Over the last year or so I’ve spent a lot of my time trying to persuade performance marketers not to be seduced by the promise of “marginal gains”. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it simply means:

The identification of a number of areas in which you can make small gains, which all add up to something much greater.”

The phrase was coined by elite sports coach Sir Dave Brailsford, who served as the performance director of Team GB at the London 2012 Olympics and, from 2010 to present day, general manager of the Team Sky cycling team. Many people cite the incredible successes of both teams as proof that the pursuit of marginal gains works, and here is Sir Dave talking about the concept.

So why have I been trying to encourage performance marketers not to embrace a similar philosophy? Surely the job of a marketer is to leverage small improvements over many business areas in order to compete in a highly competitive marketplace? My perspective, which comes from my role as an evangelist for a large technology company, is based on the observation that marketers are cherry picking many small ‘point’ solutions in a quest to try and build their own marketing cloud.

When you look at Scott Brinker’s overwhelming Marketing Technology Supergraphic, made up of 1,876 marketing technology vendors, it’s easy to see how marketing professionals could quite easily make a bad decision for their company by choosing the wrong vendor. Selecting what seems to be the best technology in each category seems like a noble ambition, because you just judge each solution on its own merits. Things soon go wrong though, if you realise that the solutions you chose don’t talk to each other, and your customer data exists in so many different silos that you can’t make sense of it. In those cases, the concept of marginal gains very quickly becomes a big marginal loss.

A problem remains

Since preaching this message, marketers frequently tell me that they have proudly ditched the phrase “marginal gains” from their marketing vocabulary. This is totally missing the point…

So, for my first post on PI Column I would like to remind performance marketers that while the pursuit of marginal gains doesn’t work if you are trying to piece together your own DIY marketing cloud, it does work when you are applying marketing technology to performance marketing. That’s a subtle but significant difference. Small optimisations across many different platforms or audience segments, for example, can quickly add up to considerable financial returns.

Consider another case in cycling – that of 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins.

Fully embracing the philosophy of marginal gains, he takes the same pillow to every hotel, has a strict hygiene routine and even travels with a chef and a nutritionist. His attention to detail and obsession with small improvements across many areas all add up, and as a result he has become arguably the greatest British cyclist of all time.

I actually saw Sir Bradley before a Tour of Britain stage in Liverpool. He was out in the rain before a crucial time trial, scraping his wheels sideways across a very wet road in order to determine exactly how fast he could take an important corner without falling off. He practiced faster and faster until he fell off, discovering the optimum speed for approaching the corner. Other professionals were in their trailers, trying to stay dry and getting a massage. You can guess who won (by a considerable margin). The moral of the story?

Successful marketers (like successful cyclists), just do what unsuccessful marketers are not willing to do.

How do you embrace marginal gains?

When it comes to navigating marginal gains, my advice is simple: build a “conversation strategy” and start building this as part of a team, not just one with members from within the marketing department. I have long believed that marketing is too important to be left to the professionals within, but too many marketers still operate in silos. They think about delivering marginal gains by optimising their marketing performance, but they miss the bigger picture.

Marketers need to find a way to work alongside sales teams, customer service professionals, community managers, IT and data analysts. It doesn’t matter how they do it, but I have seen virtual teams made up of representatives from different business units, meeting together regularly to build a marketing strategy that they feel jointly responsible and accountable for.

A marketer’s natural reaction is that this will complicate things unnecessarily, but as I have seen time and time again from many of the UK’s largest brands, most of the problems in businesses are connected to people, not technology.

Where technology is concerned, it is important to make sure that data is accurate and flows fast enough between sales, service and marketing in order to help you build relationships with your customers quickly. It is usually a few big decisions that help you reach this goal, but where people are concerned, it’s the small decisions that add up to success.

I believe it is the job of a marketer to work harder and smarter than anyone else, because I would argue that marketing is the only department in a business which can unite every other department. And it is those small, marginal gains across each department that are the difference between being successful, and being a market leader.