ImageAnd it’s not a budget either. It’s not a means to prove ROI. A social strategy on its own is “the making of an integrated set of choices that collectively position the firm in its industry so as to create sustainable advantage relative to competition and deliver superior financial returns.”

A short article in the Harvard Business Review blog – Don’t Let Strategy Become Planning by Roger Martin – brought this distinction home to me this morning.

I like to think of myself as – among other things – a social media strategist. I understand the tendency to closely associate “strategy” with “planning,” as in, “To implement social media successfully, you must come up with a strategic plan.”

Not so, writes Mr. Martin. Strategy stands on its own. Sure, the budget needs to be considered, but what many managers create as strategic plans are “simply budgets with lots of explanatory words attached.” This is especially so when the strategy involves social relationships where old paradigms of “the cost of a customer” are still being applied. A social strategy is first about winning hearts and minds through appropriate changes in business process. Budgeting and revenue generation only come into play when a solid, practical strategy is in place.

Adapting the list of five strategic questions offered by Martin, these should all be answered in the process of building a social strategy:

1. What do we want to achieve through our social initiatives?

2. Where will we institute our social actions – marketing, customer support, public relations?

3. How will we know when we’ve achieved success and competitive advantage?

4. What capabilities and skill sets need to be hired or developed?

5. What new management systems must be created and instituted?

Planning for initiatives, investments and budgeting can be done once an agreed-upon strategy is in place. For an outside social media consultant or an in-house social practice champion, the answers to these questions will clarify what needs to be done to realize the full value of the social strategy. 

For those who insist on bundling strategy with planning, each of these answers would be assigned a cost and the total cost alone might cause the CFO to sink the whole idea, strategy and all. A purely strategic approach, on the other hand, could frame the five answers in the context of the company’s overall strategy and the subsequent budget could, in like fashion, be drawn in part from existing cost centers.

Strategy unencumbered by planning and budgeting, Martin writes, is not only a better business practice, but it should be simple. He maintains that the answers to each of the five questions should take up no more than a page. If it takes more than that, go back to your drawing board.

Are you involved in social media strategy? I’d like to know what you think about this perspective.