Over the past year, I’ve rekindled my love of tennis—playing and watching it. The recent French Open brought us some epic matches. I can’t wait to see what the rest of tennis high season this summer, including the ultimate grandslam Wimbledon, brings. As I watch the pros play and as I work to elevate my own tennis game a level or two, I couldn’t help but notice parallels to building your content capacity.
First, a disclaimer! In business, sports metaphors are almost as abused as jargon like “finalize.” I know, I get it. I once worked for a company that expressed every goal or strategy internally in terms of American football. I grew weary of seeing John Madden-style diagram of Xs and Os to illustrate a business “game plan” or “game changer.” Why am I serving up (pardon the pun) another sports reference now? Well, tennis is different. For one, it’s a bit more inclusive—and not simply because tennis refers to having zero points as “love.” While many women are American football fans, how many actually play or coach the game? And how many people outside the United States have played or coached the game? Yeah.
Tennis also uniquely blends power, technique, strategy, and finesse, a mix that lends itself to a handy comparison with content efforts. Let’s explore how the process of mastering tennis sheds some light on the process of mastering content.
To play and win at tennis and at content, you need core skills and an overarching strategy. One without the other will make you lose quickly.
If you can’t use a racquet to hit that fuzzy yellow ball over the net and within the court lines repeatedly, you’ll never win a tennis match. In the same way, if you don’t have people who can plan, create, edit, or curate content regularly, you’ll never start to win the content game. How do you build and maintain skills and techniques? Good training and lots of practice. LOTS of practice. (Did I mention practice?!)
That takes discipline. In sharing lessons learned from his success with Content Marketing Institute at Content Marketing World Sydney, for example, Joe Pulizzi mentioned one key was consistently publishing useful content three times each week. You have to do the work and practice.
Speaking of practice, knowing best practices (or principles) goes a long way toward helping both your content and tennis games. In tennis, for example, you can select from high percentage shots—shots that tend to work most of the time such as a deep, crosscourt forehand with topspin—and risky low percentage shots such as the drop shot. Check out Kevin James trying to work the backwards-between-the-legs-shot.
(That might be a zero percentage shot!)
Knowing the difference between high percentage and low percentage shots can help you focus your game. Similarly with content, you can apply proven principles that are likely to work and experiment with riskier efforts, which are like low percentage shots. Trying to create content that “goes viral,” for example, is a low percentage shot. You’re more likely to climb Mount Everest than to have a piece of content go viral. Just as you wouldn’t plan your retirement around winning the lottery, you wouldn’t plan your content game entirely around going viral.
In tennis and in content, what makes an effort low percentage is the difficulty in repeating it. It’s tough to do a drop shot well over and over and over again. It’s hard to make videos, for example, go viral over and over and over again. Repeatability is a best practice.
Once you have skills and an understanding of best practices, you can cultivate strategy, or a game plan. In tennis, when you understand your strengths and weaknesses as a player, you can tailor your strategy to your strengths. Volley like a champ at the net? You can develop a serve-and-volley game not unlike Pete Sampras. Hit killer groundstrokes? Then you can develop a baseline game akin to Maria Sharapova or Serena Williams.
In the same way, you can build your content strategy around your strengths. We recently worked with an organization with a long history. Over time, they had amassed an amazing archive of images, diagrams, videos, and other unique visual content. Incredible. Yet, the content on their website was page after page of text, along with some lengthy text reports in PDF format. We helped them change their content game to focus on their visual content strength. If you’ve got it, flaunt it.
You don’t play tennis or create content in isolation, however. You have to consider other people and conditions…in other words, context. That’s where you learn to adapt your capabilities.
Here’s where both tennis and content fascinate me perhaps the most. First, let’s talk about anticipation. If you can guess accurately how your opponent is going to react to your shot, you can get a few steps ahead and be ready to respond with another great shot. In content, if you can anticipate what questions your users / customers will have in different situations or how your competitors will react or other aspects of context, you can get a few steps ahead and offer the right response.
And, how do you learn to anticipate? Through evaluation—a constant, ongoing assessment of your situation. In tennis, players know the conditions such as the weather and the court surface (clay, hard, grass) and potential support from the crowd and have a plan to work in those conditions. The great players also mentally note how their opponents respond to different shots as well as their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses. If the players have met before, then they also can draw on their experience in past matches.
In a similar spirit, the best content players take time to assess their situation and their results from content. I still love the example Whole Foods shared at Confab Central in 2014.
As you anticipate and evaluate, you might discover you need to adjust your game. In tennis, if you have a weak volley and your opponent keeps hitting short balls to pull you into the net so you have to volley, you’ll want to do something to prevent your opponent from hitting short balls. For example, you might want to put more spin or more pace on your shots so it’s more difficult for you opponent to control a short ball.
In content, you might need to adjust for your customers or to respond to changes competitors are making. Zappos, for example, changed online retail by focusing on excellent customer service expressed through a quirky, positive culture instead of efficiency and price. Content played a big (but still largely unrecognized, in my opinion) part in that change. Amazon recognized the threat and changed their game to acquire Zappos. As another example, traditional publishers and media properties are still struggling in the face of complex content landscape where everyone can be a publisher. Forbes and The New York Times, among others, are experimenting with native advertising to complement more traditional subscription and advertising models.
Those are examples of huge adjustments, but small adjustments matter tremendously, too. If you find you’re getting lots of questions about a topic, for example, create content that answers those questions. CDC did exactly that in response to questions about whether vaccinations play any role in triggering autism.
Playing tennis can be wickedly frustrating. If you lose an important point, game, or set, it’s hard not to lose hope or to get angry. When my game doesn’t seem to be getting results, I’ve wanted to pull this move:
And, surprisingly enough, feeling elated when you win a tough point, game, or set can cause trouble, too. When you’re “high” on your accomplishment, you can easily become distracted and find yourself losing points to your opponent.
Feeling those emotions is inevitable. It’s how you handle those highs and lows, especially the lows, that determines whether you win. The champions recognize their emotions, reset, and then persevere. To win the French Open this year, both Nadal and Sharapova had to do exactly that as they came back from behind. Tennis commentator Maria Cordello described resetting like this in her commencement speech to Elon (starting about the 8:10 mark):
I love and admire the athletic heart…I am constantly amazed by how often and how well athletes can reset. It’s one of the best qualities to have, the ability to reset after you’ve taken a hard hit. I have had the pleasure and privilege of seeing the human spirit in full flight so many times, in so many ways….I’ve seen athletes compete with broken legs and broken hearts and still find a way to triumph.
In tennis, many players defeat themselves because they can’t reset. Instead, they fall into a spiral of mistakes followed by frustration followed by more mistakes followed by…you get the idea. Their opponents simply maintain their own game and let the mistakes do the rest. I know, I’ve been there.
In a similar way, when it comes to content, most organizations defeat themselves with their own mistakes. Their competitors win by letting those mistakes fly while they play their own content game. Why does this happen? Any aspect of content (from planning to creating to maintaining) can get very emotional very fast. A failed content experiment, an outdated fact that turns into a public relations fiasco, a hastily posted tweet, a difficult or unappreciative stakeholder, a lack of access to useful analytics, a setback in breaking down silos—the list of challenges is almost endless, and each challenge is like a “hard hit” from an opponent.
Except, it’s not from an opponent or a competitor. It’s from your own organization. The champions like GE and Dell and Facebook and IBM and Whole Foods, to name only a few, reset and overcome these emotional challenges. How? One big factor is cultivating a resilient and empowered content culture. In other words, working on your organization’s content “heart.” I share some insights about content culture from some excellent recent conferences here and here. I’m also excited to speak in September at WebVisions about the 3 Es of scaling your content approach, and one of those Es will elaborate on content culture.
To paraphrase Mary, I love and admire the content heart, the ability to set again and carry on. Once you have the skills, the strategy, and the power to adjust, it’s this content heart that will make or break your organization’s capacity to win your content game.
Originally published on the now-archived Content Science blog in June 2014.
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