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One of my frustrations in working with marketing professionals is how often they say “tactical” like it’s a dirty word.

I understand where it’s coming from. It’s not easy to make your way to the C-suite much less keep yourself there. It’s a complicated job even before you consider pressure from shareholders, colleagues and the general public.

CMOs work hard to achieve their position, but, as the CMO Impact Study published last year shows, in many companies their C-suite colleagues don’t see them as real business peers, and their CEOs have doubts about the value they contribute. So ambitious marketing leaders need to establish themselves as strategic thinkers who can see around corners.

Meanwhile, brand managers and up and coming marketers looking ahead in their career see what’s happening and naturally want to be seen as visionary thinkers also. They calculate that they won’t have a reputation for strategy if their energy is spent on tactics.

It’s also true that much of the tactical side of marketing, like media programming, has been frowned upon and seen as commoditized. It’s possible to do so much at scale now that it’s tempting to use what I call check-the-box marketing. Do we have all the social media outposts? An influencer program? A content creation program? Check, check, check. But that approach is not authentic, not organic and will not unearth opportunities for innovation.

The problem with keeping tactical concerns at arm’s length is that dramatic transformations are taking place because of new digital technologies and business models, and they make a mockery of the difference between strategy and tactics. Anyone who says “tactical” like it’s a dirty word isn’t speaking the language of tomorrow’s business.

To get big, you have to start small

Pick your metaphor … flat world, level playing field, long tail, disruption from below. It all means that none of us can stake out high ground and hope to play in the new digital world. Too much power has shifted down to the street level and into the smartphones our customers are carrying around.

Think about some of the most disruptive companies in the world. I think we’d all agree AirBnB and Pinterest fit into that cool kids club. No doubt they had strong business and marketing strategies. But an important part of their growth has been driven by getting in the weeds first. They push away from the desk, go to the customer’s home and start watching and asking questions until they learn something valuable. They “do things that don’t scale” as AirBnB’s investor and adviser Paul Graham told them at a critical moment in their growth.

Growth hacking like this is all tactics at heart. There’s no such thing as a growth-hacking strategy. And, as I’ve argued elsewhere, grown-up companies don’t have to leave growth-hacking to the startups.

These companies build entire growth teams that focus on “sweating the small stuff” because they know that paying attention to each and every signal helped them with viral and exponential growth. Instead of going the traditional route to user acquisition of dumping millions of dollars into advertising, they invested in evangelizing the most important audience any brand has: their community.

Convert a few and learn a lot

My firm was consulting recently for a market leader in the consumer goods space to help deepen their internal competencies on emerging platforms and to position their brand to early adopters.

Looking into the analytics provided to its CMO, I noticed he wasn’t getting a report about referring site data.

The summary boasted about all the traffic the team was getting from paid social and display advertising, and so on (most of which garnered 80%+ bounce rates with few repeat visitor sessions). What it didn’t show were the 50 little blogs that repeatedly sent 50 to 100 engaged visitors a month.

Small potatoes, right? Is that worth the CMO’s attention? I think so, because that’s where the true growth opportunity is. One of those micro-communities is bound to be using or evangelizing the product in a creative way, and one is probably responding to a message the company didn’t think was important to highlight.

CMOs who want to see and capitalize on trends before they show up on the cover of the New York Times or Vanity Fair need to taste the small potatoes sometimes. That’s the difference between the goods and the greats.

Data might be the currency of the future, but people aren’t binary

Our customers’ lives are about stories and journeys. When you can find and highlight those early, you establish a foundation for the future that is far stronger than mass marketing methods are. The story of a real influencer in a real community of users is more valuable than whatever you can pay an influencer network of fresh-faced celebrities to say about you.

  • If you are a food brand trying to find those stories, think about what communities are already talking about your product. When you help make them a star in their own story everyone wins.

The CMO should want to know why they are talking about the product. Does this reveal an edgecase or latent need that the product team can leverage. Is it a validation that something is succeeding in market?

And they should want to know if those communities are talking about the product because they love it or hate it. Whatever it is, it’s passionate, and it’s communication. At the most human level, as much as technology tries to get in the way, we just want to communicate. Those moments of love and hate are tipping points where we can convert a few but, more importantly, learn a lot.

Run, don’t walk, to your nearest customer

CMOs who are both strategic and tactical, have to be agile, able to move from analytics to context. To stay agile, I recommend they participate in activities like design sprints, gamestorming, co-creation sessions, and follow-alongs. But at heart, it’s about being customer centric.

How many marketing executives are finding a Meetup group where their customers are active and going there to understand what they need and want? How many watch in real time as customers navigate their ecommerce site? When they do, they grow their ability to, on a one-to-one basis, design for relationships that drive sales through empathy.

I get that it’s difficult to find time for this kind of activity or to scale what you learn from it. It’s only logical for marketing leaders to want to work on plans to meet big business goals and to direct their team to work on the means to meet those goals.

But in the meantime, the digital landscape is swirling with opportunities and threats that don’t respect matrixes, org charts, or Fortune 500 lists. Nobody cares anymore about the traditional boundaries between large and small, new and old, or company and customer.

While you’re working on your plans for market penetration, every customer who owns a cell phone has gained the power of a TV channel. While you’re strategizing for market development, every touch point in the buyer journey has become a target for disruption and innovation.

Growing business in this environment means you can’t treat “tactical” like it’s a dirty word.

Peter Sena II is an entrepreneur, angel investor, Yale University Venture Mentor, and founder of Digital Surgeons, a global innovation and design firm. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeteSena.


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