I saw Pro Bowlers and some borderline Hall of Famers practicing the basics; you should too.

I watch a lot (too much even) football. I also read a fair amount about content marketing. I’m not quite sure why it’s taken this long to realize there are content marketing lessons you can take from football (the NFL variety in this case, sorry futbol fans). I’m sure someone else has, I just didn’t check so as not to let the air out of my balloon prior to writing this.

Just over three weeks ago, my wife and I went to a Baltimore Ravens training camp practice held at Navy Stadium in Annapolis.* As we were watching, my wife (English, so she grew up watching different/real football – opinions in our home vary there) commented that she thought the team would practice together.

I played both kinds of football in high school, so I knew that practice wouldn’t start with full offense and defense against each other, but it did get me thinking about my own work. For you non-football folks, generally, you start as a team stretching (usually), but then you break into your position groups for individual drills – blocking footwork and hand placement, catching, running routes, passing mechanics, etc. – to practice the skills unique to each position. Teams then work in progressively larger groups – Offensive line vs. defensive line, for example – as you work towards full 11 on 11; offense versus defense.

Here are some lessons you can take from the football field to your content marketing efforts.

Warm up.
Ravens.linemenBefore you go full speed, do some research. Before you launch a full-blown content marketing plan, know what you want to do. If you’re stuck writing a headline; review an article about the basics of headline writing, start typing action words you might could use – just get the neurons firing. Or, literally warm up – doing a few minutes of physical activity can help you get mentally warmed up as well.

90 to 75 to 53
Final rosters in the NFL are 53 players. For anyone who’s watched reality TV for men (AKA, HBO’s Hard Knocks), teams progressively winnow their rosters to the best 53. You have to edit too. I learned early in my career that editing isn’t just (or even most importantly) getting the grammar and spelling right – that’s just baseline. You also have to edit your ideas for those that (you hope) will be most effective, fit together best, and most effectively help you accomplish your goals.

Ravens.DBs.balldrillNever Stop Tweaking
NFL teams are never set. There are injuries that must be addressed of course. But beyond that, each week, teams release and pick up other players via the waiver wire or sign other teams’ practice squad players to their rosters – players that might just be 1% better than the guy they currently have. The great teams never stop improving the bottom of their roster. Do the same with your content. What’s not performing well? What had been doing well, but might need to be tweaked? Where can you improve?

If you’re not consistently getting better, then someone is gaining on you.

Fail Fast
Make mistakes at full speed. (Actually, pretty good advice for most things in life – excepting maybe learning to drive and snow skiing.)

Haloti Ngata is BIG.
No, that word isn’t big enough. Even amongst large men, he is a LARGE man – a “hippopotamic land mass.” No takeaway here. Just. Damn.

Looks Like Tarzan, Plays Like Jane.
In a more literary post, this would be “don’t judge a book by its cover.” This phrase describes a player who looks the part, but just can’t get it done. I think we can become overly focused on design at times. Yes, content needs to at least be able to be read or viewed, but it doesn’t need to look perfect. I know I’ve found myself not doing something because it would’ve look great. Sometimes, something that looks “just” good (or even not that good – witness some linemen) will get the job done.

Have a Plan.
Each NFL practice is scripted to get in the maximum amount of work done and to build on each successive day. Your script is your editorial calendar. Without a calendar, you’ll end up doing ad hoc pieces of content and be at the mercy of whoever in your organization talks the loudest (and/or has the highest-level title).

Kicking From the Side

Raven's kicker Justin Tucker practices his accuracy nearly in-line with the goal post.
Raven’s kicker Justin Tucker practices his accuracy nearly in-line with the goal post.

Justin Tuck, one of the better kickers in the NFL, meandered throughout practice, kicking field goals from all sorts of strange angles that would never happen in a game – from the back corner of the end zone, for instance. By practicing from such odd angles, I’m assuming that helps his accuracy when he kicks at the full width of the goal posts in a real game.

So do something different. Sharpen your skills by doing something extreme – or just try something different to break out of a rut. Write in first person if you never do. Write a sentence using only words that start with “d.” Write standing up. Go outside and brainstorm. Go guru and sit on a mountaintop (or beach or riverside or woods; depending on where you live).

Players practice the basics. Catching. Throwing. Footwork. When the game is on the line in the fourth quarter, muscle memory built on repetition can make the difference between winning and losing. As an editor, I would once or twice a week flip through the Chicago Manual of Style for a grammar look/refresh. Revisit the basics of sharing on social media. Take a quick class on the basics of blog writing. Sometimes, revisiting the basics from a position of experience will spark new ideas. Regardless, it’s never a bad idea to keep on top of doing the little things right.

Situational Awareness
Teams practice for situations – end of the half with 2 minutes, 2 timeouts, down by 6; end of the game with 1 minute, no timeouts, down by 3; goal line; 3rd down and 12; teams even practice the “victory formation” kneel down at the end of games. Especially for those of use with a social presence; what are you going to do if you mistakenly post/reply from “you” rather than “official you”? (I’m guilty of this one.) How will you handle a typo? A difficult customer? A troll? If you need extra design, do you know who you’ll talk to?

Be ready

It’s a Copycat League
Cover 2. West Coast Offense. Playing heavy nickel. The wishbone. Football coaches lift and adapt ideas from each other constantly. If it works one year, next year you’ll see other teams doing the same thing. Likewise, venture outside of your work and your industry for successful ideas. See something you like that might work for you? Time to “repurpose.”

The Eye in the Sky Don’t Lie
You need to measure. Teams tape every practice, scrimmage, and game so players and plays can be evaluated. At the core, football is a production business. You make the tackle or you don’t. You pick up the blitz or the QB gets sacked. You catch the last second TD or you lose. For content marketing, the bottom line is the same. The best content in the world means nothing if you aren’t moving your target audience to take action. So use all the tools available to you and see which pieces of your content are performing.

You also need to measure the right things – teams often become fixated on a player’s measurable (much like many of us have an affinity for increasing page views). While an indication that the player/content could be successful; doesn’t always happen that way.

The QB needs to throw to someone. D-linemen keep blockers off of linebackers. You don’t have to do it by yourself. If you are a team of one – join online forums, join a tweetchat, go to a meet up. Even if you work with folks you don’t like, swallow your ego and collaborate. While it’s more pleasant to work together and mesh your strengths with people you like; be a pro.

Content works better when it’s well designed. Designers need something to, you know, design. Not everyone is good at deciphering all of the analytics that can be collected. Work together to win your game of content marketing.

Finally, for the record – Who Dat! Saints are the best team in the NFL and are winning the Super Bowl this season.

*Go see a game at Navy Stadium if you ever get the chance; the atmosphere is great and downtown Annapolis is just a few moments away.

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