The Importance of a Good Ground Game

Just as NFL teams devise complex blocking schemes to unleash their running game – and political campaigns canvas county by county to harvest every possible vote –  marketing organizations need to develop a good ground game to drive ongoing consumer engagement.

These three areas: football, politics and marketing may at first seem completely unrelated.  Common to each, however, is a less flashy, less sexy and ultimately less expensive way to achieve success.

In American football, success is measured in points scored – which are typically produced by the offensive unit.  In the majority of cases (an exception is the Dan Marino reference below), offensive strategy requires what is referred to as a “balanced attack” – meaning a proportionate number of running to passing plays.  A team who can establish their ground game from the start of a game is able to keep the defensive team on their heels,  as the defense becomes unsure what type of play will be next.  Without a ground game, offensive teams rely entirely on the passing game, which becomes more predictable for the opposing team to defend.  That’s not a problem if you have a Hall of Fame quarterback like Dan Marino – but that type of quarterback is a rare occurrence.

“There is no defense against a perfect pass.  I can throw the perfect pass.”

-Dan Marino

The passing game in football has flair and panache – while the running game is more brutal and punishing.  Putting the ball in the air can achieve large yardage gains – but also increases the risk of an interception by the defense.   In contrast, a good ground game can be almost boring with gains averaging just a few yards for each running play.  When football was described as a “game of inches”, it was the ground game that was surely top of mind.

Ground game capabilities are a vital football team investment.  A playbook of detailed blocking schemes must be created, memorized and practiced.  The offensive line must be big, healthy and strong, and a stable full of fast, elusive and sure handed running backs are needed to carry the ball.

In politics, a good ground game means having an extensive network of grass roots organizers who can reach out at the local level, voter by voter.  Phone banks are manned by volunteers who do their best to sway individual voter opinions.  Compared to expensive television ads that are broadcast to millions of potential voters instantaneously, a political ground game is labor intensive and relies upon a database of voter profile and contact information.

In the 2016 presidential campaign, Democrat Bernie Sanders is using his reliance on grass roots organizing as an opportunity to distinguish himself from the Clinton campaign, which is more reliant upon big donor contributions to Super Pacs to fund campaign efforts.  With essentially a tie in Iowa and a win yesterday in New Hampshire, it looks like Senator Sander’s ground game is paying off.

So what does this all have to do with marketing?  Well compared to Super Bowl TV ads, building grass roots brand engagement can seem downright old fashioned.  No doubt, big creative ideas can attract plenty of attention (#puppymonkeybaby), but creating ongoing interest and interaction with a brand requires a consistent and personalized approach that TV campaigns can’t deliver.  Moreover, it wouldn’t be outrageous to say that you can pretty much fund your entire marketing ground game for a year with the $5 million cost of a 30 second Super Bowl ad spot.  Engaging at the ground level requires a few basics:

1) Non-Anonymous Data:

The reason so many companies want you to join their loyalty program is to get past this hurdle: being able to attribute consumer behavior data to a specific customer.  This is much easier if you’re Costco, REI or Kroger’s than for a CPG brand sold on retailers’ shelves.

2) Insight:

Data, in and of itself, is of limited value unless it can be turned into knowledge that can inform marketing strategies & tactics.  For example, insight into how your most valuable customers differ in profile and behavior from less valuable ones is a good starting point.

3) Content:

Here’s the customer’s payoff for allowing you to collect and store their data: an experience that is tailored to their situation.  Now that you know something about your customers, the question is: what are you going to deliver that’s unique & different?

4) Customer Touchpoints:

This is where it can get expensive.   To reach your customers within walled communities (like Facebook) or on search engines or external media properties requires a sufficient ad budget.  The reason email marketing persists as a popular marketing channel is it’s relatively low cost per touch and high response rates relative to other channels.  Even configuring owned touch points like commerce sites to deliver a tailored customer experience can involve expensive redesign and even replatforming efforts.

As in football, investment in a ground game gives the marketer a balanced attack, as lower cost, targeted engagement tactics are able to drive action and awareness during periods of low air cover (i.e. mass media spend).   And like grass roots political organizing, a marketing ground game enables stronger, more personal connections to be made and leveraged for years to come.

A marketing ground game is a workhouse that delivers each and every day.  It may not be as sexy as the big creative idea, but it will still be producing when brief flashes of attention have long been forgotten.

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