It's the Social Media Strategy Struggle


I had a fascinating conversation on the first day of SXSW with Ryan McCormack of Sequence, a brand experience strategy and design firm in San Francisco, about social media strategy. My question to him was something my own company struggles with: “Where does strategy end and where do tactics begin? And what the heck is the difference between goals and objectives?”

Someone recently told my business partner that our social media marketing plans were very tactical. She took it as a potentially bad thing. I was hoping it was a good thing. We just weren’t sure either way.

In answer to my questions, McCormack shared some thoughtful insights, which I’ll paraphrase here:

  • Strategy ultimately answers the “why” but overlays the “what” and “how.” Strategy is your purpose.
  • Strategy doesn’t consider execution — which is a shortcoming.
  • Strategy should not happen in a vacuum — it should lead to and be connected to tactics and execution.
  • A social media marketing plan, then, should be tactical to achieve strategic goals.

At the Social Media Breakfast at SXSW, Tac Anderson presented briefly about social media strategy. He explained that in his MBA program, strategy was explained to him as:

“…creating operational alignment between all functions and activities of a business.”

Anderson went on to outline three ways that companies are currently handling their “social media strategy:”

  1. Bolt-on strategy. Not a good strategy. Company gets blog. Company doesn’t do anything else differently, but has a blog. Company also gets Twitter account. Company is still business as usual internally.
  2. Forced compliance. Also not a good strategy. Company forces social media to apply to existing processes. Adding social media to existing policies “sucks the life out of social media.”
  3. Make your company optimized for social media. Small nimble companies can do this. What would your company look like if your company changed to maximize social media?

Part of Anderson’s presentation and this blog post was inspired by Shannon Paul’s article, “The Missing Ingredient in Most Social Media Strategies.” In her post, Paul summed up some main issues with the problem with social media strategy:

  • Strategy is not a plan
  • Strategy is not a timeline
  • Strategy is not a goal
  • Strategy is not what tactics you will use to achieve your goal


Pulling together the insights of the various folks outlines above and some of my own research, here are my guidelines for creating an effective social media strategy:

  1. To be strategic, you must first understand what strategy means.
  2. Know the difference between goals and objectives.
  3. Do not let tactics lead your strategy.
  4. Craft a social media marketing plan that starts with strategic goals, defines objectives, and elaborates on tactics.
  5. Don’t forget to measure everything you can and analyze what you measure.

So is the fact that my company’s social media marketing plans are very tactical a problem, if we always start with strategy, articulate goals and objectives and then detail tactics per each objective? I’m starting to figure out that this isn’t a bad thing, per se — we are just over-delivering.

Share your struggles with social media strategy in the comments.


Stu Morris

This is all great stuff guys. The comments are very challenging in and of themselves. Thanks Aliza as we are preparing our Social Strategy this weekend I now need to ask what is Strategy vrs Goals vrs Objectives vrs and Tactics and how they apply and have to change some thoughts here. How perplexing.


I offer strategic planning as part of my company services when working with organizations looking to grow from where they are. So we look at the different avenues to do that and that’s where strategy gets employed. Like the one person mentioned, strategy is often used for military tactics. Its the methods used to accomplish wiping out the enemy (if that is your goal) with certain moves layered in based on a lot of other factors, in this case, weather, ground conditions, opposing numbers and their position, etc.

So the goal comes first, strategy comes second, and tactics come third or are subordinate to the strategy. Strategy does take into consideration budget because it determines what you can afford to utilize. This is another reason why social media is so popular right now because people are finding its a very effective communications strategy (meaning you have to announce say a product launch, or a new positioning statement so what means of communications (tactic) will you use to do that?). Social Media isn’t free, it’s time consuming, but it’s effective on many levels and works with the mindset of your target demographic…determining which social media medium you will use can also be considered a strategy as you have to consider what will be the most effective in reaching your audience and the timing and the frequency. Deciding to use facebook as your primary communications medium for getting word out about your launch is a strategy, the ways in which that’s done…also has strategy built in. So really it’s a many layered thing. On facebook, say you decide to have another cool group make that announcement, a cool group that holds sway over your target demographic. I think that’s strategy. The tactic would be in how you approach them via this group by images or text or music, etc. a contest a game but your tactics still are a part of the overall strategy.
You also can look at strategy like chess. There are pieces on the board. The object is to win, Different chess pieces have different levels of power and will mean different things to the end game depending upon how you deploy them (that’s where strategy comes in). It’s got a lot of levels of thought layered in and a depends on so and so with lots of outcome anticipations considered before deciding. Social Media might be a bishop or a knight at this point (I could be biased because I think communications is a pretty important piece of the puzzle…it’s a tactic but there is a strategy that has to be worked out first to make it an effective one).

Some people naturally think this way and then are the ones who manage that part of it. But the measurements, the community manager himself, herself, the design, the optimization, all important pieces to accomplishing the overall goal. If the measurements show the strategy isn’t working then it has to be rethought or a piece altered here and there depending upon what’s not creating the expected outcome.

If I’ve suggested a product launch as a means to creating growth and the overall picture isn’t showing the market needs more of a particular product, then that is not a good strategy for growth. In a particular segment, maybe it’s a service offering the company needs to create in order to grow, like not just selling computers but also servicing them (think Best Buy’s Geek Squad).


Man, the article and the comments reveal a great deal about the state of business and marketing today. Everyone has their own idea of what Strategy, Goals, Objectives, and Tactics are, and how they apply. The trouble is you’re playing with words you don’t understand, and when you try to do something profitable with them, you’re lost.

Simplify, dudes! Strategy and Tactics go together, Goals and Objectives go together, but when you try to cram them all together into one soup, you’ve got fish stew with chunks of sirloin burger floating in it.

Business has this idea that if we only buy the best vocabulary representing efficient processes, we’ll start making more money. It doesn’t work that way. What good is having a “Strategy Funnel” if no one knows WTF you’re talking about? Throw it out, start over. Use simple terms that don’t come out of a marketing jargonese guidebook. Avoid processes taught by entrepreneurs in the fine arts of Business Systems / Business Management (BS/BM) techniques and philosophies. If it looks like something stupid at the core with lots of buzzwords wrapped around it, run screaming and don’t try to foist it on your staff.

That’s my 2 cents. Wouldn’t have said anything, but I started reading this article thinking you kenw what you were talking about, and had a point to make. I think your points are valid about social media, but the author and commenters have demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of the middle ground between the idea and the implementation, and there’s nothing to clear anything up.

Victor Canada

Thanks for a thought provoking article Aliza. Andrew mentioned that Social Media strategy must be part of a broader brand communication strategy. I think Social Media strategy seems muddy sometimes because the truth is that organizations should have an overall strategy (strategic plan) which governs all aspects of an organization including Social Media. My company is a Social Media Strategy and Implementation firm. We take a high level look at an organization to ensure that they are ready for Social Media.

Thanks for your work Aliza and great comments as well.


Hello everyone. I am Aliza’s business partner. I wanted to clear something up. None of our clients have ever said that our social media plans are very tactical. In fact, the feedback is the opposite-we do not provide a jumble of tactics with no discernible strategy. Even before we get to the actual writing of the plan, the feedback we have gotten in our inquire process (we ask a LOT of questions during the sales process) makes clients really think strategically.

Not only do we provide a great strategic document, but we also provide a lot of tactics. My question is WHERE SHOULD THE PLAN END? For example, we include campaign ideas, which of course, often have a timely/seasonal bent. But our day-to-day Social Media Calendar (much like an editorial calendar) is something we provide only when we are executing.

All excellent points that Aliza brings up, but it would be interesting to hear what people’s definition of goals versus objectives as I find most use them interchangeably. I personally define the objective as a broad strategic initiative, e.g. increase awareness. The goal, then is the quantifiable result, e.g. “by 15% by 2010.” Of course, then one always needs to ask the question, how do you measure a 15% increase in awareness. If you are a midsize company, you don’t. So, if you cannot measure it (or cannot afford to measure it, which is the same), then choose another objective.

I also did want to clarify that not all marketing objectives are appropriate for social media. So, when we often will show clients which marketing objectives can be done through social media.

If people agree with the above definitions (and Christopher appears to) the, I think Tac Anderson’s charge should be flipped and goals should be broad. I am guessing what he probably meant (maybe?) was more of a vision or mission of the company. Like, “Conversify wants to be the largest global social media marketing agency dealing with mid-sized brands”….or something like that.

So, if that’s the case, then what is strategy? Aliza states that Tac says is the purpose. That confuses me as I always thought a company’s mission is its purpose. To me, and Tara Stoutenborough it seems, strategy is the plan to achieve the objective. Or the ‘how’ as Shannon says it.

I also completely agree with Mike Brown who adds insights and innovation to their strategic thinking. Depending on the client’s needs, we do research before engaging in strategy. This typically includes researching the target audience and looking for insights. It may include understanding the competitive landscape, but with social media, we are blessed in that it can also potentially include the innovation that comes with client feedback and insights. And we also consider all their operational, political, legal issues, as Tom Myer mentions as well. We have found most of our clients do not have a preappointed budget for social media, so finding out the budget before we write a plan has been challenging, but it is obviously considered afterward.

Love to consider the discussion!

Jayme Soulati

Shamelessly, I’ll point readers to my new blog, Soulati-‘TUDE! and a post written yesterday on this exact topic. Social media, while not addressed, follows the guidelines public relations practitioners use daily. Based on my 25 years in the biz, I can relate to the struggle to discern.

What I’m finding these days is a need for balanced proposals that blend strategy with tactics. My proposals tend toward the strategic in nature told by clients who want more tactical. I see in the post it’s been suggested you’re too tactical. Sigh.

I guess the win-win is to balance the scale and not tip it wildly in either direction.

Andrew Weir

This is probably stating the obvious but a social media strategy must be an integrated element of a brands overall communications strategy. Otherwise it is in danger of not being in-sync with the brand experience that needs to be designed and delivered consistently across all touchpoints.

Jackie Huba

Agree with many of your points about strategy in general. However, I think as some folks have stated above that Objectives are the broad things that you want to achieve. Goals are the numeric measure of those Objectives. Strategies are the actions you will take to achieve Objectives/Goals. Tactics are the specific details that define the Strategy. We recently blogged about the difference here:

And how to create a one-page OGST plan here:

Jim Mathis

First Aliza, thanks for a great presentation to the SDAF today; it was both informative and fun, not an easy combo to pull off!
And thanks for validating that the social web has some great tools, but we really need to remember our (or our clients) objectives in using these tools. Here’s a link to my post from last week that we talked about — my thoughts on strategy and social media:

Aliza Sherman

Thank you for sharing the link!

This statement is interesting, especially given my comments about the “definition” of social media:

“…social media is just another marketing tactic that needs to have a sensible place in your marketing plan. Strategy first, tactics second.”

So is “social media” a tactic? Or can tactics employ social media but social media is a set of tools? That is the question! (or questions…)

Mike P

I think that Strategy needs to include execution, which includes the tools that are going to be leveraged to achieve your goals, and agree that this is a shortcoming for some. You need to have a holistic vision in order to be successful, and by omitting that piece, you are not starting off on the right foot. I see this being included within the tactics portion of the funnel.

Mike P

Tom Myer

Often, too, a lot of strategy pieces don’t take into account either capabilities or other constraints–such as budget, deadlines, priorities, or even shifting marketplace realities.

Mike Brown

Tara makes a great point about what strategy is. We’ve used the idea that strategy is a statement of what you want to accomplish and a broad description of how you’ll do it.

Additionally, we talk about strategic thinking as “addressing what matters with insight and innovation.” The key to the definition is it takes strategic thinking outside the exclusive realm of senior management. You want everyone in an organization to understand “what matters” and be thinking about ways to do what you do better. Senior management sets the strategy, but it’s key to infuse perspectives from throughout an organization to make it stronger and more successfully implemented.

Mike Brown
Brainzooming (

Tara Stoutenborough

Interesting information, but as a “strategist” i disagree somewhat with the definition of strategy as purpose. That could be confusing. I would say a strategy is an overarching plan to achieve a goal. The goal is the purpose. The strategy says, in general terms, how you will achieve the purpose. For example, one’s goal might be to increase credibility for a company. A strategy might be to establish the company executives as experts and spokespeople in their field. The tactics would say how that strategy would be achieved (a widely promoted blog, white papers, etc.) The objectives would then determine the performance milestones for implementing the stratgy. That’s my take anyway. : )

Aliza Sherman

Really appreciate your take. I just put this stuff out there and welcome all thoughts. It will only deepen our understanding.


As a fellow strategist, I concur with Tara’s definitions of the terms.

I appreciate the definitions around goals versus objectives which I often see used interchangeably. The primary element that should be associated with either is to make sure that the goal/objective is measurable in order to determine whether or not our strategy has been successful.


Shannon Paul

Not to be difficult here, but I think this is where a lot of confusion comes into play. A plan is typically part of the strategy document, but the actual strategy is not necessarily the purpose — that’s more the objective, but rather, HOW or with what spirit, for lack of a better term, the goals and objectives will be accomplished.

Positioning executives as experts is not a strategy; this is an objective, which is hopefully accompanied with a plan for measurement. A strategy for positioning an executive as an expert might be to take an authoritative stance on a particular issue facing companies in his/her industry. Strategy should spell differentiation.

Tac and I are in sync on this — strategy is one of the most misunderstood concepts in business. I think too often we think if we focus on the motivating factors, rather than cut and dry goals and tactics, that we seem unbusinesslike or impractical, but in fact, its the exact opposite. Strategic planning requires vision — not just goalsetting. Vision ensures that the right goals will be selected along the way.

I’m not trying to be difficult here, but I think the sooner we all start speaking the same language, the better off we will all be.

Aliza Sherman

I don’t think you are being difficult. I am grateful for the input and just soaking it all in!

And I am all for “speaking the same language” when it comes to the terms we are using in a shared industry to communicate the same things.


Great points. Sort of reminds me of brain-storming meetings in companies where tons of great ideas are born – yet if no one executes the ideas – you end up getting nowhere fast.


Love the funnel,actually we just had a meeting yesterday about the social media funnel.
Often times, I think some professionals get caught up in “ok let’s make a strategy, follow it, and analyze it.”

Social media changes daily. Though there’s a rough strategy one can follow, each must be tailored to not only the clients but to the social networking site itself, and what is currently going on in the industry. It’s an exciting field to work in, it’s an opportunity to try to things and constantly learn. I love it.

Element Investing

I see #3 in your conclusion all the time. There are so many companies that jump right into the tactical aspects of social media without deciding on the broader areas of goal and strategy. The result is often aimless and ineffective, which could have been prevented with a little high-level thinking at the outset.

Judy Helfand

Thank you for sharing this. I know in IT we were always asking the question: What are the objectives and goals? No one really could define the difference, but someone had told us we had to put it in our SPECS. Usually it was double-talk. Strategy…I think it is taught in military science. No sarcasm intended. Is being strategic inate or can we learn how? Lately, it seems to me that more companies are concerned about establishing their Social Media Policy rather than their Social Media Strategy.
I will visit again.


IMO, objectives should be the broader sense of what your client wants to be achieve. For example, increase brand awareness, increase market penetration, etc. Goals are quantitative measures that determines whether you hit your objectives.

For example:
Objective – Increase brand awareness
Goal – Increase the current number of brand mentions by 50%

Doug Montgomery

I feel blessed at this age to be able to attain such great knowledge for free. I’m at the beginning of the struggle, but with information like this, I may have a shot. Thanks.

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