The art of war is of vital importance to the state. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected. – Sun Tzu, The Art of War
The Art of War was written by a Chinese general named Sun Tzu more than 2,500 years ago. The book, heralded for its advice on military success, has since been adopted by legions of armchair soldiers and generals in the business world.
I strongly believe that marketing can be taught, learned and regurgitated. But, a good strategy and a winning philosophy are harder to acquire and execute. I believe that if we can learn from great thinkers and strategists of the past, we can build a strategic foundation that will ensure the marketing tactics we use — whether SEO, PPC, Social Media or whatever else — have a far greater chance of success.
This post looks at six key lessons from The Art of War and explains how you can apply this wisdom to your content marketing efforts.
Have an Overarching Content Marketing Strategy
Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. – Sun Tzu
When it comes to content marketing (which includes SEO, PPC, email marketing, social media and more) — the tactics for success are ubiquitous. Yet when executed in a silo, these channels will never reach their full potential.
Your individual tactics must be aligned — within a team or an army — to overcome your competition, and this is only possible when they are governed by an overarching strategic approach. Your tactics will always be visible to your competitors, but the strategy these tactics serve will remain hidden, and it is this strategy that enables your tactics to be successful.
All too often, I see clients and their agencies create their digital marketing strategy with a paint-by-numbers approach. Then wonder why they’re not seeing the results they expected. The blame usually gets placed on SEO, PPC or Social Media when really it’s the tactics and (lack of) strategy that failed – not the service.
Your strategy is your strategy, and a winning content marketing strategy requires research. In the highly competitive battlefield of the internet your competitors surround you on all sides. Being there is not enough. Be different. Have a better offer. Define your strategy and it will make everything else you do much stronger.
Develop Strong Tactics That Support Your Strategy
The skillful tactician may be likened to the shuai-jan (snake). Strike at its head, and you will be attacked by its tail; strike at its tail, and you will be attacked by its head; strike at its middle, and you will be attacked by head and tail both. – Sun Tzu
The most common content marketing mistakes come down to the execution of tactics. In a world driven by Google, it’s all too easy to follow a checklist of supposed universal best practices. At least one client a week tells me they’ve built their website, begun blogging, and setup their Facebook page. They’ve begun checking the boxes, but now what?
This checklist mentality is understandable. Execute the checklist and get results. But if you don’t see the results it must be the checklist, or none if this internet stuff even works, right? Unfortunately, nuances of content marketing can’t be boiled down to a checklist as these never take into consideration the changing landscape, competitors and industry specific opportunities.
Content marketing must be conducted across multiple channels – in a manner specific that channel – to reach its full potential. Focusing on one channel alone is dangerous. Classic Guerrilla Marketing states that businesses should have at least 20 marketing initiatives at all times, and content marketing is no different.
Be the shuai-jan — be visible in search, paid, and social. If your competitor strikes at your SEO, strike back with your PPC. If a competitor finds an advantage on Facebook, find a better one on Twitter.
Understand The Battlefield of The Internet
We are not fit to lead an army on the march unless we are familiar with the face of the country. – Sun Tzu
Can you provide a detailed explanation of Facebook’s EdgeRank algorithm and how it impacts a businesses organic reach? Can you explain the difference between on-site, off-site and technical SEO? Are you current with PPC best practices including AdWords, Bing, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter… you get the idea.
To be successful, our knowledge must go beyond a top level understanding of platforms and services; we must have a deep understanding of the content marketing landscape and we must stay on top of all changes as they happen. It is this very change (in a very changeable landscape) that presents the opportunities and threats we should pay attention to as smart content marketers.
To be able to effectively execute content marketing tactics across search, paid, and social, you must be familiar with every nuance of the digital marketing landscape across multiple apps, platforms and distribution outlets along with any changes occurring in that specific businesses industry.
Know Thy Enemy
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. – Sun Tzu
To implement and execute the most effective content marketing tactics, you must have the self-awareness to know your own strengths and weaknesses and those of your top competitors. Arguably, Sun Tzu was the first person to perform a SWOT analysis.
Understanding where certain competitors are weak and anticipating and responding quickly to changes in the battlefield can allow the development of long-term content marketing tactics designed to avoid your competitors strengths and strike at their weaknesses.
Likewise, it is important to critically evaluate yourself and your business to identify and improve your own weaknesses. Are your services too expensive? Have your clients begun demanding services you don’t offer? Is the skill-set of your business at a level your clients expect? How can you better serve areas of your marketplace that are not yet served by your competitors?
The main takeaway here is to pick battles you can win with knowledge of your own strengths and the weaknesses of your competition.
Earth gives birth to length. Length gives birth to volume. Volume gives birth to counting. Counting gives birth to weighing. Weighing gives birth to victory.- Sun Tzu
With a well defined strategy, knowledge of the enemy and the battlefield, businesses can more easily tilt the odds of victory in their favor. However, victory in marketing can never be assumed. Businesses must measure the success of their content marketing tactics to review the strength of their strategy and constantly adapt it to the changing battlefield.
An effective content marketing strategy identifies goals and outlines how to get your business there. New and innovative tactics can then be unleashed and measured to further improve the results. Knowing what to measure is also important, and understanding the relationship between goals, key performance indicators and tactics is essential to establish sensible measurement that delivers actionable information and results.
To be successful in content marketing, you must always measure your results and determine if your tactics are advancing your troops on the battlefield.
Understanding The Supreme Art of War
The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting. – Sun Tzu
If there is one take away from this post, it’s that we should win the war without fighting. Meaning we should craft marketing that is so great that it doesn’t even feel like marketing to the consumer.
Being highly visible across search, social and paid is one way to achieve this. If your customer has a question, answer the question better than anyone else in your industry. If your customer has a problem, be there when they need you and make it incredibly easy to contact you.
Today, 2,500 years later, there is still so much to learn from The Art of War. These principles have been utilized throughout time in both the military arena and the business world to build creative strategies and achieve lasting success. If you use them properly, your business will know victory.