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Marketing lessons from football


They say football is the big school of life and you either come out a taught or you drop out. Playing in a team from such a young age learning to discipline in training, to work in a team and put the general good above your own and to have a coach that you have to trust and "obey" are things that are great for every young kid moving into adolescence.

Of course, all these are true for every sport and although football has some traits that are different (skills over strength, stamina for over 90 minutes, big teams to play with etc) this article is not just about this. It focuses in depth about specific marketing lessons football is able to taught players and has definitely taught me over the years and are applicable to marketing. Some of these marketing lessons are more obvious and some less so, but looking at the through the lenses of the sport is a very different perspective. Maybe that is because they borrow some of the thrill of the sport.

*Football is a reference to the English sport game that is played with feet. People from the other side of the Atlantic could calmly replace it with the word "soccer".

Work it backwards. Conversions, funnels and then channels.

The most effective players I ever known seem to have on thing in common. They did what they have do immediately. I thought at first that they were smart and thinking on their feet (not pun intended) and it made sense since they decision was informed. They seem to have taken into place all the factors, where other rivals are standing, which teammates have a good chance for a through ball, if the goal keeper is out of place and whether a forward is looking for a cross.

But that was what it looked like. One day in training I got injured and sitting there watching my teammates play I realised how wrong I was. Yes, they process when the got the ball and yes they were considering possibilities but they were doing it the other way around. I was considering all possibilities when I was receiving the ball and the acted on the best one. These guys, the had all the possibilities in their minds, ranked from best to worst. That means instead of checking 20 possibilities they were assessing 2-3. Could this be a goal, could this evolve to a one-to-one opportunity for a forward or would this tackle end this counter attack, could that can an offsite trap? And most of the times it did, as they were always ready for it and acted on it while others were still processing.

Same applies to marketing

Sometimes we trick ourselves into a great new channel that is promising for our business and it makes sense to explore new trends and lead opportunities. Chances are today it's TikTok. We are delighted by the possibility of a huge traffic uptick and don't think it through. The target demographic and the platform can be a deal maker or a deal maker for converting traffic. They could be too young (in the case of TikTok) or too old, they have not be in the mood to check out an Insurance product when they watch funny 10 seconds dance videos or it may be just almost impossible to convey value through certain mediums.

A bad campaign can ruin 10 good ones.

Coach always used to tell that "parallel passes are illegal". You pass back, you pass forward and if you don't know what to do just kick the ball out. Yet many of my teammates (myself included) were doing the parallel pass and most of the times that was at 80+ minute in crucial games. Most of us were influences by our desire to make the difference and take advantage of that small time window and get the ball over to the player.

Great football players are exceptionally good at this. Ronaldinho was juggling over opponents he was pressed in the side of the field with two players covering him. Neymar failed elastico let to the ball gone out of play and didn't put his team in danger. You can see this almost all Christiano Ronaldo dribbling fails or Messi missplays. They develop this skills since they were young and having this creative freedom let the experiment and evolve and assess risk better. The ball is almost always out, their team is rarely put in danger but these players are always trying extremely risky things surprising both funs and opponents.

Same applies to marketing

Some campaigns are just below average. These are great to analyse the conversational tone, the promotional intensity and the message format that is sent. Some other campaigns are crossing the line. There are two common scenarios here. The one is to have a hard selling attitude that alienates subscribers. The other is to be so out of the blue that the subscriber starts to question the relevance of the publication to them. If you have that feeling for something you gonna publish better do a canary release (a release to a subset of your subscribers) or don't publish at all if your channel does not allow controlled releases (eg. Facebook or Instagram).

Prepare campaigns days before running them.

There was a time we were doing 5 training sessions per week. Then there was the match day that was either Saturday or Sunday. We were not training the day before the game. If we did we would be tired and performed significantly worse in the match day.

But it has to be this way. In training, we focus on individual skills. We usually practice passing on one day. Another day we did full on physical training with circular exercises. A third day we are divided into groups one attacking and one defending practising crossing and finishing and defending respectively.

This was dangerous for some of my teammates. As we usually have Fridays off, they felt into the opportunity to go out and have fun at that day. But there isn't any other way to go about it. We have to work on certain skills, optimise our scoring and plan our game as a team at a different day. On practise day we focus practising, we give 100% to training and be good at practising individual skills and team functions while on game day we focus being effective, finish most of our chances, never lose the possession of the ball behind midline and be good at winning.

Same applies to marketing

Don't prepare and execute at the same day. I've seen it so often. People like to get things done. They create assets, craft content and put it all in place which requires hours of preparation and execution. But when they are about to publish they tend to hustle to "get it out there". I can't stress how wrong this is and how many times I fall into this trap myself. You have to have a clear mind when you are publishing, think it all through again and consider the parameters at the time of publishing. If it's a Sunday you rather have a more relaxed tone. If Christmas is approaching you can have relevant product placements. If its late at night you may need to reconsider and send it out tomorrow morning. It depends on your campaign but more importantly it depends on your target audience!

Be good with email, social and paid. Be great at one.

For every football team there some players that are great dribblers. They can hold the ball, jungle it with two opponents pressing or pass through 3 rivals while the game is already 85 minutes in with no substitutes. There's a guy or two that is gifted at shooting. It seems that every kick they do is at least 80%+ performance, they realise when to go in for a goal before everyone and their shoot is 99% on target. It would be unfair not to mention the great defenders, the sweepers, (the guys that are meant to play libero but modern football does not allow). They don't run a lot but when they do you know they will tackle and they don't tackle a lot but when they do you know they will clean the opponent chance. Some good shooters are good dribblers and some good sweepers are good shooters but none is good at everything. And for a good reason.

When I played football myself I laid down all these skills, tackling, shooting, dribbling, heading and passing. That is to improve on every single skill and become the best player I could. That was working well I was improving at all these individual aspects until I realised it wasn't. As a central midfielder, I happened to be in a position to chase an attacker before and due to my tackling training I manage to stop them once or twice. But that was it. All these time I spend training this skill was fun and value-able but a midfielder has to focus on pressing for control, pass the ball in ingenious ways forward and cross it to switch play when the rival's team pressing in increasing on one side of the field. I could focus instead on a blind piercing passes that could lead to one-to-one opportunities or bend cross balls to advance from the wings. The opportunities to improve are countless but I was not considering them because I was focusing on becoming good at everything rather than great at one thing.

Same applies to marketing

I think marketing is one of these occupations that seems simple from the outside. "You are just creating campaigns on Facebook". "I'm doing what you do for my side-hustle". "You don't need a degree for it". You all hear it. And from a conceptual point of view it's really down to earth concepts that you can grasp in a day. But to be great at it you have to be actively involved with campaigns and keep trying things. There's so many peculiarities to each medium. Email and HTML limitations, Facebook ads and Pixel tracking, timezones scheduling, automation tools like Buffer and HootSuite, reposting, grey hat backlinks, on-page SEO optimisations. But you don't have to do everything. Your target audience will determine what has to be done and since it will be only one or two things that will work they have to be done seamlessly. That means if you are the person for the job you need to know what you are doing. If it's email it's has to have great open rates, segment targeted and timezones optimised etc. If it's social it has to be sharable, have the right assets that will fit in the company page and spark positive conversations. If it paid it has to be well researched, geo-targeted and canary tested.

Have fun but play to win. But have fun.

The best teams seem to be the ones whose players look like they’re having fun playing the game. Firstly, pleasure is a great natural motivator. If you enjoy doing something, you’re much more inclined to spend time doing it. The more time you spend doing something, the more likely you are to be good at it. Then, the more you enjoy it the less stress you are and that gives you the most chances of having a clean mind on the game.

At least that was my thinking until I reality taught me otherwise. If you play to have fun you won't necessarily win. Sometimes you felt into the fun creative aspect of the game. You care about a good long bend pass, a smart through ball or quick dribble and loose sight of the goal post. Likewise, if you play to win you won't necessarily have fun. These players usually get angry at their teammates when the miss a pass or when the shoot out of the target. They ask for the ball even when its hard to pass the ball through and always have an excuse when something goes wrong which made me question if they even want to win in the first place. Even for wining this is not the best strategy. Their teammates performance will drop significantly worse so does their chances of wining.

Everyone that plays football in a competitive manner enjoys the sport in some sense. Some players enjoy winning more being creative with the plays. The best strategy incorporates both the elements of winning and have fun into one game style and team relationships.

Same applies to marketing

Marketing another activity that is results driven by nature. In addition, content creation, branding and campaign planning are all creative endeavours that are engaging in their own respect. It's easy to fall in with the piece of content you make or the new growth idea you had. At the same time there are countless examples in marketing, especially in sales, that forget the artistic part of the job and focus purely on the results. Remember, "Creativity fuels results and vice versa"!

As a follow on to the list of marketing lessons that football taught me, there's an article from Ido Lechner on Medium about non marketing lessons you can check out.

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Andreas Tzionis @