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Social Media Strategy – A Definitive Guide

Posted on Apr 26th, 2010
Written by Lee Odden
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    It’s a debate that’s more common than you might think. Strategy or Tactics first when it comes to social media? Many companies approach their participation on the social web tentatively, picking a popular tool like Twitter, Facebook or for the more adventuresome, a blog. The exercise of setting up and populating a profile, friending others and seeing what happens is akin to the proverbial “throw spaghetti against wall to see if it sticks” school of marketing.

    There’s a time and place for tactics, for strategy and for experimentation. I think it’s perfectly reasonable for a company to test certain channels without a broad corporate wide commitment to being more social. However, that effort should be guided by smart analysis of audience, tools and with the aid of goals and measurement methodology. Without a plan, social media efforts often fail, waste time, money and detract from the brand experience.

    There’s plenty of room for discussion on this topic so I reached out to over 40 friends, collegues and others in my social network to get their opinion. Responses include a great mix of insights, metaphors and analogies from the likes of:  Guy Kawasaki, Chris Brogan, Katie Payne, Peter Kim, Debbie Weil, David Meerman Scott and many more social media smarties.

    Does social strategy need to come before tactics? (in order received):

    Say you want to build a house. You survey the site. You assess your needs: do you want a one-room cabin, or a sprawling mansion? How many rooms? Should any serve specialized functions? How many bathrooms are necessary? Pool? Garden? Once you’ve answered these (and more) questions, it’s time to go out and buy bricks, lumber, hammers, nails, windows and all the other stuff you need to get your house built. Not before. After all, how do you know what you’ll need if you don’t even know if you’re building a ranch house or a stone cottage?

    Same thing in social media. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, FourSquare, Digg,, blogs and all the rest are tools in your arsenal. A means to an end, not an end in themselves. Sure, most are “free,” but “free” comes at a cost: time, effort, ideas and commitment.

    This isn’t chicken-or-egg. You need strategy before tactics. How else could you possibly know what tactics to implement?
    Rebecca LiebBlog
    Vice President, North America
    Author, The Truth About Search Engine Optimization

    “What it comes down to is asking the question ‘How do you define success?’. Tactics don’t answer that question. Strategy does. Sure, you can measure tactics, but without a strategy, there’s no benchmark. You can’t confidently say your program has succeeded if you don’t have a clear snapshot of what success looks like.”
    Jessica SmithJessicaNow
    VP Digital and Global Co-Chair WOM

    The majority of the market still suffers from “bright and shiny object syndrome.” Is it any wonder that they’re still struggling to figure out a Return On the their social media Investment? Ultimately a solution in search of a non-existent problem or a tactic in search of a strategy will only underwhelm, underdeliver and fail to deliver any real, long term and sustainable impact which is consistent with social media being activated correctly.
    Joseph JaffeJaffe Juice
    Chief Interruptor
    Author, Flip the Funnel

    There are so many outlets for social media that it is imperative to have a solid strategy before acting unilaterally in the space. If you make a mistake on a simple project, you only affect your company and the client. However, if you make a mistake in some social media space, it is potentially in front of thousands. There are so many different strategies you can carry out in social media, that it is imperative to have your whole team on board and in alignment. We have project planning every quarter for a day and then act on that plan the rest of the quarter. However the social media project is an ongoing discussion where we spend more time on strategy than we do acting. We are constantly revisiting what is going on with the major outlets.
    Brett Tabke
    Founder, WebmasterWorld & Pubcon

    With new ‘tools/tactics’ launching every 2.7 seconds, or so it seems, the social media world over flows with options. It can be overwhelming to both novice and experienced social media marketer. Strategy First helps you identify which are the best opportunities to put into play to achieve your goals. You do have goals? Oh, that’s another conversation.
    Toby Bloomberg
    Diva Marketing Blog

    Strategy before tactics on Social Media is equivalent to diving into a pool before looking to see if there is water let alone the depth to handle such. If you don’t spend the time, you knock out your two front teeth and be reticent to ever get in the pool again. And as we all know, this is a pool worth swimming in.
    Aaron KahlowOnline Marketing Connect
    Online Marketing Connect : Online Marketing Summit & Institute

    The only thing true about online marketing – and by extension, social media – is that the tools always change. Three years ago, MySpace was king. 10 years ago, Yahoo! had 67% of the search market. A “strategy” that is based on tactical execution isn’t a strategy at all, it’s a recipe for playing a constant game of catch up. The trick is to focus on how you’re going to be social, not where you’re going to do social media.
    Jay Baer
    Founder, Convince & Convert

    If there was an upside to last year’s down economy, it was the fact that it encouraged many big brands to dip their toes in the likes of Facebook, Youtube and Twitter. While experimentation in these social outposts was initially a good thing, doing so without an overarching strategy ultimately risked works against the brand in the long run. Imagine the chaos that might ensue if a company’s traditional distribution channels — phone, web and physical stores — didn’t align. Similar risks lurk below the surface of the social web if brands’ messaging and CRM capabilities don’t coordinate… except on the social Web, customers have an ability to tell their 200+ friends with the click of a button.
    Aaron Strout –  Citizen Marketer 2.1

    Social media without strategy is like cooking without a recipe. Sometimes it works but sometimes its disaster. With a recipe, at least you know what ingredients to have before you get started. Along the way it’s great to improvise to make it your own but without at least a plan, you end up wandering aimlessly.
    Julie Roehm
    Marketing Strategy Consultant

    How about research before strategy before tactics??? In social media you have to understand what is going on in your marketplaces and what people are saying BEFORE you jump in. It’s the old “don’t ask a social media expert if you should blog or Tweet, ask your customers first” — Once you know where the market is going, THEN you need to fit your organizational goal into the reality of the marketplace and see what kind of strategy might be effective. The last thing you need is tactics and tools.
    Katie Delahaye PaineBlog
    KDPaine & Partners, LLC

    The C-Suite talks strategy, not tactics. And you are going to need their support if you even want ‘social’ to take root in the soul of the enterprise.

    You don’t need to re-invent the wheel when it comes to social strategy – borrow one if you need to. How could you go wrong with a strategy like: make listening to the voice of our community/customers central to how we make decisions as an organization.
    David AlstonCommunity Instinct
    VP Marketing & Community

    Tactics don’t take into account the customer need. They typically center around “doing something viral” or “doing social” or “creating a community.” Good social strategy forces you to understand and realize that if you don’t solve a real customer need with your actions, you’re already forgotten.
    Steve BendtBlog
    Senior Marketing Manager, Social Media

    Why strategy before tactics? A better question might be why do marketers shoot first and ask questions later? First, unlike other marketing tactics, the barrier for entry into social media is very low, so a lot of marketers think they can just jump in and base their strategy “later” upon a hollow number first achieved. They think this is data.

    There is this false perception that social media is black and white and its effectiveness is based on hard numbers. i.e. followers, subscribers and friends. That might be somewhat true but it reminds me of the early days of web analytics, when web traffic was measured on a “hit” and not much else. Sure we can measure followers, friends and subscribers but that’s merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

    Marketers in social media think they can measure their activity and effectiveness by looking at social media’s hard numbers, meaning they are measuring a gross aggregate number and associating it with “marketing” and effectiveness all in the same breath.

    A tactic first approach in social media avoids answering the questions “Why?” and “What For?” Movement for the sake of motion in social media doesn’t mean effectiveness.
    Marc Meyer – Direct Marketing Observations
    Dir.of Social Media and Search, Principal

    The tactics are just tools and most are easy to learn. What’s tough is the 1st step in a social strategy: adopting the social media mindset
    Debbie WeilBlog
    Author, The Corporate Blogging Book

    Using social media without a strategy is like writing your message on a paper airplane and aiming it out a window. Before you start engaging with customers you need to be prepared with what your goals are. Determine who your audience is, plus where and how to reach them. Most importantly you need a plan for how you will monitor the converation, respond to feedback and funnel it back into the company so you can be continuously improving.
    Jennifer Cisney1000 Words
    Chief Blogger and Social Media Manager

    Why should social strategy come before tactics? Because you don’t ask a girl to marry you before you ask her on a date. Because Chevy doesn’t manufacture hoods before they design a car. Because you fill sandbags before a flood.

    While it’s tempting to sign up for Facebook, Twitter, [choose your social networking flavor of the month], just to “be there,” it’s critical to define your measurable objectives, test the waters, develop a strategy, and define evaluative criteria before jumping into the deep end of the social pool. Without solid strategy driving tactics, companies can find themselves questioning ROI, making significant missteps, or worse, annoying or offending stakeholders in both the long and short term.
    Greg SwanPerfect Porridge
    Digital Strategy Director
    Weber Shandwick

    “Why strategy before tactics when it comes to social media?”…
    …because the payoff of a strategic approach to social marketing is effectiveness. As this chart shows, marketers in the strategic phase of social marketing maturity are much more likely to report that their social media programs are “very effective” at achieving objectives than are their counterparts in the tactically-oriented trial phase.

    Sergio Balegno
    Research Director

    I call Social Media w/ out tactics Zombie Media: Social Media w/ No Brains.

    Any marketing needs strategy before tactics not just social media. You use marketing tactics to drive a business outcome. If you’re expected to measure contribution to the business you need a strategy. If you haven’t defined that outcome (Goals) or how you’ll achieve that outcome (Strategy) then how do you expect to measure the result of your marketing?

    Developing strategy doesn’t have to be a complicated exercise. It can be simple and fluid.
    Tac AndersonNew Comm Biz
    Social Media Director
    Waggener Edstrom

    You simply can’t tell if you’re doing well or not if you don’t know what you’re trying to do. You don’t need social media for social media’s sake, you need it for business’ sake.
    Laura Fitton
    CEO/Founder & Pistachio Consulting
    Author, Twitter for Dummies

    If you’ve ever had an ounce of question as to where and how to start social networking (on or offline), I’d ask you what does your data say? Jumping into a social environment and starting to engage is like crashing a wedding reception and trying to network with everyone there. You might make some friends (and enemies) along the way, but are you really engaging with an audience that 1) is useful for you to engage with and 2) wants to engage with you?

    Most companies will put up a giant megaphone to the internet and “listen” to the conversations, spending time finding out where people are talking about the things they care about first – for 6 months and longer. This allows you to determine where people are talking about the things you care about (your brand assets and relevant topics), what they are saying, who’s saying it, and how they feel about it. With that type of insight, you can more effectively determine a social networking strategy, engaging targeted networks and people with a specific message or goal.
    Laura Lippay – Lip Service
    Founder, Online Visibility
    Ex-Yahoo Marketing Director & Ringling performer

    “Social-media strategy” is over-rated if not a downright oxymoron. The goal is to do more business. Social-media is a means to that end. Maybe you’ll use it to establish warm and fuzzy communal feelings. Maybe you’ll sell excess inventory. Don’t focus on some kind of high-level strategy because no one really knows how to use social media yet. Focus on tactics: Get more followers, make them happy, promote your stuff to them every once in a while. That’s all you need to know about strategy right now.
    Guy KawasakiBlogAlltop Social Media
    Managing Director of Garage Technology Ventures
    Author, Reality Check & 8 Other Books

    The most important aspect of strategy is to focus on your buyers and not your own ego. Only then can you create the tactics that reach people in an authentic way and that they are eager to consume.
    David Meerman ScottWeb Ink Now
    Author, World Wide Rave and The New Rules of Marketing & PR

    Why social strategy should come before tactics:
    “You might feel comfortable leaving for vacation and just driving until you get tired of driving, but would you do that with your business? Without a strategy, goals, objectives and measures for success, you’re just going for a ride.”
    Jason Falls
    Founder, Social Media Explorer

    Would you pick up a phone and randomly dial 10-digits? Unless you’re prank calling, probably not. (Darn you, caller ID). The phone is a tool for communication, just like social media is a tool. Before making a phone call, sending a tweet or launching a blog, strategy is essential. It will guide the decisions you make, the platforms you use and how you interact.
    Sarah Evans
    Founder, Sevans Strategy

    Strategy before tactics means, essentially, think before you talk. In other words, in any social-media effort for marketing or other business purposes, it’s important to do a gut check. What is your corporate culture? Who are you? This leads to other key questions: What do you want to say? What do you seek to accomplish using social media? what are the ground rules, the map to follow? This doesn’t have to be a 500-page manual or anything, but do look before you leap.
    Julio Ojeda-ZapataYour Tech Weblog
    Technology writer and columnist at St. Paul Pioneer Press
    Author, Twitter Means Business

    Having a social strategy before jumping into tactics is imperative for long-term success. Short term tactics are okay for brands who are just testing the waters, but having a strategy will a help a brand think more holistically about becoming a social business rather than a business who can sometimes be social. Having a strategy will force brands (or small business) to think about culture change from within the organization which is required to transform into a social business. It will also help brands determine how to effectively integrate social into everything a brand does in their communications arsenal (web, PR, outdoor, retail, customer support, channel, B2B).
    Michael BritoBritopian
    VP Social Media
    Edelman Digital

    The most succinct argument would be to quote Louis Carol’s Cheshire cat: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”

    You really need to know why you want to use social media and which tools are best suited to meeting that objective. A good start is to know where, on social media, your customers hang out and what you can give them by joining their activities. This depends on which objectives you have in mind. It can be sales, lead generation, support, feedback, new ideas. So many things can be achieved in social media. If you know what your goals are they will shape the tactic.

    Conversely, if all you want to do is get your feet wet, then I would advise you to get yourself a wading pool.
    Shel IsraelGlobal Neighborhoods
    Author of Twitterville and Co-Author of Naked Conversations

    Putting strategy ahead of tactics is a must for just about anything, but especially social media marketing. The problem seems to be so much confusion around what the word strategy actually means — a strategy is not a timeline or a goal, even though these elements are often included in what people refer to as a strategy document. The actual strategy piece is the spirit with which you approach others and engage with them. Engagement is not a strategy, but a high level tactic. HOW you plan to engage is strategic. Strategy also doesn’t ask about ROI, but about how you plan to win.

    Proponents of social media often “get” the strategy piece in an intuitive way, but that means they don’t always empathize well with those who don’t. The result is poorly articulated strategies centered around a single trendy tactic. Initiatives like this may be easy to launch, but they’re typically not very successful.
    Shannon PaulVery Official Blog
    Community and Social Media Manager
    PEAK6 Online

    Strategy needs to drive tactics, as companies first need to know where they’re going before they figure out how to get there. A lot of roads can get a brand from point A to B, but a good strategy will help selection of the optimal route, as well as how to respond if setbacks are encountered along the way.

    I can see where some people might recommend tactics first when it comes to social technologies – the space moves quickly and new opportunities emerge weekly. This actually reinforces the need to have a good strategy in place to evaluate and experiment with possibilities within frameworks that drive towards business goals.
    Peter KimBeing Peter Kim
    Managing Director, North America
    Dachis Group

    It’s a bit like baking a cake. Tactics are the ingredients that deliver the strategy. Decide on what kind of cake you want to bake first and why. If you dive straight into the ingredients and get the balance wrong, you could end up with a very bad taste in your mouth.
    Mel CarsonUK Internet Marketing Blog
    Community Manager
    Microsoft Advertising

    Why do you put social media strategy before tactics? There is the standard cliche about making sure that you have blueprints before you build your house, but here’s a bit of a different take. As you achieve some initial success, you’ll soon have other business units asking “How did you do that?” and “How can we be part of that?” If you don’t have an agreed upon strategy things can get messy rather quickly.

    Having a strategy developed before tactics helps you manage the growth of your program. Also, working with different business units to develop a strategy in advance of tactics also helps with buy-in and keeps internal political battles and communication breakdowns from derailing your efforts.
    Josh HallettHyku Blog
    Director, Voce Connect
    Voce Communications

    In practical terms, you want to know where you’re going so you can get there. Every resource you expend in business needs to be justified. Everything worth doing needs to be measured. Social media is no different. It may be a great way to share useful content in places where your customers spend time to generate interest for further actions. And it can provide powerful business intelligence back, straight from the people who buy your products and services.

    However, to capitalize on all of that, your process needs to tie all your activities together — the information sharing, the intelligence gathering, the communications, content creation, and anything else that happens in between. All activities aligned with and in support of the business. Without a strategy and goals, you won’t know how you’re going to measure results and won’t be able to answer the “so what” question.

    For example, we have 2,000 followers on Twitter. So what? Are they in our base or just robots? Why are we on Twitter? What are we going to tweet? And so on. Today many companies are working on optimizing social media, moving away from tactical approaches and working on the business alignment part. Tomorrow, we will hopefully see the ultimate strategy, which is that to optimize the business for social.
    Valeria Maltoni, ABC Brand Strategist
    Conversation Agent

    I have a very short answer when someone asks me why strategy should come before tactics. Having your strategy in place, with your objectives set, usually means not having to go back and fix everything that you rushed to develop in your communications program. You must know the “why” part first, before you build anything, and use a listening strategy to determine early on what tactics will actually be successful with the people you want to reach. The strategy first approach saves time and doesn’t waste valuable resources.
    Deirdre BreakenridgeJuicy Bits Blog
    President, Executive Director of Communications
    Mango! Creative Juice
    Co-Author, Putting the Public Back in Public Relations & PR 2.0

    Strategy is the path one intends to take to reach a certain goal. Using only tactics in social media is like picking up the phone and dialing random people before you’ve even decided if the call is for a sale or customer service. The tools are there to serve the goal, and certain tools improve certain strategies. Starting the other way around is just asking for pain.
    Chris BroganBlog
    President, New Marketing Labs
    Co-Author, Trust Agents

    The primary reasons businesses flounder with their social media integration is a) not clearly identifying their target market and which social sites these prospects visit most, b) lack of clear, measurable objectives and c) lack of a solid strategy to achieve such objectives. Thing is, there’s so much peer and media pressure to “get on Facebook (and, now, get Facebook on your site!), get on Twitter, work on your blog, make videos.” But, for what purpose? What are you trying to achieve? By starting with the technology tactics piece first, you could be completely missing the mark and, in fact, might not even be building a presence where your target audience lives! Carving out time to architect a solid social strategy is vital for success in today’s uber noisy online world.
    Mari Smith
    Social Media Speaker & Trainer
    Author, Facebook Marketing: An Hour A Day

    Strategy starts with understanding what unique values we bring. It requires an overarching mission and understanding of the climate, systems, current conditions, and the character and culture of the people involved. Strategy is a practical plan to analyze and advance a position over time through understanding human nature and making good decision. Tactics or campaigns are the methods for executing a strategy.

    Social media strategy has to come first. Without a strategic mission — to build a community to strengthen a brand — social tactics at best gather momentum then end without building something larger that people (the social) can believe in and belong to. Tactics may gather followers and fans, but strategy keeps them coming back and bringing their friends.
    Liz StraussSuccessful Blog
    Social Web Strategiest & Founder of SOBCon

    Tactics are fun, strategy is boring.

    Focusing on tactics, in social media as in business generally, in sport and other areas of human activity, appeals to people who like to get things done, action-oriented people. They say things like “ready, fire, aim!”. We need to have a bit of that in our approach, or we’ll never get anything done.

    But if we ignore strategy we have no way of managing the process intelligently, no way of measuring how we are going, no way of adjusting when circumstances change.

    Implementing a social media focused regime in business, going on Twitter, setting up a Facebook page, starting a blog, all without doing the hard yards on strategy, would be like trying to build a home without a blueprint: could be interesting, could get you on prime time television, but might not be livable.

    Two quotes from Sun Tzu, The Art of War:
    “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

    “All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.”
    Des WalshBlog
    Social Business Mentor
    The Webarts Company

    Strategy before tactics isn’t only relevant to social media it’s relevant for all aspects of business. Strategy should always be the backbone of anything you do. There’s no point in creating a presence on various social channels unless you have a very clear understanding of the business challenges you are looking to solve and an understanding of how you are going to solve them. Only then you can start to think about the tactics. What happened to Nestle recently is a great example of what happens when you put tactics ahead of strategy; it’s irresponsible, not accountable, and quite frankly stupid. Any company that puts tactics ahead of strategy will fail, and rightfully so.
    Jacob MorganBlog
    Principal of Chess Media Group
    Author of Twittfaced

    One of the biggest mistakes many people jumping into social media make is to focus on the tactical application of various social media platforms before creating their strategy. It is easy to get off track in social media, after all SM conversations vary dramatically day to day. By setting your goals and strategies before you start your outreaches, you ensure everything you do online includes your company branding, ensures your messages are delivered and can be easily tracked and measured. My rule of thumb? Determine your goals, write your strategies, create your program, measure and revise your strategies based on customer/consumer feedback.
    Serena EhrlichStartupArmy Blog
    EVP of Social Media, StartupArmy
    Corp Sec – Social Media Club

    I think strategy should come first because your goals for social media usage are more important than the tools. You pick the strategy/goals, then that tells you which tools will help you best execute that strategy.

    The alternative is to pick the tactics first, then you have to pick your strategy based on the chosen tools. That’s obviously a recipe for disaster.
    Mack CollierThe Viral Garden
    Social Media Consultant

    It drives me a little nuts when organizations jump on the “shiny new toy of the day” bandwagon without much forethought. Often this happens because someone influential within the organization has seen a competitor doing it, or because it’s getting “buzz” and they think that buzz will automatically rub off on them. On the other hand, I’ve also seen organizations resisting social technologies because of fear, ignorance or internal turf wars (who will “own” social?), regardless of how much these might help them achieve their strategic goals.

    You nailed it when you said companies need to “develop a strategic approach based on customer research and goals.” I don’t think you can keep your finger on the pulse of your customer and adjust your tactics successfully unless you’re working in the context of an overall strategy, one that is research-based and has goals and measurable objectives.
    Shonali BurkeWaxing UnLyrical
    Founder, Shonali Burke Consulting

    There are so many different tactics you can use, and some of them even conflict with each other. If you ignore the big picture goals and strategy, then in the best case you wasted time and money, in the worst case you moved your company backwards.
    Mike VolpeBlog
    Vice President Inbound Marketing

    I have to smile about this request since I meet brand marketers on a daily basis who want to start their efforts in social media by creating a facebook fan page, or worse, already have taken this into their own hands prior to thinking through best practices, resources and ongoing engagement…let alone strategy, KPIs, etc…! I’ve put this to a stop via corporate governance/guidelines, but am still playing the role of an educator. I’m also seeing venues vary by brand depending upon the existing discussion.

    Developing a social strategy is a complex process that stems from business goals and objectives; it involves embedding listening (both mining and monitoring) into the organizational culture. Tactics are the easy part that follow.
    Amy M. Lamparske
    Global Social Media Leader
    3M Consumer & Office Brands

    In today’s world of digital marketing, things are moving at an intense speed – so quickly, in fact, that today’s platform du jour may be tomorrow’s digital refuse. Remember Friendster, Jaiku and Splashcast? Perhaps you do. Or not. They are sites that faded from relevance, got acquired or shut down completely. Or maybe you’re more conversant with the white label social platform Ning, which recently announced that it’s ending its free service. Think of the implications if you’ve built a number of online communities that depend on the site.

    If you’re putting tactics in front of strategy, then you’re probably out there building profiles and pages on social networks that could just as easily succumb to the same fate. In other words, you’re busy chasing trends instead of focusing on what’s core to your brand and building a sound strategy that will outlast every technology upheaval.

    For the leaders out there, instead of building your plan on the back of everyone else’s success, maybe you should focus a little more on building your own.
    Scott MontyBlog
    Global Digital Communications
    Ford Motor Company

    Thank you to everyone that participated in this post. It’s a testament to the power of social connections and social technology. My request went out on Friday and it simply amazes me that so many, arguably very busy, people responded the same day and some over the weekend.

    What are your practical observations and opinions about social media strategy and tactics? Why do so many companies approach social web participation based on tools and metrics like friends/fans/followers versus establishing listening programs to analyze their market, influencers and develop a plan to reach and engage them? It might be a lack of trustworthy information, it might be that social technologies are so new to senior executives. We’d love to hear your perspective.

    As a postscript, a good number of the responses I received were shortened for this post. We are putting together a downloadable compilation of everyone’s Social Strategy Before Tactics response in full. It will be posted in the next week or so. Details will be tweeted from @toprank and @leeodden.