How Can The British Cycling Team Help Us Become World Beaters Online?

The Leith Agency marginal gains

Leith’s Content Strategist, George Gunn, on gaining a competitive edge in the digital world.

There are two ways of becoming a champion cyclist.

The first approach was the one infamously taken by charity wristband peddler turned wrong ‘un Lance Armstrong on the way to all seven of his Tour de France wins. Doping.

The second, practiced in recent years by Team Sky (the British cycling team that competes in the World Tour), involves cyclists washing their hands properly to avoid infection and transporting their own mattresses and pillows to each different hotel stayed in.


Sir Dave Brailsford, Performance Director for Team Sky and general coaching visionary, clarifies this second approach as follows:

“They’re tiny things, but if you clump them together it makes a big difference.”

This “aggregation of marginal gains” — i.e. identifying and slightly improving every aspect conceivably related to cycling performance, no matter how small — saw Britain celebrate its first ever Tour de France win in July 2012.

In fact, Tour champion and mod national treasure Bradley Wiggins finished so far ahead of the next non-British cyclist that it was as if he’d navigated the entire route on a Lambretta scooter. And yes, Wiggins’ favourite pillow and thoroughly cleansed hands did contribute, in small part, to his comfortable victory.

Under Brailsford’s tutelage the following month, Great Britain swept up at the London Olympics by smashing seven world records, nine Olympic records and winning 70% of the cycling gold medals available. Riders Chris Hoy and Chris Froome became the most decorated British Olympians of all time. The Queen went daft with Knighthoods and OBEs. Froome has since gone on to win the Tour de France twice.

Dave & LanceAll smiles for Brailsford and marginal gains. None for poor old Lance.

Despite a few half-hearted cries of skulduggery from green-eyed rivals, these phenomenal feats have all been achieved entirely legitimately: Team Sky has a strict, zero-tolerance approach to doping.

Before this turns into a full-blown Pro Cycling magazine eulogy though, let’s apply the brakes and take a look at how marginal gains theory can apply to the digital world. Could the same philosophy that brought Team Sky all those gold medals help digital marketers to a Gold Lion?

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Imagine you own a mid-ranking YouTube channel. Your videos have racked up thousands of views between them. You even have a few hundred subscribers, and a handful of these add positive comments and share your films on other social networks.

This is the kind of position that several brands and publishers find themselves in. A healthy enough position, sure, but not one that’s going to see them cut through the Vast Digital Noise and reach as many people as PewDiePie, Jenna Marbles and other YouTube royalty any time soon. Consider, therefore, your mid-ranking YouTube channel the equivalent of a lycra-clad desk worker who cycles to the office and competes in occasional charity cycle races.

PewDiePie and Jenna Marbles, meanwhile, are Sir Bradley Wiggins and Victoria Pendleton in our analogy. They’ve combined undisputed talent with years of hard work and a comprehensive strategy that has left no stone unturned. Their content reaches millions. Finally, Lance Armstrong is a spammy pre-roll YouTube advert. Sure, he’ll also reach millions of people and might have some dubious success along the way, but he’s generally regarded as a bit of a shit.

Bradley WigginsThe king of the British Cycling Invasion

Good video content and campaign spend alone won’t help you stand out from the countless others who are doing the same. How then, can we transform your middling YouTube channel into a world champion one? The answer, naturally, is to think ‘What would Bradley Wiggins do?’(WWBWD?) and therefore identify and optimise every aspect of your channel.

And I mean every aspect.

For instance, agonising over your videos’ titles might seem trivial, but titles stuffed with keywords and irresistibly-clickable hooks will guarantee more views. Doing this alone obviously won’t turn you into a YouTube star, but it’s one of many steps in the right direction. Likewise, splashing £200 on a fancy ergonomic saddle isn’t going to turn our office-working cyclist into an Olympic gold medalist, but it’ll give her a noticeable competitive edge straight away.

The actions taken don’t even need to be substantial ones; enhancing every aspect of your YouTube channel by just 1% will see each of these small gains add up to give a remarkable overall improvement. There are literally hundreds of these conceivable fixes:

“Could you improve a video’s description by just 1%?”

Yes, easy.

“Could you improve the 4th sentence of a video’s description by 1%?”

Seriously?? Well yes, I suppose.

Since many of these improvements aren’t obvious and/or appear inconsequential, most won’t bother. Brailsford would, and this is the sort of effect he’d enjoy over time:

marginal gains

Applying the same method across the board — i.e. improving every area of your other social channels by 1% or more, improving every area of your website by 1% or more and even improving your product by 1% — will gradually start to result in a snowball effect. The deeper you go and the more thorough your fixes, the bigger this snowball and the steeper your upward curve. Before you know it, your average YouTube channel / amateur cyclist could be a pro one.

[I think I just about made that analogy work..]

And there you have it. In a ridiculously overcrowded online world, where evenly-matched brands, publishers and content producers jostle for attention, becoming a marginal gains disciple could provide your online channels or campaign with the competitive edge that makes a difference.

So, what are you waiting for? On yer bike and get started!