With the rise of automation and the impending impact that it will have on those of us who work in search, one of the things I’ve been focusing on is moving toward a broader, more strategic approach in our work for clients.
I strongly believe the industry should follow suit.
In my last piece for Search Engine Journal, I talked about how we’re going to need to shift our attitudes in paid and focus more on the human side of things, on some of the less “digital” elements.
In many ways, this is best done by starting to focus on strategy – even though that’s a word that’s been, in my opinion, misused for years, especially in agencies.
What’s Wrong With ‘Strategy’?
Go into many digital agencies and you’ll find a cohort of people with the word “strategist” in their job title.
Often these will be “PPC Strategist”, “SEO Strategist” or occasionally “Digital Strategist”.
Sadly, a huge number of people who have these titles aren’t “doing strategy” in the way that we need them to, in order to deliver effective results and human-oriented, integrated campaigns for our clients.
Most of them are actually tacticians.
Let’s quote Sun Tzu and the “Art of War” for a moment (incidentally, I have a friend who thinks the whole volume could essentially be a bible for life as a marketer):
“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”
This sounds impressive, but what does that actually mean?
I’m going to steal from my aforementioned friend who describes the difference between strategy and tactics this way:
“Tactics are how you win the battle. Strategy is how you win the war.”
The point being that strategy is all about your goals and the overarching plan for achieving them.
You’re laying out the path to your objective.
Tactics, are the specific actionable steps you’ll take to get there.
The reason I think we misuse the word in agencies is that we don’t really know what it means.
If I go and ask a PPC Strategist for a client strategy, I’m likely to get a plan, maybe for the next 3-6 months outlining specific actions that they’re going to undertake to hit a client’s KPIs.
Broadly, this is tactics.
Sometimes they might include competitor analysis or industry results, but not always.
If I ask what the client’s core business goals are, or how we’re collaborating with other marketing channels to deliver on these goals (even when those same channels are managed out of a single agency), the answer tends to be that they don’t know.
For those of us who work in marketing, regardless of which discipline or the scope of our roles, strategy should always be about the big picture.
What is it that truly matters to the client, and how we use the resources at our disposal to get them to where they want to be.
The steps that get you there are tactics. We need to, “think strategically, act tactically”.
‘I Can’t Be a Strategist’
I’ve spent a lot of time in a bunch of agencies during my career.
We are starting to see a big shift towards fewer siloes and more integration which is going to yield significantly more effective results for clients and higher job satisfaction if we do it properly.
But the biggest barrier we face to doing this is a lack of strategists.
Agencies feel like they need to have all of the pieces and personnel in place before they shift to these more strategic approaches, but because strategists are hard to find, agencies don’t change and neither does our work.
I speak to so many people who are genuinely excited by the idea of doing proper strategy, really getting to know a client’s business and how they can make a difference to it.
Yet I receive an almost universal response of:
“I’d love to, but I can’t be a strategist because I’m not an expert in everything/I don’t know enough about every channel.”
I’m here to tell you, that particular line of thinking is wrong.
One of the most wonderful things about search, whether paid or organic, is how comparatively well rounded it makes you – for working only in a single discipline.
With enough time in your role, you’re likely to touch a huge number of areas that can give you many of the skills needed to develop your strategic thinking.
Let’s dig into them a little.
Data & Analytics
A staple for any search marketer – the work we do daily with data and analytics helps us interpret data, business insights, and more importantly, do so in an actionable way.
Merely stating numbers isn’t enough – we have to provide a “so what.”
Customer Data & Insights
Anyone who has spent time working on paid search will know how important these are.
We can use this data in a number of ways, but the exposure we have to it gets us thinking about things like customer personas, how to segment user data, and how user needs may differ depending on what group they’re in.
You can see how these are important skills that can easily be applied to strategic work.
Without websites, we wouldn’t have jobs!
But the work we do around sites often goes hand in hand with CRO, making landing page recommendations, looking into UX, and much more.
When we think about strategy’s role of being that of solving business problems, being able to look at the whole customer journey from end to end, including the website is incredibly powerful
Industry & Competitor Research
This is definitely an area where those of us from a search background can shine.
A huge part of our jobs is looking into what’s happening, both within the industry and competitors.
A big part of putting together a solid strategy is:
- Understanding the macro and micro factors affecting our clients.
- Being able to take the skills we have in analyzing a competitor’s backlink profile or content.
- Applying the same skillset on a broader level.
You Don’t Have to Be an Expert in Everything
While you likely won’t be an expert in all of those areas, you will know enough to ask the right questions – and for me, that’s really what Strategy is about.
Curiosity, imagination, and using questions to guide to the right answers are essential.
You don’t need to be an expert in everything – you can take the deep expertise you’ll have in one area still use that to be very effective, honing your skills and learning more as you go.
I also don’t see Strategy as a solo effort – you don’t need to be an expert in everything because you’ll be working with a team of people who are experts at what they do.
Your role is shaping the conversation and channeling everyone down the road to come up with a plan that is strategic, rather than tactical.
While you will come up with the strategy, others will need to input and also advise on what’s feasible from a tactics point of view.
In an ideal world, we’d have a sea of graduates that we train in strategy as a specific discipline and I hope that one day we’ll get there, as more and more brands and agencies see the value in a truly integrated, strategic approach.
But until that happens, true strategists will be hard to find, and so we are going to have to adapt and evolve, weaving strategy into our jobs and thinking outside of our channel bubbles until there’s enough of us to make this work.
Let’s not let the perfect get in the way of the good.
I believe that to an extent, strategy is everyone’s job.
We may have strategists, who live and breathe it, and who are experts at finding the paths we need to get clients to where they want to go.
But everyone can and should start to think strategically. Whether you work in a delivery team, client services, or in-house at a brand, we all have a part to play.
We need to challenge our thinking – if someone comes to you asking for a PPC campaign, it’s often all too easy and tempting to just give them what they’ve asked for.
But before doing that, the first thing we should do is ask “why”.
- Why do you want to run this campaign?
- What are you hoping to get from it?
- How will it contribute to your overall marketing and business objectives?
- What are those objectives?
- What factors might be impacting on our ability to deliver?
Rather than offering services to clients, think about how you can offer solutions.
Clients who come to us asking for a campaign have problems they need solving and we may have better tools to help them than the one they’ve come in and asked for – but we have to be the ones to challenge and guide our clients.
They don’t know what they don’t know – which is why they come to us as experts in the first place.
I hope I’ve gotten you thinking about what strategy really means and the place it should have for all of us.
In my next post, I’ll start digging into simple, but effective ways you can start to put together strategies for your clients.
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