The Marginal Gains Approach to Improving Productivity

by John Waldron last updated on

I’m pretty sure that you’ll agree that achieving a mere 1% improvement in any given metric is not something that’s worth getting too excited about. Indeed, striving for such a minute enhancement in the first place might, quite understandably, leave you wondering – why bother at all?

For surely the more sensible, ambitious and lucrative approach would be to set your sights higher – 5% at the very least, right? But even that’s got nothing on improvements weighing in at 10% or even 20%! Now you’re talking.

And of course your logic would be sound, for obvious reasons.

However, imagine the overall impact if you were able to find ways and means to improve every single metric by just 1%. If you find 50 metrics to improve in this manner, then you quickly realise that the aggregate result will be far greater than the sum of its parts.

The marginal gains philosophy

This is what’s known as the marginal gains philosophy, and it has gathered an increasing amount of attention over recent years in response to the successes that one high-profile proponent of the theory managed to achieve.

Have you heard of Sir Dave Brailsford? He’s the man responsible for taking the ailing British Cycling Federation from 2 bronze medals at the 1984 Atlanta Olympics, to the fantastic medal haul of 8 gold, 2 silver and 2 bronze at London 2012, and 6 gold, 4 silver and 1 bronze in Rio 2016.

How did he achieve such an amazing feat? By concentrating upon making just tiny improvements to every component that goes into cycling every single day. Every piece of equipment, every process, every factor that could be improved, he set out to improve – even if just by minuscule increments.

marginal gains

Talking to the BBC, Brailsford explained the concept:

“The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.

“There’s fitness and conditioning, of course, but there are other things that might seem on the periphery, like sleeping in the right position, having the same pillow when you are away and training in different places. They’re tiny things but if you clump them together it makes a big difference.”

And what a big difference the approach indeed made. Brailsford optimised everything from the ergonomics of the saddles to the nutrition of the riders to hand-washing best practices that avoid infection. By 2012, Brailsford’s team was the strongest in the world, with Sir Bradley Wiggins becoming the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France, and the British Cycling Team sweeping up 70% of the gold medals available at the Olympics that year.

And it was all done by making 1% improvements. All of a sudden, there is something to get excited about indeed.

The marginal gains approach to improving productivity

The marginal gains philosophy can be applied to pretty much anything, and there has been much written on how the approach is transferrable to improving business metrics.

But today, I want to ponder how we, as content marketers, might use the discipline to make a panoply of 1% gains in our productivity.

So, let’s get stuck in…


Blogging, as I’m sure many of you will know, requires an awful lot of time and effort. So, how can we save some time?

First – titles. I know from writing hundreds and hundreds of blogs myself, that a lot of time can be spent – or rather wasted – staring at a blank screen just trying to come up with a title for today’s piece. Indeed, it can often be the case that the most time-consuming aspect of blogging is not actually writing the thing, but thinking up something to write about.

So, here’s a marginal gain – spend one hour today coming up with the next 3 months’ worth of titles for your blog posts, and for each one you will save the first 5-20 minutes normally spent on this practice. You will be able to just jump straight in and start writing. How far ahead will you get by the end of the 3 months?


With the time you save, you could write more blogs – or perhaps you could consider paying additional attention to keyword optimization. Indeed, in 2017, with Google Panda being what it is, we know that we’ve got to write content for readers rather than search engines. And sometimes that can mean that we forget – or at least subordinate – keyword optimization. But we shouldn’t ­– keywords are massively important for SEO and inbound purposes.

So, for in terms of improving productivity, next to those 3 months’ worth of blog titles you write today, write two keywords (or keyword phrases) that will feature in each post when you come to write them. This will take you perhaps an additional 15 minutes today, but ensure that you actually are paying attention to keywords when you do pen your posts, and also save you the hassle of thinking them up when the time comes.


When you write customer emails, are you still entering the names of the recipients manually at the top of each one? Imagine how much time you would save over the course of a year if you no longer had to do that. Sure, in isolation, you only save a matter of seconds writing someone’s name – but in aggregation (especially over the whole workforce), hours upon hours of labour hours could be saved that could otherwise be spent much more valuably.

Investing in email automation software will enable you to immediately make this particular marginal gain, but plenty of others also. Design templates, send times, triggered emails, autoresponders, personalization, segmentation – all these traditionally manual tasks can all be fully automated with email automation and marketing automation software, saving you hours and hours of productivity time.

And the same goes for your social media marketing. CoSchedule, Hootsuite, Tweet Jukebox, Rignite – take your pick! All of these SaaS programs (and many more besides) are specifically designed to improve productivity by reducing the amount of time you would normally spend conducting manual tasks.

Repurposing content

Blogs, ebooks, white papers, research reports, case studies – these are your content assets that often command a serious investment in time. You make time to produce these pieces because of their high value. But, you do so at a certain productivity expense – there are only so many hours in a working day, and whilst you’re busy ploughing dozens of labour hours into the creation of these pieces, you’re leaving little time to do anything else.

However, we can take a marginal gains approach to this content output if we find ways to repurpose it. For instance, your eBook, white paper or research report will naturally contain dozens of snippets which would work (perhaps with minor tweaks) as tweets, thusly cutting down on the time you need think of completely original ones.

Each chapter of your ebook could be rewritten into a blog post. Sure, you’d still have to write the post with original phrasing, but, you wouldn’t have to put in any additional research. And the same goes if you want to turn a blog post into an infographic (or an infographic into a blog post for that matter).

Indeed, with any piece of content you create, you are also generating a plethora of by-products. When you conduct research for one piece of content, use it in another. Rather than starting from scratch every time, get into the habit of thinking in terms of how you can repackage the information into different formats. You will soon find that you are producing lots more content that can be used across many more marketing and promotional efforts.

What other ideas have you got for making marginal productivity gains in content marketing? Remember, when it comes to marginal gains, no improvement is too small, so let’s hear about them all in the comments below. Thanks all!

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