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Marketing lessons from football


Playing in a team taught me discipline, teamwork and getting used to follow and trust a coach. Among the things I learn there are a lot of lessons about dynamical situations that are fast paces and require quick and precise action.

In this article I will go through a few lessons football taught me over the years and are applicable to marketing. These lessons that I used extensively long after I stop engaging with the sport in a daily basis.

*Football is a reference to the English sport game or what Americans call "soccer".

Work backwards from the "goal"

The most effective players I ever known seem to have all on thing in common. They did what they have do quickly - almost instinctively. Initially I thought they were smart, thinking on their feet (not pun intended), and it made sense since they decision was informed. They seem to have taken all the factors into account, 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 that I got slightly injured, I sitting on the grass outside the playing field watching my teammates play and I realized how wrong I was. Yes, they process everything when the got the ball and yes they were considering possibilities but they were doing in a different way.

While I was considering all possibilities when I was receiving the ball and then acted on the best one, these guys, had all the possibilities figured out all along, ranked from best to worst. Instead of processing 20 possibilities they were just assessing the 2 or 3 best. Could this be a goal, could this evolve to a one-to-one opportunity for a forward or would this tackle end the counter attack, could that be an offsite trap? And most of the times they were right, as they were always ready for the opportunity and acted on it while others were still processing.

Application to Marketing

Sometimes we trick ourselves that a new channel 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 or too old, the platform might not nurture the right mood.

The cost of a mistake

My coach used to tell that "parallel passes are illegal". You are allowed to pass back, you can pass forward and if you don't know what to do you might as well kick the ball out of the playing field. In practice most of the team honor this rule for most of the game but a few matches in the league it became apparent that there were parallel passes and most of the happened at 80+ minutes in the crucial games. Most of us were influenced by our desire to make a difference and take advantage of that small time window in this game and get the ball over to the player.

Great football players are exceptionally good at making risk bets while minimizing the cost for their team. 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 fans and opponent players.

Application to Marketing

Some campaigns are just under-performing. These are great to analyze the conversational tone, the promotional intensity and the message format that is sent. Some other campaigns are above average. 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 for the big day

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, optimize our scoring and plan our game as a team at a different day. On practice 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.

Application 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 at all position and 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 realize 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 realized 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.

Application 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, re-posting, grey hat backlinks, on-page SEO optimizations. 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 optimized 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.

Winning is sometimes necessary

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.

Application 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"!


In the article I reflected on my experience playing in a team and mentioned valuable lessons. A few of these lessons are to work backwards from the goal, the costs of making a mistake in different situations, to be prepare for big events accordingly, be great at one role while having general knowledge of most roles and that winning in some situations is very important for the psychology each player and the team as a whole. These are lessons that are applicable to many different situations and turned out to be especially useful for me in the field of marketing.

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Andreas Tzionis @