Everything is more ephemeral nowadays. The rapid coming and going of TikTok trends is a microcosm of the sports business and fan engagement space in general. Heck, there was that week when everyone started grabbing their Mastodon handles as Twitter’s ability to stay functional seemed tenuous.
The metaverse. Discord servers. TikTok. NFTs and other web3 initiatives. Going into these new-ish spaces and others is not a bad idea, some will stick around for many years to come. But there is such thing as trying to do too much, especially amidst the post-pandemic realities of leaner staffs and smaller budgets.
All we can hope to do is stay true to the undying principles of fandom. To understand what lies at the root of all these ideas — community, social capital, emotional connection, and everything in between those core tenets.
So as we close the door on 2022 and look ahead with anticipation and excitement for 2023, it’s time to combine the power of the art and science of it all. Here are five areas in the greater sports and engagement that are top of mind as the calendar gets ready to flip.
It’s always exciting when a post takes off. When a TikTok gets millions of views or a tweet racks up thousands of retweets. More reach means more opportunities to bring casual fans into the fold and can drive revenue from more volume and more value of sponsored content.
But in 2023, it’s hard to ignore that the time is ripe to build and maximize superfans. The fans that live and breathe you, who are eager to invest their hearts, minds, and money in you. Look around and you’ll see Twitch viewers paying a little extra for custom emotes or chat privileges, gamers that spend a few bucks to don their favorite digital apparel, Patreons and premium Discord members, and, yes, even the privileges of Twitter Blue.
We’ve grown so accustomed to chasing scale (rightfully so) in sports, that it’s easy to forget how the 1000 true fans theories can be applied, and scaled up, for sports. Who are the fans that joined that small Discord server? Or the couple hundred that always tune in for the postgame Twitter Spaces? The goal with superfans used to be confined, primarily, to creating season ticket holders. But the new paradigms and opportunity of microtransactions offer so much more.
What more could we do to give and get value from superfans in sports? There could be NFT-based communities, exclusive apparel, more loyalty and rewards programs, displays of identity, premium content and access. Superfans want and are willing to pay for more. More ways to activate their fandom, more ways to feel heard, and more ways to be recognized.
In 2023, don’t forget about your ride-or-die crew.
Influencers (but not the ones you’re thinking of)
This ties along with the previous section, kind of, in that everyone can be a potential influencer. One superfan can evangelize their way to recruiting more fans and superfans. Any individual whose content gets seen by at least one other person can technically be a digital influencer.
Hyperbole aside, there is value yet to be realized with microinfluencers and nanoinfluencers in sports. There is an arbitrage opportunity in social media is to stop thinking solely about broadcast; instead to reach the niches, the most engaged communities and transform them into fans or superfans.
Because they’re out there. How many uber-specific audiences lie behind TikTok’s FYP algorithm? Or how many user segments exist on on Amazon? Niche groups on Netflix? Your content can’t be everything to everyone, nor is it feasible to try and program for every niche and cranny among your potential fan base.
A tactic we talk about in the fan development world is to identify points of intersection — the beloved musical artist that’s also a diehard fan of the team, the player that’s also an avid Call of Duty streamer, the newest food concoction at the team’s arena or stadium. Identify the nano-influencers in specific areas because you’ll never match their authenticity and, often, the ROI they bring.
Snark is here to stay
At least it is in 2023. Because it works, it’s successful. At least in the way we most measure success right now.
If one of the key adjectives in social media is ‘evocative,’ well, snark or savagery often evokes a response. And that leads to big numbers and a lot of that catch-all term ‘engagement.’ It may not lead to love as much as affinity and pride and social proof, but those latter elements matter, too, and can bring the community of fans closer together. Collective joy and collective schadenfreude can make communities closer and more ardent.
But how can snark evolve in 2023 and beyond? How will it? In the end, it’s a positive sign that the ‘stories’ are working. When the home team wins, it feels natural to celebrate the defeat of the enemy as much as the victory of the home side. If one of the core parts of a story is the battle of good over evil, triumph over conflict — then it all kind of makes sense. It may come at the expense of personality, however, if overused or unoriginal. Standing out from the crowd has value (and we’ve seen the recent trend of ‘shocking’ content play into this) and it takes greater effort for content to cut through the increasingly complex algorithms and currency of attention on emerging platforms like TikTok, Reels, and Shorts. There is greater challenge and greater opportunity.
A challenge because your content isn’t guaranteed to be seen by as many of your followers, but that’s also the opportunity. If your cleverness and originality combines with some entry point of affinity and identity for your team, that is. Otherwise, it’s lost in the sea of sameness. Snark can feel like that sometimes, in 2023 it’s time to evolve.
Swinging for the fences
Let’s put this in terms of sports. In Major League Baseball, we’ve witnessed the prioritization of going for home runs — strikeouts and base hits be damned (kinda). In basketball, they got good enough at hitting threes that it made more sense to go for a more valuable, but lower percentage shot.
As social media and sports teams enter 2023, some with fewer resources, many with raised expectations, there’s a growing need to work more for home runs than singles. Quality over quantity. In some cases, that may mean sacrificing the numbers that volume brings, but the home runs can make up the difference. That may mean working off templates more often or outsourcing some work, but the thought, time, and effort put into the home runs will deliver an oomph of deeper engagement that’s greater than the sum of the lesser parts.
As metrics get evaluated after every week or month or season or year, don’t only pay attention to the aggregate sums. Are the highs getting higher, is the slugging percentage — so to speak — going up (on whatever KPI or qualitative/quantitative strategic objective)? The team can also seek to get better at hitting home runs, whether that means squaring up a pitch down the middle (a predictable well-performing post, but ensuring the high hits higher) or knocking some over the fence when the pitches are tough. (I’ve taken this baseball analogy too far, haven’t I?)
You’ll end up with some whiffs along the way, but it’s those big hits that will achieve the most lasting results.
Content for Audiences
Who are we making content for? It’s not a simple or single answer, sure, but is it for casual fans, for avid fans, for informed fans, for specific interest groups, for whoever cares to see it?
The strategies have been honed over the years to produce for the platform and what works well for the platform. Great content always wins, there is no doubting that, but there is still something of a platform strategy to execute in order to reach and engage your fans.
But then TikTok came along and flipped the paradigm 180 degrees.
Now, you hand over your content to TikTok and their recommendation engine finds the audience for it. And there’s an audience for just about everything — it’s not always huge, but it often feels like there’s no subject matter too niche, no rabbit hole too deep. This bringing the right content to the right audience feature is growing beyond TikTok, too, with each platform hoping their own algorithm can deliver exactly the content you want to see, even if you didn’t fully realize it.
There are still benefits to having followers — the audience you know best and that knows you best. But the opportunities are broad and endless. If you want to reach a certain audience, you just need to program for that specific audience. Then drop it into the TikTok machine and let it do its thing. The numbers won’t always be huge, but that may not matter, that may not be the point with every piece of content.
It’s about reaching the right audience, whatever that may mean based on the organization’s goals. If you build it, the algorithm will deliver it. This all doesn’t mean it’s easy, far from it. It forces us to understand audiences so much more, learning in-depth what a given community of users likes, cares about, and consumes, both within and beyond the core interest that comprises the community.
There will still be conversations and think pieces and data around gaming the algorithms to amass the biggest numbers. But there’s a better way in 2023 and beyond. The algorithms are only going to get even better from here — and more welcomed plus intentionally affected by users. Ride the distribution wave and focus on building the content that will reach the audiences you want to reach.
The social media and engagement space continues to evolve a mile a minute. It makes us all appreciate more the core principles of community and engagement, which is a good thing. Many of the notions in this post are pretty timeless. But the rapid change of platforms, the fleeting nature of trends and ‘best practices’ — it all keeps you on your toes and keeps you young (but also ages you).
There’s no telling what 2023 will bring. But we can focus on creating and providing value, serving audiences, and leaning into remarkable originality. The directions that people can direct their passion and attention only grow more numerous, so lean into it, and give fans a reason to direct it to you. Now more than ever attention and passion must be earned.