Learnings From The Art of War In The Age of Digital

For any business attempting to forge a path in today’s competitive market place, getting the right marketing and growth strategy in place, particular with respect to digital media, is key. While many look at individual tactics and tools such as SEO, content creation, social media engagement, and pay per click advertising, few bring all this together under an umbrella of a comprehensive strategy.

We often fail to ask the more subtle and complex questions that sit in the background when we engage with digital media. We know that SEO is important and that we need to post regularly on Facebook or Twitter. What we generally fail to ask is how these all work together and what we are trying to achieve, not only in the short term but five, ten or fifteen years into the future.

The 6th Century philosopher general, Sun Tzu, is largely credited with writing The Art of War. A favourite with many military specialists over the years, it has also been more recently applied to a variety of business practices, including operating in the digital arena.

Are you at war? Obviously not. Do you have competitors and are you fighting for growth and survival? Undoubtedly you are. There’s plenty in Sun Tzu’s philosophy that can be used to develop your own approach and strategy.

No one will argue that preparation and knowledge are key to business success. If you are going to compete, you need to have a deeper understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of both yourself and your competitors. It’s not just enough to have a series of tactics that you can use. You need to know how to use them, why you are using them and how they will impact collectively.

According to The Art of War:

“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.”

It’s also not enough to only have a deep understanding of how your business operates and what it stands for. If you don’t know who the competition is and what they are up to you will be operating in the dark. Working to find out where the ‘enemy’ is doing better than you enables you to overcome those hurdles. You can also spot important weaknesses which means you can exploit them.

If you haven’t taken a closer look at your competitors in recent times, it may be the single reason that your business isn’t moving forward as strongly and confidently as you hoped. For instance, how often do you track your competitor’s data? Doing this can help you spot trends and put in place more intelligent and speedy responses, including changes to your own strategy.

While knowledge of yourself and your competitor is one of the Sun Tzu’s key points, having that overarching strategy is the spine around which everything else is wrapped. We already have the tactics at hand, the tools that can be used to get our message out there. But without a comprehensive strategy that lies over that and which is based on a strong knowledge base and diligently gathered intelligence, tactics are akin to firing arrows into the dark and hoping for the best.

Often in the world of digital marketing we will employ the services of a specialist – a SEO expert who knows how to improve rankings, a social media guru who is key to engaging online with customers or a content specialist who knows just what to write on a web page. These can often work against each other because they have their own bubble to operate in and are not aware of the final goal beyond their own concern. When you have a strategy in place, the potentially corrosive nature of these relationships can be brought together under one umbrella and stop them essentially competing with each other.

Another aspect of the Art of War is acting with serenity and inscrutability. You can only have this if you have prepared your digital strategy within the framework of an overarching strategy. If you are continuously reacting to the digital marketplace, essentially playing catch up, you will find it difficult to remain calm and even harder to hide what you’re processes and objectives are.

Your understanding of your opponent in the digital marketplace should guide your strategy and if that is in place you should be able to employ your tactics to meet any situation, anticipate what is going to happen and stay ahead of the game more often than not. Your serenity and inscrutability will remain intact.

Of course, developing a strategy is not just about knowing your competition. You need to know your audience just as deeply. It means understanding the wider marketplace and how changes, both big and small, can disrupt it. This in turn means developing your brand to meet expectations, having that clear and potent vision of what you stand for and how you sit in the world today alongside your most ardent supporters.

You don’t have to be a large corporation with plenty of resources. As Sun Tzu said: “Great results can be achieved by small forces. ”

It’s not how you use a particular tool such as Instagram or Facebook. It’s how you use that tool within your overall strategy and size is largely irrelevant. Your strategy should be based on the deep and influential knowledge of everything your business is and who it is competing with.

It’s a testament to a book like the Art of War that it is still being used today. We may not be about to take to the battlefield, but the philosophy and strategy Sun Tzu developed 2,000 years ago continues to resonate and can help brands and digital strategists succeed and win in the modern world.


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