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Small Movement Matters: Marketing Lessons From 'Moneyball' on How to Measure Digital Relationships

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In this article, you'll learn...

  • The parallels of baseball and marketing stats and metrics
  • How to measure and track digital relationships with customers

I grew up watching all kinds of sports with my father, and to this day I love baseball. Though my brother, the other sports fan in the family, says baseball is ponderously slow, there's something about its rhythms that I love.

I remember as a kid watching the larger-than-life baseball heroes of the '70s and '80s, players like Pete Rose and "Mr. October" Reggie Jackson. Back then, it was Reggie's game—a game of big hitters and bigger egos, of smashes to left field and home runs.

But, over the years, the game changed. It got smarter. Baseball has always been uniquely suited to statistics, and, over time, player performance started to be measured in new and surprising ways. That shift wasn't easy, and it didn't happen fast, but eventually teams began to unlock new insights about how to win.

Moneyball and Marketing

The transformation of baseball through numbers is beautifully told in Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, a seminal work by Michael Lewis, who is perhaps the finest narrative business writer of our time. (The story is also coming to theatres later this year in a film starring Brad Pitt.)


The story is as much about business as it is about sports. It describes how Bill James, using the statistical analysis of baseball records known as sabermetrics, along with Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, discovered unknown secrets to gain competitive advantage. Surprisingly, it had very little to do with paying tens of millions of dollars to a guy who could hit the ball 500 feet but still struck out three out of every four at-bats.

In many ways, Moneyball is a great model for how digital marketing—and marketing communications of all kinds—is changing right now. For decades, advertising and PR campaigns have centered on the Big Idea: swinging for the fences with a clever, provocative, or powerful concept that drove brands, hearts, minds... and, ultimately, business. How did it drive business? No one knew exactly, but the numbers—whatever their provenance—showed that it worked.

But the advent of digital has changed that. As anyone in marketing knows, the frothy talk around "relationships" and "measurability" is now part of any social media or digital marketer's semantic toolkit. The irony? Most of social marketing spend is on advertising and influence—in other words, the long-ball of marketing communications.

Many practitioners today still think of marketing as mainly a zero-sum game. Even social media goals are transactional. The message most campaigns send? Buy this, and go away until I'm ready to send you another message. That's thinking in terms of a campaign rather than a lifecycle.

New Performance Indicators

I liken that approach to the runs batted in (RBI) stat. RBI is the random, red herring stat of baseball. Because it measures how many runs a player has brought home, it sounds important. But look closer, as Bill James and Billy Beane did, and all RBI tells you is that the player gets hits when other people are on base. So what does really matter? Getting on base in the first place.

A stat called on-base percentage (OBP) tracks how often a batter reaches base (except when a fielder makes an error), including walks. Many hitting stats don't count walks. But it turns out that in baseball walks matter—a lot. The more hitters can avoid striking out and force the pitcher to give them a pitch to hit or to walk them, the more players are on base. The more players on base, the higher the likelihood of runs and more wins. That's why a walk can be just as valuable as a hit. But before Bill James, that kind of common sense didn't apply.

New performance indicators like OBP have fundamentally changed baseball. Despite the phenom that is home-run king Jose Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays, baseball is no longer a long-ball game. It's about getting on base, progressing from first to second to third, and creating the conditions to get home. Maybe players score on a home run, but maybe they score on a wild pitch or a bunt.

The lesson is deceptively simple: small movement matters.

And the same is true of marketing: Get on base, progress, and create the conditions for the next step. Scoring in marketing is about how a consumer progresses through a relationship with a company or brand—the kind of relationship built on the customer's researching a purchase, and so a planned, stage-driven relationship based on need. (And, no, despite the familiarity of social media, it's not a friendship-type of relationship—it's an informational and experiential one.)

Going Deep

Depth is the as-yet untapped promise of digital communications. Customer experiences can now be both real-time and practically bespoke, and they can be multilayered and asynchronous. Some relationships may not evolve for 10 years (think big appliances). Some will move fast. Some have fixed lifespans.

Consider a new mom: She will be a new mom for 24 months. After that, she's got a different set of mom information and different experiential and product needs that could span years and dozens of interactions across multiple media in varying depth and complexity.

A customer-relationship lifecycle might have included one or two touch points in the 1970s (ads, in-store branding, and some PR), but there are now dozens. And those touch points can now be planned out with options: the choose-your-own-adventure approach to marketing, with measurement.

Accordingly, advertising is now rightly relegated to its proper place on the marketing spectrum: the outer edge. Advertising draws people in, but then what? How many people move from first base to second?

  • Some people will see an ad, start following a brand's Twitter account, and then opt in to receive an email newsletter, which indicates a stronger tie and deepening progression in the relationship—welcome to second base!
  • The next steps: what kind of content they consume, and how quickly? Or download an app, set up an account, or join a community— they've made it to third!

Keeping Better Score

We're starting to see words like "interaction planning" cropping up more in RFPs and programs. There is real potential for organizations and brands to build actual relationships of real utility with customers. And there is real potential to look at data on behavior to structure how those relationships can progress and to identify indicators of an increased likelihood to participate or buy—and then to measure results.

This isn't about impressions—the RBI of the marketing world, a useless metric that doesn't reflect anything other than a big impressive number for highlight reels and presentation decks. It's about how relationships progress and evolve and what they reveal about the customer-relationship lifecycle.

We've learned over the past 10 years that digital relationships among consumers, buyers, and brands progress like other relationships. How they progress can be structured, benchmarked, and measured, telling us a great deal not only about consumer needs and interests, but also about how well current digital experiences truly deliver on those needs.

Oh, and one more thing: Go Jays!

Articles in this series:

1. This article, the first in the series, explores how the role of long-ball big-idea marketing is shifting amid the rise of "small-movement" marketing—how marketers are starting to shift away from trying to hit only home runs and are instead trying to foster deeper brand and relationship interactions online at the beginning of the customer relationship process.

2. The second article will discuss the death of the so-called funnel and the birth of the measurable customer narrative.

3. The third article will focus on content versus messaging and what brands and marketers need to do with content to keep their customers' attention.

4. The fourth article will look at the shifting role of brand management in the new, fragmented environment.

5. The fifth article, the final one in this five-part series, will examine the interplay between content and community and the role of community within the sales and marketing cycle.


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Jen Evans is chief strategist at Sequentia Environics, a Toronto-based firm providing strategy and services to help companies generate better business results from their online initiatives.

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Comments

  • by SpencerBroome Thu Aug 4, 2011 via web

    So, what is the VORP of marketing?

    Really, I just wanted to say VORP.

  • by Enzy Thu Aug 4, 2011 via web

    VORP would be choosing which medium will best fit your need. Example - Facebook may have a broader base, but Twitter may provide more value.

    What we really need to look at is a campaign's BABIP is abnormally high. If so, we can expect a regression on the campaign's return.

    We also need to consider WHIP, WAR, UZR, and other ways to include advanced statistics acronyms in every day conversation.

    This is fun.

  • by SpencerBroome Mon Aug 8, 2011 via web

    I like it.

  • by Bruce Thu Aug 18, 2011 via web

    The comments continuing the author's baseball analogy are great; baseball is a stats person's dream game (and also shows that while they measure everything, the sport frequently focuses on the wrong data).

    As a legal service provider just starting to wade into digital advertising, this article (and the 2nd in the series) provide useful insight and tips on marketing in the era of non-linear customer behaviour. I will be sure to practice as much of what I learn as possible because failing to do so could relegate me (or any other business) to Betamax status. (Beta tapes were deliberately chosen because they demonstrated how even a superior technology/product can fail when the customer is discounted/ignored.)

  • by Anne Kenney Thu Aug 18, 2011 via web

    Is it me or does the use of unexplained acronyms seem kind of haughty?

    Ms. Evans, thank you for writing this extraordinarily provocative article. The push for ROI (return on investment) for single media channels is ridiculous these days and no longer feasible.

    If human behavior was so predictable, the news room would no longer exist. So, why do marketers think they will know any better how to shape a customer's behavior?

    I'm off to go re-shape my customers' interactions and expectations.

  • by Enzy Thu Aug 18, 2011 via web

    Anne, it is you, but prepare to be advanced metric'd and learn more about baseball than you ever wanted to know.

    VORP - Value Over Replacement Player - how much value a player has over a hypothetical replacement player set to the league averages at that position.

    BABIP - Batting Average on Balls in Play - for batters, a higher BABIP means a player is getting lucky on contact, and a lower BABIP means he his unlucky. The inverse is true for pitchers. Any extremes, and you can expect a statistical regression or progression in other areas to the players average levels over the course of a season/career.

    WHIP - Walks plus Hits per Inning Pitched - tells how many baserunners a pitcher is allowing per inning, and is a statistic that some (including myself) would argue is a stronger indicator of pitching performance than ERA (Earned Run Average) or wins and losses. While a pitcher may have a low ERA and a Win/Loss record can be flukey (look at John Lackey this year), if his WHIP is high, you can expect the ERA to rise at some point as well.

    WAR - Wins Above Replacement - is similar to VORP, but assigns a win total to a player. It determines how many additional wins (or losses if WAR is negative) that person is expected to generate against aforementioned theoretical average player.

    UZR - Ultimate Zone Rating - determines a fielders effectiveness based on the plays he should make, expanding on the concept of measuring fielding solely by errors to include balls the average player would get to, rather than just the ones that player actually fields.

    To go into those definitions in the original comment really would have ruined the fun, and just complicated things. If you really wanted to, you could have looked up what they meant, instead of whining that using acronyms from the baseball world in an article relating to baseball is exclusionary.

    Haughty is such a haughty word.

  • by Jen Evans Fri Sep 30, 2011 via web

    Hi all, and apologies, for some reason I just saw these comments now! (Enzy, thanks for the acronym articulation!)

    Based on these observations around small movements, we have tested a new framework for digital marketing measurement with dozens of communities and digital marketing programs over the past nine years, and realized most of the important stats and behaviors of digital visitors aren't even tracked in most organizations. For example, the visitor retention ratio. This might be the most important stat out there: out of the total visits of net new visitors to your brand's site or app or social network presence, how many want to hear more from you? how many subscribe to a blog or news feed? or opt-in to get some kind of ongoing communication? Or register? Or follow on Twitter? This tells you how much value they see in the experience.

    (slightly self-promotional) We're introducing a new SaaS product called Interpreter, primarily targeted at enterprises, to help them pull out critical data points like visitor retention ratio and content performance to popularity, and influence to action, from existing data sources (including social) and capturing new data as well. it's for both brands and B2B, with a built-in intelligence engine that maps and analyzes digital behavior in communities, complex sales cycles and B2B, and a whole new set of measurements by which to evaluate success. I'll post here with more information when we are out of beta if there is interest!

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