The terms “strategy” and “strategic” are thrown around quite a bit in today’s business culture. In the realm of marketing, and more specifically digital marketing, it’s practically a meme. Every now and then I hear someone use one of these terms correctly. Usually though, the more someone uses the word “strategy” in a conversation, the less they understand the word’s meaning.

Strategy can be defined in a number of ways. One of my favorite definitions is credited to Michael Porter, a professor at the Harvard Business School and noted author in the fields of business and economics, who wrote “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

I can’t remember a time when I met with a digital marketing vendor and there was any discussion around what not to do. I would argue that in marketing, this is a crucial element of your strategy. You can’t and shouldn’t use every marketing vehicle available to advance your brand or product. That is unless you’re Geico whose strategy of “throw everything against the wall” ends just shy of the “and see what sticks” part. I guess when you have insurance industry margins you afford to be less strategic.

When people talk about digital marketing strategies often what they’re really talking about are tactics. They skip an important step and go right to the specific vehicle or channel. If someone clipped this out and left it on your desk this might be the person in the mirror.

A tactical plan can be built with or without a strategy. The plan will be more effective if you start with a strategy first. As I’ve outlined in past columns, there are many digital marketing tactics available to advertise your business. Which ones you choose to use will depend on the strategy. Said another way, the digital marketing strategy can inform which tactics you don’t employ.

The reason that having a strategy is so important is that it connects the tactics with your marketing objective(s). If you’re having conversations about an Instagram strategy before you’ve established objectives you’re not being strategic.  This may sound obvious but I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve been in that started with the client saying “We’d like to do social media.” I’ll typically ask “why” until we can track the tactic all the way back to a specific, meaningful objective.

For example, when a company is looking to drive online sales, leads, or phone calls, they’ll incorporate a strategy that focuses on direct response tactics. They might have a paid search campaign that captures visitors who are actively searching for their product or service. Along with this, they can use retargeted banner advertising to entice recent site visitors to come back and take a specific action. It wouldn’t make sense, in this case, to run pre-roll video ads on YouTube. That form of advertising is better used to build awareness of a brand and won’t likely result in a consumer taking a specific action.

There are a number of reasons that companies build digital marketing plans without a strategy. The worst reason is to save money. When you develop a strong strategy, it can be used to guide your digital marketing plans for years. The core elements of the strategy won’t change much. The business objectives, audience definition, audience habits, and key metrics will need to be tweaked over time but should remain relatively consistent. Once the strategy is well defined, all digital marketing plans should be built on this foundation. When you consider the long-term benefits of investing in the development of a strategy, the cost is easily justified.

Another reason that companies don’t develop a strategy before building digital marketing plans is that their partner or vendor skips this step. This should be a red flag. If you’re working with a company that sells their own inventory or specializes in specific services, they’ll likely skip building a strategy because their plans are mostly one size fits all.

Whenever you meet with your digital marketing partner it’s important to make sure that each initiative is accomplishing specific objectives. Hint: clicks are not an objective. Neither are likes, retweets, video completion rates, pages per session, or average time on site. All of these metrics are easy to measure. Your strategy should define how these metrics translate to marketing and ultimately business success. Smart marketing intelligence and data analytics should be telling you that story.

If you’re unsure whether or not your digital marketing partner is strategic, ask them to explain your strategy. If they answer with specific tactics using words like content marketing, native advertising, or search engine optimization, you have some work to do. It’s time to figure out which digital marketing initiatives you shouldn’t be using.