When Marc Benioff’s Behind the Cloud was published in the Fall of 2009, it was declared required reading for all 50 Box employees. Because I was new to the company and not yet acquainted with Aaron Levie’s insatiable appetite for business books, I complied. (I eventually retired from the “Levie Library” after slogging my way through High Output Management, and have adhered to a mostly-fiction diet ever since.)
Nearly a decade later, one mantra from that book sticks with me: “Tactics dictate strategy.” Benioff described how in its early days, Salesforce experimented with capitalizing on larger competitors’ marketing activities — something that began as a scrappy and creative tactic, but later became a marketing pillar. He wrote, “One idea alone is a tactic, but if it can be executed a number of different ways, it becomes a great strategy.”
Benioff’s admission surprised me. Tactics don’t get many kudos, especially from prominent CEOs. Strategies are strategic and tactics are, well, rather tactical. Strategies inspire PowerPoint presentations and lively debates among stakeholders. Tactics come later, in bulleted lists with initials of the employees assigned to carry them out. Strategies, handed down like commandments from on high, are supposed to dictate tactics.
But if you’re at an early startup and figuring out how communications can help grow your business, I’d argue that tactics are the friendly place to start. In today’s crowded startup landscape, it’s rarely obvious what will cut through the noise. You’re not just competing with direct competitors for customers, you’re competing with everyone for attention (and all the potential future hires, partnerships and funding rounds that awareness can help drive). Tactics are more amenable to creativity and experimentation, don’t devour massive resources, and come with shorter and simpler feedback loops. With tactics, you can see what resonates and then build a strategy around what’s working.
We were big believers in experimenting through tactics on the Box communications team, and the successful ones did indeed dictate enduring strategies. In my role as Marketing Partner at Social Capital, I spend a decent chunk of my time with founders brainstorming how best to approach communications given near-term goals and available resources, and then I help them interpret and learn from the feedback they get. Over time, those successes, failures and lessons add up to strategies — strategies that weren’t born in a vacuum.
So what does a bottom-up approach to crafting (and refining) your communications strategy look like? Here are a few examples.