Social media at war: Strategy vs tactics

Social media at war: Strategy vs tactics

All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.

Sun Tzu – The Art of War

Last night’s Digital Citizens event in Sydney certainly ignited a lot of discussion about what constitutes ‘strategy’ and whether the word should be defined differently to ‘tactics’. Sadly,  we seem to be far from any kind of consensus, if today’s Twitter conversations are any indication, which I see as rather scary.

If marketers don’t understand the difference between strategy and tactics, what hope our clients? How can we possibly assess the effectiveness of the strategy pitches that were the focus of last night’s event when no one can agree on what the definition of a strategy actually is?

This debate also touches on another hot topic in Sydney social media circles this week. There has been some debate about what constitutes a social media expert, our attitude to those who claim to be one, and even whether it is possible to be an expert in such a field?

At the risk of throwing a grenade into the middle of both debates and pulling the pin – of course there can be experts in social media, even if it is a constantly shifting chaotic mess. And the answer lies in strategy.

As Sun Tzu pointed out at the top of this rant of mine, the confusion between tactics and strategy is certainly not new. ‘Tactics’ and ‘strategy’ are both military terms, so looking at them in these terms can shed a lot of light on how we should use them.

Side rant…

Before anyone suggests that war is not the same as marketing – and therefore the definitions should be open to personal interpretations that should be respected – Sun Tzu’s book is more commonly shelved under ‘marketing’ or ‘business’ in any bookstore, and not military theory. Create your own definitions of words if you must, but then I reserve the right to redefine any words that don’t fit my current viewpoint as well. No one person can ‘decide’ or have an opinion on what a word means any more than I can ‘decide’ how Twitter’s terms of conditions should be applied to me. So no, this isn’t a debate where we can respect each other’s personal opinions of what ‘strategy’ is. It’s a word. It has a meaning – one that is rather important to our day jobs. Therefore there is a clear right and wrong.

I just happen to be right… 😉

End of side rant.

Mastery of war through strategy

Sun Tzu was a master of war. There have been many others over the centuries; Hannibal, Napoleon, Wellington and more. And there have also been many other generals and military leaders we don’t talk of in history. Because they lost. History is told by the victors.

Yet the great generals and the bad all had their cavalries and infantry and cannons and battleships and whatever. So what did our successful generals know that everyone else didn’t?

Why – and here you’ll begin to see my point – were these generals expert at conquering lands in the chaos of war?

Katie Chatfield discusses on her blog the idea that no one can be a social media expert. She suggests – supported by Dave Snowdon’s Cynefin framework – that because social networks are disordered and ’cause and effect’ are only identifiable in retrospect, it is impossible to become expert in an environment that is so unpredictable.

I have to disagree. Sorry Katie. If social media is considered chaotic because of disorder and unpredictable behaviours, then war multiplies that chaos many times. Sure, you may have control over your own troops, just as a marketer has control over their own social media tools. But the enemy can be unpredictable. You don’t get to see their battle plans in advance. You don’t always get to inspect the terrain or analyse their weaponry first either.

The generals couldn’t predict the enemy’s attack any more than a business today can predict how many Facebook followers will ‘like’ their new campaign. They could estimate, sure. They could use prior experience, certainly. They could even use spies (or market research) for some indicators. But once the plan is put into action, anything can happen. And often does.

What the generals did have though – as Sun Tzu points out – is strategy. It is strategy that separates the expert general from the cannon fodder. Forget the battle, it’s the war that counts.

Onto the battlefield

Why did the Nazi’s invade northern Africa when their goal was the suppression of Europe? Strategy. Invading Egypt would have propped up Mussolini, a valuable ally. The strategy was spearheaded by Rommel who was adept at planning tank battles in the desert and knew how to deploy his resources effectively. Tactics.

Why did Hannibal take his historic route across the Alps with a staggering 38,000 infantry, 8000 cavalry and 37 war elephants? To avoid a Roman force marching from the Mediteranean coast while making his way into Italy ready for battle. Strategy. How did he manage to get his forces through such a difficult route? One approach was to get past rockfalls by using fire and vinegar to literally dissolve the boulders which were high in calcium. Tactics – and clever ones at that.

But the tactic only makes sense if you understand why Hannibal was taking such a difficult route in the first place. Many other armies could choose to cross mountain ranges with large casks of vinegar – the tactic is difficult but not impossible as Hannibal demonstrated – but unless you were avoiding a large Roman army heading for you, it would probably not be wise. Strategy dictates tactic – never the reverse.

Strategy is therefore more than just an idea, as some have suggested. An idea would be the annexation of Europe or the invasion of Rome. It is also more than a conceptual goal, such as Hitler’s new world order or Hannibal’s defense of Carthage against the advances of the Roman empire. A strategy is a choice, a decision to go one way rather than take any of the other various routes to your chosen goal, based on an understanding of the challenges.

Your goal combines with your previous experience, along with your knowledge of the battlefield, the strength of the enemy you face and your predictions of their behaviour, to create a strategy that accounts for all of these things. You want to invade Italy. The barrier is that you predict the Romans will attack from the East as you approach. Therefore, you move your army South over the Alps where they don’t expect. The strategy then dictates what tools should be used.

Therefore, listing a lot of social media tools and some basic engagement techniques is merely a scattergun set of tactics rather than a strategy. A detailed strategy might help identify the one or two tools that could be the focus of a concerted campaign with clear expectations.

Every battle has a loser just as there are many social media campaigns that have tanked. Saying that the disordered nature of social media is to blame, or losing sight of the difference between ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics’, is tantamount to surrender.