Why you should always ask why: Strategy must lead tactics in marketing planning

Remember the COVID times? I’ll wait while you stop twitching. 

It was hellish for a while, but for marketers, it was also all about doing things, about reacting to swiftly changing events. Everything was rush-rush. We had to act fast out of necessity because there was no time to waste…or think. Everything was fluid and insane.

Marketers certainly demonstrated their tenacity in navigating the unknown and getting things done. Up to that point, we had a balance between tactics and strategy — and that was important. 

But now, even though we’re starting to see an uptick in cases, we’re not in panic mode any more. It’s time to go back to strategy and let it lead tactics.  As I look around the marketplace, I see companies stuck in tactical mode.  That mentality needs to transform into a harmonic balance. 

Strategy, as I’ve written before, is the “why” of using email to achieve your goals. Tactics are the “how.”  But you have to know the “why” before you can do the “how” effectively. If you go with the “how” without knowing the “why,” you can waste time and money on things that don’t work. And nobody has time or money to waste today.

Marketers are tactic-driven but we need to chart a course first

Yes, we are great at tactics. Give me a problem, and the first thing I’ll tell you is how we’re going to solve it.

For 20-plus years I have preached that the “why” is more important than the  “how.” We have to ask why first. What’s the motivation for our customers or end users? What’s our brand statement or value proposition? 

These are the critical points in a project where you can go back to check and make sure you’re still on course. A pilot would never fly a place without checking the course and filing a flight plan. When I sail with my business partner to Catalina Island, even though it’s not a long distance from shore, we still chart our course first so we can stay on track.

Dig deeper: 6 key email programs to optimize before Q4

How to put strategy first

In looking at marketing today, I can see we’re still in the COVID-era mindset of getting things done — the “how” — instead of going back to spend time on the strategy –  why we need to use that particular tactic.

We email marketers need to get back to that strategy-first approach. In my conversations with marketers, they bring me lists of things they want to do, but when I ask them why they need them, they have one standard answer: “The boss wants it done. It’s a priority.” There’s no coherent strategy attached to that tactic.

Our agency spends a lot of time working with companies on the “why” as well as the “how.” Here are three simple ways you can start thinking and acting strategically and still do your marketing job and build your career.

1. Ask “Why?” first 

That’s the best answer when anyone says you need to start doing something, whether it’s chasing the latest shiny new toy or changing course on a tried-and-true tactic.

“Let’s get the brand on Threads!”


“Let’s have ChatGPT write subject lines and calls to action!”


This seems obvious, but it’s not just about an easy answer like “The boss told us to do it” or “I need to hit my numbers.” Those are rationales. They aren’t the answers to “Why?”

Consider why your end users might give a damn about what your boss or team members want to do. Will this new tactic be important to them? Will it solve a problem or make them want to convert with your brand more often? Does it give them a reason to believe in your brand, your claims, or your offer as needed or necessary?

You don’t need a week-long retreat with sprinkle doughnuts and team-building to do this. You just need to take five to 10 minutes out of your day to stop and define your “why.” Do you have archetypes in your business? Put them up on a screen and ask how your project might affect him or her. Think of your customers or end users and how they might benefit.

If you can answer those questions, you’ll find your segmentation and messaging, headline, copy, targeting and product will all line up with that because you thought about the “why” first. 

2. Get buy-in from your team

This can’t happen with one person. You need consensus from your group first. You could work toward this by sending this column to your team and saying “We’re going to do this, so be ready.”

But you need a coalition of people backing you up. You don’t want to be the outlier. You don’t want to ask the questions and be told, “Because the boss said so.”

Start talking with people about why strategic thinking has to come before tactical execution. You could create a strategic brief for a project with questions that need answers. Questions like these: 

  • Who are our end users? 
  • Why do they care? 
  • What’s important to them? 
  • How can we segment to find that audience? 
  • How do we choose the products that appeal to the mission for this program? 

Maybe your approach is “Okay, I know the boss wants this done, but let’s wait a hot minute and think through the reason to believe for the customer.”  I’ve been that zombie marketer, the one who just does what he’s told. It’s stupid. Ask your boss why. There must be a reason.  Just because they’re the boss, that does not mean they’re without context. 

The goal can’t be all about revenue. When you get the answers, put them in your strategy brief, present it to your team, and get buy-in. Take it to the boss and say, “Here’s an idea we want to try, here’s why we want to do it, and here’s how.” When you get consensus first before you ask these tough questions, you can set yourself up for success.

3. Do a follow-up report

Take a moment after the campaign to review your strategy brief and look at where you started, where you got to tactics, and what your results are. Did you achieve your goal? Report that to your boss.

We don’t do enough following up, especially on the easy wins. Using a strategy brief is the kind of easy win you can amplify to show value, whether you’re working on everyday campaigns or big projects with cross-functional teams.

Analyze your processes and show how the strategic brief helped you execute the tactical part can show success and highlight your capacity for advancement and promotion. Or it just makes you and your team smarter in how you do marketing.

Wrapping up

I know it’s tough. We’re all in a tactical mindset. COVID did not give us space to create a strategic approach first. The COVID times taught us that “go and do” is how to succeed in a crisis. But it’s exhausting. It’s like putting my mother and her OCD in a messy room and not expecting her to clean. 

We can’t break this tactical mindset overnight. It’s a slow path but one we need to walk. Go ahead and be a doer, but work up a plan for it first.

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