Game Plan: What marketers can learn from strategy games

I was recently interviewed by the nice guys at Distilled— if you are a regular reader of this blog and you haven’t read it yet, Tom asked some really interesting questions — and one of the things I briefly mentioned was that one of my hobbies is playing chess. I’ve been playing the game for about 2 years, and what I enjoy most about it is that it teaches me a lot about competition and strategy.


One of the reasons why I recommend doing competitive intelligence for SEO is that when you truly understand what makes others successful, you can find a shorter path to your own success. I only make great progress, both in SEO and in chess, when I am able to beat stronger players consistently.

Most intermediate chess books suggest that for every move you make, you develop a list in your head of candidate moves. Those are moves that you should explore by playing as many moves ahead in your mind as you can and evaluating the potential outcomes. Unfortunately, when you are starting out this is very difficult and time consuming. Chess experts do this instinctively and do it very fast, so it is usually easier and more interesting to study professional games and try to understand the reasoning behind each move. The idea is not to memorize the tactics, like many do, but to appreciate the strategies and the logical reasoning that led to them.

Again, there are far more ways to failure than there are to success. It is far more efficient to learn from the moves of proven winners than to try to experiment every possible move for yourself.

Connect Four

In my first programming class back at college, we were tasked with creating a version of Connect Four. The interesting thing about the challenge was that we were supposed to program the computer to be an intelligent player, and play to win. In contrast to my classmates that were creating lists of rules or conditions for ever possible position of the board, I chose to let the computer play scenarios several steps ahead and evaluate whether it wins or loses in order to pick the best move. What I learned from observation was that, although only one or two moves were the good ones, the computer had to explore a lot of moves in order to find them. The number of positions to be evaluated increased exponentially with the number of moves ahead I wanted it to compute. There had to be a better way.

And in fact there is. The Connect Four game was solved by perfect play independently by Victor Allis and James D. Allen. Basically, they proved that the first player can win by dropping the piece in the middle column and by following a set of rules they came up with after carefully studying the game. If you memorize this winning formula and play first, you are going to win every single game.

The need for a game plan

Now, what does this teach me about marketing? Consider your niche as a game. You could play and improve by trial-and-error like everybody else, or you could make a serious study of the market and the dominant players. Like every game, there are invisible rules that the winners are following, and you need to discover them. That is the primary purpose of studying your competitors.

Now, let’s say you are able to identify what your best competitors are doing. If you simply follow in their same steps, you will always remain behind. Why? They have the first-comer advantage and you are not doing anything that is radically better. So what do you do in this case?

Beating the game

Let me share a simple technique I’ve used successfully to compete in the toughest industries.

1. Think in terms of problems and solutions.
2. Identify your strengths.
3. Identify your competitors’ weaknesses.
4. Build solutions that leverage your strengths and exploit your competitors’ weaknesses.

Winning a chess game can be summarized as finding, creating and exploiting weaknesses in your opponent’s moves. Nobody is perfect. Similarly, nobody is executing a perfect play in business. There will always be opportunities for improvement. That is where you need to look if you want to surpass the winners and become the leader.

For example, your competitors might not be paying attention to a small but growing segment of the market; or they might not be delivering the value customers expect or need. One often overlooked source for this type of insight is the multiple websites that offer reviews, public forums and mailing lists. Compare what customers really want versus what they are currently receiving.

Another alternative is to create products or services that customers don’t know they need yet, but this type of approach requires a lot of confidence and vision. It is a good approach once you have had a few successes under your belt and can gauge what people might want or need. This is a high-risk, high-reward scenario, and not recommended for the inexperienced.

Whatever your industry, I hope that you are playing to win. So tell me, what is your game plan?

14 replies
  1. Jez
    Jez says:

    Interesting reading about your program. Someone I know wrote a program using AI at University… feed it a few sample books and it will learn to determine the author of subsequent books.

    He went on to write a program for predicting racing results…

    The interesting thing about these programs is that you have no idea how the program is actually predicting the results, i.e. you do not know what it has "learned"… only how it has learned.

    Recently I was reading comments by BH SEO's looking at doing the reverse of the first program… using AI to improve automated content generation / use of synonyms.

    There is a white paper somewhere from a University that wrote a program using AI to produce academic papers…. if these programs come to fruition they will make Googles job of spam detection a lot harder… in fact, programmers could use success in google as part of the "training" for future content generation…

    Regrettably I am not that good a programmer, but I am sure someone somewhere is beavering away on this stuff….

  2. Hamlet Batista
    Hamlet Batista says:

    Thanks for the great insights, Jez.

    We are creatures of habit and we often repeat the same phrases in our speech and writing. You friend probably used some advanced statistics techniques to identify such patterns.

    A modern approach is to train the computer with a large enough set to make sure the results close to the expected ones. Microsoft uses a similar technology on their search engine. They call it RankNet or something like that.

  3. Jez
    Jez says:

    I think he did use the modern approach.

    Taking your connect 4 example… he would write a program to learn from each game and revise the strategy. You do not have to load statistics / historical data, though it would give the program a head start if you did.

    You could simply start playing with no data at all.

    The computer would lose the first games as it learned from its own mistakes and the winners success.

    After enough games it would eventually learn for itself the algorithm you discussed to play the "perfect game".

    I tried to find the white paper he mentioned to me, but all I can find are advertisements for AI programs that predict sports results, seems like the idea caught on!!

  4. David Airey
    David Airey says:

    Hi Hamlet,

    Having been subscribed to your blog for a while now, it's not often I visit, as I read your content in Google Reader.

    I just saw the ReviewMe review on JC's blog, and noticed your redesign. Sorry for the off-topic comment, but I just wanted to say that your new look is certainly a step-up on the old one. Nice job.

    I hope all's well.

  5. David Airey
    David Airey says:

    Thanks for the compliment, Hamlet.

    From a usability standpoint, I think you should change the 'blog' tab, in the top navigation, to read as 'home'.

    When I noticed that your header image didn't link to your homepage, I found myself searching for a link to 'home', then realised it was actually your 'blog' tab.

    Considering your whole site is a blog, I don't think it's necessary to label it separately.

  6. The certain Way
    The certain Way says:

    I think this is a very interesting point you make in your article. You are quite right, but that is the whole tricky thing about business: being able to leverage your own strength and finding the hole left by others.
    Usually we tend to have tunnel vision, blinded by the huge amount of information that comes at us. And only the best can see the trees through the wood (or was it the reverse 🙂 ).
    Anyway, I think we all need to start out as imitators (we did when we were kids, an look at us now 🙂 ) and then move on. But again, I think this is a difficult thing. but you are right. If we want to go for the big money, it is the only way.

    Btw, I'm here from John Chows site also.

  7. Rex
    Rex says:

    I'm a tournament chess player (USCF Rating 1302) but I hadn't considered applying my chess knowledge to business. Thanks for getting my to think outside the box.


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