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Sun Tzu and the art of digital marketing strategy [Part 2]

Thinking like Sun Tzu to improve your strategic position

This is the second part to last week's interpretation of how Sun Tzu's Art of War can be applied to digital marketing.

Here I'll cover three ways in which applying Sun Tzu's Art of War can help develop your marketing or digital marketing strategy, starting with the 5 elements...

The 5 Elements to defining your strategic position

Sun Tzu defines five key elements to help understand your position that make total sense when applied to marketing too. Your strategic position is never strong or weak... it is only strong or weak in relation to something or someone else.

  • Mission or the way: This is what unites all of the people in the Army (organisation) and the customer. It helps everybody to share the same goals and objectives, it allows everyone to 'get real', to feel that what has been set out is believable and not full of self-deceit. Is this clear and believed in your department or organisation, is everyone facing the same way, for the right reasons? More often than not, bigger organisations struggle here, they're fragmented and it's much harder to get clarity. Smaller organisations are more easily re-grouped, missions defined. Is this one reason why we often see large organisations losing out to small up-starts?
  • Climate or the seasons: These are the trends that change your situation from moment to moment, so what's changing for your organisation? Is the timing and the environment or marketplace providing the opportunities to advance your position? The online marketplace is particularly dynamic and not everyone has a  process to exploit this.
  • Ground or terrain: This is where the contest for such a position takes place and new grounds open up everyday, where your strengths beat that of the competition to serve your market. The ground (market) provides the prize you seek to win. It defines the game and the unique rules. Experts talk about disruptive innovation to create and open up new ground to compete on. Is this on your agenda?
  • Command or leadership: It's all about you (and your management team) and the unique quality of character and leadership that are brought to your situation. It inevitably involves brand clarity from a marketing stand-point, particularly in brand ethics and brand values. Leadership is also the space where decision-making takes place, and where there's creativity and personality.
  • Methods or management: This describes the tools, tactics, skills and techniques that are to be deployed, mastered and managed. Things that need to be done with other people in order you can win. Strategy is itself a system to understand, comprising of tools, techniques and tactics.

Tzu says that only when you out-score your competitors on each area do you have a genuine strategic position, it's then time to advance...

Spot and advance your opportunities

With a clear strategic position comes the ability and requirement to focus! Now you can now see the wood for the trees and you're not trying to do everything.

With this in mind, one of the fundamental rules of Sun Tzu's thinking on strategy is that you cannot create opportunities. Once understood, this realisation helps us stop trying to do what is impossible. You see that your opportunities can only be created by the competitive environment itself, and by learning to see them you also see that those opportunities are all around and constantly changing. We hear the "gap in the market" exclamation a lot, right? Doesn't mean it's relevant though.

Whilst having better information than others is always beneficial, better information is rarely required to make better decisions than the competition. All we need is better knowledge of what the key information is, tools to access it and a clearer focus on using it in relation to our goals, more than other people have.

  • Spot the openings - The "openings" in the environment that allow you to advance your position in the direction of your mission. These openings are usually small, but by taking advantage of the small openings, you eventually position yourself for the big advances you want. Sun Tzu's system of opportunity development provides a set of technical tools that allow you to identify openings that you would normally overlook.
  • Advancement - Listen - Aim - Move - Claim. Opportunities develop from the first two and progress through the last two. Listening identifies and Aiming prioritises these opportunities, identifying the smallest, easiest, and least costly moves that take you where you want to go. The Art of War is about the smaller unstoppable steps, these then compounding in larger leaps over time. Moving teaches you how to respond appropriately to the situations as they are. Claiming identifies the potential, control and the methods for making the best of a new position.
  • Speed matters - Making quick decisions is critical because fast, short moves are always more powerful than long, large moves. This is a big deal for Sun Tzu. Smaller, faster groups also make more progress than larger, slower groups. You create strategic leverage by putting a small amount of the right resources in the right position at the right time. Windows of opportunity often open for just a moment, you must see and react to them instantly.
  • Monitoring the environment - Situational strategy is about building the shape of a situation and the environment. As characteristics become clearer, you know the responses necessary. Without that awareness, you cannot see the plot much less know how to respond to it. In marketing this might be monitoring data from multiple sources, combining that with social listening and being plugged in to industry knowledge - all this enabling you to know that the terrain is changing or that a competitor has intentions that impact you.
  • Avoid competition where possible - An important aspect of situation response is the ability to avoid conflict. Since conflict is costly, you need to see the mistakes that lead up to conflict and avoid them. You develop the insight, looking for ways to make victory pay. Your success is much more certain when conflict is avoided. If you set up situations so that the elements are all in your favor, you discourage people from attacking you and make it much more likely that they will join you.

Success over the long-term doesn't come from making perfect decisions about opportunities, but simply improving your decision-making.

Sun Tzu's rules for decision making with limited information

By way of more background, I was also intrigued by the logic in taking the right decision. Given that we know information is relatively limited, you'd think it would be more of a problem. I know most marketers feel that way, but not for Sun Tzu, this is just the natural chaotic environment. For him, control is simply calm moments, in what is an otherwise stormy and chaotic existence. Interesting stuff that feels relevant I'd say. Here's what Tzu recommends that we ask ourselves:

  • Is a decision needed? If we have nothing much to gain or nothing much to lose, we should avoid acting on information at all no matter how interesting it is. Action is always costly and just because you can doesn't mean that you should. Does this decision really need to be made now?
  • Manage the cost risk in a decision. The value of a decision is only half the equation, does it have a cost if wrong? We make wrong decisions all the time because we don't have perfect information about the future and those outcomes are invaluable learning tools. Is any decision based on this information safe for the business if the information is wrong?
  • Ignore information that doesn't relate to the decision. Information not related to the 5 key elements (above) can be very interesting and quickly distracting - that doesn't make it relevant. Trend information can be the worst for the this in marketing ("compared to this time last year..."). When information arises ask if this information were different, would it change my decision?
  • Weigh up the relative importance of information. In competition, everything is a comparison, this is core to Tzun's teaching. All the remaining information affects our decision, but not all of it is equal in its impact. Which information is most influencing my decision?
  • Test information quality against our own knowledge. We are often interrupted and influenced by the worst and most inconsistent information simply because it seems to demand attention. This happens to a frightening extent today, check out all the info-graphics 🙂 So, Given all we know about the situation we're in and its history, is this information likely to be true?
  • Inconsistent information is most likely wrong. Information can be wrong because somebody somewhere has an agenda, or maybe there's technical or human error, poor team communication, misinterpreting of external events, or maybe things have changed since the information was originally gathered. How can this information be quickly verified?
  • Balance the cost of collecting more information against the value of quick action. Action might be the quickest and least costly way to get better information. Due to something then happening, a decision and then action is the only way to get more information. If reliable, relevant information can be gathered more quickly and easily without action then we should gather it, but decisions can always be avoided by using the excuse that more information must be gathered. Sounds familiar!? So is action the fastest and least expensive way to find out more?
  • Acting to learn more is usually best. Situations keep changing, and faster than ever. We can never gather enough information to always make the best decision because so much of what we need to know is unknowable. If action is the best decision, it is best to act now before the situation changes and we need to start again. Doh! So when thinking why wait? it should never be for more information!

We hope that our brief flirt with Sun Tzu's strategic teaching has been useful? We'd love to know if it helped and entertained or hear how you applied Sun Tzu.

By Danyl Bosomworth

Dan helped to co-found Smart Insights in 2010 and acted as Marketing Director until leaving in November 2014 to focus on his other role as Managing Director of First 10 Digital. His experience spans brand development and digital marketing, with roles both agency and client side for nearly 20 years. Creative, passionate and focussed, his goal is on commercial success whilst increasing brand equity through effective integration and remembering that marketing is about real people. Dan's interests and recent experience span digital strategy, social media, and eCRM. You can learn more about Dan's background here Linked In.

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