David Beckham and the Content Marketing Myth

PushON | April 5th 2016

A little known fact about Y-front model and Spice hubby David Beckham is that he actually used to be a semi-professional footballer between pouch-posing and husbanding. He even played for Europa League hopefuls Manchester United before being shipped off to shadowy Spanish, Californian, Italian and French clubs.

During his playing career, particularly at United and on international service for England, he became known as a “free kick specialist”, which must mean he scored every free kick he took, right? Wrong. Depending on the methodology of the source you choose to use,* his 65 free-kick goals equate to somewhere between 9% and 15% of those he attempted for club and country, and he’s not even in the top ten of dozens of (clearly unbiased) online lists of free-kick takers.

So how come someone who missed at least 550 free kicks ends up becoming known as a specialist? The answer is that he was just much better than the average free kick taker – and let’s not forget that the professional game has plenty of very good goalkeepers.

The point is that Beckham tried. He stepped up to the plate, particularly in high pressure situations, and when he delivered the goods, we tend to remember and glorify it. While he no doubt always believed he was going to score, he didn’t let the “failures” put him off. Perfection is a rare, tender and probably unattainable concept in sport. There are too many variables. David knew that. He kept trying. He kept scoring. Sometimes.

The Digital Calculator

That’s all very fascinating, but what does it have to do with digital marketing? The answer is that it’s analogous to success – or perception thereof – in marketing (just in case the title hasn’t already given it away). There’s a widely held belief among businesses that any and every piece of digital marketing work, be it a major content marketing campaign or a simple blog post, simply must succeed (that is, show a measurable ROI attributable directly to it) – otherwise, why bother trying?

The logic of the argument collapses under examination, hinging as it does on the word “try” and all it entails. There’s no way to approach a task whose outcome is out of your control without trying being involved. If the success rate of any endeavour were 100%, it wouldn’t be an endeavour – it’d be a certainty.

So the problem with demanding measurable success from every single piece of content is that it’s not based on realistic expectations. There’s a difference between a marketing campaign and a marketing piece. A campaign can still be successful even if some of its charges peter out, and you should expect some pieces not to get traction. Learn lessons from “failures” but move on quickly. A campaign is more likely to succeed if you don’t spend too much time indulging in examination and focusing on the minutiae of a miss. That energy could better be spent on the next phase of the campaign.

Success in Practice

Is this a call for allowing sloppy work to go live, with a shrug of the shoulders when it inevitably fails? You already know the answer to that one.

It’s a call to focus your finite resources – time and talent – on producing a steady stream of above-average content that maximises its chances of success through its uniqueness, imagination, technical nous and timeliness.

We’re saying be happy if some of your content makes a splash, but don’t expect it all to. In fact, most of it “failing” isn’t a disaster if you get a few wins. Nobody remembers the misses, only the hits. Ask David.

All too often a piece of content loses its edge and its immediacy through being bounced between departments in an atmosphere of fear of failure – or worse, through a nagging suspicion that the piece doesn’t conform to the current norms and might be in danger of standing out. Asking ten colleagues to look at a prospective piece of content and to tell you what they don’t like about it will probably get you ten different responses. That’s fine, and worthwhile, but acting on all their concerns will result in content utterly devoid of humanity.

Now imagine this over-cautious process happening for every blog post, every tweet, every Facebook post, every infographic. Not only will you have insipid content, you’ll have less of it because the interdepartmental bouncing will cost you too many resources.

Submit to the Campaign

All the hard work and self-inquisition needs to go into the broader strategy – the campaign. Let the campaign’s objectives be your guide, and as long as the individual pieces of content obey its rules, set it free and let the world decide whether it’s good. Do you really think your team is better at judging the quality of a blog post than a million people?

A campaign element can flop for any number of reasons, but it can also be a success for any number of reasons. Spend too long congratulating yourself on a success and you’re doomed never to repeat it because you’ll never be able to replicate the environment into which it was sown. Pat yourself on the back and move on to the next part of the story.

David’s True Legacy

David Beckham has retired from playing now and probably won’t need to take a job as a barista to get him through retirement (although he’d probably be good at it). His legacy as one of the great free-kickers is assured and we’ll be reminded of it every time Bend it Like Beckham is shown on Film 4. Just remember, he didn’t do it all for himself, he did it all so that one day marketers could use his achievement as an analogy for expectations of success in campaigns. And that’s why so many people love him.


* Some only count direct goals, others include rebounds, own goals, goalkeeper blunders and assists.

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