as busy as the Marketing Executive, who's tasked with writing a 500-word blog and three Instagram captions before lunch, but they're not really being paid for their time: they're being paid for their strategic mindset. And they're being paid very well.
This is because a strategic approach to marketing is SO valuable to a business, both in a financial sense and in creating a sense of common purpose which motivates everyone to focus on the same goals.
But I'm not a big business and I can't afford a marketing department...
Yup, we know (us neither!) - the above section was just to show the basic principles of
strategy >>> plan >>> tactics
in a 'scaled up' version. (Big businesses have humongous sales targets to hit, so they need to spend humongous amounts of money on marketing!)
All you need to do is keep the principles in mind.
Remember the destination / map / driving analogy.
Without knowing where to go or how to get there, you can have the coolest most shiniest car in the world, and maybe you'll have some fun zooming around for a bit, but sooner or later you'll need to ask yourself: what's the point of all this? This car is expensive to run and driving it is taking up a lot of my time.
Where am I trying to get to? Am I here to have fun, or am I here to grow a business?
Work with us and you can have both.