The principle of marginal gains is all about making little improvements (the classic figure is 1%) in various aspects of a process which, taken as a whole, result in a very significant improvement overall.

The effect of marginal gains over time

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This concept may apply in any and all walks of life (including inbound marketing), but has been firmly lodged in the public consciousness because of its successful applications in the sporting arena.

Re: Cycling

Faced with the Herculean task of pulling competitive British cycling up from the depths of obscurity it had enjoyed for the better part of the last decade, performance director Dave Brailsford, rather than throwing huge amounts of money at the problem, chose to achieve this through strategic tweaks and interventions in what would at first appear to be minor (even unrelated) issues.

He ordered that practice tracks be painted white, to highlight the dust patches which were undermining team performance.

He ordered a travelling stock of the kind of pillows which guaranteed his athletes a good night's sleep. Ordered testing to identify the best brand of massage gel for tired muscles.

Enacted a strict policy of using antibacterial gel when hand washing, to minimise infections, and maximise health. And so on.

The result? A series of small moves and the power of margin gains helped British Cycling to 17 Paralympic, and 8 Olympic gold medals at Beijing 2008, 8 Paralympic, and 8 Olympic golds at London 2012, and consecutive wins at the 2012 and 2013 cycling Tour de France. 

Inbound Marketing & Optimisation

Small moves, big gains, cumulative effects: the foundations on which inbound marketing is (ideally) constructed. Marginal gains strategies may be applied to content creation, tracking and analytics, search engine optimisation (SEO), and the design and delivery of websites, online platforms, and the social media presence.

Here are seven practical interventions that can add up to a huge boost for any website.

1. Make It Easy On The Eyes

Though "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" and very much a subjective thing, there are certain visual combinations that naturally jar, or sit as irritating or off-putting to the casual observer. Glowing neon colours or dark backgrounds with faint (or even worse: dark) lettering which forces viewers to either put on sunglasses to make it past the neon, or squint to discern any of the words on the page, are just two examples.

For years, web gurus have advocated a light-coloured page background (white, or pale shades of other hues) with dark text to provide a contrast (black, or darker shades of other hues) - an accepted wisdom which remains just as true today.

Even the mighty Google discovered the power of this kind of marginal gain, as is explained in a BBC article from 2015:

“Google, for example, runs 12,000 data-driven experiments annually in order to discover small weaknesses and, thus, small improvements. One such experiment found that by tweaking the shade of the Google toolbar from a darker to a lighter blue, it increased the number of click-throughs. This marginal change increased revenue dramatically.”

A small change to the colour of the Google toolbar dramatically increased revenue

2. Make it Easier to Get Around

Cues and aids to website navigation (including buttons, section headings, and strategically placed calls to action) are the guides which shepherd visitors around a site, in the absence of an actual salesperson. And a well-crafted site with explicit and/or implied directional markers will minimise frustration, speed up the path to information or a needed transaction, and enhance the customer experience.

3. Give Them a Good Read

Increasing legibility will improve the user experience

[Typography website image from Eric Gray at Flickr]

Legibility is an essential, not just for the main body text of a website or blog, but also for section headers, the labels on call to action buttons, and the micro-copy associated with text boxes, illustrations, buttons, panels, and other site elements. Besides the riveting content of the blogs, product descriptions, or service details on the page proper, micro-copy needs to be pithy, eye-catching, and relevant.

The white space between paragraphs and different sections of a page plays as much a part in readability and navigation as the text itself, and immediate gains may be had by increasing the percentage of this, to present visitors with content in smaller and more easily digestible bits. Speaking of which...

4. Make It Shorter & Sweeter

We've all heard the tales of how the Millennial bug has infected all internet users with the attention span of a goldfish, and how "less is more" as far as digital content is concerned. All true, to some extent. So brevity (or at least, conciseness) across the board is something to aim for.

Snappy headlines. Short sentences. Short paragraphs. That all-important white space: a recipe for website text.

Not using 1,000 words where a picture will do. Making sure that picture is a fast-loading JPEG, rather than a PNG or GIF animation that'll take minutes to arrive: a recipe for website images.

Posting video clips that last seconds, rather than minutes. Splitting longer video narratives into a sequence of shorter clips: a recipe for website video.

And streamlining the checkout process for shopping carts and payment portals, or the ticketing and response system for Technical Support: a recipe for e-commerce. 

5. Trim The Fat

Website management and maintenance become much easier, if there's less stuff to deal with. Each frame of video, paragraph of text, or individual image adds bytes, kilobytes, or even megabytes to the combined "weight" of a website, as it makes its way to a visitor's desktop browser or mobile device. Add linked content from external sites, file or ad servers to the mix, and the overall package can be quite considerable.

From a usability standpoint, loading the site can become a slow and frustrating process for the customer - whose Millennial internet attention span is that of a goldfish, and whose internet connection may not be broadband.

For the site administrator, managing all these files can become a tedious chore - one that can be alleviated by losing some unnecessary bits and pieces. This type of tweak involves some delving into the innards of a web presence, but it's an investment in time that can pay big dividends.


6. Collect at Strategic Points

Website and customer experience optimisation can be greatly assisted by the collection of relevant data from visitors as they make their way through a site. So a simple intervention would be to adopt a deliberate policy of eliciting user responses, opinions and commentary via interaction points along the way.

Polls and surveys on social media platforms. Little questionnaires associated with product descriptions or points of sale. User experience questions in follow-up emails after a purchase or subscription. All can add to the essential pool of customer data.

7. Show Them Alternatives

For any or all of the above recommendations, some degree of trial and error may be involved. Trying out alternative versions of a site to see how visitors respond to them (so-called A/B testing) is a marginal gains strategy which makes this possible.

Coupled with a robust statistics-gathering and web analytics tool kit, it's possible to gauge and influence how small changes can have a huge effect, over time.

Back to You

Marginal gains strategies are being employed by many of the most innovative and influential organisations operating today – from boutique web design firms to powerhouses like Google. These players are reaping the benefits made possible through a sustained programme of small improvements in diverse areas of their operations.

Take a look at your website – what tweaks could you make? Remember, when it comes to the discipline of marginal gains, no refinements are too small to ignore, and the more you make the greater the aggregated improvement.

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