What is a SWOT or TOWS analysis, how are they carried out, and how can you use them to improve your marketing plan and strategy? Get a handle on this core marketing discipline with our straightforward guide to SWOT and TOWS.
What is SWOT analysis?
SWOT is a situational analysis framework used to map out the most definitive internal and external factors currently affecting an organisation, individual or project. It considers four types of factor:
Here are some examples of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats that could apply to a digital marketing industry SWOT analysis.
- Good brand recognition
- High availability of skills (such as SEO, strategy, copywriting)
- Extensive reach via social media channels
- Limited access to skills
- Limited budget
- Limited agility or resistance to change, due to legacy systems/collateral
- A gap in the market
- A good relationship with a publicity source
- Access to a new marketing tool or technology
- New competitor in the market
- New regulation affecting marketing practices (e.g. GDPR)
- Escalating rate of employee churn
In SWOT analysis, we map out strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats as follows:
|Internal Factors||External Factors|
The two internal factor types – Strengths and Weaknesses – are in the left-hand column. The external factor types – Opportunities and Threats – are on the right.
Making this distinction will help you understand how each point you’ve identified can feed into your strategy.
The external factors in the right-hand column are largely or entirely out of your control. You can use them to determine your objectives, but not to determine how you’ll reach those objectives.
The internal factors in the left-hand column are entirely within your control. You can use them to work out how you will achieve your objectives, but not to determine what those objectives are.
How to carry out a SWOT analysis
Now we know the factors that go into SWOT and how to map them out on a SWOT matrix, let’s try carrying out a SWOT analysis.
Choose one of your upcoming projects – such as an email marketing campaign, a website redesign, or the launch of a new Instagram account. If you don’t have any projects coming up, just make one up.
Next, list four or five points relating to that project for each of the four SWOT factor types: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
Strengths include any existing facet of the project that you consider to be advantageous or enabling.
Weaknesses cover all the internal factors that might hold the project back. Think about operational and people-based shortcomings in particular.
Opportunities include any outside factors which your project/team/organisation could capitalise on. Focus on opportunities to drive the growth of sales, audience, revenue, reach, etc.
Threats include any external prospective blockers to your success.
Once you’ve identified four or five points for each category, type them up as bullet points within the SWOT matrix. You should end up with something like this:
SWOT Analysis Example
Website redesign SWOT analysis
|Internal Factors||External Factors|
|High internal web dev skill level||New website template or platform seems to suit our requirements|
|Ownership of wide selection of relevant domain names||New design trend identified among competitor websites|
|Established system for website change management||Web design funding source identified|
|Access to skilled web design consultant||Relevant Creative Commons website image library identified|
|Limited knowledge of our customers' web design preferences||New regulation affecting website redesign scope|
|Existing website content held on complex legacy system||Emerging website security risk|
|Limited internal understanding of website code||Worsening skills gap in web design industry|
|Limited budget for redesign||Websites becoming less effective marketing channel for businesses in our sector|
A completed SWOT matrix along these lines is in itself a useful tool for establishing where you currently stand, and where you’d like to get to with your marketing plan. As we’ll see in the following section, we can make it more useful still, by increasing its reliability and comprehensiveness.
Optimising your SWOT factors with data and stakeholder input
The best SWOT analyses are highly accurate and represent a wide range of stakeholder viewpoints. To satisfy these criteria, we must optimise our work with data and stakeholder input.
Internal factors (strengths and weaknesses) can be optimised through the use of data analytics and stakeholder interviews. For example, you might use data from your website analytics and sales figures, with a particular focus on KPIs and current performance. Or, you could ask stakeholders (e.g. C-level, employees, customers) to suggest their own ideas regarding strengths and weaknesses.
External factors (opportunities and threats) can be sourced and/or corroborated via reports on global trends, industry trends, market data, plus competitor analysis.
By supporting each point with pertinent data and expert/stakeholder opinion, you can ensure accurate SWOT analysis of your current state and context.
Turning insight into action with TOWS analysis
You could be forgiven for assuming a TOWS analysis is just an inverted SWOT analysis – and indeed, the two processes do share many similarities. Both are concerned with strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
So what is the difference between SWOT and TOWS analysis?
The first key difference between SWOT and TOWS lies in the outcomes they create. While SWOT analysis is a great way to identify the current situation of your marketing strategy/business/project, TOWS is used primarily for strategy creation.
Within a strategy-making process, you would first use SWOT to identify your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, and then use TOWS to work out how your SWOT findings can be applied to future strategy.
Here’s how a TOWS matrix is organised:
|Opportunities||Strengths/opportunities (SO)||Weaknesses/opportunities (WO)|
|Threats||Strengths/threats (ST)||Weaknesses/threats (WT)|
It’s all about the four key factors outlined in the table above, which are defined as follows:
- Strengths/opportunities (SO): how will you use your strengths to capitalise on your opportunities?
- Weaknesses/opportunities (WO): which weaknesses do you need to overcome in order to exploit your opportunities? How will you overcome these weaknesses?
- Strengths/threats (ST): how will you use your strengths to overcome external threats?
- Weaknesses/threats (WT): which weaknesses are especially vulnerable to threats, and therefore in need of attention?
By working through each of these categories, you’ll be able to turn your SWOT findings into a solid starting point for strategy formulation. Here’s an example of how a completed TOWS matrix looks:
Organic search success → PPC success TOWS analysis
|Strength: good organic search visibility||Weakness: Poor in-house PPC management capability|
|Opportunity: Our search engine friendly webpage is likely to perform efficiently in PPC||Strengths/opportunities (SO) Use the same principles that made our webpage's content relevant to its meta title and description to ensure high relevance between the webpage and a new PPC ad.||Weaknesses/opportunities (WO) We should consider engaging a PPC expert or agency, to ensure we have the skills needed to take advantage of the opportunity.|
|Threats: our two biggest competitors appear to have high visibility in PPC results.||Strengths/threats (ST) Strive to ensure our webpage outranks the competitors' web pages. This will improve our chance of securing more favourable treatment within PPC.||Weaknesses/threats (WT) Competitors appear to have high PPC management proficiency. We must, therefore, improve our own capability in order to compete on this front.|
Applying TOWS to your SWOT findings is powerful because it will prompt you to consider how your greatest strengths can make good of your best opportunities, or nullify the most serious threats. At the same time, it flags up the internal weaknesses that could stand in the way of external opportunities and draws attention to dangerous situations in which threats and weaknesses overlap.
In short, TOWS can help you create a broad-brush outline of how the best and worst aspects of your project/team/brand/organisation should interact with crucial external factors. That outline can then be used as the premise for a more nuanced strategy to navigate your environment and meet your objectives.
Other uses for SWOT and TOWS
SWOT and TOWS are applicable to just about any planning process. Besides digital marketing planning, you might use them for:
- Career development planning
- Business strategy
- Education/skills strategy
- Product/project planning
- Website redesign planning
Or, how about a SWOT analysis of your current SWOT proficiency?
Strength: you’ve read about and understood how SWOT works
Weakness: you don’t have any practical experience of SWOT
Opportunity: you can try making your own SWOT analysis straight away
Threat: time pressure. You have other things to learn about – like PESTEL analysis!
To get the hang of the process, try applying SWOT and TOWS to a variety of subjects. For example, you could focus on a well-known brand, or your own marketing studies.
Bonus: enhance your external SWOT factors with PESTEL analysis
Who’s ready to learn another Marketing framework!? Bear with us – mastering this one could help you identify your external SWOT Analysis factors much more effectively.
What Is PESTEL Analysis?
PESTEL analysis is a framework designed to help you find all the key external factors impacting your project. It uses the following factor categories:
- Political – e.g. changes in government policy and regime
- Economic – e.g. economic growth; disposable income of target customers
- Social – e.g. customer beliefs and demographics
- Technological – e.g. device types used to access content
- Ethical – e.g. data handling practices; environmental considerations
- Legislative – e.g. new laws that could affect the project.
Carrying out a PESTEL analysis to identify current political, economic, social, technological, ethical and legislative factors is an unbeatable method for understanding the environment in which you are operating. Try it, then categorise any relevant findings as opportunities or threats to feed into your SWOT analysis.
Unfortunately, we don’t have time to discuss PESTEL analysis in-depth in this article. For more detail, please refer to our guide to PESTEL analysis for digital marketers.
Alternatives to SWOT and TOWS
SWOT analysis has been around since the 1960s, and it remains one of the most essential weapons in a business or marketing strategist’s arsenal. In our view, there’s no surer way to contextualise your current status and ongoing objectives.
That said, SWOT and TOWS are not the last word in marketing strategy.
What is SCORE Analysis?
One alternative, SCORE, encourages analysis of your:
Proponents of SCORE would argue this framework provides a more positive slant on your situation and strategy. However, as SCORE treats challenges and threats under the same heading, it fails to provide sufficient clarity on which problems to work through, and which problems to work around.
What Is SOAR Analysis?
The SOAR Framework, does away with negative considerations altogether and focuses on:
SOAR’s optimistic approach is not necessarily compatible with the complex, competitive realities of an effective digital marketing strategy, and for this reason we’d rule it out as a framework for campaign planning at the highest level. It does have tremendous potential, however, as a framework for generating campaign ideas from the across the depth and breadth of a team.
If you’re a digital marketing team manager, try using SOAR to generate blue-sky strategic thinking from your colleagues, and then testing those ideas within a SWOT framework. In theory, a concept that satisfies both frameworks could be revelatory.
The value of situational analysis
Whether you opt for the well-established SWOT-TOWS framework, or for a newer alternative such as SCORE or SOAR, we would always advise the use of situational analysis to inform your digital strategy. Done right, it can mean the difference between planning your project in harmony with its context or taking a stab in the dark.