Aaron Lim: The Art of War for social media strategy

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Marketing executives are being urged to look to the US Marines for making waves in the digital market place. Photo / Thinkstock
Marketing executives are being urged to look to the US Marines for making waves in the digital market place. Photo / Thinkstock

Marketing executives, particularly those in North America often look to military strategies for insights into winning in the market-place.

Unfortunately for those marketing executives, the reliance on grossly oversimplified summaries of Sun Tzu and Clausewitz are likely to do more harm than good to their marketing strategies, especially with the advent of social media.

The influence of Carl von Clausewitz's seminal book On War is still dominant and pervasive. It remains a cornerstone of western military doctrine and provides a conceptual framework for military strategy in the 21st century.

Marketing executives are now also being urged to consider the US Marine Corp's Counter-Insurgency Warfare (COIN) doctrine for today's "digital market place".

While there are valid lessons to be learnt from Clausewitz and COIN doctrine in the corporate world, it is not simply a matter of lifting quotes from the manuals and putting them straight into a marketing plan.

A basic understanding of Clausewitzian strategy and COIN doctrine is necessary before adapting these concepts for the corporate marketer, especially those who are scrambling to address the current zeitgeist- social media.

Clausewitz and COIN Doctrine 101 for Social Media

"War is neither an art nor a science. It would be better, instead of comparing it with any other art, to liken it to business competition, which is also a conflict of human activities and interests."- Clausewitz

A crucial aspect of Clausewitz's theory was that war has a dual nature, subjective and objective.

The objective nature of war remains constant, at its core war is a violent clash of human interests.

A strategist should look for the changes in the subjective nature of war, which encompasses the changes in methods, tactics and technology in modern warfare.

Modern marketing executives need to pay attention to the fact that while social media is certainly a new phenomenon, it represents a change in the subjective nature of marketing.

The objective nature of marketing remains unchanged- getting the consumer to buy your product or support you brand.

Facebook, YouTube and Twitter represent changes in the subjective nature of modern marketing- it has not changed the essential logic of the 4Ps of marketing.

A fundamental aspect of Clausewitzian strategy teaches that war does not happen in a vacuum, but is a complex socio-political phenomenon.

No two wars or battlefields are the same- each battle is shaped by the context in the build-up to war...or for the marketing and PR executive, the campaign and issues at hand.

"The aims a belligerent adopts and the resources he employs, must be governed by the particular characteristics of his own position; but they will also conform to the spirit of the age (Zeitgeist)."- Clausewitz.

In the 21st century, the Zeitgeist for marketing and war are respectively social media and counter-insurgency warfare.

But what precisely is insurgency warfare...and how does that relate to social media strategy?

An insurgency is a method of fighting adopted by combatants facing an opponent with superior forces.

An insurgency has two basic goals:

(1) Rally the population into joining the conflict and scale the size of the insurgent forces to the point where it is capable of meeting the enemy in conventional battle.

(2) Victory by denial. Insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan have been very successful in "winning" their war by prolonging the conflict and denying Washington the ability to claim that there is "peace and security" in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A hallmark of insurgency warfare is speed- in executing attacks when the opportunity presents itself as well as speed in responding to enemy propaganda or disseminating propaganda which supports an insurgency.

Insurgency warfare and social media campaigns share the same centre of gravity: both are operations to win the hearts and minds of the population (and audience/market share).

Below are the basic principles of COIN doctrine which can be applied in the corporate world as well as modern warfare:

1. Speed. This will be critical to defensive operations and crisis management when responding to negative activities impacting brand and reputation. Speed is also crucial in an offensive capacity; allowing marketing and communications executives to seize the tempo of the narrative by seeding conversations and making the audience respond and react to your agenda.

2. "Make Friends, Don't Pitch" Doctrine- "Earned" kudos and endorsements are the coin of this realm. It doesn't matter what you say about your company or product, it's what your peers in the community say that counts.

A villager in Kabul doesn't care what the Pentagon says about how the US is helping the Afghan people in the New York Times. The Kabul villager will however remember the fact that soldiers helped him dig a well or build a bridge in his village. And he will tell his friends about it.

Similarly, consumers don't really care about what your communications team says about your product. They care about what their friends say about your product or service.

3. Engagement Vs Exposure- A significant change from conventional warfare to COIN warfare is the change in emphasis from exposure (which used to measure how many enemy forces have been killed) to engagement, which looks to gain the hearts and minds of the population.

The lesson here for marketing and communications social media executives is to focus on raising the level of consumer engagement with your company's brand and products, NOT how many eyeballs your marketing campaign reached.

Building engagement requires a long-term approach whereas exposure is a function of efficiency.

4. "One village at a time"-US Marine Corp COIN fighters have learnt that winning a counter-insurgency war does not hinge on dominance across the entire area of operation at the same time. The COIN approach has been to win hearts and minds ONE village at a time, with the cumulative gains made in building rapport with the population contributing to the success of the overall war.

The COIN doctrine of "Identify, Secure and Hold" is directly applicable to social media strategy. Instead of trying to build relationships with all sectors within your industry at the same time, approach building rapport with industry segments "one village at a time".

This can be achieved by:

A. Identifying the relevant industry/sector social media communities or "villages" one by one.

B. Secure entry to the community and your place in the village.

C. Hold onto your "citizenship" in the village by participating in the dialogue and seeding appropriate content.

But perhaps the best lesson from warfare for social media comes from the insurgency warfare in the WWII era.

"The invader stands as though he is on a lighted stage, watched by a thousand unseen eyes and ears"- Mao Zedong

A twenty four hour media cycle coupled with the speed of mobile social media applications means precisely what Mao said more than half a century ago- your company's products, services and activities are under scrutiny by a global audience at all times.

Don't make your first post on Facebook or Twitter without considering what the last post will be.

Aaron Lim completed his Master's thesis on military strategy. He has worked as an analyst for the New Zealand Army and as the online manager New Zealand Trade & Enterprise. He has also worked as a journalist and for stockmarket operator NZX.

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