Is Social Media a Strategy or a Tactic?

by Shannon Paul on August 5, 2009

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The intent of social media should always do two things:

  1. bring down the barriers to communication inside and outside the organization; and
  2. encourage participation in a dialogue with stakeholders

Beyond these two things, doesn’t the rest basically fall into the category of selecting tactics?

The more I encounter and create social media strategy documents, the more I realize they’re basically all the same.

That said, it’s important to remember to keep creating them — I recently forgot this. While social media strategy may seem redundant ad nauseum in my experience, since I’ve come to live and breathe this stuff, it’s important to remember that everyone else doesn’t live inside my head.

I have a bad habit of throwing out tactics when others are really asking for strategy, because the basic tenets of the above strategy inform every idea and decision I make, and the strategy is obvious in my mind.

This is a problem because the above tenets need to be expressed.

So, I’m asking you to continue expressing them as a means of reminding myself to do the same. These things deserve repetition.

My advice: Keep writing strategies that explicitly encourage these two things:

  1. bring down the barriers to communication inside and outside the organization
  2. participation in a dialogue with stakeholders

Once you’ve expressed the importance of those two things and put them in alignment with business goals, you’re free to choose your tactic.

However, if you choose any tactic, no matter how trendy, or digital, or web-based, or interactive or social without the intent included in the above two tenets, you’re only fooling yourself.

If you think I’m wrong, please do me a favor and let me know. I started this blog as a means of putting my voice out there so I could learn from you and we could help each other along the way.

Am I missing something or do those two things need to be there before we attempt any tactic that involves what we all lovingly refer to as “social media”?

Photo by Merry~Blues
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{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

August 5, 2009 Stacy Lukas 1

You’ve stripped it down to the bare bones that many of us often overlook, and I’m glad you wrote this. It serves as a reminder to take a deep breath, step back, and take a look at the big picture.

I think you’re right on target, and 1 & 2 are crucial in order to 3) to encourage (positive) dialogue between stakeholders and stakeholders about your brand, which is both a strategy and an objective.


August 5, 2009 CathyWebSavvyPR 2

Um, thought provoking post, but you didn’t Really answer the question you posed in the title of your post. Could you verbalize your definitions. It is a question clients ask.

It seems to me that Social Media is a tool (or series of tools) that should be considered as tactics for possible use in integrated Media (PR/Marketing) strategies/plans.

Social media is not right for all companies, businesses, and organizations. Neither is every Social media tool/site; each has strengths, weaknesses and different (though often overlapping audiences, with different reasons for using one site/tool over the other). I keep hearing employees at organizations complain that every time their boss hears about something new, they have to add it into the mix. I’m sure you agree that THAT is NOT the ideal way to implement any strategy, tactic or tool!

Great stuff, keep it coming


August 5, 2009 Gwynne 3

Good reminders, Shannon. I would like, tho, to abstract your One and Two up one more level to the “Why” level.

I think that it’s critical to identify why it’s important to “bring down the barriers to communication inside and outside the organization and to participate in a dialogue with stakeholders.” I am not disagreeing that these are valuable, but why are they important for specific organizations? How do these strategies meet the corporate goal?

In some cases, the answer may be, “it doesn’t.” In many, it makes sense to tie directly to mission/goals.

Thanks for laying this out.


August 6, 2009 Henriette Hedløv 4

I think the “why” talkes for itself actually. Sosial media changes the way we relate to others and communicate our thoughts and experiences, find information, do shopping, get help with things and help others. Societies become more democratic and desentralisation of power from established gatekeepers and opinion leaders to the people will arise.

“Everything” in the world is at your fingertip 24/7. People’s expectations of interacting with others are changing. Companies that are not accessible for dialog, feedback or comments through other than a web form or a 1-800-number will not survive for very long.

People are talking about companies, brands, persons all over the world with an incredible speed and strenght. Companies do no longer control their brand messages – the customers do.

In my opinion these are the reason why all companies, organisations and official persons should be present in social media one way or another. How and where are tactices, but the impact of being present will force other strategies to be revised.


August 6, 2009 Justin 5

I think you bring up some great points, Heriette, but I still agree with Gwynne that the “why” part is very important.

In my opinion, social media most certainly is a tactic. It represents the process by which content is being spread online. It represents the tools, technologies and principles (through a study of actions interacting with these tools), but does not directly carry with it the complete strategy viewpoint.

Shannons two important intents are part of the greater strategy, which should carry along with it the “why” part–the part that is customized for every client, company or organization when you are putting together a strategy. Then you seek out the appropriate tactics, which is where the appropriate social media elements may apply.

However, the strategy goes far beyond the limitations and scrutiny of social media. The strategy encompasses all parts of engagement. This is how you create a strategy that is sustainable and transformative for any business. This is also what becomes quantitative.


August 5, 2009 david hargreaves 6

This is a very good question. I hate to say it but I think it can be both.

Social media as a strategy: If I want to reach an audience that I know is 95% of which is online in a defined number of online destination, then the best strategy is probably to exectue a campaign that exclusively exploits social media campaign channels.

Social media as a tactic: If I want to change the opinions of 50+ year old men who play golf then I might choose a strategy which involves setting up a national golf fitness program for 50+ which is then executed through a number of tactics which include social media channels as well as phsyical events at golf clubs around the country.

Maybe this isn’t the best example but hopefully it challenges the view that there is a definitive answer.


August 6, 2009 Mark J. Carter 7

Great question!

It seems any informational writer (blogs, print or otherwise) can get so caught up in their own wealth of expertise that it’s important to bring things back to basics.

Your two points are great questions to ask yourself as a social media consultant or professional and can help us all keep focused and on track.

Love it as a starting point, looking forward to more articles and answers to questions!


August 6, 2009 Robert Wheatley 8

Your are right and you are right. The strategy is open dialogue, relationship creation, transparency and community. The tactic is social media platforms, as appropriate to the brand audience.


August 6, 2009 Robbin Block 9

This reminds me of a term used by a high-level marketing person used at a large wireless company I used to work for — “tactical strategy” which made my ears bleed. Ouch. Talk about sitting on the fence.

Social media is part of the promotional mix (the classic personal selling, PR, advertising and sales promotion). Whether it should have its own category or not reminds me of the debate around direct marketing, relationship marketing, Web marketing, et al. A company’s promotional strategy may be comprised of the right allocation of these components, but they’re not strategies in and of themselves. They’re channels.

So what side of the fence am I on? Neither (hey, someone had to go for this POV). Sure, you can take a strategic approach to how you use SM to accomplish your objectives and you can make choices about the tools you use to execute on those strategies, which is tactical, but at the end of the day, it’s a channel. Now it’s your turn. Bring it on.


August 6, 2009 Beth Harte 10


Thanks for bringing up this important topic…with all the talk around social media measurement, it’s something we all need to keep discussing. ;-)

Cathy asked for definitions, so here are the typical ones:

Strategy: What is the approach to achieving objectives and reaching the goal?

Tactic: What activities will be conducted to carryout specific objectives?

That would mean social media is the strategy and things like Twitter (tweeting), Facebook (friending), etc. would be the tactics.

We have to remember that strategies and tactics are useless without having a goal (one goal per plan) and measurable objectives in place first. If we don’t know what our goal & objectives are, how can we even know if the strategy of social media and tactics like Twitter, Facebook, forums, blogs, etc. are even the right ones?

Your strategies above are only correct if they help meet — AND are in alignment — with corporate goals.

It can be tempting to put the cart before the horse, but organizations really need to make sure that social media fits their goal & objectives jumping on the trail.

Beth Harte
Community Manager, MarketingProfs


August 6, 2009 Ari Herzog 11

I agree with your definitions but disagree social media is the strategy and social networking sites are tactics.

Within those two containers, I view social media as the tactic. Social media encompasses a set of activities to fulfill specific objectives, be it through Twitter, Facebook, Yelp, blogging, music or video sharing, etc.


August 7, 2009 Beth Harte 12

Ari, you can disagree all you want…but tools are tactics. Twitter, direct mail, Facebook, email, LinkedIn, events…they are all tactics.

Tools change and go away…look at Twitter and Facebook being down yesterday. Would you say “my strategy was down?” No…

Social media and the ability to have a conversation with constituents is a strategy. If you are just chatting away on Twitter (a tool) without a strategy (to connect with customers in an effort to reduce customer service expenditures) then you are wasting time, resources and budget.

Anyone who has written measurable plans would understand this.

That’s the problem with the term “social media.” It has two meanings.

Beth Harte
Community Manager, MarketingProfs


August 7, 2009 Ari Herzog 13

Beth, suppose you are right and social media is a strategy and email is a tactic.

What of other media channels a company decides to use?

- Would you call broadcast media a strategy and TV and radio tactics?

- Would you call print media a strategy and newspapers, newsletters, and corporate brochures tactics?

Or… would you call media a strategy and its various formats – online, broadcast, print, etc. – tactics?


August 7, 2009 Robbin Block 14

I’m with Ari. You can use SM strategically (but it is not a strategy), i.e., we’ll use SM tools, like a blog, to “encourage participation in a dialogue with stakeholders” to increase usage over the next 6 months by suggesting and gathering ideas for new and exciting ways to use our product.

Think how well this would have worked for Arm&Hammer baking soda.

August 7, 2009 Beth Harte 15

Ari, Just to be clear, this isn’t *my* opinion. Goals, objectives, strategies, and tactics have been defined and implemented for decades.

In regards to your examples…A company has a broadcast strategy and the tactics for that strategy include online, radio and TV. If they have a print media strategy that could include newspapers, publications, newsletters.

Social media could be a strategy for customer service to decrease phone support costs…the tactics they might use include Twitter, a blog and a forum.

Might I suggest you read Katie Payne’s book, “Measuring Public Relationships?” It’s excellent and explains this type of stuff in detail. Or, you can just sit in on my MarketingProfs seminar on Social Media Measurement on 8/20. ;-)


August 7, 2009 Anonymous 16

Thanks, always good to hear debate about how to get value out of social media.

It seems very sensible to be talking strategy and tactics, even measureable objectives. I’d be interested in hearing how achivement of such objectives is typcially measured in practice though? Are we talking judgement by the implementation team, tactic by tactic, as and when? Or is it a robust review of the ‘dwindling communication barriers’ on a regular basis?
To what extent are changes in the landscape considered when relating back to the original success critera, etc., etc.?

As you say, it’s important to set the right goals & objectives but how can we tell if they are the right ones and they are supporting corporate goals?

I look forward to hearing about real life experiences, as it’s probably much simplier than I thought:-)


August 7, 2009 Jane Hales 17

oops, it’s no good asking for responses on ‘real life experiences’ if you don’t know who you are telling them to.

Jane. aka anonymous Aug 7th


August 7, 2009 Beth Harte 18


Planning isn’t easy and a lot of companies avoid it like the plague.

You have to know what your goal is and then have measurable objectives to meet that goal…after that strategies & tactics are selected for each objective.

A measurable objective MUST include the following:

1. A specific desire communication or behavioral effect;
2. A designated target audience among whom the effect is to be achieved;
3. The expected level of attainment; and
4. The timeframe in which those attainments are to occur.

For example: I want to lose 10 pounds by August 15th

And yes, all of this is measurable…the objectives, the tactics (amount spent & results) and ROI.

Not to be self-promotional here (very sorry Shannon!!), but I will be doing an online seminar on social media measurement for MarketingProfs on 8/20. ( that you might be interested in (it’s $129 for non-members).

Hope this helps.

Beth Harte
Community Manager, MarketingProfs


August 6, 2009 Mandy Vavrinak 19


Love that you took a complicated topic and really tackled the core of it. It’s a talent to be able to see into the heart of problems. :)
I feel as Beth does… a plan must start with a goal (the big What);
the objectives for the goal (Why we care about What);
strategies for achieving the objectives (How are we going to share Why we care about What?);
and then tactics that support each strategy (What, specifically, are we going to Do, in what way, and how does it achieve the big What?)
I do think your two big principles should be driving forces behind social media initiatives. I just don’t see them as strategies… they are above that level in my view. A strategy might be to increase the number of visits to our web site, with the objective of increasing online sales. The tactic might be to use Twitter and Facebook to engage online communities and promote the (presumably great) content on our blog (which resides on our web site…) All this to achieve the overall goal of reducing our exposure to profit fluctuations because of renegotiated lease rates on store space across the country. *whew*

Mandy Vavrinak
Crossroads Communications, LLC


August 6, 2009 Tamara Sullivan 20

You definitely are right on target with this one. I run into the same problem and have to back tracking when I have all these tactics in my head and I need to take care of strategy creation first. Being aligned with your companies goals will make a smooth pathway into delivering a strong brand message.


August 7, 2009 Sue Spaight 21

Strategy versus tactic is always a fun debate, because let’s face it, there is no one right answer. Haven’t you written a plan where one thing, depending on how you define its role, could be positioned on either a strategic OR a tactical level? I have, many times. So, in my opinion, social media is NEITHER a strategy nor a tactic – at least not across the board/one right answer.

That said, I disagree that “social media and the ability to have a conversation with constituents” is a strategy, at least in those terms. Maybe that’s just semantics. SocMe is a category, a toolset. And I wholeheartedly agree with Mandy that the strategy is more effectively defined as “HOW we are going to share” – in more specific terms.

Best Buy Twelpforce tactic as a (rhetorical) example:

Objective: Increase customer satisfaction with their customer service experience by X%, or improve response times, or reduce costs, or whatever it really is.

Strategy: Deeply engage Best Buy employee base and empower them with a personal stake in resolving customer issues. (not “social media”; specifically HOW we are going to use social media. What road are we taking up the mountain?)

Tactic: Twelpforce (part of social media toolset)

Make sense? Great discussion! Thanks.


August 7, 2009 metricsman 22

Good post, Shannon. There is always a lot of confusion between Objectives, Strategies and Tactics (usually between Objectives and Strategies more so than Strategies and Tactics. I agree with Beth H on her definitions, although I believe the use of Goals is optional. Here are the simple definitions I use:

Objective*: What you want to accomplish
Strategy: How you intend to achieve the Objective
Tactic: Using or with what tools and techniques.

These definitions would support Beth’s assertion that ‘tools are tactics’.

-Don B @donbart

* to be measurable the Objective must include change in key metric (e.g. Awareness) and a time frame. “Increase awareness” is not measurable. “Increase awareness from 17% to 35% in the next 12 months” is measurable.


August 7, 2009 Mary Barber 23

What a great discussion here. Planning is certainly the key to the whole picture because unless you have a plan you really don’t know where you’re going — or if you’re successful. You’re then just executing “stuff” to make noise and be present. Once you have a bit of research and can define your measurable objectives and target audiences, the answer become more clear.

In my case, social media is almost always a tactic based on a broader/engagement type strategy. I think a lot of this, as others have said, comes down the definition of strategy versus tactic.

Again, I boil it down fairly simply: the strategy is the road/route you’re going to take in order to achieve your objectives. Along the way you’re going to use different methods of transportation (tactics) to get yourself to the end of your journey.

Thanks for the great discussion. It is wonderful to see everyone’s viewpoints.


August 7, 2009 Owen Greaves 24

The soft side of business has been for the most part over-looked and sent to the corner, until now. Social Media is breaking most of the rules, it’s making business personal once again, the experience a customer has matters now more than ever. But don’t get confused as to what Social Media is, it is a Medium, the Internet is a Platform that Social Media uses to change the world. All these Social Media Networks are layers of emotional connection and it also serves as a broadcasting mechanism.
I’m not convinced Social Media is a Strategy or a Tactic. I would dare to say that Social Media is no different than Radio, Television,or a number of other marketing tools. Which plays a role in strategy and tactic of a business marketing plan.


August 8, 2009 Dirk Singer 25

An interesting point (and discussion overall).

On ‘social media is neither a strategy or a tactic’, this reminds me of what an industry colleague constantly tells me.

Her POV, when it comes to campaigns: “there is only great content. If you have good content, it will fly wherever.”

And as you say Owen, you then use the Web / social media as just another channel for that content much as you would print, radio, TV etc

Now she is saying this partially because she is a social media sceptic who thinks that people like me spend way too much time ruminating about things like this!

Her statement, despite being simplistic, has also made me think.

Do we spend too much time thinking about the mechanism when we should, as before, be concentrating on the core concepts first and the implementation route a distant second?


August 8, 2009 Owen Greaves 26

The problem is really quit simple, we are looking for the Holy Grail. We want the shortcut to success, we want things to be simple and 100% successful when we do it.
Social Media is nothing more than another way to get exposure, to drive people to a destination.
Which means Social Media is another Medium, it is part of a Strategy, it is also part of Tactics.
The core is your Business Plan, your Marketing Strategy, the core is how you make your money. Social Media is a Medium you might use to help Brand, to help build credibility and maybe build community. No different than what would be considered traditional ways of Marketing.
Then again, I could be wrong :)


August 8, 2009 Robbin Block 27

Owen, glad we’re on the same page about neither.


August 10, 2009 MarcJam 28

Very good debate about strategy and tactics. Most areas have been highlighted in the comments. But I would like to emphasise the topic of measuring the impact of social media strategy and tactics. Whether this is reputation, client satisfaction or sales. Let’s be honest, we’re in business and business have business objectives. Defining a strategy and tactics without having clearly defined Key Performance Indicators is like putting the cart before the horse. The reality is that the higher you get into organisations, the more relevant this question becomes: What is the ROI on my social media investment?


August 11, 2009 Clay Hebert 29


Technically you could make the case that it falls into #1 but I would add “listening” to your list.

There are lots of tactics on how to listen to the conversations about your company or brand but the fact is, the conversations are happening and many companies are blissfully unaware.

I was talking to Chase Bank about this recently. They haven’t jumped into social yet but they also aren’t listening. Multiple “anti-Chase Bank” twitter accounts and blogs exist.

They aren’t listening and they need to be.


August 11, 2009 Jackie Adkins 30

I like the distinction between tactic and strategy. I think it is easy for us to get caught up in preaching on the social media tactics that are effective, but the important thing is WHY the tactics are important, which is where the strategy comes in.

I think this may fall under #2, but I’d say that adding value to your followers is important in social media. If you aren’t giving people a reason to follow you, your other tactics are going to be futile.


August 11, 2009 Asya Shalimova 31

That’s timely:) I’ve just understand I keep throwing tactics at my boss all the time, and he keeps denying every single social media idea… so thanks a lot for reminding that not everyone thinks the way we do.

The thing that is still a bit unclear to me about social media strategy – can it be implemented in a way to get new customers, or is it a tool to communicate with existing ones only.


August 12, 2009 latinminds 32

Good to keep in mind, thanks. I would add a 3rd point to your recommendation when writing strategies, tho.

Understanding the basic need of the audience is key. I know this might sound “obvious” or “by default” but without it, the content (tactics) can not for see a long lasting life.

Again, thanks for starting this dialogue, it’s fascinating.


August 22, 2009 Doug Menzer 33

Well put! Increasingly, I have had many close business colleagues, clients and prospects ask me to focus on the difference between tactics and strategy.

Thanks for communicating this concisely and creating excellent open dialogue. I was just able to respond to another great discussion (on topic) referencing (you and) this post. Keep up the great work.


September 9, 2009 mikey7321 34

Good post, especially since it starts by talking about social media as a tactic, I think a lot of companies forget this.

The true definition of a social media tactic is when an organization, user, or group does something in a social media channel.

For example if a user starts posting videos of various hotels on YouTube in order to promote the travel industry, we identify this person as a creator using video uploading as a social media tactic. There’s a lot of social media tactics out there, to name few: blogging, tweeting, rating, reviewing.

A collection of social media tactics done over a period of time – coupled with a business, marketing or branding goal is consider a social media strategy.

I would even go as far to say that a collection of social media tactics done over a period of time – coupled with a business, marketing or branding goal is consider a social media strategy. But within each social media tactic there should be a tactical game plan.

For example: The social media tactic is an iPhone Application. For this tactic we would identify a tactical game plan which includes the following:

How do you build the iPhone Application (design and development)
Updates and maintenance
Goals and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)
Off-site analytics and On-site analytics.

Are all social media strategies the same? I would argue no, but I would also say that social media strategies should rate directly back to a goal (either marketing, branding or something else).

I thought this post was so good and brought up questions that my company deals with from almost every business we talk to. As social media strategists we need to start defining these terms – like web designers did with ‘persons’ not long ago.

Mike Lis


September 9, 2009 Owen Greaves 35

It boggles the mind that we spend so much time worrying about whether something is a Tactic or Strategic. If you don’t have a business plan to tie your technology to, it’s has no impact nor does it fall under a catagory.


November 2, 2009 johnfurgurson 36

There’s a lot of confusion about the difference between strategy and tactics. And it’s not just semantics. It’s important because so many executives just throw more tactics into the mix, like social media efforts, with little or no thought given to the overall strategy. For more insight on this, check out the Brand Insight Blog.


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