Strategy vs. Tactics in higher education

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory, tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” 

Sun Tzu, Ancient Chinese Military strategist

Strategy vs. tactics. These terms are often a real source of confusion for marketers, even experienced ones. You can write the most beautiful strategic plan in the world, but if you fail to think about and incorporate tactics (the tools and techniques to execute it), the plan usually sits on a shelf without ever actually being implemented.  

On the other hand, without a strategy (the direction and guiding principles) in place, tactics become merely one-off attempts to get something done. That something often ends up being vague or ill-defined. Your orphan tactics may score a few small victories here and there, but in the grand scheme of things, you don’t really move your college forward or accomplish your goals in any meaningful way.

It’s a little bit like drawing an image of a beautiful building you want to construct and then going out and buying a bunch of construction material to try to build it — without a blueprint that shows you how. Needless to say, that building is going to remain just a nice image on a piece of paper unless the vision, the blueprint, and the building materials are all in place.

It’s a Process

With our long track record in higher ed consulting and marketing, VisionPoint takes on many projects every year to develop creative strategies for our clients and determine the most effective tactics to implement them. We have a straightforward process that we follow for each and every project:

  • We start with research to understand a client’s goals, audiences, resources, and position within the competitive landscape.
  • We use our research to identify marketing goals and key performance indicators. 
  • Once we know our client and where we're going, we create the high-level marketing strategies that inform the tactics we choose to move the plan forward

Many marketers will read the process above and say, “That sounds great. Let’s do it!” However, they may also be secretly thinking, “So, what exactly is the difference between a tactic and a high-level strategy? And which comes first?” Those are great questions and we’ll try to answer them clearly for you.

Before Strategy vs.Tactics: Research and Goal-Setting

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of strategy or tactics, it’s useful to take a step back and remember that all successful strategic and tactical plans begin with research, careful planning — and goals.

Behind every good strategy is a good goal: a specific, measurable objective (for example, increasing applications, enrollment, retention, brand awareness, philanthropic investment, etc).

Investing in big-picture thinking and planning leads to the development of strategy that is more likely to be successful — and to choosing tactical combinations that have a greater likelihood of success when it comes to implementing your strategy.

Understanding Your SWOT, Your Audience, Your Mission

What are some of the things you need to think about before you get down to determining goals? First you need to step back and take a true measure of your current landscape. You need:

  • An understanding of your SWOT: your institution’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. You need to be clear about your organization’s current resources, assets and positioning in comparison to its peers (e.g., culture, offerings, unique attributes and differentiators, values, etc.)
  • An awareness of audience: both your existing audience and any audiences you want to reach, but haven’t yet. Knowing who is best-suited and most likely to connect with your institution’s brand message informs many of the strategic and tactical choices you make in creating and executing your plan. 
  • Your vision/mission for your institution: what do you stand for and how will the world be better in the next 5 years because of your institution?

Aligning Goals and Priorities

Most institutions have many goals they want to achieve, from positioning goals (like “promote a sense of our culture”) to marketing goals (like “increase awareness among transfer student audiences”) to enrollment goals (like “increase the applicant pool by X%”). 

What’s important is that you establish goals that align with your institution’s most critical priorities. Without clear goals, you risk making your marketing decisions in silos. Establishing big-picture goals means that all of your institution’s marketing decisions – from the strategies you outline, to the content you create, to the vendors you choose, down to the social media platforms you invest in — are all in pursuit of your goals.

“Intuition is great and definitely has a role to play at the goal setting stage,” advises Diane Kuehn, President and CEO of VisionPoint Marketing, “but solid strategy should inform what you do AND what you don't do. The smartest strategies (and tactics) are determined by careful analysis and an open-eyed assessment of the facts. The moral of the story is: do your research and know yourself.”

The S.M.A.R.T Way of Setting Goals

How do you come up with good goals and objectives? Back in 1981, George T. Doran offered some advice that has stood the test of time. Writing in the  November 1981 issue of the American Management Association Review, Doran outlined a S.M.A.R.T process for setting goals and objectives. They should be:

  • Specific: target a specific area for improvement
  • Measurable: quantify or at least suggest an indicator of progress
  • Assignable: specify who will do it
  • Realistic: stte what results can realistically be achieved, given available resources
  • Time-related: specify when the result(s) can be achieved

In fact, this kind of process is how we begin any project for every VisionPoint client: we start with a clear understanding of who the client is, where they want to go, and what resources they have, or need, to get them there. From that point forward, every idea, every creative choice, every metric, every decision is rooted in and inspired by that thoughtful, goal-driven strategy.

“Given the highly competitive environment that most educational institutions are operating in,” says Kuehn, “it’s really important to sit back and take in the big picture before you begin to think about specific strategies and the tactics you need to achieve them. Successful higher ed marketing requires a solid understanding of where you are and where you want to go in order to be successful — and that holds true for every type of educational institution.”

So, What Exactly Is a Strategy?

 “To have the power that only strategy can bring, you must be able to elevate yourself above the battlefield, to focus on your long-term objective, to craft an entire campaign, to get out of the reaction mode that so many battles in life lock you into. Keeping your overall goals in mind, it becomes much easier to decide when to fight and when to walk away.” 

Robert Greene, The 33 Strategies of War

 You’ve determined your goals, now it’s time to get back to strategy and tactics. But, first, let’s get something straight: Strategies and tactics aren’t a chicken/egg question. One of them definitely and clearly comes first, and that’s strategy.

A marketing strategy can be defined as an actionable recommendation for leveraging an institution's strengths and opportunities to achieve goals while avoiding a threat or weakness. Phew. That’s a mouthful. 

Earlier on we mentioned that strategy is meant to provide direction. In marketing, that means direction for the execution of a marketing plan throughout the life of the project. In many cases, strategies will also note how finite resources (staff, budget, etc.) can be leveraged to accomplish a marketing goal.

Blueprint will help you determine your higher ed marketing strategy

Your Strategy is Your Game Plan

Let’s look at an example: a small private college with a dedicated alumni community has a goal to expand enrollment. A strategy to accomplish that goal might look something like this:

“We will leverage alumni stories and experiences to prove the return on investment of a degree from the institution while focusing on overturning misconceptions about the higher cost of a private school education.” 

This strategy capitalizes on one of the institution’s strengths — a dedicated alumni community — while clearly stating where they want their strategic focus to be — convincing prospective students that a degree from XYZ institution is affordable and has a great ROI.

“As a sports fan, I find it helpful to think of your strategies as your game plan,” says one of VisionPoint’s strategy pros, Vice President, Matt Walters. “Everyone sees the plays that get called on Sundays (the tactics). But coaches spend the entire week game-planning, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of their own team and their opponent (SWOT). That’s how they decide what plays to call in various situations to win (the goal). Marketing planning is really no different.

“For example,” Walters continues, “if you know from your SWOT that most prospective students who meet with a faculty member during their school exploration process are more likely to enroll, you can build a strategy around leveraging the power of those faculty meetings to take a more personal approach in your marketing.”

Plugging Leaks in the Marketing Funnel

When you are thinking about strategy, you also need to take stock of the current state of your marketing funnel — the decision-making journey your students take through their earliest awareness, to their consideration of your institution, to their ultimate decision to apply or enroll. Where are the leaks in the funnel? Are you saturating top-of-the funnel awareness activities, but struggling for conversions because the bottom of the funnel is poorly conceived? Are you concentrating your efforts in the middle and getting stuck between low awareness at the top and a lack of conversions on the bottom? Whatever your situation, you need to create strategies to plug the leaks and move your prospects forward toward your final goal.

High-level marketing strategies should be the backbone of any higher ed marketing plan, providing direction for the tactical investment of finite resources and a game plan for achieving your marketing goal.

Once you’ve identified the people you’re trying to attract, examined your institution’s SWOT, determined your goals, and written a your high-level strategies to achieve them, then it’s finally time to talk tactics.

 What Are Tactics?

 “Strategy is the art of commanding the entire military operation. Tactics, on the other hand, is the skill of forming up the army for battle itself and dealing with the immediate needs of battlefield.” 

Robert Greene, The 33 Strategies of War

Simply put, tactics are the actions and tools — marketing channels, timelines, budgets, metrics, and resources — used to execute the marketing plan. In other words, tactics are practical executions of the marketing strategy. These are the more granular things most marketers focus on each day.

Think about all the various marketing channels at your disposal – your website, digital marketing, billboards, direct mail, email marketing, your CRM, even athletic events – and brainstorm potential tactics for engaging your audiences at each stage of their relationship with your institution. 

Choosing the right tactics for your higher ed marketing campaign

Choosing the Right Tactics

Remember the example strategy we talked about earlier?

“We will leverage alumni stories and experiences to prove the return on investment of a degree from the institution while focusing on overturning misconceptions about the higher cost of a private school education,” 

Let’s look at some of the tactics you could use to execute on that strategy:

  • Publish 3 SEO-optimized stories each month of successful alumni, on your website or blog, focusing on how each one’s educational experience at your institution helped them achieve their career goals.
  • Create a nurture email campaign for prospective students: a series of personalized emails from various alumni focusing on different aspects of their own campus experiences. 
  • Create an infographic to promote on social media that addresses common misconceptions prospective students face when researching private schools; incorporate quotes, photos, and tips from real alumni.
  • Create a brochure (or other printed collateral) to be distributed at recruiting events to inform prospective students about financial aid options and highlighting scholarship opportunities funded by alumni who believe strongly in your institution.
  • Showcase alumni testimonials (quotes) in online advertising campaigns with a wide geographic target.
  • Offer opportunities for prospective students to connect with alumni to discuss their experiences at the college.
  • Promote alumni testimonial videos on social media to raise brand awareness, increase engagement and encourage sharing among prospective students.

Blogs, infographics, printed collateral, digital advertising, events, videos, email marketing — these are just a few of the tools supporting the tactics you can use to implement your overall strategy.

 Aligning Resources and Strategy

That said, you can’t do everything; after all, no one has limitless resources. When you are talking tactics, keep a few points in mind:

  • Remember your strategies! Which tactics best serve those strategies? Focus on those. Which tactics don’t seem to align? Cross them off the list. You’re always better off investing in tactics that will decisively implement your strategies.
  • Think about what’s realistic. Examine your budget and use the tactics that you can afford and that will give you the best ROI. Blowing the entire social media budget on one flashy campaign might get you a lot of “Likes” in the short term, but it will leave you without the resources to move your strategy forward over the longer term.
  • Invite feedback. Including other stakeholders is a great way to double-check your choice of tactics against your identified goals and strategies.

“Ultimately,” says VisionPoint CEO Kuehn, “your goal is to end up with an optimized selection of goal-driven channels and tactics that will execute your strategy well. This eliminates the whole strategy vs. tactics conundrum because instead, they are both working together.”

Where the Hiccups Often Occur

We’ve seen that strategy vs. tactics isn’t just a question of semantics, but of clearly recognizing and understanding the differences before you can make them work in tandem to achieve your goals. But no one is perfect and we often see these common mistakes when it comes to juggling strategy and tactics:

  • Not getting the chicken/egg bit right: too many institutions begin their marketing planning by focusing on specific tactics without building a strong foundation of goals and strategies to inform their tactical decisions.
  • Bad tactical timing: for instance, launching a digital campaign to raise awareness of your school during the holiday marketing season when everyone’s digital attention is firmly glued to online shopping is not a recipe for success. Remember Matt Walters’ sports analogy earlier: It’s all about calling the right plays at the right time given the game situation.
  • Lack of resources/knowledge: if you do not have enough know-how to plan and implement your strategies, you are not setting up for success. (That’s where a great higher ed marketing agency like VisionPoint can help!)
  • Unrealistic expectations: ambition is great, but it’s important to know the difference between a stretch goal and a completely unrealistic one. Is your timeframe overly optimistic? Do you lack the budget and resources to implement your strategy? Adjust your goals, if necessary, but don’t set up your strategy for failure before it even gets going. 
  • You don’t have buy-in from all the teams involved: for higher ed marketing to truly be effective everyone should be on board and sharing a consistent vision when it comes to your institution’s strategies and the tactics used to implement them.

“Buy-in is critical.That’s why we take a highly consultative approach when we create marketing strategies for our clients,” says VisionPoint’s Creative Director, Tony Poillucci. “We want to make certain that everyone involved is on the same page and reaching for the same goals before we even begin to talk about tactics.”

The Order of Operations: Bringing it All Together

“Tactics are the what. Strategy is the why. Tactics are the actions. Strategy is the planning.  Tactics may achieve goals. Strategy is all about setting the right goals.”  

Lynn Parker, Startup Strategies 

 If there’s one thing we’ve learned throughout our experience in higher education consulting, it’s that every institution has something unique to offer. We also know that it’s a very competitive environment out there. Unique marketing strategies are key in focusing an institution’s efforts to capitalize on their strengths, overcome weaknesses, and stand out from the competition to accomplish goals. Tactics are specific ways we bring strategies to life each day. Both are equally important to accomplishing your institution's overall goals and making the most of your marketing efforts.

Three Steps to Marketing Success

To recap, as with mathematics there is a very specific order of operations that should occur for marketing to be successful:

  1. Know your situation: Set goals that arise from a deep understanding of your place in the landscape.
  2. Set clear, realistic goals: Build a roadmap with actionable recommendations for leveraging your institution’s strengths and opportunities to achieve your goals.
  3. Choose Your Tactics: In line with budget and resources, determine the best combination of tactics to invest in to implement your strategy, along with realistic timelines, budgets, reporting metrics, and roles and responsibilities for the execution of the high-level marketing strategies.
  4. VisionPoint Marketing can help your institution develop and hone your marketing strategies and use the right mix of tactics to implement your strategies successfully. If you’ve still got questions about strategies and tactics, we’d love to answer them. Leave a comment below or reach out to our team. We’re always ready to brainstorm strategies and talk tactics!

 VisionPoint Marketing can help your institution develop and hone your marketing strategies and use the right mix of tactics to implement your strategies successfully. If you've still got questions about strategies and tactics, we'd love to answer them. Leave a comment below or reach out to our team. We're always ready to brainstorm strategies and talk tactics!