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Published July 22nd 2014

8 Things Content Marketers Can Learn From Poker Players

How could exploring the way professional gamblers think about data, strategy or opponents shed new light on content marketing? Here are eight suggestions…

Insight doesn’t always come from obvious places, and AnchormanMad Menthe Godfather and a viral musician have all taught us something about content marketing.

But what could we learn from poker players? How could exploring the way professional gamblers think about data, strategy or opponents shed new light on our own work? Here are eight suggestions.

1. Everything should begin and end with data


Poker players aren’t cowboys.

Instead of Stetson-wearing gunslingers, modern poker pros are more likely to be analytical graduates of MIT. These days, players make decisions based on data as much as instinct. How?

By studying the results of their games and crunching the numbers to find out if they’re a winner or loser.


We need to think the same way.

The cold-hard world of metrics can be unfamiliar to content marketers with creative and editorial backgrounds, and translating the impact of content into tangible results can be scary.

But without data, content marketers are no better than cowboys shooting from the hip. Instinct is valuable, but data trumps intuition every time.

2. Pay more attention to the available information


Poker is fundamentally a game of decision-making in the face of incomplete information.

In chess – a complete information game – all the pieces are visible, but in poker the cards are face-down. Information is restricted. Players get around this problem by looking for ‘tells’ like betting patterns or hand gestures – clues that might reveal what their opponents are holding.

In marketing, the biggest source of incomplete information is search engines. The algorithms that determine which piece of content will rank above another are secret.

But we can narrow down Google’s hand by looking for its tells, like algorithm updates and penalties. These can subtly reveal what content will work in future. So don’t obsess about what Google isn’t telling you; focus on what it is telling you.

3. Focus on long-term value, not short-term wins


Poker players judge every decision based on its expected value.

If a bet is winning in the long-term, it’s said to have positive expected value (+EV). If a bet is losing in the long-term, it has negative expected value (-EV). By consistently making +EV decisions, players increase the likelihood that they’ll be profitable in the long run.

Content marketers should adopt the same approach.

It’s easy to get caught up in short-terms goals which have negative expected value; we produce lots of work that impresses client, but which has a -EV effect on their business long-term. Instead, we should get their buy-in on +EV work that’ll make a positive impact in the long run. So sell strategies, not quick wins.

4. Research your competitors to avoid being outplayed


In poker, it’s no good being the sixth best player in the world if you’re constantly playing the top five.

That would make you a ‘fish’ – an easy target and an almost certain loser in most games. But you can avoid being outplayed by studying your opponents: learn their styles, moves and weaknesses.

Find out what they’re doing right that you’re not.

It’s all too easy for content marketers to be similarly naive and ignore your client’s competitors. But thinking like this means you’re just another fish in a tank of sharks. Instead, research your competitors thoroughly: what content are they creating? Where are they getting coverage? What’s their strategy?

5. Create a new content strategy for every campaign


Unlike a world-class tennis or chess player, a top poker player can’t just turn up in every game and play the same way. Why?

When you show up to a new game, you need to study your opponents and adapt your play. If it’s passive table, you might want to play aggressively. If it’s a loose table, you might want to play tight. In poker, as with evolution, the most adaptable will survive and flourish.


Content marketers should think the same way. Those strategy templates? Throw them out. Those off-the-shelf campaigns? Bin them.

No poker game is ever the same, and no client industry and competitor landscape will be either. Instead, focus on creating bespoke, tailored content strategies that are based on original insight and ideas – and be prepared to adapt it.

6. Don’t invest everything in high-risk content projects


Poker is famous for the ‘all-in’ – a high-risk move in which a player bets all their chips on winning one hand. But going all-in in poker is actually quite rare. Most wins come from ‘smallball’ play – incrementally winning small pots to build up a bigger stack of chips.

It’s easy to forget that content marketing isn’t simply all-or-nothing ideas either. In reality, most of your content marketing wins should come from smallball stuff, not innovative ‘all-in’ projects.

So follow the 70/20/10 principle: you should spend 70% of your time on the bread-and-butter content, and only spend 10% of your time on high-risk, game-changing content.

7. Saving money is the same as making money


Chip Reese, one of the greatest poker players of all-time, was once asked what his biggest achievement in the game was. He said it was a five-month period when he lost $2 million.

Chip’s logic was that any other player would have lost $6 million. His point? That avoiding big losses was the same as creating big wins – you’re still earning money that could have slipped through your fingers.

Chip Reese

This thinking should encourage all content marketers to think more about optimisation.

By A/B testing content ideas that any other marketer would have gone for, we can show our value by revealing that some no-brainers are actually bad concepts – and that implementing them will lose money.

8. Know when to scrap content ideas that suck


Poker players know when to hold’em and when to fold ‘em. But sometimes it’s hard to fold a losing hand. Maybe it’s a past winner. A lucky hand. It’s easy to overvalue something that’s served you well in years gone by.


It can be a similar story with content marketers – it’s hard to kill losing ideas sometimes. Why? Maybe because it worked before. Or maybe it was your idea. Or the only idea.

If this sounds familiar, you need to rethink your creative process. Because no amount of resources or effort is going to turn a content idea that doesn’t work into something magical.

This article is based on the talk Why Thinking Like a Poker Player Will Make You a Better Content Marketer, which was presented at the July 2014 Content Marketing Show in London. 

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