How “The Art of War” made me a better content marketer

The Art of War is believed to have been written around 2,500 years ago by Sun Tzu, a high-ranking Chinese military general. A concise bible for military strategy, its thirteen chapters designate key concepts and challenges that must be understood to achieve ultimate military victory, quickly and efficiently.

Statue of Sun Tzu
Image: Sun Tzu (via Wikimedia Commons)

The guidance in The Art of War may hail from a time before smart technology, content marketing or even basic sanitation, but Sun Tzu had a sound understanding of strategy – and the wisdom that has sustained his work across millennia simply buzzes with relevance for anyone working in marketing and management. It has been heralded by CEOs and top publications alike – from Forbes to Snapchat co-founder Evan Spiegel – as an indispensable resource for business leaders in search of inspiration and guidance.

Let’s take a look at ten key takeaways to support your digital marketing progress. But first things first, a disclaimer.

One of the key ideas presented by Tzu, arguably the prevailing theme of much of his advice, focuses on the idea that “all warfare is based on deception”. Whilst marketing is never about deceiving or cheating the competition, it does depend on being wily, well-informed and proactive – enabling you to outmanoeuvre and outpace rivals in key areas. Doing this successfully, according to Sun Tzu, comes down to calculation and planning – and it’s his guidance in these areas that is so acutely applicable to digital marketing and teamwork in general.

1. “He wins battles by making no mistakes.”

It’s a truth even older than The Art of War that accuracy and efficiency are the core values of reliable results. A perfectly executed digital marketing campaign depends on many contributing factors, but every stage relies on each contributor being accurate in their analysis and efficient in their execution.

He wins battles by making no mistakes - Sun Tzu

It may seem obvious, but instilling these values in your team from day one will pay off at the end of the campaign.

2. “Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.”

It can be tempting to repeat strategies that have worked in the past – learnt knowledge, after all, is incredibly valuable. However, to assume that what has worked once will work again is a risk.

It is far better to look at what was effective about a particular project, and look to replicate these patterns of success, whilst building the new project to fit the brief, the audience and achieve the targeted goals.

3. “Carefully compare the opposing army with your own, so that you may know where strength is superabundant and where it is deficient.”

Half the battle of SEO is knowing what your competitor has done, is doing, and will do. Moving through the market, and progressing up rankings, demands the utilisation of data to map routes and set targets. This also applies to your audience.

Harnessing data to understand the user journey and patterns of behaviour is key. From session length to shares, big publishers like The Telegraph foreground data to inform their online and offline content strategies.

4. “Cleverness has never been associated with long delays… Let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns.”

Whilst it’s important never to rush plans through in the name of rapidity, time management is crucial. Rather than focusing on speed, consider a defined structure of deadlines and targets for each project or campaign, to keep the project moving at an agreed pace that prevents over-analysis and keeps all eyes on achieving the targets set.

5. “There are not more than five primary colours, but in combination they produce more hues than can ever be seen.”

Content ideation can be a tricky business – generating fresh and engaging ideas, particularly in topic areas that can be well saturated with content already, is a big challenge.

There are not more than five primary colours, but in combination they produce more hues than can ever be seen - Sun Tzu

For an on-site blog, or for off-site industry publications, your ideas need to provide the audience with something new. Identifying relevant niches within the sector and combining them can produce fresh angles on topics that your client’s audience may not otherwise have considered.

6. “If the enemy leaves a door open, you must rush in”

Identifying weaknesses in the competition is a fundamental part of carving your client a good slice of market share. When taking on a new client, take time to analyse the SEO effectiveness and subject areas that the competitor’s content covers. These audits will use data to identify everything from traffic and backlinks to efficiencies of URL structure. This information can identify where competitors are lacking in what they offer customers, and provide strategies to target these weak points through search and content.

7. “If (the enemy) is taking his ease, give him no rest.”

From a content perspective, the best way to break ‘the enemy’s’ resistance is to deliver a relentless and energetic content strategy that posts regularly, targets intelligently and offers better quality than your competitors.

Publishing excellent content to good sites enables brands to build authority and overtake competitors longer-term. But it’s not about a one-off success, rather consistently creating great content – which sooner or later will get noticed if you’re always doing the right thing.

Our work with Healthspan demonstrates the value of strong digital PR profiles and consistently published great content. With a cohesive strategy, we provided a significant uplift in organic search traffic – proving that a collective and consistent approach, with a focus on quality, is the way to achieve great results.

8. “No point in expensively laying siege to walled cities”

When competing against a dominant competitor, it can be tempting to try to beat them in their own backyard, producing content that does the same – but better. Whilst this is a legitimate tactic against a similarly resourced and ranked rival, it can all too easily fail in the face of well-resourced, dominant alternatives. Instead, interrupt market dominance where possible – don’t over-invest if the target is unachievable. Understanding and communicating what is practical will prevent waste and keep clients’ expectations balanced.

9. “Estimating the adversary, controlling the forces of victory, and of shrewdly calculating difficulties, dangers and distances, constitutes the test of a great general”

Defining a company’s philosophy and approach should not come from the top, but the centre. Being an effective director, team leader or project manager means making calculated decisions, understanding the wider market landscape and marshaling your team for the best success – and ensuring that every team member follows that lead.

10. “The consummate leader…strictly adheres to method and discipline; thus it is in his power to control success”

Developing a structure for how you approach, execute and evaluate projects – an order of processes – is key to both success and quality control.

Problems that arise late on in projects often take root in the initial planning stages. As such, taking a diligently structured approach can add value and save time.

Tzu’s five point approach to military success is ideal for this purpose.

Why not try applying these processes in the running of your projects?

1. Measurement

Bringing together information on competitors, what has been done before, where the gaps in the market are. Discussing how content and SEO strategies could be used to target these areas.

2. Quantity

Budgets are the bane of many a project manager’s life, but they are the headline when it comes to setting targets and ambitions. Paid search is a valuable tool for boosting the reach of content campaigns to specific, highly-targeted demographics. You can target your budget for key audiences, and crucially, you only pay for the clicks you receive – setting it well above conventional marketing in terms of ROI.

3. Calculation

Data, and lots of it! Every decision made during the planning stage should be quantifiable – underscoring your strategy with data is the best way to guarantee success and give your client confidence in the campaign.

4. Balancing Chances

Every project comes with risk – that’s how the rewards are won. However, marketing is all about delivering your goals. If a risk is being considered that could result in severe under-delivery, it’s not a risk worth taking. This is where comprehensive SEO and content auditing of the competition and market landscape can provide real clarity.

5. Victory

Once the campaign has been executed and the results measured, this fresh data should not be used once, then stored and ignored. Every project is an opportunity to add to a portfolio of market research data – a resource that can transform and enhance future planning. When a new project begins, consider the relevant data throughout the planning phase, to both support and challenge decisions about what to produce and who to target.

In the eternal wisdom of disco, the old ones are the best. Sun Tzu may have lived many centuries ago, but it’s a testament to the value of his words that the ideas and solutions he proposes retain so much relevance. From devising the proactive SEO strategies and content marketing campaigns, to understanding how best to organise and lead a creative team, The Art of War is a must-read for anyone in search of malleable marketing mantras that are proven to stand the test of time.

What are your chief marketing mantras? What workplace wisdom do you swear by? Share your thoughts below!