Seven Lessons From Billy Beane For Search Marketers

In the immortal words of Whitesnake, here I go again. It’s time for another column distilling search marketing lessons from unlikely sources. Last week it was Israel, today it’s Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland As and subject of  the best-selling book and Oscar-nominated flick “Moneyball.”

I was lucky enough (although Beane would argue you create your own luck) to catch his keynote at the Covario INFLECTIONPoint conference yesterday. Over the course of an hour, Beane extolled the virtues of using data and analytics to meet your goals. In a room full of search marketers, this was definitely a case of preaching to the choir (or perhaps a better analogy would be taking batting practice) but it’s always good to step back and “take a pitch” every now and then.



With that in mind, here are seven lessons from Billy Beane for search marketers:

1.You don’t have to be good at math.

After the obligatory self-deprecating remarks about being played by Brad Pitt in the movie, Beane started his presentation by declaring, “I suck at math.” Indeed, he was fortunate to have Paul DePodesta, with a Harvard degree in economics, as his assistant. To be sure, without DePodesta’s “math,” the As would not have developed their winning approach, but it took Beane to buy in and champion the idea throughout the organization.

In SEM, there are some great tools out there offering advanced algorithms to improve quality score and optimize bids so it’s not incumbent upon search marketers to figure out the math. Instead, focus on setting the right goals and…  

2. Choose the right KPIs.

The big breakthrough for Beane and DePodesta was determining that On Base Percentage (OBP) had the highest correlation to winning games out of any measurable statistic. So, rather than build a team around players that could hit lots of home runs or steal lots of bases, Beane focused on signing players that could just get on base.

In digital marketing, SEM has gotten more than its fair share of credit for too long. The same way home run hitters in baseball were valued over those that “just got on base,” the conventional wisdom has been to give full attribution for sales to the last click prior to purchase, which is often a search ad.

However, people don’t just spontaneously search -- just as baseball players don’t spontaneously cross home plate. They have to get on base first. In online marketing, getting on base means getting your brand in front of people before they’re ready to act. Paid social is one of those key role players with a high OBP. Reaching your audience with a targeted social ad can plant seeds that later blossom into search conversions.  Today’s advanced marketers are connecting the dots between search and social interactions and applying attribution models that give credit to each touchpoint along the path to conversion. Maximizing these “assists” may prove to be the right KPI to achieve long-term success, proving once again that…

3. It’s not the size of your budget that matters.

Baseball is not fair. It’s a zero-sum game. Only one team can win the World Series. And some teams have a lot more money to spend to get there. The Oakland As have one of the lowest payrolls in baseball. They simply can’t afford high-priced talent. But that doesn’t mean they can’t compete. As Beane put it, “If a player is making what he’s worth, we can’t afford him.” So he needs to find undervalued “diamond in the rough” players and get the most out of them until they become stars and move on to teams that can afford to pay them what they’re worth. So far, the World Series title has eluded him, but Beane’s shell game has delivered the fifth best record in the major leagues since 1998.

Search is not fair. It’s a zero-sum game. Only one brand can get the top listing on Google. And some companies have a lot more money to spend to get there. You may have one of the lowest budgets in your category. You may not be able to afford high-priced keywords. But that doesn’t mean you can’t compete. You have to find those “diamond in the rough” long-tail keywords that deliver strong ROI and balance them with high-volume “stars.” This is exactly what portfolio bid management algorithms are designed to do. And SEO can also help you get coverage on keywords you can’t afford. So, go ahead…

4. Embrace your inner geek and maniac.

Apparently after reading advanced copies of Lewis’ book, the encounter between Beane and DePodesta went something like this:

Billy: “Am I that much of a maniac?”

Paul: “Am I that much of a geek?”

[Billy and Paul embrace.]

A geek and a maniac can be a powerful combination. Make sure your marketing team has at least one of each. And then…

5. Get everyone on board with your strategy.

At first, Beane had a hard time getting buy-in for his radical approach. Many of his scouts refused to believe that mere math could outperform years of experience and intuition. And many of his players (and managers) questioned the tactical implications of decision-making based on data and analytics. For example, Beane used a Net Expected Run Value calculation to call off sacrifice bunts and stolen bases because they risked valuable outs. At the end of the day, though, Beane was able to justify his decisions objectively by just pointing to the math. This consistency eventually helped everyone suspend disbelief and get on board. And the winning didn’t hurt, either.

In search, or any business function really, you have to get buy-in from all the key stakeholders. Presenting the analytics objectively and letting the data speak for itself is often the best way to make your point. Even if the results are not meeting expectations, remind everyone that…

6. Over time, math wins out.

At first, it didn’t seem as if Beane’s strategy would be successful. After shedding some high-profile players and bringing on relative unknowns who could “just get on base,” Beane’s club didn’t start off on a winning note. He stuck with it, though, and sure enough, the percentages starting playing out and the As went on to win an American-League record 20 games in a row.

With your search program, you may be tempted to over-correct if your initial strategy doesn’t immediately deliver the intended results. Stick with it, especially when it comes to portfolio bid management. Let the math do its work and don’t try to override the system. Instead, focus on emerging opportunities to deliver on the mantra... 

7. Evolve or die.

Baseball is full of fast followers. After seeing Beane’s strategy successfully play out, many teams adopted the model and brought on quant jocks in the front office. In fact, Beane says the Yankees now have more than 20 full-time data analysts, while the As still have just the one. Billy also proclaimed that OBP is the highest paid-skill in the major leagues today. So, now, Beane has to find other KPIs that are good indicators of success and find affordable players that embody them. To that end, he’s examining velocity of bat speed and number of ball rotations after leaving the pitcher’s hand. Talk about proxy metrics!

In the game of search, what worked yesterday will not work tomorrow as the competition catches on. Keep scouting for new advantages -- and never take your eye off the ball!


1 comment about "Seven Lessons From Billy Beane For Search Marketers ".
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  1. Marc Engelsman from Digital Brand Expressions, February 8, 2012 at 11:44 a.m.

    Great post, Aaron. Would only add further to your 3rd point -- real SEO can truly create real competitive advantage for small market-ers. It's very cost effective, levels the playing the field and delivers long-term results. To finish the analogy, its all about SE-OBP.

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