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Sun Tzu and the Art of Internet Marketing (Part 1)

This post is Part One in a series.

art of war by nbarreto

At peace negotiations in Hanoi between US Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr. and his North Vietnamese counterpart, Colonel Tu, Summers quipped, “You know, you never beat us on the battlefield.” Tu replied, “Well, that’s true. But it’s also irrelevant.” The point of this exchange is to recognize that war is always a means to an end. It’s one example of an army ignoring Sun Tzu’s Art of War to its own peril.

The lesson for marketers is that we always need to be mindful of strategies and tactics. This blog post is not an allegory about combat, domination or conquering. I’m not going to talk about destroying your enemies or taking prisoners. Instead, I’m going to focus on the pure strategic value of some of his principals.

In war, numbers alone confer no advantage.
Do not advance relying on sheer military power.

Villers-Bocage destroyedIn Vietnam, the US measured success in units of dead bodies while the North Vietnamese valued territory. War is supposed to be a means to an end but often becomes the end itself.

In marketing, it’s easy to look at website visits, Twitter followers, Facebook fans or email subscribers as a measure of success. But those are merely means to an end. Selling your products and/or services is the end game. Instead, establish a set of desired outcomes you want when someone visits your website. Then create landing pages for each desired outcome and measure your success rate for those conversions.

Also, inbound marketing is not a pursuit that lends itself to quantity over quality. Your audience won’t tolerate a low signal to noise ratio. You can’t carpet-bomb your way to success.

Let your plans be as dark as night –
then strike like a thunderbolt.

When it comes to Internet marketing, consistency is the name of the game. I’ve seen countless examples of companies who create a blog and then charge out the gates with 20 posts in two months. Of course, that was a year and a half ago with no posts since. The lesson here is to make sure your plan is well thought out and your resources allocated before revealing your plan. It means making sure that your content, keyword, promotional, social media and analytical strategies are all complete before you pull the trigger.

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory.

On the Long and Winding Road by Paul Fundenburg on FlickrWhile it’s important to have sound strategies in place, by themselves they don’t accomplish your goals. Sound tactics and practiced skills are also necessary. Here are some examples:

  • Content Marketing: Creating remarkable content requires a long list of sound tactics. In my opinion, the most important of them is storytelling. I don’t mean telling stories in the sense of making things up. Rather, it’s understanding how to arrange your ideas to create conflict and mystery, then resolve the tension. Another critical tactic is visual design. Understanding the basics of design like contrast, repetition, alignment, proximity and restraing will help your content stand out.
  • Social Media Marketing: I have an acronym I use to describe the tactics I recommend in a social media strategy; BARE. This stands for “Be Authentic, Relentless and Everywhere.”

Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

Here is another frequent mistake companies make. They know social media is important, so they jump into creating accounts, following people and polluting their walls and streams with self-promoting sewage. There is no accompanying web strategy and no plan to drive the audience to well crafted landing pages.

Setting goals is also important. And by goals, I don’t mean benchmarks like followers or engagement. I mean goals like getting customers or signing up members. As always, use tactics like social media promotion to drive conversions and measure their success rate.

There are five fundamental factors for success in war; weather, terrain, leadership, military doctrine and most-importantly – moral influence.


A leader must have the will of the people behind him. Business leaders must support the efforts in action as well as words. Massacres by the North Vietnamese during the Tet Offensive caused fragmentation and disillusionment.

What does moral influence have to do with social media marketing? When building an online audience, you are executing a campaign of ideas. In order for people to join your campaign, you need to build up social capital with them. You do this by creating remarkable content for them that delivers value. Seth Godin would call this “creating art.” It’s an act of generosity with no expectation of immediate reciprocity. The more art you create, the more moral influence you’ll have with your audience.




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