Data, insight, strategy: What board games can teach us about our approach to content

Our ContentEd 2019 speaker, Dana Rock, shares how board games can help us in content creation efforts in higher education marketing.


“Are you a prince?”

“No, and I’m going to play the handmaiden.”

Not the usual thing you hear at work. But this morning the marketing team are playing board games. Why? Simply put, there’s a lot that board games can teach us about how we approach content creation in higher education – and how we might need to adapt to what the future might throw at us. Let me explain…


We’ve got problems

When I joined the University of Nottingham earlier this year, I noticed that the team were battling with two opposing problems. I imagine these may sound familiar to you:

Problem 1: “Less print, more video”

We’ve all heard that one before. As content creators it’s all too easy to jump to content conclusions. We propose the end product – the video, the webpage – rather than thinking through the user need that the content piece would meet. What do users want? What’s worked well in the past? What don’t we have that might help?  What could be done better?

Problem 2: “We need to be more data-driven”

This could be the mantra of every senior manager, ever. But are we actually doing it?

More often I hear colleagues say “yeah, I’ve had a bit of training in Google Analytics, but I don’t really know what I’m doing.” Sure, there are plenty of tutorials online so it’s pretty easy to find out what the bounce rate is. But it’s much harder to decide if 34.5% is a good thing or a bad thing. Or decide what to do next. In reality, data without insights can do more harm than good.

In my view, these two familiar issues are two halves of the same problem. And playing board games can help us to draw them together, enabling us to create better content as a result.


Adopting the learner’s mentality

When we play a game for the first time, we must learn new rules. You’ve just been given a pack of cards with characters on. Your opponent has just played a handmaiden. So what…? Unlike our day jobs creating content, we don’t have any assumptions here: we are forced to learn.

During our gaming session, the team played a couple of rounds of a new game and then reflected on what they thought board games could teach us about higher education marketing. Here’s what they came up with:

  1. Capture what happened
  2. Watch the other competitors
  3. Challenge your assumptions
  4. Have a plan but don’t be afraid to change it
  5. Accept your limitations

Given how games force us to think, it’s not surprising that these points reflect a more thoughtful approach in how we plan, create and distribute content.

We learn more by playing more. We gather data and insights as we go, identifying and understanding the actions and strategies that are likely to help us succeed. But we must continue to question what is happening and change our game plan in light of new data. A player throws down an ace. A new piece is revealed. And the challenge of good game playing is to retain the learner’s mentality, identifying not only the mechanics operating underneath but how the game is changing – and how we should respond.


What does this mean for content?

You could argue that the assumptions we have about content are based on our experience. That is, we’ve done a few rounds of the game and realised that print is expensive and video content is more engaging. But what board games show us is that the simplest game is more complex than that. Because the situation changes and context dictates meaning.

Yes, we know that certain types of content worked in the past. But we also know that our market and our users are changing at an unprecedented rate. What was the right piece to play in the last round may no longer be applicable. I think we should focus less on the assumed guarantees of ‘quick wins’ and focus more on learning to estimate the probabilities that a particular action or strategy may lead us to victory in future.


Play faster, learn faster

In analogue game playing, we are often limited by how much information we can absorb and process while playing. Yet in 1996 IBM’s Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov at chess, signalling the power of AI to beat us at our own game. More recently, Google’s Deep Mind AlphaStar agents beat human players at Starcraft. Interestingly, the AI agents were trained for the competition using reinforcement learning, essentially finding the path to victory through trial and error. In the process they racked up approximately 200 years of game play at an accelerated rate.

In our approach to content, AI doesn’t have to be our opponent but our ally. With machine learning tools increasingly available and accessible to us, we will no longer be limited to the number of tabs we can keep open in our brain at once. Nor should our future content be limited by what we can humanly learn and distribute in a finite amount of time. These examples show us that we can become more intelligent game players – and content strategists –  by playing more and learning more. This poses a new question: how can we harness the power of AI to supercharge our ability to learn and get better at the game content we are playing?

To find out more… come to ContentEd.


Dana is the Head of Marketing (Student Recruitment) at University of Nottingham. You can catch Dana’s session on the second day of ContentEd 2019. 

If you’d like to advance your knowledge of content strategy, you can find out more about ContentEd, book a ticket to our next conference, or take a look at our blog.

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