LearnStrategy Basics: It's Really all about having a Plan


writes on March 11, 2010

Strategy. You hear about it all the time. One must have a strategy/work on a strategy/follow a strategy and so on. Business types like to say “strategy” a lot as it sounds big, complicated and important.

And it is important, but there is no need for it to be complicated. Quite the opposite.

At the heart of it all “strategy” is just about having a plan for the thing you are working on. Or as Wikipedia puts it “a strategy is a plan of action designed to achieve a particular goal”.

Getting the Strategy Right

If there is ever a time to look at what’s important in a project, it is early on, in the strategy stage.

Let us assume that your client doesn’t have a strategy for their next web project.

Before you build, design, code or write anything you need to think about what the project needs to achieve.

This is in part because strategy can mean almost anything, depending on the needs of the client, the size of their audience and ultimately the goal of your client. And it will mean different things at different times during the life-span of a project: you may have one strategy to launch with, another for the ongoing management of the site and so on.

Thinking the project through, seeing how one thing leads to another on the way to the project’s goal is a very healthy thing to do.

The one thing all strategies must have in common is that they tie in with your client’s overall business goals. (You’d be surprised how often clients themselves forget this simple fact!) If it doesn’t, the client will never be happy with your work even if they were the ones who ignored the business goal connection.

That’s why you should be thrilled when a client asks for your help in developing their web project strategy (or asks you to help them find someone who can create it for them).

It is an excellent opportunity to make sure that you, or the people you choose to collaborate with, create a to-the-point strategy that helps the client reach their goals and in the process makes you look like an absolute star who deserves lots more commissions.

Strategy as a Sales Tool

Before we continue, you may wonder if you really need to bother with all this strategy stuff. The answer is yes you do, especially if the client asks you to help craft it.

A strategy, even one that is just a paragraph in length, shows that you have understood the task at hand. It shows the direction you will take the project, and it is an effective way to put your client’s mind at ease.

How to Do It

A good web strategy should always cover the following five points.

  1. What you are doing
  2. Who you are doing it for
  3. Why you are doing it
  4. How you are doing it
  5. When you are doing it

Here is an example:

Your client, the Think Vitamin Dairy, tell you they want to sell more of their orange flavored Think Vitamin Milk.

To make sure you have enough information to cover the five points above you ask the client loads of questions, including:

  • Who currently buys the Think Vitamin Milk?
  • Why and how do they buy it?
  • When do they drink it?
  • What do they think of it?
  • Have the sales changed over the past year, if so how and why?

The client tells you that Think Vitamin Milk is mostly gulped by web people who like the energy kick they get from it. They buy it online in crates of twelve bottles and according to their tweets some of them have started drinking it when they go hiking in the Cotswolds on the weekends.

After a spot of thinking you come up with a plan, a strategy, which suggests the client invest their budget in creating a smartphone app to reach a new audience instead of buying advertising. You flesh it out with a few pointers:

  • Think Vitamin Dairy should build an iPhone app aimed at ramblers to help them plan hiking trips – The Think Vitamin “Think Hiking” app. (A new audience, with existing customers mixed in is golden.)
  • The app lets users plan hikes and share them with their friends to get everyone ready for the excursion (virality – always a good thing!).
  • The app would show where along the trail the energizing Milk can be bought and plot the local independent dairy farms who provide the cow juice. (If you like hiking you probably care about food sustainability too.)
  • The app is supported by a small teaser and signup site that, after the app has launched, displays tweets from hikers and shows where the most popular trails are.

Instead of throwing money at advertising, the client’s milk brand would be known for a very useful app that is associated with good friends, good times and days off in the country.

There it is, a good simple and easy to understand strategy tied to the goal of selling more orange flavored milk.

In Conclusion

Strategy is important, but it’s not rocket science. It is really just about having a plan.

The more you work with strategy, the more you learn and the more you will want to learn. You will find new ways of approaching old problems, and it can be just as addictive as the work you are already passionate about.

This post was all about the basics, but to be honest that’s where many clients and us web creators go wrong. Get the basics right, and keep your eyes open and you will become an even better web professional in no time.

Best of all, the more comfortable you get with the strategy portion of your work the better you will be at understanding the client’s needs and the more valuable you will become to them.


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19 Responses to “Strategy Basics: It's Really all about having a Plan”

  1. This is the first time I ever hear of the term “Strategy Stage” in Project Management. I think the term is similar to the Project Identification Stage ( http://www.pmhut.com/project-identification ) as the latter happens prior to the project initiation and the project planning phase. I think the basic point of strategy is about prioritization based on the needs of the company/organization.

    PS: Your blog’s design is very cool.

  2. Orange Milk!? Yuck

    Great article though!

  3. I read this quote last week, and it sums up strategy for me. “Discipline is remembering what you want.” – David Campbell (Saks 5th Avenue)
    It’s all good and well having your plan, but sticking to it is where I think clients often falter. Perhaps it’s because the plan wasn’t well thought out to begin with? Perhaps too many cooks spoiled the broth? Be that as it may, we have to help our clients find a plan and help them stick to it.

    • Jaan & Andreas on March 16, 2010 at 10:55 pm said:

      Hej Darryl,

      In our experience there are two main reasons for clients beginning to stray from an approved strategy.

      1) It was not tied to their goals as a business, after all.
      2) The plan did not have the internal backing it needed.

      A combination of the two is not uncommon. We agree with you that we always need to help our clients not only find the right plan, but also stick to it. We can achieve this by providing education, supporting them internally, offering alternative points of view, and also by challenging their assertions along the way. A friendly devil’s advocate is a good thing to have on board.

      • As said, great article, but I have to differ on the 5 points you say all strategy has to have.

        I reach the end goal in a different way, which I’ve found the client’s tend to understand better. Client = WHO? are you (About us), WHAT? do you do (Services, products, etc), HOW? do users get hold of you (Contact us). Users = WHO? are they (User personas), WHAT? do they do on the site (User scenarios), HOW? did they get there (Search, Social media, Direct, etc). The answers reach the same conclusions, but in a different way.

        I always find there’s a difference between what the client wants to say and what the users want, and as a strategist it is important for us to show the client how important the users are.

        Living in Sweden now and learning the difference in how client’s think in this part of the world has also changed my working model.

  4. I definitely agree that having a solid strategy could potentially lead to great business realizations. However, I think the strategy shouldn’t be set in stone. It should have a potential path with the possibility of variations depending on how users interact/buy the product/service.

    Also, with experience one can get more agile in choosing the right path/strategy, however the market is so unpredictable at times that we have to be lean in taking the right path at any given time.

    With that said, I always like to draw a strategy or I’d like to call it a success-path. In other words A leads to B leads to C, etc. But, always (and I cannot stress it enough) we leave room for the unknown, happy accidents, and surprises within the scope of global planning.

    Great article & thanks for sharing.


    • It would be pretty hard to have an effective strategy if you were constantly changing it. That is why spending the time to research and identify the strategy is so important. Because it is the base of everything you build off of, shifting the base can have a dramatic impact on the rest of the site.

      ie: The user goals and site objectives drive everything else from the information architecture, navigation, design, functionality, etc… you change the user goals and site objectives and everything else should shift around it.

  5. Hey, great overview here. I will definitely share this with my clients, small arts organizations and individual artists in NYC, who make good work and have a concept of what’s expected… in terms of marketing. BUT (that’s a big one), they often have no concept of strategy – a strategy that’s not canned, but unique to their projects. Looking forward to more of your posts.

  6. temiyemi on March 13, 2010 at 8:11 pm said:

    Great article! Me be lovin’ it.

  7. Great article, this has very interesting info.
    Thank you!

  8. Joseph Wilson on March 12, 2010 at 3:01 pm said:

    I’m currently studying Business Policy (for school), and I have to admit, it wasn’t until I read this article that certain elements of the strategy development process “clicked” for me. I do have to agree with Robert on one area, though, and that is this: I really wish you could have continued the article to include the execution of the strategy and the measuring of its outcomes.

    Other than that small bit, INCREDIBLE article! Thanks so much!


    We believe in this totally at The House London Ltd. KISS (Keep it simple stupid!).

    Nice one!

  10. Its too much true 🙂 Well planned projects with good strategy never failed… Its always works on growing path…. you have discussed interesting information…

  11. This is an interesting article, though like Robert, I do think it risks on being a little oversimplified.

    In truth, a strategy is more than a plan: it’s about defining how you intend to meet the goals. Strategy is often confused with “tactics”, which correctly refer to the steps you will take in order to realize a strategy. Why is this differentiation important? A strategy is a direction, but there may be several tactics that will help you “do it”. One of the key activities (not mentioned in your example) is never to dive for the first idea or tactic that comes along. It’s to evaluate a range of options to see which is the best tactic worth spending the money on in order to get the best results.

    While in your example the client knows their audience, in truth if you are building something that comes with user adoption risks, you would want to back your chosen tactic with research to validate that the direction the product wants to head is actually likely to work in the market.

  12. If I were describing strategy work to someone who had never heard of it, this article could make a nice summary. But I thought Think Vitamin was targeted at web practitioners. If so, this article oversimplifies the reality quite a bit. Defining “strategy” is easy. The hard part is answering the questions in the “How To Do It” section. That can take a lot of time and requires much care. Often, entire businesses are at stake. Doing the job well can mean being a skilled researcher and rhetorician, and knowledgeable in many aspects of the web.

    Also noteworthy, but not mentioned, is that the results of your strategy should be measured. You can’t know your strategy is effective unless you implement ways to track the outcome.

    • Jaan & Andreas on March 11, 2010 at 11:03 pm said:

      Robert, thank you for your feedback.

      We don’t quite agree with you that defining strategy is necessarily easy. If it was, people would get it right more often. It does become easier, and comes more naturally, with experience however.

      You are correct that answering the how-to part requires skill, insight and care. But without a strategy/plan – or with a hastily assembled one – it would be nigh on impossible or at the very least a longer and more costly process (and the end result might be a bit iffy).

      Measuring is indeed key, and doesn’t get addressed enough. It’s a topic we hope to write about in future posts.

  13. I totally agree with Shivek. Great article again, thanks so much.

  14. Due to articles like these, I love your blog 🙂

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