Figuring Out Social Media and Sponsorship in Sports Isn’t Easy, But It’s Essential

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There remains a fine line between advertising and sponsorship.

At risk of oversimplifying, advertisers intrude, sponsors add value. And today’s fans/consumers are equal parts skeptical and understanding. They’ll sniff out an ad (and often it’s not that hard), while appreciating a sponsor. The key to finding the happy medium for social media and sports lies in the authenticity – in messaging and in platform.

I couldn’t help but notice a conversation among social media and sports peeps on Twitter (don’t you love those?) prompted by a tweet from Jessica Smith (yes, THE Jessica Smith, aka @WarJessEagle) noting a San Diego Padres Instagram post that looked more like a McDonald’s ad, noting fans could get free McNuggets because the Padres won. [see below]

Now, the Padres are one of several pro sports teams that have similar deals with restaurant partners, whereby an offer is activated by a team win or achievement. It’s a nice way for a partner to celebrate along with fans. This is a fine way for a restaurant sponsor to activate their partnership with the team. The idea is not the issue, it’s the way the platform is usurped for nothing more than an ad.

Let me tell a story. I’ve lived this.

A major restaurant sponsor worked with me on a BOGO (buy one get one free) deal activated by a team win, which we’d deliver and track via mobile. Pretty standard. I worked on a few mockups as examples of how it would be communicated to fans on digital and social platforms. There were players and sick team graphics, ideas for player reads and skits and photos, and a GIF. All co-branded and delivering the offer message.

And all that work was turned down. It’s nobody’s fault, really. They were beholden to their branding and, despite my reasoned protestations, wouldn’t (and kinda couldn’t) budge from their creative, which looked like a coupon one would find as, yes, an advertisement.

The result? After weeks of lackluster results, we reviewed the data. It was short of expectations, and the brand’s team wanted ideas for improvement. It starts with replacing ads with content, and commercials with sponsor activations.

So how can this all be avoided in the first place, resulting in better outcomes (short-term and long-term) for fans and for corporate partners? It takes a lot of trust, first. An exchange of brand activation between partners (team and sponsor) is a big deal. But collaboration and using each one’s knowledge of the customer / fan is a good place to start.

No one knows the platforms better than those who live and work in it every day. The respective social media teams for the teams AND for the partner brands should have a seat at the table. They can see the content from the fan’s perspective better than anybody and make sure something doesn’t just pass the smell test, but is something fans want to sniff out. (Did that extension of the analogy work?)

Respect the fans. Respect the platforms. Be bold. Create content. There doesn’t have to be a value exchange (with fans getting ads, so they can get content), there can be value from added from all sides. A net outcome that favors everybody.

Social networks represent a powerful opportunity. But it’s a power that cannot be taken lightly.

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