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What marketers can learn from Olympic athletes’ performance training

by Kubilay Ozdogan

February 9, 2022

The Olympic Games are held every four years in a different country with hundreds of sportspeople participating. Everything that is beautiful and cruel about the heights of human athletic ability is rolled into just moments on the field of competition, where heroes are made and the victorious walk away with medals signifying their prowess. These victorious moments are the result of many many sessions of preparation.

Each new campaign is like an Olympic game for marketers. The challenge is to be on top of the consumer's mind. Brands focus on driving consideration, encouraging consumers to buy or use their products and services. When they launch a new campaign, they enter the competitive arena with other brands all over the world. How do marketers make sure that they participate with finely tuned campaigns that will drive the greatest impact for their business? This is not a single month or week before the campaign is launched: it is a year-long effort to refine the strategy and tactics with continuous experimentation. Like an athlete getting ready for the games.

Looking at what can be learned from Olympic performance training, here we look at why setting a culture of experimentation is important for marketers and how this will contribute to the business success.

​​Small actions, massive impact

During a ten-year span (2007-2017), British cyclists showed phenomenal success winning 178 championships and 66 gold medals. Before that, British riders had won just a single gold medal at the Olympic Games since 1908. How did this happen?

The difference was down to the approach of the team’s performance director, Dave Brailsford, referred to as “the aggregation of marginal gains”. His relentless commitment to a strategy, searching for a tiny margin of improvement in everything they did, via experiments, brought success. The principle came from the idea that if you break down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike and then improve it by 1 percent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.

Brailsford and his coaches began making the small adjustments that you might expect from a professional cycling team. They redesigned the bike seats to make them more comfortable, rubbed alcohol on the tires for a better grip, and asked riders to wear electrically heated overshorts to maintain ideal muscle temperature. They tested different fabrics for racing suits. But they didn't stop there. They continued to find 1% improvements in overlooked and unexpected areas. They tested different types of massage gels to see which ones provide the fastest recovery. They taught riders the best way to wash their hands to reduce the chance of catching a cold. They determined the type of pillow and mattress that led to the best sleep. They even painted the inside of their team truck white, to spot little bits of dust which could degrade the performance of finely tuned bikes.

As these and hundreds of other small improvements accumulated as results of experimentation, the British Cycling team dominated the road and track cycling events just five years after Brailsford took over.

Learn 1% at a time

Marketing is not an exception to the marginal gains principle. Experimentation takes the guesswork out of marketing, so you can test and learn with different marketing components and find the ones that improve your business results most effectively. It is crucial to know what works well, so you can optimize future campaigns to drive the greatest impact. And then you need to keep looking for more marginal gains so you can put them all together.

Recent research, studying the impact of experimentation, concluded that advertisers that run 15 experiments (versus none) in a given year see a 30% higher ad performance that year; those that run 15 experiments two years in a row see a 45% increase in performance, highlighting the positive longer-term impact of this strategy.

These improvements don't come overnight, improved ad performance requires a commitment to continuous testing and aggregating all these marginal gains.

Smart marketers are putting themselves in the shoes of Brailsford and breaking down what goes into their campaigns: creative, targeting, signals, messaging, etc., before looking at how to improve each.

It is easy to underestimate the value of making small improvements in the long-run. Commonly, we convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action. But it doesn’t. For example, if you decided to experiment with the creatives used in your campaigns, decreasing your cost per conversion by 1% each week through testing a different hypothesis would lower your cost per conversion by 66% over a year. If you adopt a singular approach to testing and implementing the results, you’d be looking for a 30% improvement in your single test - a result that would be lovely, but unlikely.

The same way the money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your learnings from tests multiply as you repeat them, especially when you expand it to other components of your campaigns mentioned above.

Continuous testing will help identify what strategy will work best to drive desired results, as well as what needs to be modified. Even when a strategy does not drive the desired results, measuring the impact is not wasted time. Every test - even a failed test, one that showed that your strategy did not work - has a learning in it for your brand. You succeeded in proving that the tested hypothesis won’t work for your own reality and eliminated it. You are one step closer to finding the tactic that will work for you. This is the lesson of La Fontaine's Fable, ‘The hare and the tortoise’, which we learnt as small kids years ago - slow but steady steps bring success.

A simple approach by BCG summarizes the essential four steps that I found very clear and useful to become good at testing and learning:

1.) A hypothesis-driven approach to deciding what to test

2.) Rigorous test setup and execution

3.) Statistically valid measurement approach based on pre-aligned KPIs

4.) Scale it or fail it—making sure that the learnings turn into actions

There are lots of opportunities to unlock growth and be more efficient with your ad spend, but it requires you to take the first step and start testing your hypothesis. Now it is your turn to start your journey as the British Cycling team did. Not sure where to start? You can visit Meta for Business to see what businesses similar to yours are experimenting and learning to drive their business growth and efficiency.



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