What is the difference between strategy and tactics in marketing? Does it really matter how these words are used when planning and executing a marketing campaign?

Yes, it does matter, especially when working with a copywriter, designer, or other marcom-service provider.  Compare your marketing campaign to a trip you intend to take. The first thing you need to know is your destination.  It’s OK to start your planning with a broad answer like “Phoenix” or simply “Arizona” . . . but you quickly need to zero in on a more specific location, such as “The Downtown Hilton” or your trip will not be successful.

The lesson for us marketers is simple: Clarify your objectives—the more specific, the better—before you even think about strategy. In our trip analogy, strategy is the short list of basic options we have for getting to our destination. For example: by air, by land vehicle, “virtually” (such as teleconferencing), or maybe even on foot (if our destination is close enough).

Just as these are the common options for traveling, most companies have certain basic strategy options to choose among when deciding how to market their product(s) or service(s). They can emphasize high quality, low price, great service, innovativeness, or other benefits.

And while your trip might involve more than one mode of transportation, it’s usually most efficient and effective to use only one. The same is often true for marketing strategies: Choosing one and emphasizing it in your marketing communications tends to deliver the best results. Yes, you can discuss more than one benefit in your copy, but the main message of your marketing should be based on a single, focused strategy.

Once you know the strategy for your marketing (whether it’s a particular product, service, or your company in general), then it’s time to think tactics.

Going back to the trip analogy: If you’ve chosen to go by land vehicle, are you going to drive yourself, take a bus, or a train?  If you’re going to drive yourself, are you going to take your own car or rent one?  If you’re going to rent, which company will you rent from?  These nitty-gritty questions about how to execute the chosen strategy are what tactics are all about.

Too often a company’s marketing decision makers will focus on tactical issues before fully understanding their company’s objectives or choosing a strategy. Even when objectives and strategy are given their due, it’s easy to lose sight of them if the tactical-execution process is very rushed (“we don’t have time to think about that!”) or very prolonged (“uh, what did we agree to in that meeting six weeks ago?”)

What to do about these challenges?  Make the words objective, strategy, and tactics—in that order—a common part of your company’s daily vocabulary.  Make phrases like, “OK, just to confirm, our strategy on this campaign is . . .”.

And at least once a week, remind yourself and others of the difference between strategy and tactics, in terms of the taking-a-trip example above.   Don’t hesitate to share the trip analogy with your copywriter, designer, and other marcom-service providers.  The better they understand your thinking, the better they can do their jobs for you.