I did a funny thing last week. I realized that I don’t naturallly differentiate the meaning between strategy and tactics. To me, these terms were interchangeable— more a matter of diction preference than anything substantive.

That’s because sometimes when we enter a business place, certain words attain new meaning, or at least nuance to their conventional use.

Have a look at the Google definitions for both of these words.




  1. a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.




  1. an action or strategy carefully planned to achieve a specific end.

Not a whole lot of difference between the two, is there? By those definitions, you could build a pretty absolute argument that they are in fact synonyms (a hypothesis verified by the Internet’s top thesaurus). But the more I thought about it, the more I was able to segment the two meanings in my mind.

Words are malleable. It’s part of the beauty of language. The word “fathom” used to mean “to encircle with one’s arms” and now it means “to understand after much thought.” Long ago, “naughty” meant to possess nothing, or naught. Myriad used to mean specifically 10,000. Now it just means “many”. Two Myriad Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne has a nice ring to it.

Point is, it’s not necessarily intuitive to differentiate between tactics and strategy. But just because something isn’t intuitive doesn’t mean it’s not useful. In paid search, and in digital marketing as a whole, it’s important to understand this distinction. In fact, you could probably go as far to zoom out and say that utilizing paid search is a tactic in the overall scheme of your digital marketing strategy. If the strategy here is to drive qualified traffic to the website, the tactic is to do this by targeting customer intent as evinced by their search queries.

This is of course very high level, and as managers of the PPC accounts themselves, the readers and writers of this blog are generally more accustomed to viewing paid search on a smaller scale perspective, which is to say that the paid search accounts aren’t just a tactic in a more encompassing marketing strategy, but that they also deserve strategies of their own.

The way I think of it is this. The goal is the end. The strategy is the means to the end. The tactics are the means to the means to the end.

Is that not particularly helpful? Let’s use a game of chess— the ultimate marriage of strategy and tactics— as a point of reference. An understanding of tactics is the calling card of the novice and quickly improving player. A mastery of strategy is the mark of a champion.

“In life, as in chess, forethought wins.” – Charles Buxton

The chess player’s strategy is knowing the she will keep her king safe, or knowing that she will set up the board a certain way to create checkmate in the endgame. The tactics are comprised of how she executes it. How will she build out her pawns, or attack with her knights? Will she sacrifice a rook in order to keep her bishop tandem in tact?

The strategy dictates the tactics. To employ tactics without strategy is to ride into battle blindfolded and sitting backward on your horse.

So how does this manifest in your paid search accounts? Well, to reveal the mystery ink on the first page of your battle plan, ask yourself a few questions.

  • What do you expect to get out of paid search?
  • If you have an account, what isn’t PPC currently doing for your business that you wish it could/believe it could?

If you’ve got an answer to both of those questions, you’ve probably found True North on your strategic compass.

Let’s also clarify the distinction between strategy and goals. They are related, but not the same. Like Mark and Donnie Wahlberg.

Let’s break it down.

You want to get 100 leads in a month while spending only $5,000. By identifying these numbers you establish your goal.

Goal: $50/CPA with a minimum threshold of 100 leads.

How are you going to get those leads? That’s your strategy.

Strategy: Serve ads primarily to bottom-of-funnel type customers, and remarket to them once they’ve become familiar to your brand.

Alright. Now you know what you want and what you need to do to get it. Now, how are you going to do it?

Tactics: Isolate high-intent exact match keywords and bid aggressively to appear at the top of the page. Dedicate budget for remarketing, and test an in-market buyers segment on the display network to seek incremental cost-efficient conversions

The beauty here is that a strategy can remain static while the tactics beneath it are operated dynamically.

Take a game of football for example. The coach’s strategy is to establish a strong running game. The tactics of how he executes that running game are illustrated via the complex X’s and O’s he throws up on the chalkboard during pregame. But maybe the opposing defense is up to the task, and the coach can’t get his running back going.

That doesn’t mean completely abandon the running game and rework the strategy. It means try something new, but something that’s still in line with the strategy. Try a different blocking scheme, or maybe plug in a new running back entirely.

Whether you’re a CMO or a Digital Marketing Manager or an Account Manager, you’re a decision maker. All that differs are the magnitudes of your decisions. Make sure that you think about your decisions, and that the outcome of your decisions won’t impact your strategy if you’re actually looking to shift tactics, and that if you want a strategy overhaul you aren’t merely changing tactics.

(featured image by Flickr user Sasha the Okay Photographer)