As a new year begins, there will be no shortage of prognostications, trends, and visions in the social media world. Some (though increasingly fewer) industries take years to evolve, but in social media, seismic change can happen overnight. While the social networks evolve, the packaging looks different, and the surface-level behaviors may alter, they are all tied to principles of intrinsic human nature that pale any platforms.
So, before you jump on the next emerging social media trend or network, consider what behavior, what natural human want or need is being activated or exploited. Here are 7 ideas that form the roots of so much of what we have seen, continue to see, and will see in what takes off in social media.
1. People want to be seen and heard
Look at the trends emerging in platforms today. Twitch has made streaming more interactive than ever, and users are even paying for premium emotes to ensure their favorite streamers notice them. Meanwhile, the greatest thrill continues to be appearing on the video board at an arena or stadium. The only thing that can come close to equaling the hormone hit for a fan is getting a reply, retweet, or DM from their favorite team or athlete. The individual that has their question responded to in an Instagram Q&A, or whose comment leads to the team posting a specific photo from the pregame warmup, or whose video gets reposted by the team — all help fulfill that fan desire to be seen and be heard.
At a deeper level, people want to know they’re seen and heard in bigger decisions. It may be polling fans on the littlest of decisions or taking into account their collective thoughts on a highly visible or significant decision. Even the appearance of fans being seen and heard can yield considerable cachet. If more fans are feeling seen and heard, you’re doing something right. Embrace this idea going forward and always think about elements of engagement that make fans feel like someone’s paying attention to them out there.
2. People want to feel connected to others
Several months without large gatherings only reinforced this human need. But it goes beyond simply being around other people. It’s about shared experience, yes, but also shared emotion and shared interests. And, to conjure back the previous point, to know somebody else out there sees or hears them. How else could so many of us (myself included) have survived 2020 without painful feelings of loneliness? Social media lends that feeling, however real or artificial it may be, of connection. It’s why it’s difficult to enjoy a sporting event, a piece of social media content, or any moment at all unless there is someone to share it with.
A lot of times in social media, especially in sports, the primary source of content and attention is front and center. And while it’s fun to watch the Verzuz showdowns, for example, it’s even more fun to feel connected to so many others that experienced it or are watching it alongside you live (digitally). How can we continue to uncover new ways to drive human connections in 2021 and the years to come? As social platforms keep evolving, keep in mind this why and less about the shiny new toys and the ‘what.’
3. They like to feel anticipation and reward
As social networks, most notably TikTok, prioritized video completions to help inform their ‘For You’ algorithm, many creators realized they could leverage our human enjoyment of surprise. The chemical and hormone-induced excitement of uncertainty, suspense, and anticipating a denouement is enthralling. It’s one of the many reasons we love sports and the unpredictable, tension-laden action. It’s why, for years, movies and TV shows have made us wonder what’s around the corner. And it’s reinforced by comedians working their way up to a punch line as the audience holds their breathe for that payoff. Heck, it’s even part of some of our favorite music, which often builds to an awesome riff.
This buildup of suspense is becoming more intentional as the social platforms place greater importance on users spending the time to get to that payoff. And publishers on social media strive to play off that formula of creating anticipation (sometimes even explicitly with notes telling us to ‘Wait for it’ or ‘Watch til the end’). Strive to creatively come up with ways to build those feelings of what’s coming and what’s gonna happen, and give them a payoff feeling complete. And maybe even anticipating the next journey you’ll take them on.
4. We want to feel feelings (the emotional roller coaster)
Whether it’s in social media content, entertainment programming, marketing, or storytelling — the best stuff makes us feel something. Awe, joy, delight, anger, fear, sadness, inspiration. We feel alive when we feel. When sports came back following the pandemic-induced pause, whether our teams were winning or losing, something just felt invigorating about feeling feelings again, getting back on the emotional roller coaster.
We think and talk all the time about goals and metrics and executing (or gamifying) our way to those goals and metrics. But it can help to start with the feeling. What feeling do you want to induce and how successful is your content in creating that feeling? And then work from that point. Because if the consumer isn’t going to end up feeling something — anything — it’s not going to break through.
5. They want to socialize and need a reason to do so
The group chats, the social feeds, even the phone calls all light up when something wild happens in sports or significant news drops. Groups (in normal times) gather together at a buddy’s place or a bar to watch the game together or head out to the arena for a night out. And when sports went away, so did a source of connection and of socializing with friends and family.
How can we help foment friendships, start conversations, and give more and more reasons for others to socialize, converse, or message with each other? The best part of experiencing the excitement of a Woj bomb, a buzzer beater, or watching a hilarious or awesome video isn’t in the moment itself. It’s that it is an invitation to talk about it, share it, or experience it with others. To restart that previously dormant group text, or to slide into someone’s DMs. Keep this in mind moving forward. Entertainment and information is great, but as a source of kindling for friendship and socializing, it’s even more powerful.
6. People want things to talk about
I won’t wax poetic on this one quite as much, because it very much relates to the previous point in #5. We all want something to break the silence, something to bring up besides the weather. Among the most important, valuable things sports provide is something to talk about. There has been a renewed effort throughout 2020 to embrace this need, because there were no games or transactions to fill the void. And we could only talk so much about ‘these unprecedented times.’
All of a sudden the constant trend was teams and brands asking questions [or its relative, ‘pick/choose one from the choices presented’. Looking for users to flood the replies and comments. And while this kept engagement up during a time when nothing much was happening to talk about, think and go further moving forward. There is just as much value in the conversations being created (and the fodder being served up help start them) that happen outside the comments. The interest and enthusiasm won’t ever wane in the team or sport if it’s providing a bountiful font of conversation topics. We all want something to talk about.
7. We want to remember and recall personal memories
Nostalgia ain’t new. For years and generations we’ve realized the power of nostalgia. South Park satirized the proliferation of nostalgia with their ”Member Berries’ storyline. But something else is happening now, too, making nostalgia more personalized. Because just about everyone loves nostalgia, but we’re not all nostalgic for the same things. Social media isn’t segmented by generation, but when it’s more personal, it’s easier to activate. Not everybody recalls watching that game or playing with that toy, but everybody CAN recall (or look up) who their favorite player was at 10 years old or the first concert they ever attended.
How can we create opportunities for people to reminisce, to delve into their own personal vaults and pull out a memory? Every chance to revisit those times pours a little gas on the internal flames to keep them blazing. It could be from the earliest childhood memories to even where we were when something significant happened with the team or sport at any time in our lives. When the strength of the feeling and experience is conjured back up, we can all feel it. Nostalgia and memory will continue to play a key role and there will be more creativity and activity to evolve it in the years to come.
It can be easy to get caught up the trends and the trending tactics. To adapt or imitate, to ride the wave of proven concepts. But step back and ponder why something is successful and what base-level human traits and wants are being fulfilled. That’s what can help drive new ideas and original executions. And that’s what will keep you ahead of the curve, always. Because the platforms may change overnight, but human needs have been around, largely unchanged, for millennia.
The coolest part of the so-called reputation of Gen Z is that they don’t simply subscribe to the way things have always been. That it’s good to question ideas and strategies that many proclaimed as just the way things are done or as best practices. Don’t just think outside the box, build a new box. Heck, build a whole set of new boxes.
With that inspiration in mind, I want to enter 2021 questioning every status quo. If something has been deemed the best way to do something for going on decades, make it live up to that billing today. Because fans look different, technology changes, culture evolves, and traditions and best practices are replaced by new ones. That doesn’t happen without challenging the way things are, first, and then testing new hypotheses in search of the next paradigm-shifting idea.
Here are five areas in the sports and social media ecosystem that could be ripe for disruption. Not just evolution but revolution. These are my ideas and what immediately crossed my mind, what are yours?
Sports Broadcasts Haven’t Changed Much in Decades. Why?
Ever since our parents or even our grandparents first began watching live sports, the broadcast paradigm has not evolved all that much. Broadcasts started off with an announcer providing play-by-play. Then a color commentator was added to complement the play-by-play with color and analysis. Monday Night Football added a third in its early days, boldly trying to make their broadcast more entertaining to a wider national audience over the years. The camera views and sound have improved greatly, sideline reporters provide eyes and access behind-the-scenes. But as we enter 2021, outside of cooler cameras and clearer views, broadcasts are not all that different from 20, 30, or 40 years ago.
Megacasts have provided an interesting experiment here and there, and Amazon Prime Video’s alternate audio for NFL games is a peripheral trial with good intentions. But a couple of Snoop Dogg appearances started opening the eyes to more. His commentary of a NHL game last year went viral and in late 2020, his stint calling a couple boxing matches for Triller were the talk of the town.
There is a marriage to tradition because so much of the country rejects any aberration from what they’ve always known. But what could it mean to blow up this paradigm? To make a broadcast weigh more on the side of entertaining than informative? There are plenty of contractual and technological barriers that perhaps stand in the way of such innovation, but time is running out. Younger generations of sports fans eschew watching live sports in favor of highlights and other entertainment. This is not because of attention span deficits — many watch their favorite Twitch streamer for hours. There is no single right answer and I’m not here to provide my own. Just to make us think ‘what if?’ What if broadcasters are not talking at fans but with them, not diving into the details of a specific play call but more on jokes or storytelling, not cutting to a sideline reporter sidling near coaches but cutting to a reporter watching alongside a crazed and costumed fan? The paradigm can’t change until somebody changes it.
Sports Teams are So Much More Than Sports Teams
One of the neat initiatives from teams across sports during the COVID-caused pause was the production of fun and even educational activities for kids. Some teams also had their strength coaches lead workout and yoga sessions. Other had team dietitians and chefs talk about healthy eating and perform cooking demos. Even mascots found creative ways to entertain fans of all ages.
Sports organizations are good at a lot of things. Building and managing a team of elite athletes, sure, but also event management, video production, graphic design, preparing food, physical training and recovery, mental performance, and so much more. Without games to cover, live in-person events to produce and manage, and tickets to sell, organizations had all this capability and talent at disposal.
What can teams do with this expertise and ability, many of which more closely resemble agencies than sports teams? Could teams produce scripted content, extensive educational programs for kids, educational programs for adults (who want to learn Photoshop, After Effects, Premier, Social Media Strategy, marketing strategy, data analysis, and more), fitness classes, a cooking show rivaling anything seen on Food Network, etc. etc.? Some teams have even built their own branded gyms, could hotels and restaurants be next? There are many boxes to think outside of, more opportunities yet to be explored.
The Bachelorette as Competition for Sports
It doesn’t matter how exciting the game or collection of games are that are playing at any given time. If The Bachelor or The Bachelorette is on, it will find its way toward or at the top of the Twitter trends. Perhaps only the Super Bowl could make fans turn away or post about something else. Maybe. With live viewership and share of heart and mind more competitive than ever, what is there for sports to learn?
I do not watch either of the aforementioned matchmaking shows, but it’s impossible to escape between Twitter, fantasy leagues, and active online communities everywhere. There is more storytelling in sports than ever, but is it mostly the kind focused more on turning casual fans into avid fans? Nowadays, there is more data for the growing gambling fans (many hope!), more sources of deep insight into the strategy and analytics, and great info on the athleticism and real-time decision making. But what disruptive thinking can get fans emotionally invested into every player, each game feeling like a drama unfolding? What can attract not just casual fans, but people who aren’t fans at all (yet)?
Showcasing the drama of sports is not a new idea, NFL Films pioneered that long ago. But how can that elevation be brought into the everyday, and into the real-time experience? There are steps getting us there with each game, each season. Is there a revolution to come out of the evolution? I can’t dream it up today, but perhaps somebody will, if there is such an avant-garde movement to come.
What Happens When Highlights are a Dime a Dozen?
Back in my day…well, my day wasn’t all THAT long ago, the omnipresence of video on the Internet and on social media wasn’t a thing. Such proliferation hasn’t even been around ten years. It’s easy to take for granted that missing a big play in a game, or just about any play in a game, doesn’t matter these days because the video will be on Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, or elsewhere within minutes, if not seconds. But the more readily accessible all this video — and the more one’s timeline is everybody sharing the same clips — the more the currency of highlights gets diluted.
As the value of highlights diminishes by their widespread availability, what’s a team or account to do to add value? What does it look to like to upset the status quo of game highlights? There has been some evolution in the space, with some leagues dispatching correspondents into places bigger broadcast cameras can’t go, grabbing unique angles and access for fans on social. More advanced cameras, too, can give fans 360-degree looks at a play. There is room for even more innovation for the real-time phenomenon of highlights as it enters its second decade.
If the focus is less on providing a volume of highlights (or changing how that volume is shared), there exists more leeway and time to produce something different, something original that turns a highlight into something more. It could be adding in data about the action in the play (which some have done), enhancing the video with special effects, production elements, and music, making them interactive (whatever that may mean), providing them to creators or fans and letting them produce something cool in the moment, or any number of other ideas one can cook up. When scarcity starts to dry up as a value proposition, that’s the sign of an opportunity to innovate and to try to pivot to what’s next.
The Power of Player-Led Content
One of my favorite things to take off in recent years, and 2020 especially, is the passive camera opportunity for players, particularly in the NFL. You’ve no doubt seen the ‘Showtime Cam’ from games where players celebrate in front of the video screens in the end zone after touchdowns or turnovers, watching themselves ham it up for a national audience. A handful of NFL teams similarly set up cameras at training camps inviting players to participate with a prompt or just giving them the lens to do whatever they wanted. Athletes are more comfortable creating content and filming themselves than ever before (thanks in part to the prolonged sports pause and period of sheltering). And they appreciate the value of that content more than ever, too.
Something’s just different when players can perform and seek out attention on their terms. To make it onto the team’s or league’s platforms, when they don’t have to be reliant upon to a reporter or team associate coming up to them or get requested by a media member. Or have to awkwardly interact with and perform for the person behind the camera. The results have been content gold with more unfettered player personality and endearing fun. Players have their own accounts and their own autonomy to tell their story, sure, but they’re also gaining more agency over the content going on team and league platforms, too.
The best content teams can produce comes from the players themselves. The old paradigm of players as subjects only has been disrupted and will continue to evolve. They’re co-producers and directors now. They’re more authentic and more fun when they’re not performing for somebody but instead embracing ‘just do you’ (and maybe here’s an idea if you need one). I look forward to how this trend comes together, with players able to figuratively raise their hand more to be part of content and teams partnering with players on content instead of feeling like it’s a give and take relationship. The status quo with player relations has always been more rigid, but 2020 helped all sides realize that at the end of the day we’re all playing for the same team. We’re all coworkers looking out for the short-term and the long-term success of the organization. This box is bursting and it’s been a long time coming.
Ask Why and What If More Often
Not many will call 2020 a great year, but it sure was an important one. The status quo was questioned, demanded to pass muster or be struck down. Younger generations are leading a new awakening, just over 50 years after the late ’60s saw a similar movement. A difference now is that it’s not just about a young generation with new ideas, it’s the first that has grown up and come of age in a time when transformative change (led and accelerated by technology) seems to happen every year.
Give yourself permission to question longstanding practices. The status quo may pass snuff, that’s fine. But there will also emerge opportunities to create a whole new world.
Listen to episode 185 of the Digital and Social Media Sports podcast, Best Of episodes 123-129. Included are parts of interviews with
- Kris Koivisto, now with T-Mobile and formerly with STN Digital and the Portland Trail Blazers (full episode)
- Val Persinger, now with the Rapid City Rush, formerly with the ECHL (full episode)
- Eric Nichols, South Carolina Athletics, formerly with Vanderbilt Athletics (full episode)
- Jim Cavale, INFLCR, formerly with Iron Tribe (full episode)
- Joel Hammond, The Adcom Group, formerly with the Cleveland Indians (full episode)
- April Whitzman, Rover, formerly w/ Toronto Blue Jays (full episode)
The team finishes off a big win. Or they dominate a rivalry game. Or it could be an underdog that shocks the world. Then it comes…
The SAVAGE social media post.
Some are spur of the moment, while others show impressive planning and creative production. Some will have a bit of pop culture sprinkled in. And almost without exception, the posts will belittle their opponent, letting their victorious fans bask in the loser’s misery.
And it’s hard to shake the thought that something just doesn’t feel right.
Sometime in the last few years, snark gave way to savage, and an arms race began to see who could most creatively stomp on the grave of their fallen foe.
— Washington Football Team (@WashingtonNFL) December 8, 2020
Oh dear pic.twitter.com/KISwt1qzCv
— Arkansas Razorbacks 🐗 (@ArkRazorbacks) October 17, 2020
Did Mizzou just have their largest 4th quarter comeback in school history? pic.twitter.com/jVJu2QzPDB
— Mizzou Football (@MizzouFootball) December 6, 2020
These posts go viral. By just about any measure, they’re objectively successful. The savage posts give fans something to rally around, instill pride, and make the brand of their team feel cool.
But have we become desensitized to it all? Is the obsession of savagery raising a generation of Nelson Muntz’s? (the Simpsons character known for pointing at anyone’s misfortune and exclaiming “Ha-Ha!”)
This could be completely off-base (call me a snowflake). It’s hard to argue when the most successful posts are often the most ruthlessly savage ones after a win. They help reach more fans and potential fans, racking up engagement and impressions. But it also paints the brand as the bully in the schoolyard, more excited about the opponent’s loss than their own win.
Taken to the extreme, imagine Little Leaguers pointing and laughing at the losing team instead of high-fiving their own teammates after a win. It may seem like a stretch, but if the standard practice to celebrate a victory becomes finding a way to savagely poke fun at the loser, such behavior just seems, well, normalized.
It’s not so easy to reverse the trend. Not when social media teams are evaluated on engagement numbers. And not when they all know what the Internet wants and will eat up. There are a lot more examples of savage tweets going viral than ones in which the winning team celebrates their team and with their fans. It doesn’t have to be that way.
The examples below demonstrate that it’s possible to be respectful and to still give fans a reason to rally. A reason to feel like they’re supporting a fun brand and team.
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) September 21, 2018
Just go out and play and have fun pic.twitter.com/p0GmeEpSiC
— Seattle Sounders FC (@SoundersFC) December 8, 2020
— New York Giants (@Giants) December 7, 2020
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) December 6, 2020
Social media creates culture, magnifies it, and is also a reflection of where it may be headed. At the end of the day, it’s instructive to consider the goals for a team on social. Several have been discussed in this blog. There is the objective to drive numbers, to rank among the leaders in the league for engagement and to show one’s bosses that the team’s social is kicking ass. But there’s a heck of a lot more. There is the goal to drive more awareness and affinity for the team, among both existing and potential fans. The goal to enhance the brand, making the brand of the team one worth supporting and investing in (and sponsoring). And somewhere down way down the line (perhaps too far) is hopefully the goal to use the platform and influence thousands or millions of people to be good, respectful. To develop a brand worthy of one’s affection and emulation.
Some will say social media snark in sports started with this tweet from the LA Kings in the spring of 2012. Then NBA Twitter and many players themselves (not to mention media) saw the immediate benefit of taking snark to the next level — unleashing savage. Playful stoking of the flame lit up social media and continues to today.
I’m willing to concede this all may be way off-base. But as a generation of social media natives comes of age amid a system of savagery, I think this a conversation worth having before it’s too late.
What follows are some snippets from the episode. Click Here to listen to the full episode or check it out and subscribe in iTunes or Stitcher.