Illustration for an article on what marketers can learn from NBA team-building strategy

What running an NBA team can teach us about marketing strategy

The National Basketball Association has undergone a profound shift in the last few years – one that holds important lessons for marketers.

More three-point shots, a changed role for “big men” and a growing reliance on analytics are all changing how NBA teams compete.

Here are four lessons we’ve learned that marketers can put to use in connecting with audiences.

Run the numbers

Basketball strategy: Shoot more three-pointers

If you’ve tuned into an NBA game recently, you’ll probably notice a trend that has taken the league by storm: An increase in the number of three-point shots players are attempting.

The three-point line (which allows players to score – you guessed it – three points instead of the usual two) has been around for a few decades now.

What changed is the math behind it.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that getting three points from a shot is more valuable than getting two points from a shot.

But the problem historically was that three-pointers were far more difficult to make and went in at a much lower percentage than two-pointers.

Now, though, GMs have figured out that even if the percentages are lower it’s still valuable to take more three-pointers.

The result is that the number of three-point shots players are taking is going up year after year.

Marketing lesson: Always be calculating what has the most impact on your business

Marketers can’t get wrapped up examining numbers in isolation.

Consider a cost-per-click online ad campaign. Maybe you’re happy because your CTR is higher for one campaign than for another.

But more context might tell a different story.

What if your campaigns are more effective but your campaigns are acquiring less valuable audience members?

This is an example where a simple metric isn’t enough – just as three-point shooting percentage doesn’t tell the full value of getting a three-point shot.

Evolve how you think

Basketball strategy: Instituting a “four-point line”

The casual NBA fan might read the above sentence and think “four-point line? When did that happen?”

But here’s the thing: Not only is the four-point line imaginary, shooting from behind it doesn’t actually earn the team that makes a shot from there four points.

So why are teams making this a key part of their strategy and practice habits?

Because shooting from farther away from the basket forces the defense to spread itself out.

That means it’s easier to move the ball around and get space around the basket.

By instituting a four-point line, teams are able to practice shooting long-distance three-pointers that makes the defense’s job even harder.

Lesson for marketers: Redefine how you think about the game

The funny thing about the four-point line is that the rules of the NBA are the same as they’ve ever been.

The difference is that, by re-thinking how the game works, teams have been able to create efficiencies and find more effective ways to score points.

In marketing we are frequently obsessed with the same strategies, tactics and metrics.

Social media.

Facebook remarketing.

Click through rate.

But by re-imagining how we look at the same old problems – knowing our audiences, finding ways to connect with them, measuring success – we can get out of our old ways of thinking.

It can only make our marketing campaigns better.

Maintain flexibility

Basketball strategy: Payroll flexibility is key

NBA teams operate under a salary cap, meaning that they are only able to spend a certain amount of money on players each year.

(There’s also something called a “luxury tax” which allows teams to go over the cap in exchange for paying a fee.)

Cap management is the biggest driver of NBA decisions – even more than assembling the best talent you can for your team.

Any team can identify the best players; the trick is to get the most value out of the players you have signed.

NBA teams have tons of players who are talented but otherwise undesirable because they don’t offer value for their contract.

The result is that teams frequently have to give other teams assets, such as a valuable draft pick, to offload these contracts.

The result, at first glance, might seem counterintuitive: You’re not only losing a talented player, you’re also giving up something of value for the opportunity to get rid of that player?

But what you lose in on-court ability you gain in flexibility. Every dollar you offload from your cap gives you the flexibility to add a better-value deal, whether it be through the draft, free agency or trade.

Lesson: Value trumps cost

Marketers are always trying to get more for less. We want to deliver more clicks, more engagement and more impressions – all at a lower cost.

Delivering lower cost is great, but not if it comes at the expense of delivering results.

NBA teams need to ensure they’re wringing every last piece of value out of each dollar they spend. A talented player on a terrible contract isn’t worth much.

The same is true of marketing.

A thousand clicks at a low cost to a website is no good if it doesn’t deliver any impact.

Don’t get distracted by shiny and recognizable metrics.

Find a new role for old tactics

Basketball strategy: Reimagine the “big man”

Woe betide the NBA’s “big man”.

Even the casual sports fan will recognize names of famous NBA big men like Shaquille O’Neal (Shaq) and Kareem Abdul Jabbar.

In recent years, though, NBA teams have steadily devalued the role of the big man on an NBA team.

Instead, teams have gone small: Looking for players who can shoot and play defense, even if they can’t bust up opponents in the paint.

The result is that the role of the NBA center has changed.

Now, they need to be able to shoot from distance to stretch defenses out and force them to cover more floor.

No more standing in the shadow of the basket for the majority of the game.

Lesson: Reimagine more traditional marketing strategies

Digital marketing is an essential set of tools for marketers in the 21stcentury.

They offer better targeting, more data and greater flexibility than more traditional marketing tactics.

But digital isn’t the only answer.

Traditional marketing tactics are still valuable.

Now, though, they play a complementary role to digital marketing.

For example: An ad in a newspaper is valuable, but it’s even better when paired with a well-designed Facebook campaign. This reinforces key messages and helps to move the customer further along their unique journey.

You can find a new role for your traditional marketing tools – just as the NBA has found a new place for its traditional big men.


Lessons for marketers are everywhere.

How will the recent changes in NBA team-building strategy change how you run your marketing strategy?

Mark Brownlee is a digital marketing strategist in Ottawa, Canada.

Illustration by: Erin Watson

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