Marginal Gains Theory In Performance Marketing

Marginal Gains is the theory that small, incremental improvements in multiple areas of a system can add up to a significant overall improvement.

Marginal Gains theory is a really interesting concept and is a great way of thinking about campaign optimisation. It’s probably what most of us do already without realising but if you really take this idea to heart I’m sure there are extra performance improvements to discover.

I’m really interested in the concept and use it in my day-to-day management of Google Ads campaigns. This article discusses Marginal Gains Theory and how it can be applied to performance marketing campaigns.

1% Growth Each Day

What is Marginal Gains theory?

Marginal Gains is the theory that small, incremental improvements in multiple areas of a system can add up to a significant overall improvement.

The concept is often used in the context of sports, where a team or individual athlete might focus on making small improvements in various aspects of their training, nutrition, equipment, and strategy in order to achieve better overall performance. However, the theory can also apply to areas of business like manufacturing or marketing.

The idea behind marginal gains is that by focusing on making many small improvements, rather than trying to make one big improvement, it is possible to achieve a greater overall impact.

Where did the Marginal Gains theory come from?

Sir Dave Brailsford popularised marginal gains and ‘The 1% Factor’ when he was Performance Director for the GB Cycling team. Brailsford took them from just 1 gold medal in 100 years to what is known as the best run in cycling history with 178 world championships, 66 Olympic/Paralympic gold medals and five Tour de France victories in only a 10-year period.

This feat was achieved through a focus on small details and the belief that the sum of many ‘smaller’ changes would lead to significant shifts in overall performance output.

How can this apply to performance marketing?

Performance marketing is a highly competitive industry and every day our ads, keywords, bid strategies and more are scrutinised by various algorithms before eventually being shown in front of a user who may or may not click on the ad. The level of detail that goes into ads and the technology behind showing an ad has a lot of variables but this means there is a lot of opportunity for marginal gains.

Small improvements in various aspects of a marketing campaign or strategy can lead to significant overall improvements in marketing effectiveness. I’m sure we’ve seen this in effect, or perhaps even used it without realising. But having a strategy to identify or pre-empt areas for marginal gains can give you a foot forward on competition.

Potential areas for improvement:

Below I’ve listed a few areas you can focus on in Google Ads along with some questions and potential improvements you can make in these areas.

Campaign Level

  • Bid strategy
    • Is your bid strategy limiting performance? Is there room to scale spending by pulling back on bids?
  • Budget
    • Is your budget too limiting?
  • Location
    • Are specific locations performing better than others? Are they worth expanding into other campaigns or perhaps just bid modifiers on those locations?
  • Device modifiers
    • How does performance change per device? Does this warrant a campaign split or perhaps just bid modifiers on devices?
  • Ad scheduling
    • Do your ads perform better at certain times of the day? Can you pause during quiet hours in order to push more during peak times?

Ad Group

  • Keywords
    • Are you using the right keywords?
    • Search term reports, keyword research and negative keyword audits are key to improving here.
  • Audience
    • Do any of your observational audiences deserve bid modifiers or perhaps new campaigns with tailored ad copy?
  • Bid Strategy
    • Is your bid strategy limiting performance? Is there room to scale spending by pulling back on bids?


  • Ad copy
    • Are your ads getting the right messages across? Are you running frequent tests on your ad copy?
  • Extensions
    • Are you using all extension types? Have you measured the uplift from extensions?
  • Final URL
    • Are there better pages on your website that may convert better? Are keywords going to the most relevant page on your site?

Consistently improving each of these areas by 1% adds up to a huge overall improvement.

Building a schedule or timeline for routinely optimising the smaller details of your campaigns can in time lead to huge overall performance improvements.

In conclusion, understanding the potential impact of marginal gains allows us to shift our perspective on our account management and redefines how we see smaller optimisations.

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