What Makes Content Effective? The Keys to a Real Strategy for Content

Just about everybody’s an amateur social media strategist. They’re thinking about which platform is worth being active on, what content they should post and why, gauging success by engagement, and trying to craft their own ‘brand’ — whatever it may be.

But then there are professionals, those that ply their trade in the digital, social, and content space. They represent businesses and organization, and everything they do is subject to scrutiny and analysis. They also have to keep up with the ever-changing nature of the platforms, as well as fickle user behaviors and consumption patterns.

The level of intellect and understanding inherent in content strategy really came out in my recent interview with Jonah Ballow, Head of Content Strategy & Production and founder of HEARTLENT Group, a strategy and content collective. Ballow is one of those pros, innovating with content for several major brands and organizations, including full-time stints with the New York Knicks and Minnesota Timberwolves, among other stops. I couldn’t focus on just one area in this piece stemming from the interview, so I’ll let the wise words of Ballow lead the way. (Lots of good stuff below 👇)

(listen to the full episode)

The Importance of Crafting Voice and Copy

Words are important. How individuals, businesses, and teams speak, how they approach the most delightful and the most difficult topics conveys a brand, a personality, a point of view. And yet many, even still today, kinda just wing it. Ballow understood the importance of copy early in his career and expertly elucidated why it’s so important to take a strategic, thoughtful approach to what we say and why.

“What changed [at the Knicks] was we had a copywriter and we sat down and we said: how are we going to speak? Like, literally, are we going to say we, or they?…And we made the change to go to a we — like ‘we’ are the Knicks…And it helps so much; even though that copywriter wasn’t writing every tweet or post on Instagram or on Facebook — it helped us to clarify the role of that person. And I would advise that every department has a dedicated copywriter that is working day to day on that messaging.

“Again, it’s more of a guideline. We developed a whole book on here’s how we do the messaging during the game, here’s how we do it on off days, here’s how we talk about big events, right? Like September 11th is very important in New York City. So those things are so important because, again, this the level of responsibility that you’re putting on these people and for myself, I felt it all the time…the New York Knicks channels can reach millions of people with in one click and I’ve got to somehow craft the right tone and messaging for Charles Oakley getting tossed out of the arena or Kristaps Porzingis going down for the year with a knee injury. It’s a lot to ask for. 

“You really need the people there to help craft that voice; it’s very important. And it’s so important — not just what you’re expressing to the public, but for those staff people, those people who are running the accounts that feel comfortable and have the guardrails of how they should talk so that you don’t see a moment — what we see many times before where people can get in trouble and they always [blame] ‘the stupid social media intern’, like that’s such a dumb phrase. Again, a lot of these people who are running those accounts are seasoned vets and have been in marketing, branding and are very experienced and very talented. You’re going to make a mistake and things are going to happen. And it’s unfortunate, with that job, it happens in front of everybody else where things can get taken out of context. So I think it’s really important that the teams work on having that structure or having that department that can really help craft what the voice is and how they’re going to express information to their fanbase.”

Appreciating the Why behind Content: Understand the Goals

There is so much content produced, it can start to feel like teams and brands are content factories. But the point of producing content is not to just fill the feeds, not to elicit engagement for engagement’s sake. If you don’t know the why of it all, then what are we even doing? Ballow talked about the process of working with clients at HEARTLENT Group to understand their objectives, because that’s where content strategy starts.

“So it’s always kind of a fact-finding mission of what is the content that you’re trying to create and why? I think we start there [and then] try to backtrack a little bit, and then that develops the strategy for the content; (it’s) not just to do things because it’s cool, but to do things that are going to (accomplish your goals).

“I just treat every client very differently based on what their needs are, but it really works best when they’re very transparent about budgets, about what their end goals are for the project and how we can accomplish that together. I think you get the best out of it, because essentially what you’re looking at is internally that that client can’t achieve what they’re looking for you to do. So if you can find ways to make them look good on whatever it is, or really fine-tune their objectives, you’ll land in the spot where what you’re creating will work for that organization.

“But I think that the first step is ‘What is the reason for this? What do you want to do with this content?’ And sometimes they’re just like, ‘Hey, we need to do cool stuff to make my boss happy.’ I mean, it can sometimes be that simple, but most of the time I think that there’s been a genuine need for the content.” 

Understanding and Appreciating the Value of Good Content

In a world where people check their phones hundreds of times per day and consume ridiculous amounts of content every day, the notion that every single piece of content — that every post — should drive direct ‘ROI’ is rather shortsighted, if not foolhardy and naive. It’s a long, emotion-driven game that we play in most cases. Ballow discussed the idea of fan/customer development through content, because when it does come to time make a purchasing decision or go toward the bottom of a funnel and see an ad, that relationship — built up over time — delivers ROI in droves.

“Let’s be honest, how many millions of dollars do brands spend on 30-second TV ads that sometimes I watch and I’m like, I don’t even know what the fuck this is for. Like some of these Geico ads, I’m like I don’t even know what this is. It has nothing to do with what they’re trying to do, but they’re trying to get your eyeballs, right? So they’ll spend millions of dollars on that. I mean, millions. And yet for some reason the social and digital doesn’t get the same allocated dollars or the bandwidth to succeed in a way that doesn’t have an immediate ROI. 

“Now there are certain ways to achieve that. And certain brands need to have a way to sell. I mean, ultimately that’s the bottom line, but…everything goes into that pot, and there are certain levels that will be content that you need to consistently do that will not have a direct [line to ROI]…

“I think there’s some really great D2C brands that do it [well]. They have good content, they serve it up well from a strategic standpoint and it’s delivered to you in a way that makes you want to be a fan of the brand and then purchase. So it has to go hand in hand.

“I would love to tell you I got the answer to it. I don’t. I think it’s always going to be a difficult discussion with a brand; if they’re not willing to see the value in it, it’s unlikely to have success in my opinion…

“The team thing is the same deal. You gotta build that loyalty, that fan base and have those people fall in love with the brand; and when they get good, it’s great…

“[For example] the Warriors were terrible for a decade, right? And now that they got Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, [and] had Kevin Durant. They’re a team that has cache and will have followers. The content always does well. Let me see what you can do when the team isn’t good.”

Content Strategy is not about Conformity

Content tropes and trends move at a mile a minute. Memes, pop culture stories, and even creative platform hacks blow up in an instant and spread like wildfire. But big, meaningful wins don’t happen by riding the waves of the masses — nobody cuts through the noise by staying inside the box. Ballow and his partners at HEARTLENT Group really do such a good job of leading true innovation in content strategy, so listen up:

“We live, I think in, in almost like a golden age for the creators; these kids who are 20 or younger, or even mid twenties who have taught themselves that on all the Adobe products or the ability to bring this content to life a little bit different version of what I was doing earlier on when I was teaching myself HTML. And there’s so many creative ways to be deliberate. So it’s thinking outside the box, always challenging the norm, not just looking at something saying let’s replicate what Nike did or what a brand did or what another team —the Brooklyn Nets did this, let’s do that, and I think you’ll find yourself in a good spot of [finding] innovative ways to bring the content [to life] and match that with unique storytelling. I think that’s a pretty basic great recipe for winning on social.” 


Episode 167 Snippets: Jay Hickson Goes Deep on the Keys to Creative Strategy in Sports

On episode 167 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Jay Hicks, Sports creative veteran, Jay Hicks Studios, Sports Creatives Podcast.

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.

Episode 166 Snippets: Brad Friedman is Spreading the Stories and Joy of MiLB’s 160 Teams through Social Media

On episode 166 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Brad Friedman, Social Media Manager for the Minor League Baseball.

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.

Zoom is Rapidly Evolving as a Platform Amidst the Coronavirus Outbreak: How Can Sports Teams & Leagues Use It?

It has been fascinating to the see the proliferation and evolution of Zoom during this COVID-19 outbreak. Many workplaces have used Zoom for meetings for years. But with so many businesses now working remotely, classes meeting remotely, and humans in general just seeking connection in a time of isolation, the Zoom platform has seemingly been ubiquitous in the past couple weeks.

The New York Times had an article recently about how Zoom is developing into something of a social network as users of all ages arrange video calls with friends of family to hang out, catch up, collaborate, and get as close as possible to simulate being in the same room together. With such a wide swath of the populace now spending time on Zoom, it stands to reason that sports teams and leagues experiment with the platform to help keep the relationship with their fans strong during this downtime.

The more traditional social platforms, like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, Twitch and Snap, offer live video; they even offer interactive live video. Yet it’s Zoom that feels the less like a show being put on for fans, and more like an intimate hangout session. Or maybe it’s that Zoom is what we’ve become more comfortable in, since so many of us spend classes and work meetings in it for hours each day. Or perhaps it’s the ease of multi-tasking while sitting in a Zoom call, less common if you’re on a FaceTime call, let alone IG Live.

So what are some ways teams and leagues can jump in on Zoom and do something unique to engage fans on the platform of the moment? Let’s have some fun and ideate.


Help Fans Decorate their Zoom

The Zoom background is a chance to show off identity. To showcase a passion or something one cares about. So, just like a cellphone wallpaper, offering fans a collection of (or weekly) Zoom background that shows off the team and its players is a tremendous way to keep fans fans, and give the brand exposure when it’s harder than ever to do so.


Get Players Involved

We’re starting to see an explosion of Instagram Live for interviews, with even ESPN’s Around the Horn trying to recreate their roundtable show on IG Live. But, again, that’s re-creating a TV Show. What if a select group of fans could be invited to watch an interview, tantamount to a live studio audience, before the finished show is shared out to the masses on social, even streamed live. Or have team reporters and broadcasters interview a player or mall group of players on Zoom, offering them the privacy to chat without worry, with the team then able to produce a final product that could be quite something by the end. Maybe it’s even sponsored? A lot of fun to be had here, especially if a player or two buy in. Even alumni and broadcasters alone can be effective here.

Engage Season Ticket Holders

These most valuable of fans — the ones now many like to call ‘members’ — maybe aren’t as at risk of the casual fans of not coming back after coronavirus,. But these are fans that most value being connected to the team, and invest their hearts, minds, and paychecks into the team year after year. That devotion is why teams often have fan fests and kickoff parties just for them, offering them exclusive access to players and execs. What could such an exclusive event look like on Zoom? Maybe it’s groups of a couple hundred RVSP’ing and being able to hear from a GM or active/former player, and ask questions in an exclusive forum. Teams may even hold impromptu forums with their season ticket holders and other diehard fans, crowdsourcing ideas and getting feedback on ways the team can help and engage during this tough time.

Connect Partners

A growing trend for sports teams and leagues has been the dedication to doing a better job of serving its partners, through providing knowledge and facilitating collaboration among sponsors of the same organization. These often take the form of summits, but consider how valuable a Zoom meeting could be now, and how the team can play that middleman to put it together. No one has all the answers right now, there is no predetermined game-plan to take on this pandemic shutting down much of society. Just like teams are talking to each other and bouncing ideas and strategies right now, so can partners. With so much anxiety and uncertainty, organizing a chance for sponsors to hear different perspectives and learn from industry leaders would be a great way to bring value to the partnerships at this time.

Meet and Learn From the Team

While Zoom is growing in its diversity of users and demographics, it still has spent much of its life as primarily a workplace meeting an video chat tool. So what an opportunity Zoom represents to engage the professionals, young and old, and students to find another reason to connect to the team, especially at a time when there are no games to do so. How many people would be interested to hear the GM or CMO of a sports team talk about their path to the position, their strategy, and to answer questions from the audience? Or what about the Creative Director leading a workshop on the Adobe Creative Suite to a number of attentive eyeballs? The team is comprised of many pros very good at what they do, and working in a sexy and highly visible industry like sports. And Zoom classes would be incredibly value for a team or league to offer right now.

Theme Nights

We’re all familiar with theme nights for sports teams. Some are designed to add an extra gimmick to a game, while many others are driven to attract groups of fans to attend. This could be way out in left field, but could teams organize theme nights on Zoom to help fans of particular interests and niches connect with each other? Consider the possibilities — Teachers Night, Hispanic Heritage, Scouts Night. This could also be less about themes and more about groups of people with similar lives or interests, like parents with young athletes,  cooking enthusiasts, fans of yoga, etc. Sports teams help bring people together, how can they use Zoom to help further that objective?

Content for kids

I was blown away recently talking to my sister and hearing about my nieces going tio ‘school’ on Zoom every day, followed by a dance class, a play date, and there’s a gymnastics class tomorrow, all on Zoom. At a time when parents are trying to keep their kids occupied, increasingly relying on Zoom to help connect them to those outside resources of education and pastime, how can teams help? Could a player or broadcaster read to kids? Could a mascot lead a skit or help with an educational demonstration or lesson? Could a dance team member teach kids a dance? How about a strength coach with a fun exercise class? Or maybe the team partners with a school or university to put together something of a curriculum for kids that the team can host for its fans and their kids. Much of this content can be repurposed for social media, too, of course.

Charity and Community Social Responsibility

This is a time when fans want to help, they want to be part of the solution to this worldwide problem. The charitable endeavors led by teams can help raise funds and give their fans the opportunity to give. How can Zoom play a role here? Fans could purchase ‘tickets’ to an exclusive hangout on Zoom with players or alumni, with all proceeds going to charity. The team could even auction off one-on-chats with players, broadcasters, alums, and execs. On the CSR side, the team could also try to find and invite experts to come on Zoom and address questions from fans tuning and help placate the worries that permeate so much of everyday life right now. This could also work on social, as well.

Think Like a Game Show

Teams have been doing trivia on social platforms for a while now, but what unique features and opportunities exist on Zoom that teams could utilize to bring another level of connection and interaction at this time? This is where thinking more like a game show and less like a one for all trivia contest may help. Could contestants be part of a ‘live’ game show like Family Feud or Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Or maybe fans can watch players play a version of the Newlywed Game to see which pair of players know each other best. One could look at a list of game shows to get inspiration and get even more original and creative. There could be a lot of fun here and of course the final product can extend to other platforms.


Sports teams and leagues have a history of meeting fans where they are, of providing engagement and connection on the platforms where fans are spending their time and where unique opportunities exist. Zoom is that platform having its moment with fans (and with almost everyone it would seem) right now and it has already been exhilarating to watch it evolve and will be just as fun watching how sports teams may get involved.

How Ten Brands were Activating Paid Social Campaigns as Super Bowl Sunday Kicked Off

1.4 billion impressions on Twitter. 560 Instagram posts by stars of ‘The Bachelor.’ These are just a couple of the entries from this year’s article by Digiday (now seemingly an annual tradition) for what the same $5.6 million it costs to run a 30-second ad during the Super Bowl can buy a brand on social.

Super Bowl Sunday is one of the biggest days of the year for advertisers, as is the build-up to the day of the big game. And whether brands are forking over those millions for a spot on the screen during the game or not, activating on social is an essential part of the game plan to drive success before, during, and after the big day.

With that in mind, we checked out ten brands that were active on social media on Super Bowl Sunday, taking a unique angle (because there are plenty of places to read ad reviews) and looking specifically at what they were putting money behind, revealing a bit more behind their tactics and what they wanted to assure consumers saw in their feeds.


Auto brand Jeep allowed their ad with Bill Murray to ‘leak’ early Sunday and they made sure it got into fans’ feeds with ad spend around a single Facebook/Instagram sponsored. They supplemented the ad, which saw Bill Murray return in his role made famous in the movie Groundhog Day, with plenty of other ongoing ads promoting their other vehicles. None, however, promoting the Jeep Gladiator that the ad does.

Frank’s RedHot

Hot sauce brand Frank’s RedHot usually cooks up something clever on social and this year was no different as their in-game strategy featured several prompts on Twitter that sought replies from users. They used Twitter ads primarily in advance of the game to push fans to the platform during the game, while they also had ads running that mentioned the ‘game day party’ with recipes that included their product. Note the video, the variation in orientation (i.e. suitable for Instagram Stories with the vertical version) and the thoughtful thumbnail to drive attention.


Bud Light

Bud Light, and the many brands under AB-InBev, is always active on Super Bowl Sunday and this year they continued their push into the seltzer category. They had several ads running on Sunday, one of which was video of the ad they’d show on TV, but many more that were looking to activate mobile users by helping them get delivery on this big game day. Note also, the care taken to personalize ads targeted by state, calling out ‘Hey Oregon,’ for example in the copy.


Fans got a taste of TikTok with the Doritos ad campaign pitting the musician whose star rose on the short-form video platform, Lil Nas X, in a ‘Cool Ranch Dance’ challenge with actor Sam Elliott. They had several ad variations, leaning on video teasers, leading up to the big game, and calling out their celebrity stars in the copy. They also did a good job providing versions that were vertical in addition to square. We did not notice either of the ad’s two stars posting anything themselves leading up to the game, but Lil Nas X did post a tweet after the ad ran.

Avocados of Mexico

Every year there seems to be an Avocados of Mexico ad campaign and this year was one of its zaniest yet, introducing the #AvoNetwork, offering fans the chance to buy avocado-themed merchandise. Their ads had a call-to-action to get fans to sign up for their sweepstakes and bright, eye-catching colors to stop thumbs in the feed. They also had ad versions out there to promote their product’s prominent placement in any gameday spread.


Leading up to the game, Hyundai was not too active with ads promoting their commercial, which called out their “Smaht Pahking,” using well-known actors with their hyperbolic Boston accents. While their Twitter bio was updated, the ads they were running were the typical car ads and even after the game, there were no promoted posts or ads reinforcing their commercial. That said, they did release their commercial on YouTube a week earlier and it now has 38M views.


Auto brand Kia is often present around major sporting events and for the Super Bowl they enlisted Las Vegas Raiders running back Josh Jacobs and activated his story of overcoming adversity, going from homeless to star player. They ran several ad variations to promote the actual spot and reinforce the mission behind it of combating youth homelessness. The campaign was strengthened thanks to a steady stream of promoted tweets from Jacobs himself leading up to the game, though after the spot ran, he retweeted Kia’s old tweet instead of natively tweeting the video himself.


Olay enlisted multiple strong female stars to activate their campaign #MakeSpaceForWomen, championing females and STEM, including a partnership with Girls Who Code, in which tweets equaled donations. The brand spent to get ads from their talent into more feeds and the promoted tweets led more veracity to the campaign; it’s true and often stated users trust people more than brands.


Pop-Tarts teamed up with Queer Eye star Jonathan Van Ness to promote their Pop-Tarts Pretzel new product and they put their social media ad dollars to good use to boost up what their endorser Van Ness was doing. If a brand is going to spend millions to put together a campaign and hire a celebrity endorser, it makes sense to let him be the genuine face of it and to spend to get his face and his content out there more. Their ads also featured calls-to-action, whether it was to watch their live broadcast during the Super Bowl or check out the new product in a video or link.

Mountain Dew

It was a remake of the famous shower scene in the movie Psycho that formed the backbone of Mountain Dew’s commercial and campaign, seeking to teach users that Mountain Dew Zero Sugar, like their new version of Hitchcock’s famous movie, is ‘as good as the original, maybe even better.’ They spent budget leading up to the game teasing their commercial spot and notably included one video that had captions and one without. They also took care to provide different specs for the different placements. Those weren’t the only ads they were running, though, as they were also promoting a mobile game, which was centered around a different product than Zero Sugar, in this case Mountain Dew Amp Game Fuel.

Super Bowl Sunday is like a national holiday for marketers, watching campaigns come to life, messaging resonate or fall flat, and seeing tactics play out in real-time, especially in the ubiquitous feeds so many fans are checking and scrolling throughout the day. It’s no longer just about putting out a TV ad and crossing one’s fingers, there are so many channels to augment an advertising campaign, so many more ways to reach and engage consumers, and so many opportunities to activate the celebrities that pepper these promos.

Episode 157 Snippets: Kendall Baker on Telling the Stories of Every Day in Sports for Axios

On episode 157 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Kendall Baker, Sports Editor for Axios.

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.

Episode 156 Snippets: Ty Rogers on the Keys to Great Sports Content and Creative

On episode 156 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Ty Rogers, Freelance Content Creator formerly with Michigan/Duke/Indiana Athletics.

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.

Advertising Week NYC 2019 Recap

In September 2019, Advertising Week held its New York conference, bringing together several thought leaders and practitioners from the world of advertising.

What follows is a collection of the best quotes, stats, insights, and observations shared from the event via Twitter #AWNewYork. Thanks to everyone whose tweets helped fuel this recap and for Advertising Week for putting together a great event!


Episode 152 Snippets: Kassie Epstein Seeks to Reach and Engage Every Fan That Attends Gillette Stadium

On episode 152 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Kassie Epstein, Social Media Manager & Event Coordinator for Gillette Stadium and the New England Patriots.

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.

Content Marketing World 2019 Twitter Recap

In September 2019, the annual Content Marketing World conference was held by Content Marketing Institute, bringing together thought leaders and practitioners in the world of content marketing and beyond.

What follows is a collection of quotes, images, observations, and ideas shared via Twitter #CMWorld at the event. Thanks to all whose tweets helped fuel this recap and to the Content Marketing Institute for putting on another incredible event!