What Michael Phelps’ 19th Olympic Medal Can Teach You About Smarter Online Marketing

image of Olympian Michael Phelps
If you were an Olympic-caliber swimmer, you could be forgiven for sort of hating Michael Phelps.

On Tuesday, he broke the record for holding more Olympic medals than any other athlete in history — 19 medals, of which 15 are gold.

During this summer Olympics, he’s been battling it out in a widely-publicized rivalry with his U.S. teammate Ryan Lochte.

Even a casual observer gets the impression that Lochte is, well, kind of sick of hearing about how great Michael Phelps is.

Lochte has been quoted over and over again saying, “This is my time.” And he did beat Phelps in the 400-meter medley, snatching the gold while Phelps didn’t even make the podium.

But when it was time for Phelps to grab that record-smashing 19th medal, he needed his rival’s help to do it.

Phelps won that 19th medal in the 4 x 200-meter freestyle relay — which means he needed the help of three other teammates, all working together toward a common goal.

When asked how he was able to beat Yannick Agnel, the brilliant (and scary fast) French swimmer in the lane next to him, he was quick to credit the nearly four-second lead given to him by his teammates.

Competition is great. Competitors keep us honest, keep us on our toes, and keep us improving. Without competition, we’d probably get pretty bored.

But competitors can also, at times, make the best allies.

Who else has the audience you want?

Wise online marketing begins with cultivating an audience — bringing together the collection of people who are interested in your topic and might be converted to customers.

The first letter of pretty much every copywriting or selling formula is “A” — for attention (or Audience, in this case). If you can’t get a crowd listening to what you’ve got to say, nothing else is going to work.

The most brilliantly written marketing can’t work if there’s no one there to read it — or if it’s sent to an audience who’s not tuned in to the subject.

You could simply buy traffic to build your audience, with pay-per-click or other forms of advertising. It’s been done before, and it will be done again.

But it’s expensive, and getting more so every day. It’s also tricky — whole books can be written (and have been) about how to manage the intricacies of Google AdWords.

When it works — and it doesn’t always work — advertising is a traffic faucet that can be turned on and off. If someone else (like Google) owns the faucet, and you have no other resources in place to grow your audience of prospects, they can turn that faucet off as easily as you can. And that puts you in a very dangerous position.

Power to the people

So if you don’t use advertising (or only use it for a portion of your traffic), how do you find your audience?

You find it by identifying individuals who have the audience you want, then cultivating relationships with them to better serve their audience … and grow yours while you’re at it.

People with major followings know that the audience comes first. If you can benefit their readers, viewers, or listeners, you’ve got a good shot at making an alliance.

That can mean guest blogging, formal joint venture partnerships, or just plain old-fashioned networking.

Even the most obnoxious online mavens and celebrities (and there are certainly a few of those) rely on allies to get the word out and keep it going.

21st-century business is rarely a zero-sum game

Have you ever met anyone who owns one diet book?

Most people either own zero diet books (they don’t worry about their weight, or they don’t turn to books for advice on it) or they own a shelf full of them.

An audience coming to you for a solution normally isn’t only coming to you.

As the information economy becomes a curated information economy, audiences like to hedge their bets. They’ll look for multiple experts, to reinforce their learning and make sure the advice they’re getting is sound.

There aren’t many “lone wolves” out there any more. Partnership and cross-pollination are the name of the game.

If you’re building your business on an audience attracted by your authority about a particular topic (which is what we think you should be doing), you want to spend most of your time working with, not against, the “competitors” for that audience.

But isn’t this just manipulation?

While it’s true that I am extremely evil, I’m not a fan of sucking up to someone you hate just to make a business connection.

In the first place, it does a disservice to your audience. If you have a legitimate disagreement with a competitor (especially if it’s a matter of ethics, rather than just style or approach), that person isn’t a good potential ally.

In the second place, sucking up to people you can’t stand will leach the soul out of everything you do and leave you disgusted with yourself. Which isn’t why you’re in business.

Friendly competitors like Phelps and Lochte don’t make a secret of their rivalry. They’re each respectfully out-front about their deeply held desire to win.

Respect and mutual goals allow rivals like these to work together when the situation calls for it.

Join us for the “Content Connections” series

This post is the kick-off for a series on making connections with other online publishers. We’ll talk about:

  • How to make high-quality connections with bloggers
  • Why traffic isn’t your first goal with guest blogging
  • How to use social media to strengthen connections with content producers
  • How to handle volatile, high-controversy topics
  • Where to find allies if your business is a zero-sum game

As well as lots of other tips, techniques, and strategies for growing your “frenemies” list.

And if those frenemies turn out to be flat-out friends … so much the better.

To get the full series, just stay tuned here at Copyblogger. If you haven’t already, why not subscribe by email so you’ll be sure you don’t miss any of the series.

How about you?

Have you ever worked cooperatively with a competitor toward a common goal?

Let us know about it in the comments.

About the author

Sonia Simone


Sonia Simone is co-founder and Chief Content Officer of Copyblogger Media. Get more from Sonia on Twitter and .

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Comments

  1. Thank you for such an insightful article Sonia.

    I believe that “working with your competition” is a skill. A skill that only a few have managed to master. The only difference between a successful business and a not-so-successful one is ‘connections’. If you’re consistently building the right connections/friends, you will undoubtedly see growth happening. But if you prefer being a loner, well then, nobody’s gonna know you exist and your business will remain stagnant.

    Competition doesn’t always mean being enemies and spying on each other. It’s also a one of a kind support if you know how to leverage it. Co-operating with each other can lead to accomplishment of mutually beneficial (and if I may add pleasurable) goals. And I think it’s the fastest way to reach where you want to reach.

    Can’t wait for the new “Content Connections” series! I’m sure it’s gonna be worth it :)

    • I agree that competition isn’t always about being enemies. I have great competitors in my blog and I use them to my advantage. I learn from them. I know they know something that I don’t and vice versa. There are lots of people in the market out there and there would be enough for everyone I believe.

  2. Great article! I haven’t watched much of the 2012 Olympics, except for the opening ceremonies.

    BTW: Hopefully, you know who your target market is and can find out “who else has the audience you want.”

    I agree that there aren’t many lone wolves out there anymore. The key is to find the ‘right’ people to partner with and produce a great product and or service. I’m grateful that I was asked to contribute to a book on how to attract the favorable publicity you want and deserve. We’re working together to market the book and each other’s products and services. It’s been a great experience.

  3. Insightful post Sonia and a topic that I have yet to get my head around. While I have heard that success comes from cooperation and not competition, I still struggle to get my head around it.

    • Hi Wade,
      It’s not a concept our industry does much to promote – but I can vouch for the fact that working in open competition with my nearest distributor is having excellent outcomes for us both. Don’t hesitate to get in touch if you would like to chat mre.
      Kind regards,
      Linda

  4. “If you’re building your business on an audience attracted by your authority about a particular topic (which is what we think you should be doing), you want to spend most of your time working with, not against, the “competitors” for that audience.”

    It’s worth looking at your competitors as comrades from time to time. Yes, you are fighting for the same business but sometimes you can build success off of each other, even if it’s only for a short time. Marketing is complicated enough, don’t make it harder by alienating yourself completely.

    • A lot of times you’re fighting for the same audience but not selling the same things. From the beginning of Copyblogger I tried to position things so we were complementary to others, both in our content focus, but more importantly, in our product suite. When viewed that way, “competitors” become natural partners, since in reality we share a common audience with different ultimate outcomes business-wise.

  5. Good afternoon Sonia!
    Spot on advice – thank you. As I said to Wade (above) this strategy is working extremely well for me and my ‘frenemy’. It has taken us both into areas of practice neither thought accessible to us 12 months ago. And what others see they want too – we’re collecting quite a family of ‘frenemies’!
    kind regards,
    L

  6. Good article.

    During training, it is absolutely essential to go head to head with your best rivals. It is the proven way to improve performance.

    One other comment, maybe a little off topic. As great as the Olympic Games and Olympic athletes might be for drawing inspiration or writing, and perhaps gaining attention, I’m done. My mind is already saturated from Olympic themed communication. I hesitated before reading the post. I don’t know what lessons I might want to draw. :D

  7. Shouldn’t that be ‘s in the title? It is his gold medal…

  8. I don’t think that you used good example. Everybody remembers when in Bejing 2008. in race Milorad Čavić was faster but they stealed away his victory, and Phelps was winner only because they wanted his record in number of gold medals.
    I think that such great placce on Internet shouldn’t use cheaters as example.

  9. Leveraging the lists of others is a really powerful way to increase your reach and it can go beyond the internet. There are many individual business owners that have found the power of cross-promoting each other’s products, giving them access to new customers.

    When you cross-promote everyone wins as long as your not selling the same thing. You’ll get new customers that may never find you through other means, and the competitor has a new product that she can offer to her customers.

    As Brian mentioned earlier in the comments, he used other high-profile bloggers to promote his products as well as cross promoting theirs’. This way you can multiply your sales logrythmically.

    -Joshua Black

  10. The lesson of the post should really have been: “How to attract readers with a blog title that features the hot topic of the day/week to a post that really tries unsuccessfully and rather shamefully to connect the aforementioned hot topic to social media and/or marketing but really succeeds only as linkbait”.

    That.

  11. Awesome post! I would add that learning from your competitors is every bit as important as working with them. If someone knows something I don’t about my field, I’ll adopt that fact and use it to appeal to my audience. Conversely, if a competitor is doing something that is clearly incorrect, I’ll do him one better and use that improvement as a selling point. :)

    • Great point. You can also learn really interesting things from outside your field (and those folks make great allies as well, they don’t always have to be competitors, of course). So a Pilates studio might find a really fantastic customer retention strategy from an auto repair shop.

      If I see a competitor doing something cool, I do try to say, “Hm, how would I do something in that vein but in my own way.” There are so many copycats, we try to give everything our own twist.

  12. Dave Harrison :

    I can’t wait for “What Fifty Shades of Grey Can Teach You About SEO”

    If you aren’t writing it, I am.

  13. I did see the look on Phelps face when he lost to Lochte in the 400m. From there, I knew he was going to gun it for the next time. That’s because his competitive drive was complimentary of his teammates drive as well. He knows the game, the players as well as his own strengths.

    Good things to take note of.

    Furthermore, they all had one purpose but each was going to do it their way. And the differentiation for each person can be applied to a blogger who is pretty much just starting out online. I find positioning and conversion very simple concepts but really complex in design.

    Thanks for the great read Sonia! Looking forward to the upcoming series. :)
    -Thu

  14. Barry Desautels :

    You’re a smart cookie, Sonia. Always enjoy your take on things.
    Collaboration, cooperation, and mutual respect toward specific competitors is a good thing.
    I haven’t done much of it online yet, but in various businesses I’ve owned and operated over the
    years it has worked very well.
    Thanks for the great content at Copyblogger.

  15. Thanks for this post. Really good way to tie in what’s going on in our minds already. I think you brought a good point about our competitors being our allies. Truthfully, it’s actually a marketing strategy of mine to post on my “competitors” Facebook posts. That way, all their visitors will see my post and hopefully follow ME on Facebook too. The same thing can be done with forum marketing or even banner advertising. If you can buy a banner ad on your biggest competitor’s website, you can ethically “steal” traffic from his/her site. And vice versa. Thank you again for a thoughtful and well written post. Good times fuzzy bunnies!

  16. Good stuff Sonia. Perhaps the next article should be “How to use unrelated but massively searched current event keywords in your headline to drive traffic”. Well played!

    • I suspect the number of people doing a keyword search on Michael Phelps who found this article was zero. :) But there’s something to be said for bringing your point to a conversation already taking place in the audience’s head, to use an old copywriting maxim.

  17. I would like the opportunity to work with a competitor towards a common goal – it’s been difficult to find willing competitors. Many people seem to be in it for the “me” and not for the “we”. Maybe not the best way to say it, but the idea is sound. Looking forward to the series you are starting.

    By the way, my favorite statement – “If you can’t get a crowd listening to what you’ve got to say, nothing else is going to work.”

  18. “So if you don’t use advertising, how do you find your audience?”

    This is point what every people who are in online marketing field should be aware of.

    With a co-operative commom goal its actually possible to take the business next level -and there’s no doubt in it. Definitely, Phelps is good example.

    Thanks for making it clear Sonia! Let the business of people grow with mutual co-operative!

    Cheers!

  19. I really enjoyed this post! The words “iron sharpens iron” came to mind as I pondered the crux of the message. The other day I was watching an insightful speaker point out that working with people who are great at what they do will make us better–no doubt about it. Fierce competition makes us reach inside to see what we’re made of and push harder. People like Phelps and Lochte know that well! Sports present metaphorical situations applicable to life, right? And that includes blogging. I think the late Dr. Stephen Covey noted in his writings that in our personal development, our path should go from dependence in childhood, to independence in adolescence, and finally to interdependence in adulthood. Synergy works!

  20. Hi Sonia!

    Well its been a great player phelps and secondly, doing and having competition within or outside your team mate its always been handy one and you learnt a lot with that experience. For me, especially when its been in internet marketing you gain and work hard to get lots of knowledge which is beneficial for the person.

  21. Aloha Sonia,
    Thanks for your post! I thought this line in particular was brilliant: “Have you ever met anyone who owns one diet book?”

    Regarding my own experience, in the past I have been very protective of my clients, worried that if I shared them with someone else that it would affect my bottom line too much. In fact, it has proven the opposite. I remember one particular time I was especially worried when one of my web clients went to another web designer for help with some special graphic elements. I thought I had lost that customer forever, and as it turned out I learned something from her additions to the website that I have used to make my own sites better (earning 10 times as much as I would if I had lost the client, which I didn’t). Plus when that designer left the island, she sent out an email to all her clients with my name as a referral!

    It seems in times of competition sometimes we fall into a fight or flight response automatically, but I’m trying to learn to step back from that primal response and approach these situations with a little more grace.

  22. Sonia:
    I concur–great article. Admittedly, I think it takes some real confidence in one’s abilities to be able to raise yourself to the level of sharing with your frenemies. You have to trust that what you offer is of the quality and strength that your customer isn’t going to be swayed by being exposed to another business. (Besides, you may end up discovering that the comparison makes you look that much better in your clients’ eyes!)
    Thanks again!
    g.

  23. Very well said. I really like the idea of guest blogging. I think bloggers who are still starting should try to do this more often but not to the point that they’re going to aim for the loyalty of their host’s readers directed to theirs. I agree that competitors can be very advantageous to the build-up of a reputation in the blogging field and the learning exchange will be endless and continuous.