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Why 8 2,500 Year Old Lessons Shape Strategic Digital Marketing Today (And Why Digital Marketing Without Strategy Will Fail)

So, What is Strategic Digital Marketing?

Strategic Digital Marketing is the process of using Digital Marketing in a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim. Many Digital Marketing Campaigns are started because an organisation believes it needs to “do” Digital Marketing or that it needs to incorporate Digital Marketing as part of its overall marketing mix, without clearly defining what it is they are expecting it to do. By utilising Strategic Digital Marketing, the overall aims of the campaign are clearly defined and the whole campaign and all of the activity within it is channelled towards achieving those goals, ensuring your campaign is effective, efficient and, most importantly, successful.

OK, So What is ‘The Art of War’ ?

The Art of War is a Chinese military text created some 2500 years ago by the Chinese Military Strategist Sun Tzu (“Master Sun”). It is seen as a seminal work in the field of warfare and strategy and the book has inspired many military and political leaders from Chinese communist revolutionary Mao Zedong (Chairman Mao) to the American General ‘”Stormin'” Norman Schwarzkopf Jr.

So how can a book about war in Asia, written 500 years before Christ was born, be relevant in today’s Digital Landscape? Here we apply some of the key tenets of The Art of War’s to Digital Marketing in the present day.


8 Key Tenets of The Art of War in Strategic Digital Marketing

 1.  It is more important to out-think your enemy, than outfight him

In all the excitement of starting a new Digital Marketing Campaign, there is a clamour to do things, to see things happening, to get results. Lots of research, sitting around thinking and planning is not quite so sexy, but it is this stage, where lots of thinking is going on and not very much action, that is the key to your whole Digital Marketing Campaign and will ensure its success or failure. As frustrating as it might be, you need to plot your victory before you engage your competitor.

What is more, at the end of the day, no matter how great your resources, someone will always have more and will be able to outgun you, so as much as you might want to slug it out to the last, being a bit crafty will nearly always work better.

2.  Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

In the context of Digital Marketing, if you embark upon a Digital Marketing Campaign without a well thought out and researched strategy and a detailed plan of how you will implement that strategy to achieve your objectives, you are wasting your time and money. Digital Marketing without a strategy is not effective Digital Marketing and a Digital Marketing Strategy without carefully thought out tactics is just a woolly aim without any real chance of major success.

3.  If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

Put very simply, before you undertake your Digital Marketing Campaign, do your research. Your Digital Marketing team need to immerse themselves completely in your organisation so that they fully understand you, your strengths, weaknesses, ambitions, concerns, resources, objectives, threats, timescales, culture and everything about you. Then, by a combination of online and offline research methods, they need to get to understand each of your competitors in each of your markets/products/areas of business (battlefields) in, almost, as much detail. If you fully understand both yourself/your client and its competitors you should never lose a battle and your campaign should succeed, understand neither and you will fail.

4.  The greatest victory is that which requires no battle – Avoid what is strong and strike at what is weak.

This is one of the key elements of any Digital Marketing Campaign and equates to the old adage “choose your battles”.  Don’t waste resources trying to compete on key terms, SERPs, products, channels, etc., where your competitors are strongest but focus your resources on targets where there is the least resistance, the terms or products where your competitors are not present or where there is little or weak competition. To do this properly does take a lot of time, research and/or a degree of luck, and often takes a bit of selling to an organisation, who would often prefer to focus on the big terms in their markets, but as Indiana Jones can testify, if you’ve got a pistol, pick a fight with someone who has a sword, not a battle tank.

5.  Opportunities multiply as they are seized.

Digital Marketing is all about momentum, once momentum is gained, your progress and its rewards can be exponential. Just as in selecting big battlefields against larger, better resourced competitors, will ensure progress is minimal, by fighting the smaller battles that you know you will win, you can gain momentum which can then multiply the opportunities that are open to you, not only in similar battles or targets but often much bigger, more juicy opportunities.

6.  Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.

When you are developing your Digital Marketing strategy, only start to engage in any activity once you have fully planned out how you are going to achieve your objectives. Don’t start your campaign and then try to figure out how you are going to achieve your goals.

7.   All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.

A fully developed Digital Marketing Campaign incorporates a full range of advertising media and channels via all available devices across a wide range of products and services: – that’s many, many battlefields. By adopting a strategic approach, you will have decided on the battles you will choose, whom you will choose them with, how you will fight those battles and what you will need to do to win, however to maintain the element of surprise, engage your competitors and tie up their resources in other areas that will weaken their resources in the battle you choose to fight, you need to maintain the pretence that you are everywhere you are not, whilst shielding the activity you are planning/engaging in. Use bluff and double bluff to disguise your weaknesses, hide your strengths and keep your competitors guessing.

8.   When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.

And finally, for now, don’t be too ruthless. When you have achieved your objectives and your campaign is a success, leave something on the table for your competitor/s, don’t try and win every single battle. A desperate competitor can be an unpredictable and dangerous competitor.


Whilst a lot of the language of The Art of War is military and, at first glance, does not appear to be very relevant to the marketing campaigns of today’s digital world, the core concepts have stood the test of time and its principles have not only been used in war, but business, politics, sport and marketing. The core principles of The Art of (Digital Marketing) War and, indeed, strategy, is to think before you act and use brains rather than brute force. Developing a Strategic Digital Marketing Campaign is both extremely time consuming and complex, however the long term costs are significantly less and the rewards considerably greater, meaning it is a far more effective, efficient and ultimately successful approach to Digital Marketing.

Zelst has been developing Strategic Digital Marketing Campaigns for its clients for a number of years and has a range of case studies to demonstrate how effective they are. If you want to adopt a more effective approach to Digital Marketing or would like to discuss specific issues relating to this subject talk to us today.