In Praise of Small Ball

Game 6 of the World Series is tonight.  As a Yankee fan I admit to having a chronic case of Northeast provincialism when it comes to baseball, and sports in general.  Basically, that means I believe that no championship contest truly matters unless a New York team is participating.  But you’re not here to read the disgruntled, arrogant rant of another self-important Yankee fan.

I want to make a point about marketing, but please bear with me while I stick to baseball for a few more moments (but I promise no more about the Yankees). 

It’s possible that the World Series games in Atlanta this weekend will be the last time we see pitcher’s bat.  Apparently, MLB is close to approving a new collective bargaining agreement which would establish a universal designated hitter rule, ending the National League’s extended and admirably stubborn commitment to baseball tradition.

I suppose it’s a sign of the game evolving to keep pace with the times.  DH’s have been around for decades and there’s no going back.  Indeed, it’s ludicrous that the rules change depending on where the game is played. 

But even as a Yankee fan I miss the unique strategic challenges National League managers had to consider with a pitcher in the lineup.  The double switch.  Aggressive base stealing.  Bunting to advance the runner.  The hit and run.  All were aspects of “small ball,” a style of play that didn’t count on the three-run homer to generate runs.  Rather it’s a strategy that depends on smart execution and taking what the pitcher gives you.

Analytics, launch angles and the designated hitter have largely relegated small ball to the history books.  But while we now rarely see it on the field, the small ball mindset offers valuable lessons for marketers, especially those working in media and entertainment.

The economics of the media business centers around the creation of hits.  It’s always been a business that worships the “long ball.”  Blockbuster movies and popular television shows are incredibly lucrative.  The math is simple.  Pay once to create the product.  Then charge multiple times for people to consume it – box office, TV rights, streaming rights, syndication, digital rentals and purchases, maybe even merchandising if you’re lucky.

One home run more than covers the costs of the many duds networks and studios produce.  Despite all the data available these days, there is no sure-fire way to predict a hit.  Finding the next “Walking Dead” isn’t easy.  Netflix was as surprised as anyone that “Squid Games” became a global phenomenon. 

This long ball mentality drove the marketing strategy.  Everything needed to be big.  Big promos, big events, pouring resources into making a big splash to capture the public’s attention.  Think big, big, big.  Swing for the fences.  People love big hits.

But now as media companies form direct relationships with consumers through their streaming services we are seeing an evolution in their approach to marketing.  Customer acquisition, reducing churn, driving engagement, perfecting the user experience…these are the keys to success for media executives today.  And the successful marketers understand that consistently delivering against these KPIs is much more about playing “small ball.”  It’s about doing lots of little things well.  Crunching the data, forming insights, testing hypotheses, and quickly pivoting based on the outcome – those are the tactics media marketers must master.

This type of work is not nearly as sexy as shooting big production commercials for the Super Bowl or planning premier parties.  There is still a place for those tactics in media marketing.  Huge, press worthy events and big ideas break through the clutter and grab the audience’s attention.  The long ball will be always part of the game.  But if you can’t execute well on the “small ball” fundamentals that are essential to the game today in media you won’t be successful.

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