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Cycling, Hot Dogs, Marginal Gains and Digital Marketing

Marginal gains

Last week we had the last Drink Digital of the year. We all had a jolly good knees up.

My presentation for the evening was entitled “Cycling, Hot Dogs, Marginal Gains and Digital Marketing”. You can find my slides below. Beneath that you will find a round-up of some of the things that I covered and also links to the resources that I mentioned. Don’t take it as any more than a quick cover of the presentation 😉


Cycling, Pillows and Gold Medals

Back in 2010, no British cyclist had ever won the Tour De France. In 2010 David Brailsford became the general Manager of Team Sky – GB’s professional cycling team.

He predicted that following his tactics and strategy he would win the Tour De France in five years.

In a classic version of under promising and over delivering Brailsford and the team managed to win the Tour De France in 2012. Bradley Wiggins went on to become Sir Bradley Wiggins and then went on to present music shows on  6Music with Paul Weller.

Team GB were also in the 2012 Olympic Games and went on to dominate that winning a whopping 70% of the gold medals available.

Oh yeah…then Chris Froome won the Tour De France in 2013.

Brailsford and his team are now considered to have had one of the most successful cycling runs in modern history.

There have been some questions raised recently but the less about those at the moment the better!

How did Brailsford and the team go about this?

He called upon a process called marginal gains:

Marginal gains

Brailsford believed in marginal gains – specifically the aggregation of marginal gains. He believed in making lots of tiny adjustments to lots of little things. The belief being that these 1% changes add up. When you develop the discipline to make – and continue to make – lots of small changes the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

He Started With The Obvious

  • Nutrition of riders
  • Improving weekly training programmes
  • How the bikes worked
  • Better seats
  • Better tyres
  • Aerodynamics of the bikes

Then The Not So Obvious

  • Finding the best hotels
  • Taking their own pillows to those hotels
  • Finding the best massage gel
  • Better hygiene to prevent infection
  • Painting floors in the maintenance area to avoid dust

It seemed to do the trick. The cycling team were a massive success.

Hot Dogs, Wiggles and Little Improvements

Meet Takeru Kobayashi:

Competitive eating

Takeru is a successful speed eater and the sport is much more competitive than you might think – there are often thousands and thousands of dollar up for grabs. When there is money at stake people get serious!

Takeru specialises in hot dogs and specifically in eating as many as you can in 12 minutes. He applied the marginal gains mindset in his approach.

Hot Dog Strategy

  • Breaks them in half = more options for chewing and also frees hands for quick fire loading
  • Tested spraying them with water and vegetable oil
  • Tested different ways of chewing
  • Improved how it landed in stomach to reduce the chance of vomiting

In 2001 he came into the competition as an outsider and walked away champ. He doubled the word record from 25 to 50.

He then went on to win it 6 times and broke his own record three times.

These aren’t just two isolated cases. You can see the marginal gains mindset in:

  • Aviation
  • Health service
  • QuanramBlack
  • Toyota
  • Google

What Does This Have To Do With Digital Marketing?

Turns out we already do this – we just don’t call it marginal gains. We do it in PPC and most people are happy. We put the money in, we make some changes, we wait, we make some changes based on data and slowly it all adds up.

From an actual Boom PPC account
From an actual Boom PPC account

In this account we:

  • Regularly reviewed bids and adjusted up or down depending on what the bid needed to be to meet the client’s targets
  • Reviewed bid modifiers for mobile and location. Again, these were adjusted to meet the client’s targets
  • Added a price extension – this only is eligible to show for top position mobile impressions so it’s a really marginal gain. Of the 63789 possible times it could show, the extension only had 2193 impressions, but it delivered a 4.21% conversion rate compared to 1.35% conversion rate without it
  • Paused underperforming keywords and added new keywords to the account
  • Excluded poor performing search queries
  • Created new campaigns and new ad groups

Even though this example is oversimplified it makes sense to clients because not only do they see the money going in but they see the money coming out and the ROI is obvious.

It isn’t abstract!

What About SEO? Web Development? Content?

This is where things start to get abstract. ROI isn’t always obvious and can take time to materialise. Forecasting is tough. Whilst gains can be significant it can take a long time to get there. The flywheel takes a while to get started.


Make lots of small changes and don’t blow all of your budget on one content marketing campaign. Small changes may not be as sexy but they pay the bills! They also help you get budget for bigger campaigns.

Lots of small changes =

  • Less friction with the gaffer
  • Less fighting with devs
  • Ticking things off feels gooooood!
  • Your boss thinks you are doing more than you are 😉
  • You aren’t getting bogged down in big stuff
  • Eggs and baskets and all that jazz

A few examples?

Improve One Area Of Site

Lovely Graph via
Lovely Graph via

The red line is the part of the site (category) we tweaked and tweaked. The blue line not so much. The whole site has been doing well but the one section we applied a lot of 1% gains to rose significantly.

Optimise CTR

Luke will be working on a blog post in the next few days to show you how to do this. Basically you need to identify the under-performing pages of your site with regards to their organic CTR. You then tweak!

A 36% improvement
A 36% improvement


Other Things That You Can Add To The Mix

  • Automate product Title Tags
  • Automate product Meta Descriptions
  • Get the intern to build internal links
  • Add one new product description a day


 This bit is hidden. 

Want To Know How The Big Boys Apply A Similar Thought Process And Scale It? 


Apply It To Outreach

If you take a systematic approach to your outreach you can apply marginal gains to that. Work through different templates, tweak and test them. Make sure you are recording or tracking the open rates of your emails. When you are getting good response rates look deeper into what salutations work and where to put the link to make sure that it is getting clicked.

You can have the best piece of content in the world but if people are opening your emails then it is unlikely to succeed. Content very rarely gets discovered in a bubble.


Apply It To Ranking

See the bigger picture. A good keyword ranking spread is often more beneficial than chasing a couple of key terms – there are exceptions so stop shouting at me!


Apply It To Web Development

Matt Davies wrote about Growth Driven Design over here  – so I’m not going to go into it too much.

To quote Matt:

“Growth Driven Design is a methodology whereby a website is deliberately launched on a small scale so that it can be developed and built over-time. Cycles of planned work are executed in an almost “scientific way“. Everything is tracked and measurable. As time goes on knowledge around how visitors are interacting with the site increases. This informs a continuous improvement of the site. Value is continued to be added over time in an agile and flexible way with proven results.”

Apply It To Your Work Life

  • Set your ‘to dos’ the night before, not in the morning
  • Make sure all meetings have a purpose
  • Don’t use default times on meetings
  • Only answer emails at set times
  • Have don’t disturb time

Taking It To The Next Level

Kaizen - the Japaneses business philosophy of continuous improvement
Kaizen – the Japaneses business philosophy of continuous improvement

If you want to know how to apply Kaizen to your Digital Marketing check out this post by Don Rhoades.

See you at the next Drink Digital!

Wayne Barker

Wayne Barker

Wayne has been at Boom since like forever and specialises in SEO, Content and Outreach. An accidental entry into the world of SEO has left him with little spare time. When not at work or with his family, you can find him amidst a pile of records.View Author posts

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