Why Strategic Thinking Is So Hard for Digital Marketers
March 5, 2019

Why Strategic Thinking Is So Hard for Digital Marketers

by Brian de Haaff

“Marketers are often relegated to the doers and order-takers as opposed to being the thinkers in the business.” Not my words. Someone left these comments on a blog post I wrote about why marketers need strategy. That article hit a nerve, especially with digital marketers, and I know why. You are the ones who should be driving the business towards new growth opportunities. So, why is it all doing and not enough thinking?

Because many marketers are mired in low-level, tactical work — which blocks out the big picture.

That big picture is of course strategy. And when it gets blocked out, you miss the opportunity to make a real impact — to drive the growth of the business. Strategy is essential to this because it reveals exactly where you are going and why.

Yet if you are like many digital marketers, you are still operating outside of this strategic mindset. I understand why. It often comes down to organizational issues. Maybe your company leaders have not set a clear direction, so the entire organization is unsure of how work should be prioritized. Or maybe the company’s sales strategy shifts from month to month. These challenges in direction lead everyone to scramble around, working on dozens of different tasks — none of which connect to a larger plan.

And since nearly all marketing work today is digital, everyone needs help from you as the expert. Except it is hard to be the expert when you are stuck in that confusing, tactical mess. You are spending your days checking off tasks and reacting to requests, rather than thinking about why and what comes next.

Remember why you got into marketing in the first place — to deliver an important message that leads to action, and to be an expert, the strategic driver behind the growth of the business. Yes, that means meeting the requests of your organization. But it also means you must know why you are doing all that work in the first place.

Here is how you can flex and grow your strategic thinking as a digital marketer:

Be goal-first
I wrote earlier that you need to know why — this is the core of strategy. You need to know where your company wants to be and you need a vision for how your marketing efforts will support that. Write this vision down in a few quick sentences. And then validate it with your team leader and the team. These might be hard conversations, but you need to get aligned on both purpose and tactics.

Be customer-aware
Another good step to becoming more strategic is deeply knowing your audience — the people most likely to buy your product or service. You want to know everything, not just basic demographics. This is best done by creating buyer personas, documenting key information such as behavioral characteristics. Then research and document market size and growth potential, competitive activity, and risk factors.

Be skeptical
Use your goals and market awareness to get skeptical about your digital marketing work. Get in the habit of gently questioning every request or activity that comes your way through the lens of your target audience. Are you distributing content through channels that buyers use and trust? Is your ad copy resonating with the landing page you send people to? Do not assume that the answer is yes.

Be data-clear
Data will help you answer those questions for yourself and the team. But be careful how you pull and talk about that data. You cannot simply capture a big dump of numbers and shoot it off in an email. Rather, you need to think through the information that is most relevant and be able to translate your findings — explaining the relevance and how it could impact existing campaigns and inform future tests.

Be bold
Strategic thinking takes boldness. You need to be able to say “no” to the work that will not drive meaningful growth — even if it is a popular trend or something that everyone else seems to be doing. For instance, maybe your competitors are all jumping to run native ads on a new social media platform. But you know it will not help you accomplish your goals because your buyers are not there. Have the courage to say no and stick to the work that you know is right for your audience and what you want to accomplish.

You should be known as the digital marketing expert who drives the growth of the business — not the person who is simply taking orders.

In order for this to happen, you need to be a strong strategic thinker, especially in an environment where no one else is. This is a mindset. It is what will elevate you to the role of expert — leading you out of the day-to-day tasks and into the kind of big-picture thinking that your team needs.

How do you practice strategic thinking in marketing?

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Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 roadmap software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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