Every startup founder is faced with the same seemingly unanswerable question: how much time should you spend on marketing strategy versus tactics?
In this post, I’m going to share one approach that will help you quit worrying about whether you’re spending too much time one or the other. Spoiler: it’s actually pretty easy.
The Temptation Of Tactics
First, let’s take a look at the behavior most of us revert to: spending all our time on short-term wins, with little attention given to anything long-term or strategic. It’s easy to live in that state. It feels good. You’re making that sale, publishing that blog post, attending that event. All that activity keeps you really busy. And when you’re trying to grow a startup, somehow things just don’t feel right unless you’re constantly getting things done.
Overall, this focus on action over theory is a good thing. No one built anything by just thinking about it (don’t worry, I still love you Napoleon Hill). But two major problems arise if you spend all of your time on tactics.
Two Pitfalls Of A Tactic-Based Focus
First, you might be spending all of your time getting really good at the wrong things. For example, there’s no point to optimizing your marketing on the wrong channel or creating a bunch of content that your audience isn’t interested in. As obvious as those examples are, most of us are guilty of confusing activity for progress. Developing and checking your strategy helps you avoid that scenario.
Second, without a larger strategic plan, it’s unlikely that your efforts will have any compounding effect. Ideally, your efforts would complement each other, every action building upon another. But simply spending time on activities without consideration for the end goal is a bit like preparing a bunch of random foods without knowing what dish you’re planning to make. Yes, you would have made something to eat. But the result would be pretty sorry.
How Much Marketing Strategy Is Enough?
So how much time should you actually set aside for strategic thinking about your marketing? I’m not going to give you a number of hours or a percentage of your calendar. There’s no right answer that works for everyone.
Instead, ask yourself one question: “How well do you know what actions will consistently grow your company?”
If you’re highly confident (and you have a track record of showing that you were right), then you can afford to spend less time on marketing strategy. After all, if something is working, why change it? And chances are, your actions are probably succeeding because they’re based on a sound strategy. Maybe you don’t have it written down but you know where you’re headed, who you’re selling to and what gets them to buy.
But if the outcome of your tactics is unpredictable (or just plain fruitless), then you need to start setting aside more time for strategic thinking. The more erratic or unsuccessful your efforts, the more likely it is that the solution will involve more than just “trying harder” or “needing to optimize.” And you won’t have the clarity find that solution unless you step back and look at the bigger picture.
Use This Baseline To Get Started With Strategic Thinking
If you aren’t spending any time on marketing strategy today, here’s a good place to start. Set aside one hour a week, one day a month and one week a year to strategically think about your marketing. And spend extra time on the areas that tactics typically don’t cover: your branding, positioning, messaging and marketing channels.
Even if things are going really well, this will be time well spent. Few things stay the same. What worked well one year may let you down the next.
For example, for a couple years our business was able to grow consistently using paid Facebook ads. We didn’t need to “strategize” about marketing too much because we could reliably grow the business. But over time, our market became increasingly expensive to reach on Facebook, and we had to rely more on partnerships and referrals. And we were only able to find the new direction after we took a step back and looked at the big picture.
The Perfect Strategy Is A Myth
Don’t give into the temptation of thinking that you need a perfect marketing strategy before you take action. By the time you have every last detail addressed, someone competitor will have passed you by. And besides, a perfect strategy is a myth anyway. All of us deal with uncertainty, a lack of information and imperfect judgment. So consider the 80/20 rule: spend 20 percent of your time getting a marketing strategy that’s about 80 percent right and then move forward.
Have you ever felt the tension between spending time on marketing strategy versus tactics? If so, what approaches have helped you find the right balance? Let me know if the comments.
This post was originally published in Forbes.