At first, it doesn’t seem that these two pursuits have much in common. But in terms of smaller, more dedicated organisations out-competing those larger organisations who don’t pay the sport/channel the two actually have a fair few similarities (and not just Danny Sullivan).
Yes, rugby may involve huge men built like brick outhouses charging around muddy fields screaming each other and break each others’ noses, while SEO sees little more than heated discussions about algorithms over a post-seminar cup of tea. But with rugby the countries who hold the top rankings aren’t the ones with the largest populations, have huge sports and cultures budgets, or who have spent decades building up the talent pool. They’re the ones who are dedicated to the sport, who nurture their talent as soon as it’s spotted and have supporters in every branch of their institutions. Rugby Union players weren’t even professionals until 1995.
The graph below shows the populations of the top 10 rugby union-playing nations following the 2011 Rugby World Cup, which finished a couple of weeks ago. Topping the rankings are New Zealand, a country housing more sheep than people, who beat France in the World Cup final – a nation with a population 15 times the size of theirs. They did it because a large proportion of the people on those two tiny islands lives and breathes rugby, from school children to government ministers.
Look at the USA, languishing at 17th place in the world, behind Tonga and Samoa who both have populations 1/3,000th the size of theirs (sorry guys, but it’s true). What’s the reason for this? Well, the population of the USA tend to have one of three views towards rugby:
- A few say “It’s great – I love it! Let’s do more!”
- Plenty say “Ummm, yeah I know what that is. Looks kinda hard, though, and a bit painful”
- And others say “Rugby? That new-fangled game? No thanks, we’ll stick to good old-fashioned American football thanks”
(racial stereotypes I know, but also kind of true) This means that when sports budgets are being debated rugby only has a very small voice to make its case heard. It doesn’t help that plenty of people – mostly in the last group – don’t really understand what happens, even after watching a few games. In fact, watching the game probably confuses them even more: have you ever tried to explain what a blindside flanker does, or how the offside rule works to someone who’s new to the game? Rugby is also currently a semi-professional game in the States, so the best talent moves to a different continent to continue their professional development and compete at the highest levels - 18 of the 30-strong Eagles squad of 2011 play their rugby on a different continent, including captain Todd Clever – and those who stay spend part of their time focussed on something else.
As SEOs we often encounter similar problems – especially in large organisations. We’re only a small piece of the much larger marketing team, one that remains a mystery to many people. Executives don’t really understand what we do, and when they ask we’re never quite sure whether they’ve understood our answer: have you ever tried explaining why you need to hire someone to work on display advertising even though you have a PPC specialist? As a result, unless we can find something to give ourselves a big profile boost – like Italy did when they started competing in the then-Five Nations tournament – we may find ourselves pushed behind other channels, with the result that our best talent leaves to find new homes. Even for those who don’t, they may find part of their time working on the company’s intranet architecture or something else that can distract them.
But like the Italian national rugby team, digital marketers in big organisations can overcome Executives’ natural biases and show that their channel brings just as much benefit as any other, pushing their team to grow and improve. And like the New Zealand or Welsh teams – who arguably should have been contesting the 2011 final – those of us in smaller organisations need to keep working hard, keep the people around us enthusiastic and let everyone know about and take pride in our achievements. That way we can outperform companies who should in theory have far greater resources than us.