Opinion

Can Super Bowl 50 teach marketers a lesson in business success?

With the Super Bowl nigh, Gavin Parkes, analytics and data insights lead at creative tech agency Twogether, finds some interesting parallels between US sports' adoption of sabermetrics and the principles of marketing.

Super Bowl 50 will be contested between the Broncos and Panthers at the Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara
Super Bowl 50 will be contested between the Broncos and Panthers at the Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara

As the Carolina Panthers line up against the Denver Broncos on Sunday for Super Bowl 50, it will be quite a show - because nobody knows how to put on a show like the National Football League.

For the third straight year, the two number-one seeds will fight for the ultimate honour. Those seedings are backed up by the stats. Carolina’s number-one ranked offence will line-up against Denver’s number-one ranked defence.

Which brings us to that well-used American-football aphorism: "Offence wins games, defence wins championships."

While offence is the glitzy, glamorous, highlight-reel side of the game, it’s the tough, nitty-gritty defence that lays the groundwork for a winning season. It's a bit like marketing. Consider 'outbound' as the offence, and 'inbound' as the defence.

TV advertising and YouTube videos may get the wows, but emails deliver the conversions. To play - and win - the long game, marketers should ensure they have the best defence possible.

Marketers can use these principles - now fundamental to US sports - to optimise their ‘playbook’. Each player in a team could be compared to a marketing channel

The book Moneyball: the Art of Winning an Unfair Game, made famous by the Oscar-nominated film Moneyball, told how Billy Beane, general manager of the 2003 Oakland Athletics baseball team, shunned the "hero stats" for an analytical, evidence-based, sabermetric approach to building a competitive team on a budget a fraction of that held by big-name rivals like the Yankees.

Marketers can use these principles - now fundamental to US sports - to optimise their ‘playbook’. Each player in a team could be compared to a marketing channel. Each has their specific task, their speciality, but all combine as a team to achieve a common goal and a single – hopefully successful – result.

The road to victory

Sabermetrics can give us several key pointers to winning the game:

1. A star quarterback might have "the numbers", but would be nothing without their receivers and running backs. Likewise, in marketing, the person who signs off a purchase is not necessarily the person researching the buying decision. We need to know who our audience really is and target our message accordingly. We might want to target CEOs, but it's probably their senior managers who do the legwork.

2. At the core of Moneyball is the decision to ignore headline statistics and focus on deeper analytical algorithms. In marketing, communications that gain 'quick-win' clicks won’t mean anything without the continuing engagement over a buying cycle that provides the real ROI.

3. The Oakland Athletics didn’t blow most of its budget to buy a big-name hitter – and we shouldn’t spend our entire budget on a showy video if it isn’t going to move the audience further into the buyer's journey.

4. Denver's number-one defence ranking comes from a complex mix of individual statistics, which means each player contributes to the team ranking. Those players are your leads. Nurturing those existing leads will result in greater conversions than ignoring them and chasing new ones – it’ll be cheaper in the long run, too. While existing players have a good grounding already, new players have to learn the system from scratch and often demand a signing bonus (or, in the world of marketing, a discount or freebie).

5. To ensure the right message gets to the right person, at the right time, we need to use all the data at our disposal – Salesforce, CRMs and MA (marketing automation) platforms, web and email analytics, telesales – to create more focused customer segmentation.

6. Don’t be afraid to try something different – Beane wasn't. With a bit of research, the potential long-term gain should outweigh any short-term negative impact. Constant testing is key to improving our marketing effectiveness.

7. Play the long game. The buyer's journey for products and services can last many months. Much like judging a player on his past few games, focusing on an individual's activity in the past few weeks will be less profitable than reviewing the past six months.

The NFL and Major League Baseball used a business principle to win games. There's a certain irony that their success can now offer us informative, data-driven principles. So whoever wins on Sunday, we can rest assured that both sides will be collecting stats on everything that happens so they're ready for the next game. Or should that be.... 'the next campaign'?