Why digital marketing is like managing a football team

One of the biggest points of contention that we come across regularly and one that anyone in the industry will be more than familiar with, is ‘The Big Social Media ROI Conundrum’ - how do you achieve ROI through your social media efforts and how do you prove social media ROI? Of course, all of this is fundamentally possible - there are more than enough cases that prove ROI is achievable.

The aim of this article is to explain, how and why social media is important, why you shouldn’t expect to see traditional ROI and why that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

So how does this all relate to football...

Digital marketing and football

Before we look specifically at social media, let’s take a step back and take a look at the bigger picture.

‘Being a digital marketer is like being the manager of a football team’...(bear with me).

Within your team you have different players (channels) with differing capabilities, strengths and weaknesses and your job is to put them together into a cohesive, functioning unit to work towards achieving your goal - winning the league or the championship (achieving outstanding ROI so that the board want to give you a knighthood).

Undeniably, there is one thing that ties all of the greatest sporting teams in the world together - they did not achieve greatness through operating as individuals towards their own goals and objectives They achieved it through working together as a team. This is the same for your digital (if not all) marketing channels.

Too often marketers and businesses silo each of their channels and only focus on the goals of that channel, instead of the goals of the marketing team as a whole.

Widespread success is achieved when everyone understands the role that each other plays in achieving their goals and that without each fulfilling those roles true success is unattainable.

Of course each player will have their own objectives in order to meet the team objective of winning, a defender’s aim is to keep a clean sheet, while a striker’s aim is to score goals, but the significant thing here is understanding the role each player (or channel) plays within your team.

It doesn’t take Sir Alex Ferguson or Vince Lombardi to figure out that with the team you have at your disposal you should assign your players to the positions and roles that suit their abilities best. You’re not going to win the league by putting your defender upfront and asking him to score goals when his skills don’t align with that position.

Now, if we equate scoring goals in football to converting goals in your digital strategy, asking a channel to convert when it’s not best suited to and then reprimanding it for not doing so is not the fault of the channel, it’s the fault of the manager.

In essence, this is what happens when we talk about social media and ROI. Social media isn’t a goal scorer. It’s not suited to getting the ball (your users) over the line. What’s the point then? Well, you can’t win a football match with 11 strikers on the pitch - even Barcelona have defenders and midfielders. In fact, it’s the same in any team sport. You have players who score the points and players who create space and opportunities for others. In football opportunities are created by midfielders, in American football by quarterbacks and in rugby it’s by your half-backs and centres.

And this is exactly what social media does. It’s an assister. A midfielder. It gives the ball to the players that are best suited to converting. Of course, every so often it might well score a goal itself, but that’s not it’s primary function. You don’t expect a midfield to score more than your striker, but you do expect it to play an integral role in team’s pursuit of scoring and winning.

Why is social media a midfielder?

There a few reasons for this, but the good news for marketers is; ‘it’s not you, it’s me’. The reason social media finds it so difficult to convert people comes down to the frame of mind of the user. Whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram or another platform, fundamentally social media platforms are about one thing - people connecting with people. Facebook is about friends connecting with friends - to see holiday photos, an engagement announcement, the latest baby pictures or just to piece together what happened last night. People flock to Twitter to hear the quips, anecdotes and opinions of other people as they go about their day. LinkedIn users seek to connect with people to form networks and build relationships. None of them are there to be sold to by companies, they’re not in the frame of mind to buy from you.

Think about it, you don’t log into Facebook thinking “I need new shoes, I better check Facebook” - you’re there to see what your friends have been up to. And whilst it may not be good at converting, social media is great at creating opportunities for others. Why? Well more than any other channel, social media gives you the opportunity to build a picture of your brand in the mind of the customer. It allows you to inform them of who you are, what you believe in and why they should buy from you above all of your competitors.

More so than any other channel, social media allows for a constant flow of conversation between a brand and their customers. When you send out your email marketing campaigns do you expect to receive replies? When running your PPC campaigns are you looking to get responses and feedback? It’s all one way traffic. Yet when you post something on social media, these are exactly the things you do expect. You expect a response, you then expect to engage in conversation and try to build a relationship with that person.

Moreover, the volume with which you can do this is significantly higher than any other channel. For some, receiving an email a week would be considered spammy and an email a day definitely so. However, with social media you can post 2 or 3 times a day without a single complaint about frequency.

What social media allows you to do is continuously inform users of exactly why they should buy from you when they’re ready, but not before.

Posting your latest blog on an industry topic tells your audience you’re a company who knows their stuff and one worth considering when it’s time to make a decision on a purchase. They’re unlikely to click and buy from you right there and then, but you’re on the radar.

Sharing a beautifully shot lifestyle image of someone using your product tells your customers that yours isn’t simply a product, it’s a statement. Take a look at the Starbucks’ Instagram, you’re not going to run straight out of the house to buy a coffee from them, but you do have an immediate sense of who they are as a company, what they believe in and how their target audience may align themselves with that brand. Repeat these kinds of thing two to three times a day whilst keeping the quality high and you move from just being on the radar to being front of mind.

In traditional marketing terms, social media is like print advertising. If you’ve placed an ad in a magazine, it’s more than likely the user isn’t there to shop what you’re selling, they’re there to read the articles. You don’t expect your ad to make them stop what they’re doing and immediately buy what you’re selling, but you do expect it to make an imprint in their mind so that when the purchase decision comes about it’s you they’re thinking about. Social media is a constant stream of exactly that and in fact, when social media is done successfully it leaves the user with only one choice, you.

How does this relate back to football? It is extremely rare in any sport that a goal is scored through a single, linear path. In football it can take 90 minutes worth of passing just to get the ball in the back of the net, in American football it can take a numerous plays to score a touchdown and in digital marketing it can take months worth of emails, social media posts and website visits before a user clicks ‘buy now’.

However, social media is at the centre of all of this, it’s the playmaker. It’s the channel that passes them on to your blog, drives them to sign up to your email database, pushes your app download and sets the tempo for the team. Social media is the one player in your team that should be touching the ball more than any of the others and distributing it to keep the move alive. Of course, midfielders aren’t the only people who can pass the ball and other channels can push users to those actions too, but they don’t do it with the frequency that a midfielder (or social media) can.

Ultimately, when that purchase decision is made it’s extremely unlikely that users are going to log in to their social media account to then navigate to your website. Instead, they’re likely to search for your brand on Google, act based on your latest email campaign or simply visit your site directly. The goal’s been scored and it hasn’t been scored by social media. However, there have been 90 minutes worth of passes all working towards scoring that goal. The point is, social media can play a key role in a lot of conversions and in shaping the end purchase decision, it’s just not very good at scoring itself.

Of course, as digital marketers, what’s truly frustrating is that, unlike the vast majority of team sports these days, social media’s impact is difficult to accurately quantify. Despite attribution modelling becoming increasingly sophisticated in many website analytics platforms, tracking ROI for social media is still a very difficult task. Judging it on easily trackable metrics like conversions, conversion rate and revenue means you’re unlikely to be impressed by what you see, in the same way that if you judged a midfielder on shots, shot accuracy and goals you might be looking to find them a new club. You have to focus on the stats that are relevant to the position and role that channel is playing.

For social media the exact metrics you’ll want to monitor are dependant on your marketing mix, but the focus should be on the equivalent of passes. How many times is it passing the ball to other players? In other words, how much traffic has it driven to your website? How many sign ups to your newsletter? How many white paper downloads? Each time it does that it is creating opportunities for channels who are better at converting to do just that, convert.

After all of this, social media still might not be the right fit, and there’s nothing wrong with that either. There is no ‘right’ way to approach your digital marketing in the same way that there is no single way of being successful in sport. In football, some teams opt for a style and formation that requires a goal scoring midfielder, others rely on wing play and some focus on passing and possession. In rugby you might have a kicking fly-half or a running fly-half, a defensive inside centre or an attacking one. There is more than one route to success and for many that may mean that social media isn’t the right fit; your capabilities may be better suited to a different style of play. The key, however, is to understand what players you do have, what formation and style will fit best with them and then to track, monitor and improve based on stats that are relevant to each.

If you’re the Head of Digital or Marketing Manager focus on the whole team winning and don’t scrutinise one player based on another’s strengths. If you’re responsible for a single channel, then make sure you understand the role you play within the wider team and can demonstrate your value. No sporting success has come without a team behind it.

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