Managing Coutinho & Content

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Exploring the parallels between the game series Football Manager and content strategy

Paolo Nieddu, Managing Partner, London

As 2015 drew to a close and we entered into the festive period, a somewhat random stream of thoughts began running through my head. Where did the year go? Can a 35-year-old father of two demand a present-packed stocking? And can I spend the entire Christmas break playing Football Manager?

Yes, I admit, I was (and still am) a massive football geek with a borderline obsession for a computer game that – to uninitiated observers – is a series of coloured spreadsheets, a few stats, and some moving dots. It almost sabotaged my university degree and it certainly ruined a relationship.

Those who’ve played may well be able to relate to this. For those with no idea what I’m talking about, Football Manager is essentially an ultra-realistic simulation of football management – they call it “the closest thing to doing the job for real”. Taking control of any team, you decide the squad list, the post-match interview, the pitch-side tactics – you’ve even got control over the players’ personal problems. You’re a virtual god.

After a brief period of self-imposed abstinence, I recently downloaded the mobile version. And jumping back into it, I realised three things…

  1. I am a Football Manager addict and always will be.
  2. Football manager has taught me a lot about how to solve problems.
  3. Succeeding in Football Manager and building a successful content marketing strategy are more alike than you might think.

Let me explain. In both Football Manager and content marketing, there are two core principles that define your long term success: Establishing the foundations of your approach at the beginning, augmented by live decision making.

It’s traditional strategy, followed by what Sir Lawrence Freedman has called “the evolution of the big idea through changing circumstances”.

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1. The Foundations: Setting yourself up for success

For obsessives like me, the start of your first season with a new club is the most exciting aspect of the game, where you get to define the direction and approach for your new (virtual) employers. Similarly, when you embark on your first foray into content marketing, the possibilities are limitless. In both cases, you need a clear vision, plotting how you’ll harness a number of variables to make more than the sum of their parts.

Be ambitious but realistic: Can I really win the Premier League with Bournemouth in my first season?

At the start of every new game of Football Manager, the objectives you set will make or break your managerial reign. The joy comes from surpassing these expectations; the pressure comes from falling short. If you choose one of the elite clubs you are expected to win silverware immediately and are given the vast transfer funds to support these objectives. But choose a middle-ranking or lower league club and you are given a wider choice of aims which span from the ambitious “qualify for continental competition” to the modest i.e. “stay clear of relegation”.

Whether you are a brand, agency or publisher starting out in the world of content marketing, establishing what success looks like alongside core stakeholders and ensuring it’s realistic is key. Of course success in the early stages of your content marketing lifecycle can raise expectations and breed confidence, but it is important to remain pragmatic and take each stage of your evolution step by step.

Assess the talent at your disposal: Is my squad good enough to achieve long-term success?

So you’ve set your expectations for the season ahead, now it’s time to make it happen. The most important task you need to undertake as a new Football Manager is to closely examine the talent in your squad.

Why haven’t I got any right backs? Is this the player I build the team around? Does my veteran striker have a role to play in my team?

These decisions need to be made with your overall strategy in mind.

Back in the realms of content marketing, the questions you might ask are similar.

Who is the creative talent that will bring my brand’s tone of voice to life? Do I invest in a content management system or a partnership with agency experts?

Whether the ‘talent’ is a specific person or skill set, an agency partner or a piece of technology, identifying who or what you need is a challenging task that requires considering the immediate, medium and long-term future. And it’s as much about identifying what you no longer need as well. Are there elements in your content marketing infrastructure that you don’t need anymore? Know what you need, but also what you don’t.

Define your strategy: How do I want to win?

While assessing your squad and the gaps you need to fill, you need to simultaneously consider the style (not just formation) of football you’ll play so you can recruit the players to fit it. Counter-attacking, ‘gegenpressing’, tika-taka – the choices are endless. You need to decide and commit to a particular ‘brand’ of football that players can get used to and get behind over time.

Central to your content marketing approach is the development of an Editorial Mission Statement that encompasses what you stand for, the type of content you are going to create and the value you are providing to your audience. It provides a lens and a filter through which you can judge every piece of content you create. This in turn, establishes a consistency that should shine through whether you are creating big hero pieces or ongoing hub content.

2. Live decision making: Driving marginal gains through in-game management

Having a plan is all well and good, but it’s how you adapt, tweak and refine that plan when you’re in the thick of it that elevates the best football managers and content marketers beyond the rest. Sticking with the sport theme, Mike Tyson put it characteristically eloquently: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”. Just as content marketing is made up of individual pieces of content, a football season is made up of football matches. Some matches are bigger and more important than others, but they add up to the success of an entire season. Each match can be influenced by the decisions you make, however small, as they unfold in front of you.

Data-driven decisiveness: How can I improve the performance of my team?

Data sits at the very heart of Football Manager. Every event is turned into a data point that you can choose to obsessively analyse or ignore. Your interpretation of this data can inform your approach to a particular match or even your training regime. But the real thrill comes within the matches themselves. Making informed decisions based on how you decipher the data can change the outcome of a match. In some cases a decision can define your entire season.

No matter how well designed, expertly copy-written or slickly filmed a piece of content is executed, the agility to make decisions based on data signals can take a piece of content from being simply a great example of craft, to a remarkably effective piece of content with real business benefits. It could be a tweak in the headline of an editorial article, a shift in approach to social media targeting. It doesn’t matter how small the change is – by arming yourself with the data and dedication to optimise your content live, you’re significantly increasing your chances of succeeding.

Practice makes perfect: Testing the unknown might unearth a gem

Watching with paternal pride as a 17 year old plucked from the lower leagues in France turns into the focal point of your team is something all Football Managers aficionados yearn for. But to reach their potential, young players need to play. Of course this comes with risk – lack of experience can put your team in jeopardy in a match situation. So nurturing youth requires equal measures of bravery and shrewdness, giving youth players their chances in the right type of matches with experienced heads to support them will build their confidence (and value).

The more progressive content marketers would agree that adopting a test and learn culture is the most effective way you can take significant leaps forward. Some major brands and publishers even set aside a specific budget to fund experiments that deviate from their business-as-usual approach. In the grand scheme of things, it is irrelevant whether the results are negative or positive. The value is found in applying what you’ve learnt to what you do in the future. Who knows, you may uncover a gem that really does change the game.

Success never stands still: How do I evolve to continue on my momentum?

Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United’s most successful manager ever, is one of the best exponents of evolving success over time. His approach is best summed up by one of his most famous and enduring pupils, Ryan Giggs.

“He’s never really looking at this moment, he’s always looking into the future. Knowing what needs strengthening and what needs refreshing — he’s got that knack.”

Whether it’s football management or content marketing, it’s an approach worth emulating.
*Opens Football Manager

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