What Is Strategy (and Why Should You Care)?

Trying to define strategy can feel a little crazymaking. Here's a useful, no-nonsense framework you can put to work today.

What is strategy? Hooray! Everyone’s favorite question! Just kidding. In reality, this is a topic that quickly makes very smart people pull their hair out. (Google results indicate that about 372,000 people have tried to define it—happy reading!)

I used to roll my eyes when people asked this question. Who cares?! Just get the work done! But during my 20-year journey in content strategy, I’ve come to recognize a really big, really common problem: When trying to develop content strategy, we find the larger organizational (or website, or product) strategies—or, worse, goals—aren’t clearly defined. What exactly are we trying to achieve, and why? These questions matter, and without a larger strategic framework to inform the content, you’re a little bit up a creek.

So, yes. We have to care.

I wrangled with understanding strategy for years before finally settling on a definition that makes sense to me in the realm of content strategy. In order to present that definition, I need to discuss strategy in context of the larger hierarchy of business planning. (Note that I did not invent any of these definitions—I’ve just cherry-picked the ones that make the most sense to me.)

Let’s talk through this using the example of an exercise equipment manufacturing company.

Vision

Your vision statement captures a desired future state of being. This is an aspirational statement that captures a huge, long-term change you hope to see in the world (or in your business) as a result of your very existence.

Example: A world in which exercise is an easy, accessible part of everyone’s everyday.

Mission

Your mission statement succinctly states what you exist to do. This is also a somewhat aspirational statement, but it captures the larger actions you are taking to bring your vision to life.

Example: We create practical programs and accessible equipment that empower everyone to exercise regularly.

Goals

Goals are long-term, concrete outcomes that contribute to the fulfillment of your mission. The “SMART” framework is useful when setting goals: specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused, and time-bound. I typically recommend businesses only set these one to three years out.

Example: Gain x% weight-lifting product market share by 2022.
Example: Improve online store customer satisfaction metrics by x% by 2020.

Note that these are longer-term outcomes that presumably require more than just tweaking your homepage content or selling x number of units through a certain store. They’re also not big, aspirational statements, like, “Be the leading provider of weight-lifting products”—that’s neither specific, results-focused, nor time-bound. They’re measurable results that define long-term business success.

Strategy

Strategy is where you will focus your efforts to achieve your goals, and how you will succeed—or, “where to play and how to win.” It defines a specific course of action that will take you from where you are now to where you want to be.

I see a lot of strategies that resemble missions, visions, or BHGs (big hairy goals). (Please bow down to my stellar consultant speak.) If a strategy statement is too all-encompassing, you get caught on the hamster wheel of trying to do everything all at once, which often results in a lot of busy work. In fact, one of strategy’s primary roles is to set constraints on the work you’ll do.

Here are some strategies that might map back to the goal of “Improve online customer satisfaction metrics by x%”:

Example: Complete a website redesign that’s centered on our target audience needs and preferences.
Example: Create an exercise-tracking app focused on top customer tasks.

Note that these are channel actions that don’t specifically say what must be done in order to execute them. These strategy statements also mention both “where to play” (website, app) and “how to win” (focus on the user, fulfill top tasks via mobile).

Why aren’t these goals? Because they’re not measurable outside of “done” or “not done”—which doesn’t mean a whole heck of a lot when it comes to business success. Instead, they’re directional statements that tell teams, “Here’s where you’re going to focus your efforts for a defined time period.” In other words, strategy tells you what to do … and, by default, what not to do (e.g., don’t include interactive chocolate chip cookie recipes in your app—people like cookies, but baking them is not a top task when they’re when they're exercising, at least not usually​).

Objectives

Objectives are specific outcomes that map back to your strategy. Objectives differ from strategy and goals in that they are measurable short-term outcomes. In fact, according to author Richard Rumelt, you can’t have strategy without objectives in that they comprise a “set of coherent actions.” (Here’s more information on Rumelt’s Kernel of Strategy—also, please go read his book, Good Strategy, Bad Strategy. I’ll wait.)

Here are some example objectives that map to the “Complete a user-centered website redesign” strategy statement.

Example: Understand our priority users’ “top tasks.”
Example: Create an information architecture that makes sense to our users, not just to us.
Example: Transform our website content to improve audience relevance, readability, and consistency.

Your objectives must fall within the constraints of strategy. This doesn’t mean you can’t have room for innovation or experimentation along the way—but it does mean that, if your strategy is to focus on a user-centered website, now is not the time to sink money into a six-part video series on the history of your company. (I’m sure it’s awesome, but I guarantee that is not at the top of your audiences’ “things I care about” list.)

Targets

Targets are the metrics you use to measure whether or not an objective has been achieved. These should act as mile-markers along the way to fulfilling strategy, demonstrating measurable forward movement.

Here are some targets that might measure, “Transform our website content to improve audience relevance, readability, and consistency”:

Example: Achieve 7th-grade reading level for all content.
Example: Online audience poll satisfaction results improve by 15%.
Example: Heuristic evaluation grades content consistency at x level (based on defined rankings).

Again, targets should be defined by specific metrics, either quantitative or qualitative.

Tactics

Tactics are the activities undertaken to achieve targets. These might appear on a project roadmap or job description. So, these tactics might be assigned to meet the target, “Online audience poll satisfaction results improve by 15%.”

Example: Conduct user research to define audience top tasks.
Example: Rewrite website content.
Example: Clean up metadata to ensure optimal content findability.

Fantastic. What’s next?

So, the million-dollar question is, where does content strategy fit in? This is a sticky subject, one which I’m going to explore in future posts. Hang tight.

A little light reading:

Kristina Halvorson is CEO of Brain Traffic, founder of Confab Events, and coauthor of Content Strategy for the Web

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