10 Content Marketing Lessons You Can Steal from Top Athletes

I’m a huge fan of sports and athletics. So if I go a little quiet when the big game or the Olympics are on, well… now you know why.

More importantly, as someone who puts great value on his own physical fitness, I see the talent, work and dedication that goes into becoming the very best in a given sport as something that should be hugely admired.

I also believe that there’s a hell of a lot that most of us, as employers or employees in less, well, physically demanding roles, can learn from the training practices and actions of top athletes.

Here are ten of these life lessons, as well as how they should be applied to our content marketing efforts:

Channel Pressure to Help You Perform at Your Very Best

From the critical opening second of an Olympic sprint – where even the tiniest error or hesitation could throw the whole race – through to the deciding penalty shot of a World Cup final, competitive sports and athletics are filled with high-pressured situations.


What I find most interesting, though, is how adept professional athletes are at not just coping with pressure, but channeling it to their advantage – something most of us could learn from. Many would say this is what separates the good athletes from the great.

Unfortunately, a lot of us just don’t perform at our best when under pressure. As unpleasant as that is, it’s very common, and nothing to be ashamed of. It is something, however, that we can work to change.

When faced with pressure, our bodies tend to respond in two ways: they either go into “challenge” mode, or “threat” mode.

When in challenge mode, our blood vessels dilate and our heart increases the flow of blood to our brain and muscles. This puts us in an optimum state for performing under pressure.

However, in “threat” mode, our blood vessels constrict, and the blood flow to the brain and muscles decreases. Not good.

The key is in re-educating our mind and body to respond positively to pressure. Specifically, we can learn how to change our mind and body’s reaction to pressure by applying some of the principles of sport’s psychology.

Sport’s coach Brian Mac summarizes this pretty succinctly, saying “Concentration, confidence, control and commitment (the 4Cs) are generally considered the main mental qualities that are important for successful performance in most sports.”

I recommend reading the rest of Mac’s insights here, however the general gist is that by:

  • Improving our ability to concentrate on a pressured task,
  • Boosting confidence in our ability to perform,
  • Learning how to take control of our emotions, and
  • Being committed to our goals,

We can completely change how our bodies respond to pressure and how we perform in high-pressured situations. This is equally applicable whether that pressured situation is a content marketing campaign that’s not going quite to plan, a looming deadline, or an Olympic sprint.

Base New Goals Upon Recent Performance

Goals are a vital ingredient in the recipe for success. They give us something tangible to work towards, direct our focus, and help us measure the results of our efforts.

Athletes know this more than anyone. Systematic goals help athletes understand their current capabilities and what they want to achieve. Without them, they’d have nothing to aim for. No target to improve. And they would fail.

Many athletes follow the SMART principle:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time

So how can you apply this to your content?

Specific: Set clear, precise goals. Don’t gloss over what you want to achieve. Maybe you want your next piece of content to capture 20,000 views. Or 5,000 social shares. Or you want your brand to be featured in big publication “X” in your industry.

I’m not here to tell you what your goals should be. What I can tell you is that specific goals will help steer your campaigns towards success from the word “go.”

Measurable: The more specific your goals, the more naturally this should come. Your goals should be precise enough to be easily measured, as in the case of the page view and social share goals described above.

Attainable: Don’t set unachievable goals. Aim high, of course. You need to challenge yourself and your team. But don’t aim so high that you’re setting yourself up for failure. It’s demoralizing not to meet targets and your team will feel undervalued if they’re expected to attain the unattainable.

Relevant: Your goals should closely relate to what you want to achieve. For example, if your goal is to gain X number of links, don’t set a goal to gain exposure in an online publication that’s known for not linking out.

Time: This one’s pretty self-explanatory – set deadlines for achieving your goals. Athletes often have the pressure of looming competition to keep themselves motivated, but you’ll have to step things up by assigning your own deadlines to the goals you set for yourself.

Never Stop Improving

Does a gold-medal athlete ever thinks “That’s it, I’m good enough now. I’ll maintain this standard and everything will be a-ok?”

Of course they don’t. If they settled, somebody better will come along and take their place.

Just take a look at how the top speed for the men’s Olympic 100m sprint has changed over the years:

If gold-medal winners want any chance at maintaining their titles, they can’t become complacent. They have to keep improving.

The same rule applies to your content campaigns. It doesn’t matter how successful a campaign may be, you should always be striving for more.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not implying you shouldn’t be happy about and celebrate your wins. I’m certain those gold-medalists followed the medal ceremony with a very big and well-deserved blowout. You should do the same. But next time, aim even higher.

If your current content campaign gains 100 new customers, why shouldn’t your next campaign gain 200?

Aim high and dream big.

Take Adversity in Stride

Michael Jordan, possibly the most famous basketball player in history, was rejected from his varsity basketball team for being too short.

As a child, former No. 1 American tennis player Stan Smith – now best known for his line of Adidas tennis shoes – was turned down for a job as ball boy because the “organizers thought he was too clumsy.”

Baseball legend Babe Ruth once held the record for strikeouts.

Did any of these celebrated athletes let failure hold them back? Hell no. They took it in stride and channeled their setbacks to make them stronger, better athletes.

In order to see success, we need to feel failure. Show me a person who’s never experienced the disappointment of failure and I’ll show you someone who’s never dared to reach their full potential.

Or a liar.

Not all of your content will gain the results you set out to achieve. Some of them will fall flat on their backsides. It’s part of life, and learning from our failures is what makes us better people and better marketers.

Michael Jordan articulated the point perfectly when he said, “I have missed over 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the winning shot, and I have missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Work As a Team

Even in sports where teamwork seems to be secondary to personal achievement, there’s still a great deal of synergy going on behind the scenes.

In cycling, for instance, riders in the same team will stick closely together in order to save energy by drafting, which reduces their overall drag. Done well, this tactic can reduce drag by as much as 40%.

In addition, team members will be allocated set roles that play upon their individual strengths.

Could a cycling team be as efficient or successful if they set out as “every man for himself”? Of course they couldn’t. Their success lies in delegating roles and acting in the best interests of the team.

Likewise, content marketing campaigns are not a one person job. Most content campaigns will incorporate (at a minimum) the work of researchers, copywriters, designers, promoters, and project managers.

These are distinct roles, each requiring different skill sets. Chances are, each team member could work almost entirely in isolation and still produce… something.

But the real magic comes from collaboration.

The designer talks to the copywriter and and the two play off each other’s creative visions. The promoter gets involved in planning and production so that, when the need for their role arises, they’re so invested in the campaign they give it an extra 100%. The project manager takes the time to understand the part each team member plays, learning their strengths and delegating tasks accordingly.

It’s all part of being a team that’s working together toward a shared goal.

A sports team pitches together in the fight to succeed at a common goal. Personal achievements are celebrated, but only if they help the greater good. Why should we treat content campaigns any differently?

Respect and Learn From Your Competitors

Your content campaign may not see you competing in a head-to-head fight for first place, but you’re still in competition – for website traffic, brand exposure, social shares, and, of course, customers.

How do athletes treat competition? As something that can help them become stronger, faster, and even smarter. Do they want to beat their competition? Of course. But they accept they won’t always win, and when they don’t, they analyze what the winner did differently and use their observations to make improvements for the next time.

Do as the athletes do and strengthen your future content campaigns by monitoring your competition.

Master Your Art

Athletes tend to focus on one key sport and the skills required to master it. Even of those who do try their hand at multiple sports, few attempt it simultaneously. Instead, many take up a less physically taxing sport once retirement in their original career beckons. Why? Channel their energy into too many areas and they risk becoming a “Jack of all trades, master of none.”

So what does this mean for business owners? Don’t we need “Jacks of all trades?” I definitely think we do – unlike athleticism, there are few professional disciplines where only one key skill is required. Employees with a broad range of applicable skills are invaluable. Diversity in the workplace is critical. But we need “masters” too.

Assign each member of your content team the task of focusing on mastering one craft. They should be encouraged to widen their knowledge and increase their proficiency in other areas too, of course. But in the interest of shaping a content team that could rival the very best, everyone who contributes should bring something uniquely excellent to the table.

If you’re managing a content campaign alone, the same theory applies: don’t try to do everything yourself. Focus on where your strongest skills lie, and then delegate or outsource to those who specialize in the areas where you’re a “Jack” not a “master.”

Measure Everything

Where would athletes be if they didn’t track times or measure distances? How would teams compete if no one refereed the game or kept score?

Sadly, there are many people who still believe you shouldn’t track wins and losses, and that you can’t measure the ROI of your content campaign. I strongly disagree!

When running a content campaign, track everything.

  • The time and cost of production
  • Traffic
  • Social shares
  • Page views
  • Conversions that can be attributed directly to the content

You can track the cost of production using a project management system, or simply with good old Excel. Traffic and page views can be easily monitored in Google Analytics. And for social shares, I’m a big fan of SharedCount.

Tracking conversions is where things can get a little trickier. Here’s one way to do it:

If your content is hosted on your own site, go to your Google Analytics account and navigate to Analytics > Behavior > Site Content > Landing Pages

Then, use the search bar to locate the URL of the content you want to analyze.

Next, select “ecommerce” or a “goal set.” What you choose here will depend on whether you track website wins via sales or another metric, such as leads generated.

You’ll now be seeing how many conversions resulted from visitors landing directly on that URL.

Of course, at the moment, this data may include return visitors, and we want to see the data for new visitors only. To break out this group, add a new segment and select “New Users.” Remove the old segment, and there you go! Now you can see how many new customers were acquired through your content.

Alternatively, if your content is hosted on an external site, you should be using a tracking code. However if you haven’t done this, all is not lost. You can still view the visits and conversions the content drove by going to Analytics > Acquisition > All Traffic > Referrals. Again you will want to filter the data by adding the segment “New Users,” and removing the existing segment.

Okay, so I’ll admit you can’t track every single conversion that results from your content campaign using this method. Some visitors may view your content, thus becoming aware of your brand, but may not convert for weeks, months, or possibly even years later.

However, you can track customers who first found you via a content campaign but didn’t instantly convert using the “Assisted Conversions” section of your Analytics (Conversions > Multi-Channel Funnels > Assisted Conversions.)

Unfortunately, this feature has a couple of limitations as well:

  • The data only goes back 90 days
  • The data is dependent on being able to record cookies and, in many cases, the user visiting the site on a singular device

Alternatively, if you want to learn how to track offline campaigns (yep, it’s very possible to do that too), I recommend this excellent post from KISSmetrics.

Give Thanks and Recognition When Deserved

All of us have someone who deserves our gratitude. If you think you don’t, think harder. It might be our parents for starting us on the right path in life, a friend for their support through tough times, or colleagues for lending a helping hand in completing an urgent project.

Athletes are no different. Behind each great athlete is a parent, coach, or a team who helped them achieve their dreams. Not to mention the fans. Those in the public eye just tend to be more open about giving thanks.

When baseball legend Lou Gehrig was diagnosed with ALS (a horrific disease recently publicized by the “ice bucket challenge”) he thanked his fans for their support in his humble, moving, and now iconic “the luckiest man on earth” speech.

In 1993, ex-basketball player and coach Jim Valvano gave thanks to ESPN for their support in helping him start the Jimmy V Foundation for Cancer Research in a speech best remembered for the wonderful quote “If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.”

So how does this apply to your content campaign?

By giving thanks to those who helped bring a campaign to completion, you’ll provide them with the drive to do just as well – or even better – the next time around. By thanking somebody, you’re not only showing your gratitude – you’re subconsciously setting a standard that they’ll want to maintain in the future (nobody likes to disappoint).

Likewise, make sure to thank those who help make your campaign a success after the creation process is complete. This might be a blogger or news reporter who writes a feature about you. It might even be somebody who shares your content to a big pool of followers. Thanking people who did something positive for your campaign helps further the relationship, and will increase the chances that they’ll do the same for you in the future.

In summary: remember your manners when it comes to content campaign execution!

Don’t Sweat the Things You Can’t Control

In many sports, athletes are regularly subjected to the will of mother nature. In other non-news, injuries occur, illnesses happen, and team members let you down.

There’s very little athletes can do to control such incidents, and spending too long dwelling on them isn’t going to help anybody. Let alone help them win.

We’re all going to face things we can’t control in all areas of our lives – all throughout our lives. Running a content campaign is no exception.

You might be affected by a struggling economy. An integral member of your team might fall ill, or decide to leave without giving notice. A big publication, excited about featuring your content, may change their mind at the last minute.

By all means, put contingency plans into place to help you deal with unexpected incidents. I’d strongly advise having a small pool of trusted freelancers you can call upon should your internal structure suddenly change. A plan to cut costs quickly if revenue drops is advisable too. And if a publication lets you down, it never hurts to see what you can do to change their mind back in your favor.

That said, there’s a difference between taking action to remedy adversity, and dwelling on events that were out of your control.

If you can’t fix something, or learn from it, then you need to get over it, and move on. Little good ever came from bearing grudges or living in the past. Put your energy into making positive changes for the future instead.

So there are ten life lessons I’ve stolen from top athletes and applied to my marketing and content campaigns. I hope you’re able to take away a few tricks from them too.

These are just my takeaways though, and I’m sure there must be more. Leave a message in the comments below and let me know if you can think of any other content campaign lessons worth stealing from the practices of top athletes.




35 All-Time Best Digital Marketing Slide Decks


I’m a big fan of slide decks. When done well, they’re an incredible tool for absorbing information without actually realizing how much ground you’ve covered or the volume of new knowledge you’ve taken in.

What’s more, you don’t have to be an award-winning designer to create your own. With the right tools and a little creativity, almost anyone can kick out a slide deck that looks good and is both informative and interesting.

That said, not all slides are created equal – and there’s no shortage of decks that just aren’t worth your time. So don’t waste it! I’ve hunted high and low to find the cream of the crop and here they are – 35 of the best marketing slide decks to watch now. Continue reading “35 All-Time Best Digital Marketing Slide Decks”

Content Marketing in Boring Industries: 10 Tips from 10 Companies Doing it Right

A few weeks, I got called out on Inbound.org for writing about six companies doing content marketing well and only listing marketing companies. According to the site’s visitors, marketing to marketers is easy – the examples I shared wouldn’t necessarily translate to those working in other industries.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty confident that solid content marketing principles apply to everyone – in every field. So I did some digging and started investing companies in boring industries and found that there are tons of great examples out there of businesses that are crushing it online.

I’ve shared a few of them below, along with 10 tips you can take from their successes to apply to your own marketing campaigns.

Tip #1 – Become an Expert

Every industry has experts. Marketers are all familiar with guys like Seth Godin and Rand Fishkin – but just because they work as marketers doesn’t mean that examples don’t exist in other fields.

Take Autodesk, for instance. The company has been working hard to establish itself as an authority in the sustainable design field – an industry most people aren’t even aware exists. Largely, it’s done so through the publication of guest blogs to other sites, creating a web of mentions that get the company’s name out there without coming across as overly self-promotional. Continue reading “Content Marketing in Boring Industries: 10 Tips from 10 Companies Doing it Right”