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.