11 for 11: Eleven Key Learnings from over a Decade in and around #SMSports

Social media is constantly evolving. There is little debate to that statement, and it’s almost a running joke among professionals in the space to note the new platforms, features, trends and tactics that pop up seemingly every week.

But while the pace of change in social media is dizzying, there are foundational principles that have been around since the first poke, tweet, and top eight first came to be.

It has now been over a decade since my own social media and sports career began. And while I’ve been in the space in varying capacities over the years, as I look back on my first season in #smsports almost 11 years ago to the day of this writing, those key principles that I learned through practice continue to ring true today.

The more things change, the more important it feels to heed those seemingly innate traits of social media and sports fans. So here are 11 for 11 — 11 themes that became clear to me in my nascent days of social media and sports and that continue to feel relevant today. (Agree? Disagree? Let me know!)

Fans want to feel heard

My peers and I recognized this over a decade ago, whether it was simply answering a fan’s question, quote-tweeting a fan (literally quote-tweeting, the old-school way!), DM’ing a fan to let them know you’re getting more info. This can take form in many entertaining ways, too — by asking fans their ideas for in-game contests (that was fun!), showcasing the ‘tweets of the game’ (I even used a Pinterest board for this, at times), and proactively listening across platforms for needs and opportunities to surprise and delight (I still think about the smiles on the fans’ faces when we surprised him and his dad at a game for his dad’s birthday and they tweeted from their seats to mark the occasion and we then showed up to surprise them with autographed swag).

It has become cliche to remind ourselves that the word ‘social’ is part of social media and sports. While fans are accustomed to screaming into ether of their TV screens or from several stories up from the field or the court, the beauty of social media is that it doesn’t have to be one-way communication. The most effective social media ‘tactic’ is simply to show fans that someone is there, listening. It comes in the comments, the replies, the DMs, even the ‘likes’ of comments and tweets.

There’s a level of connection achieved when fans feel heard and there always will be.

Deep engagements matter

While vanity metrics and big numbers still yield perhaps too much power today, the case was even more pronounced early on. But something we recognized early is that depth of engagement matters. When fans put more time, effort, heart, and thought into engaging, it just means more. Even if the bloop single looks the same as a line drive off the right field wall in the box score in baseball, it doesn’t mean we have to look at a double-tap ‘like’ the same we do as a comment that tells the story of how a fan first fell in love with the team.

While it remains challenging to tell that story through metrics, there’s an innate, intuitive feel that content which elicits more deep engagements, that fosters more superfans, is more successful than that which simply accumulates shallow vanity metrics. Heck, many of us have (and continue to) game the system to rack up those metrics, to ensure the engagement rate and reports look high at the end of the month, quarter, or season. When it came time back then to evaluate the success of content or campaigns, there was a mix of art and science that continues today, because while the platform evolve, the deeper engagements are those that create more valuable, lasting fan connections.

Fans want to know the team personally and no detail is too minor

When we first started in social media and sports, far fewer players were active and visible on social media, and those that were were largely not as open as athletes today. But even with that caveat, the most minute details of the team and its players slayed on social media a decade ago and still do just as well today. Looking back, I can remember fans delighting at knowing the littlest of little things like the restaurant catering lunch for the team after practice (man, I was jealous when they got to chow down on PF Chang’s), what songs were playing on the speakers while the team did their dynamic stretches before the game (I got reprimanded the first time I posted that information, believe it or not), or the novelty t-shirt one of the players was sporting when heading home from practice.

Those are just a small sampling of the tiny details that fans couldn’t get enough of back then and still love. And every little thing is an opportunity for fans to relate to the players and team they love, which deepens those emotional ties and helps foster more superfans. Sweat the little things; we did then and you still can and should now.

The ordinary is extraordinary

The social media and sports life can get monotonous at times. It’s why the seasons often fly by, with one game day rolling into the next, broken up only by tentpole events, holidays and milestones. But you can’t forget (just like we couldn’t a decade ago) that so many fans would pay to be in your shoes, see what you see, and have your experience on just a ‘normal’ day at the office. It’s why I once wrote about how Seinfeld could teach #smsports pros that there is content gold in what feels like ‘nothing’ happening as they go about their day. That article sums up a lot of my thoughts for this section, but it goes beyond even what the players, dance team, and mascot are doing.

Remember that fans delight in being able to see what you (and your coworkers) see, and that’s as true today as it was when Twitter was text only. What does the control room look like during a game’s pregame ceremony? How do all those t-shirts get wrapped up and place just so on thousands of seats or hundreds of hats get signed? Is that the equipment manager sharpening some skates or the team massage therapist working out the kinks in a guy’s calf? Is that corner of your office full of extra promo items getting bursting at the seams with random knick-knacks? What feels ordinary, everyday life for those that work it and live it every day is indeed extraordinary for fans, so give them a slice. Those behind-the-scenes peeks stand the test of time.

Fans like winning stuff — use that to the fullest

Contests and sweepstakes are some of the oldest tricks in the sports marketing playbook, and that is as true today as ever. An early revelation in my career was that fans are excited to try and win just about anything. An ETW (enter-to-win) for a t-shirt would often elicit just as much participation as tickets to a game or even some coveted signed swag. That corner of the office full of extra promo items referenced above was a gold mine. That fervor to win something is still strong today, as is the opportunity it presents.

Along with understanding the engagement earned from contests and sweepstakes was valuable, there was also an evolution for us in being more strategic. The goal was almost never just the nebulous ‘engagement.’ It may have been pushing fans to a landing page to collect names and emails (and fans entering to win tickets are almost certainly good leads to try and sell tickets). Or collecting content or stories from fans as part of a contest that could provide stories or media to repurpose. Or perhaps we wanted to promote the new community relations social media account so we could drive fans to engage there for the sweepstakes, or to the team’s mobile app to drive more installs and users. Social media is more strategic than it was over a decade ago, but even back then we recognized the opportunity that contests and sweepstakes presented, and planned and strategized accordingly. Many sports business pros still have that cluttered corner of the office, by the way — that veritable gold mine.

Be original and unpredictable

Social media was a lot more vanilla in the early days. But while the spectrum changes over the years, the value of skewing away from the ‘normal’ remains considerable. It’s the ‘purple cow’ principle espoused by renowned marketing thought leader Seth Godin — an ingredient of success is earning attention, and standing out from the crowd [being the purple cow] is a key factor.

There was more diversity, one could argue, a decade ago in social media and sports. While the voices were largely more stodgy before the arrival of personality (it’s not an understatement to say that the Los Angeles Kings started this movement), over the years, many seemed to regress to the mean; and the mean was snark and sarcasm, often paired with the same old pop culture GIFs and memes peppering everyone’s feeds daily. What was true years ago and remains true today is that originality [buttressed by authenticity and consistency] is important and give fans something distinct to invest in emotionally, something to integrate into their identity. If all brands and voices start to look and sound the same, it’s hard to conjure up passionate feelings.

It’s why we quickly became very intentional about who we were and who we wanted to be on social media. The omniscient voice of the team’s PR didn’t cut it if the goal was to form genuine relationships with fans, nor did the same old graphics day after day. The leaders in social media and sports are savvier than back then when it comes to defining a true brand strategy; and while there may be more decks today, the early days were defined by an internal understanding and evolution over time of being unique, staying true to values, and earning attention by keeping fans on their toes.

Good ideas can and should adapted

While the previous section celebrates originality, this section serves as a reminder that, as my friend (and sports digital/social business thought leader) Sean Callanan likes to say “steal with pride.” It took me a little bit to understand this way back when and I find myself reinforcing the key point to others today, as well — you may follow all the other teams to get ideas and insights, but the vast majority of your fans are not following what other teams are doing on social.

The point is not to copy exactly what every team or outlet does that results in success, it’s more about iterating on winning concepts and cool ideas, and adapting them in a way that fits your brand, your fans, and your capabilities. [I remember ‘borrowing’ ESPN’s “Beat The Streak” with first goal predictions — tweeting out the names of fans with active streaks before each game, showing them we’re listening and giving them a dopamine hit of fame] It’s a service to your fans to bring in and adapt good, fun ideas for them on social media. We’ll still be reminding future #smsports pros to ‘steal with pride’ in another ten years, I reckon.

Recognize when you get gold and maximize it

Every once in a while, the team gets dealt figurative pocket aces. An incredible play, a significant announcement, a historic milestone, or a championship. These moments and opportunities go a long way in separating the good from the great. In my first social media and sports role, one of the early days included a monumental announcement that the team’s most legendary player would be coming back to play for ‘one more year.’ It was one of those things where you know as soon as you pushed ‘send,’ that the Internet would figuratively break, at least in our world. And we had a laundry list ready of content, contests, and promotions ready to go.

Those fleeting pocket aces usually result in a win — big numbers, engagement, and emotiveness — but the point is not to kick back and enjoy the ride, but to figure out the best ways to maximize that pot [poker analogies!]. The mandate to make the most of the ephemeral opportunities is as powerful today as it was a decade ago. In fact, there are more levers to pull and, most importantly, social media (for the most part) is valued as a key part of the organization’s strategy in extracting the most value from that gold, so you have more hands to play. You may not always see the moments coming, but know what to do with when they arrive.

Stats tell a lot but they don’t tell everything

Every year, every season, every day social media strategy an marketing becomes more data-driven. Numbers don’t lie, right? Social media ‘ROI’ was a question we were just starting to truly tackle a decade ago and the vanity metrics were the majority of what we had to go off of, let alone what the higher-ups cared about. We received league-wide reports on digital and social media success (no CrowdTangle in the earliest days!) and measured up. But we all kind of knew, back then, that numbers could be game-ified. In fact, many of the simplest tactics delivered to a crazy degree, at times, back then. The first insights really came, however, when we learned to look at the outliers. What performed beyond predictability?

In many ways, we’ve gotten so much savvier in looking beyond the surface metrics, asking more thoughtful and penetrating questions, and demanding answers that vanity metrics alone cannot answer. Heck, I can even remember requesting data from our marketing department and having my request declined — it was pretty hard back then. Now data flows freely to inform every department, so we’ve come a long way. But in other ways, there is still too much pressure put on the optics of the vanity metrics and engagement rate. Rankings and virality are still seen, certainly externally and to some degree internally, as a marker of social media success, despite the diversity of goals, brands, strategies, and audiences. Whether a decade ago or today, we all have true objectives that can’t be measured in likes, views, or comments. But many still can’t quit those old-school numbers.

Forming community goes beyond two-way

Online community long predates social media. Before MySpace and Facebook, there were AOL chat rooms, forums, and message boards. But the early days of social media weren’t as social as they should’ve been. Many brands were so excited to have this ‘free’ broadcast channel, and the organic reach in those days was exponentially better than what it is today. And yet, the coolest role I realized we could play back then was fostering community among our fans. When fans formed relationships and friendships, and interacted with each other, with the team forming the glue of those connections. There was nothing more gratifying than seeing fans hanging out at real-life events, bringing relationships to life that started out on the team’s social.

Such relationship fomenting is even stronger today. Communities form in the comments, replies beget remixes and collaborations, and one-way communication has leapt over two-way to an enlightened present day of pan-directional conversations. So while it once seemed novel or even (sigh) groundbreaking to proactively spend time DM’ing and replying and starting, but not always leading, conversation — today fan nation-building is the expectation, and we’re all better for it.

Big ideas are only as good as your ability to articulate and execute

One of the most fun parts of social media and sports is that there is seemingly no ceiling for creativity (time and budget notwithstanding). It’s the type of job that has you lying in bed at night and thinking up cool ideas and clever executions. But as I started as a bright-eyed social media and sports rookie, I learned along the way that, in more ways than one, alignment and collaboration are key. And to earn that, you have to know how to make shit happen, and how to take that idea in your head, document it, explain it and justify it, and actually, well, do it. [A lot of social, and strategy in general, is writing it down]

Social media has become ever more valued and intertwined with sports organizations, and there are increasing layers of project management, backed by well thought-out processes, and often software like Trello, Monday.com, Airtable, etc. We may have had more whiteboards and Excel sheets than management software back then when we cooked up one of my cross-platform, weeks-longs campaigns that spanned departments (and is still going today!), but we still covered every post, asset, need, and responsibility.

The culture of innovation is as strong today as it was a decade ago — and anyone that works with me knows that I still very much approach each day with the idea wheel turning — ideation has just become more professionalized today AND more scaled. There is a balance there, to be sure. Because while the increased ability to scale ideas and campaigns across an organization increases its potential value, it also means there are more cooks in the kitchen and often that scaling cannot, and should not, be done at the expense of timeliness. The mandate for modern sports organizations is agility, to be able to make (good) decisions and execute (effectively) as quickly as possible before the fleeting moment passes.

[Bonus] Don’t be afraid to ask what for you need to achieve success

Okay, so technically this is #12 (and I actually cut another out — about ‘follow the money’), but this last point is near and dear to my heart, and one that continues to resonate in the conversations in social media today.

The demands of social and digital media staff are so massive, it’s almost a meme to list all of the professional skills one needs to succeed in these roles today, from creative to community to analytics to project management and the list goes on. And leadership continues to want their organization to be “best-in-class” across the board, and social media is as visible and measurable as anything.

But it doesn’t happen without buy-in, literally and figuratively. You need staff, you need resources, you need access, you need trust, and you need recovery time. I’ve found myself on all ends of this spectrum throughout the last decade-plus, some points of pride and certainly many regrets. The emerging generation today feels empowered to ask for what they need to achieve success and that has been a great evolution over the years. It doesn’t mean we always get everything that we want or need, but we’re able to better frame what’s needed for maximum performance and how different allocations and provision of resources affects the best potential outcomes.

These jobs are not getting any easier and the best of the best people provide immeasurable value, a high ‘WAR,’ if you will, thereby diminishing any notion that thousands of individuals would take their job with their hours and their salary in a heartbeat AND perform at a similar level.

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It’s impossible to imagine what social media and sports will look like in another year, let alone another decade. But we can rest assured that certain fan wants, needs, and behaviors may not look altogether different than today. Ideas that work today will work tomorrow, even if they look or sound a little different.

Take to heart those core principles at play in your strategy and tactics, you’ll learn a lot by developing philosophies that can fuel you for life. The pace of technology and features and storytelling possibilities is as quick as ever, but if you squint hard enough, even if it’s in the metaverse, you’ll see that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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More random fun…

[Random fun I discovered from discarded remnants of a verrry old deck; I wish I had the whole thing and documented all the forward-thinking ideas my colleagues and I ideated and executed way back when!]

20 Quick Sports Business and Social Media Nuggets, Insights, and Takeaways from the 2021 Hashtag Sports Conference

The worst parts of the pandemic appear to be over and sports are gradually returning to normalcy. Games are being played in front of packed venues and there is more than enough live sports programming to satisfy any fan’s appetite. But there have been and will be lasting effects of 2020 for the sports industry — new platforms, new fan behaviors, new opportunities and necessities. These themes permeated much of the conversation at the 2021 Hashtag Sports Virtual Conference this past June, one of many great industry events that Hashtag Sports holds.

I recommend you check out all the panels (they’re available on demand). You’ll digest some thought-provoking ideas and key learnings from the panels — here I present some of mine in the following 20 nuggets: 

  1. Don’t chase numbers, accomplish goals. In a conversation between STN Digital’s David Brickley and Shareablee’s Tania Yuki, a key point was to establish objectives and KPIs for social media strategy and campaigns and focus on those metrics as measures of success. Depending on the goals, there are successful scenarios in which the vanity metrics do not go up.  
  1. “Too much time is spent on finding the wins.” This quote came from Yuki, who noted there is a ton of insight to come from looking at the ‘losers’ among social media posts as there are the winners; perhaps even more. 
  1. On one of the panels, the moderator asked each speaker to name their favorite social media platform and why. For Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Michael Gallup, notably, it was Facebook. Why? It’s because it’s THE place for him and his partner brands to reach families. “Grandparents, aunts & uncles, (family) – you got everybody on there…” said Gallup.
  2. We see influencers partner and collaborate on platforms like TikTok and teammates often pairing up for podcasts for videos. But Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekelter talked about his initiatives uniting athletes across sports for causes, collaborations, organizations, and events like Twitch streams and tournaments. If athletes across sports start working together more, the possibilities are endless…
  1. In discussing the last year and recent priorities, both Jared Harding (Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche) and Nick Monroe (Milwaukee Bucks) named YouTube as an area of focus. They touted YouTube as a good way to reach new and broader audiences, so they’re programming for YouTube strategically.
  2. Greg Mize, Senior Marketing & Innovation Director with the Atlanta Braves, discussed the three criteria he and his team use when evaluating new digital/social platforms. There is the business case (how can this benefit the business?), the audience there (who can we reach?), and the resources required for success on the platform.
  1. In articulating his thoughts about TikTok, Mize characterized the content there with a thoughtful quote: “It’s the micro-highlight…It’s the highlight within the highlight.” A sharp summation about content like the bat flip and high-five resonating more than the actual home run (my line, not his).
  1. Portland Trail Blazers Director of Content Aaron Grossman talked about gleaning insights early on new platforms by getting feedback from the audience. “They say don’t read the comments, but with a new channel it’s important to [do so], to learn (what the audience likes).” The audience will often point to where you’re going right and where you’re going wrong.
  2. Grossman also cited the growth rate of the brand/account’s audience on a new platform as a key KPI to know if the team’s content is resonating and to evaluate the viability of the platform for the team overall.
  3. In discussing how teams can look at the ROI of social media, the Braves’s Mize talked about the long tail of fandom. “We believe firmly that creating engagement on social media will eventually have a long-tail impact on monetization…(We need to) build fandom through engagement.”
  4. Joe Carr, the CEO of Thrill One Sports and Entertainment (Nitro Circus, among other brands) talked about the company’s success with UGC, particularly during the pandemic. But Carr cautioned that it’s important to not saturate the brand’s feed with UGC and to be mindful of the type of UGC they’re sharing. Thrill One is cognizant to maintain brand integrity amidst the UGC strategy, he said.
  1. The Sacramento Kings have had a tough time on the court, but they operate at an all-pro level on social media. A key for them, according to Kings Social Media Manager Sydney Zuelke is to have fun on social media. That’s why the team has embraced a light, playful tone that is mimicked in their engaging content. If you have fun then fans will, too — win or lose.
  1. How pervasive is gaming (not to be confused, necessarily, with esports) among Gen Z? According to Hollister Director of Brand Marketing Jacee Scoular, 90% of their Gen Z consumers consider themselves a gamer (!). A stat that explains why the brand has entered the gaming space for various campaigns.
  1. Twitch Regional Vice President Nathan Lindberg was on a panel alongside Scoular and made an interesting comparison that esports fans are a bit like NASCAR fans. By that he means they genuinely appreciate the partners supporting their favorite drivers (or gamers) and sport — and therefore are undyingly loyal to those sponsor brands.
  1. Speaking of appreciating sponsors and being loyal (even evangelical) to those partners, Scotiabank’s Lisa Ferkul said this level of proselytizing fidelity has been very much the effect her brand has seen from their sponsorship of women’s sport. To underscore the opportunity (and dearth) for sponsorship of women’s sports, Ferkul cited an eye-popping stat — just 0.4% of sports sponsorship revenue. It’s just about all with men’s sports. Wow.
  1. Instagram’s Head of Sports Dev Sethi is always thoughtful on these conference panels and here he spoke about Instagram’s objective (for sports organizations to heed) of helping fans express themselves [and driving/helping them to do so by posting content to IG]. “How do you encourage fans to express themselves?” Sethi succinctly stated.
  1. Sethi also recommended organizations think ‘holistically’ about their Instagram strategy. To utilize all of the platform’s offerings in a cohesive manner — Feed, Stories, Reels, Shopping, IGTV, and Live. 
  1. Kaitee Daley runs social media for ESPN, so she knows all too well the frequent ideas and opinions expressed by everyday social media users (including coworkers) that aren’t social media professionals. It’s an experience to which many can relate, but Daley encouraged social pros to not let ‘backseat social media drivers’ get them down. Said Daley: “Driving your car every day doesn’t make you an expert in cars just like using social media every day doesn’t make you an expert in social. So trust your experts…”
  1. Jack Settleman, the brains behind leading Snapchat [and general social media] sports media brand Snapback Sports gave a thoughtful panel and talked about how he actually planned to go viral (and did) at the Super Bowl. How? He knew every year there’s a big hullabaloo about the color of Gatorade that would be dumped on the winning coach (also always a popular sports betting prop). So he made sure he had a good shot of the moment and got the video out there while the main broadcast wasn’t as focused on the Gatorade pouring moment. You can’t manufacture virality, but you sure can anticipate opportunities that present viral moments.
  1. Settleman also confirmed what many had suspected — hot takes and polarizing stances drive engagement with sports fans. There’s a reason the Skip Baylesses of the world drive engagement and reaction with their polarizing takes on TV and social media. Settleman said taking such stances and then letting the fans argue away has been a key ingredient in their engagement strategy.

There are far more nuggets of insight from the Hashtag Sports Virtual Conference that I could not get close to covering in the short list above. I recommend you check out the on-demand videos for further enlightenment.

If there’s one thing sports business professionals can count on, it’s that the engagement and activation strategies that prevail today won’t be the same next year, perhaps even next week. While we must follow the money and the metrics oftentimes, it’s important to never stop asking questions. To tackle challenges, to question the meaningfulness of the best and the worst ‘results’, to never get complacent, and to follow our instinct as fans at heart.  

Episode 189 Snippets: How Storytelling Sits at the Center of Clemson Athletics’s Social Media Success

On episode 189 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Tyson Hutchins, Senior Director – Creative Solutions for Clemson 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.

How Sports Business Looks in Summer 2020: Industry Insights from the Hashtag Sports Virtual Conference

The sports and social media world is not afraid of change. The social platforms and the sports industry as a whole are constantly evolving, but it’s been a few years since something really transformational has happened in the biz.

After hearing several industry leaders discuss their strategies, insights, and observations about the current state of the sports business, social media, sponsorship, and fan engagement at the recent Hashtag Sports conference, it seems there could be paradigm changes coming out of the stay-at-home period from the pandemic.

Many athletes have seen the light of social media, corporate partnerships have been reimagined in a world without games, everybody has taken a closer look at esports, the social platforms themselves were utilized in different ways, and all the digital and social engagement has only reinforced the pathways of data collection to personalization.

Athletes

  • When the games stopped, fans’ desire to see and engage with athletes certainly did not. Yahoo Sports’s Sarah Crennan said she would’ve liked to have had more working relationships with athletes with whom to co-create content. Meanwhile, NBC Sports’s Lyndsay Signor noted that the move to mobile productions and all remote appearances meant working on content with athletes was less challenging than it had been pre-pandemic. What could this mean moving forward? Will sports media businesses make it a point to establish relationships with athletes, even after the stay-at-home orders are lifted and sports return in some form? And will media companies be more comfortable connecting with an athlete via his/her phone even if it’s not as polished as their more produced content?

 

  • Many athletes during the pandemic posted first-person content on social media for the first time, or participated in live or mobile interviews. Coming out of this quarantine, many more athletes will be comfortable creating their own content, according to Bleacher Report’s Beckley Mason. Adding to that insight, Colleen Garrity of Excel Management pointed out that a lot of athletes tried and learned new things during this period, whether that was jumping on IG Live for the first time or streaming on Twitch. They’ll now have those abilities in their back pocket. When athletes are serving as their own directors and producers, it won’t be perfect, but that’s okay, and fans, publishers, and partners will learn to value it, said B/R’s Mason. It’s more authentic that way, anyway.

Content production

  • Sponsors may have been skeptical at first of seeing their dollars and branding go into content that looked less-than-polished. But numbers and performance don’t lie and as more results come in, less-produced content can prove its value. And it has and will continue to, suggested Bleacher Report’s Beckley Mason. The new normal that has prevailed for the past several months, when more amateur-looking content was not just tolerated but welcomed, means brands can be more nimble and more open to experimentation, according to Octagon’s Meredith Kinsman. When they’re not spending a ton on an on-location shoot with a full crew, there’s less risk involved and more creative trialing possible.

 

  • Social media managers working for teams or leagues have recognized the value of raw content captured on mobile devices for years. But even while COVID forced a lot more original content to be less-produced, especially involving coaches and athletes, there remains a place for both produced content and raw content. This point was reinforced by Oregon State’s Kylie Murphy, who noted there’s time and place for both, and it can depend on context, listening to the data, considering the platform, and learning by trial and error.

 

  • It’s an understatement to say the last few months have been the golden era of archived content on social media. Twenty years ago, even ten years ago, a lot of archived content may have been stuck on VHS tapes and DVD’s. But digitization has made it easier to access, produce from, and use to engage fans across platforms. There has proven to be a lot of potential, and maybe more to come, with historical content, said Octagon’s Kinsman, and this sports hiatus has only reinforced that value proposition.

 

  • Meanwhile, a company like Overtime has been able to double-down on its original content efforts in the absence of live sports. The mobile-first sports media company has seen more and more content consumption happening for longer average sessions. They’ve also seen a lot of YouTube viewing happening on smart TV’s and larger screens, not confined to merely mobile devices. Fans are willing to binge sports content, just like they are a series on Netflix or Hulu, and there’s an opportunity for sports to earn more and more of that screen time outside of live games.

Sponsorship

  • The coronavirus pandemic along with the period of social unrest catalyzed by the murder of George Floyd has obligated every brand to prove themselves worthy of consumers, to show they are adding value to society at such a challenging time. This applies to sports-related sponsorships, too, where partnerships are being scrutinized to ensure authenticity more than ever. Rakuten’s Kristen Gambetta talked about wanting to make sure players with whom they partner are aligned with their values, while Dairy Management International’s Darcy Nichols, who oversees the company’s NFL sponsorship, said they look at players’s social media posts to make sure they represent a brand with whom they want to partner. Nichols also noted she wants players who aren’t just going through the motions, but those who actively believe in the message and brand they’re endorsing, and want to be there.

 

  • Dairy Management International’s Nichols also reiterated a prevailing point in sponsorship — that the operative term is ‘partnership;’ it shouldn’t be a transactional relationship between brand and league/team/athlete. Wasserman’s Anup Daji made a similar point stating that the best partnerships include those in which both parties accomplish objectives. Rakuten’s Gambetta gave a good example of this in action, describing the e-commerce brand’s activation with the Golden State Warriors. Rakuten and the Warriors offered fans cash back when they purchased merchandise at games, in partnership with Rakuten, who promotes their own cash back system for purchases made on their online shopping platform.

 

  • With no live events with which to activate, any and all sponsorships in sports became digital and social-focused. This only increases the value for a publisher like Bleacher Report, suggested Mason, as they can help a brand activate around a major sports event with a social-first campaign. And they can do it even if neither is participating as an official rights holder or partner.

 

  • Social media is less a throw-in these days compared to years past and partners now expect a campaign to be activated across channels. The New York Giants’ Katie Carew described this framework, offering the team’s activation with Stop and Shop as an example. It included physical and digital elements and resulted in content coming out of the campaign to allow for an effective social extension. AT&T’s Shiz Suzuki described her company’s viral ‘Pose with the Pros’ augmented reality onsite activation with the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium, which provided not just a demonstration of their 5G technology, but also produced socially share-able content.

hashtag-2020


Esports and gambling

  • 2020 was supposed to be the year that sports gambling saw massive growth in the US. It still can be, but it perhaps won’t reach the peaks once projected. As sports brands look to capitalize on gambling, they’re increasingly cognizant of the best way to ease fans into becoming bettors. Prop betting seems to be an answer, with Bleacher Report’s Stefanie Rapp identifying prop betting as an entry point for sports betting. B/R has seen huge growth the last several months in its betting content, too, with its betting stream content in the B/R app growing 300% faster than any of their other streams. Fans that engage in this content and sports betting, in general, have stronger retention metrics, too.

 

  • While many continue to eye gaming as an opportunity, the pandemic led to more interest than ever in esports, which were only mildly affected by the public health crisis. Turner/ELEAGUE’S Seth Ladetsky recognized the opportunity for esports, especially when their competitions get airtime on linear TV. An important consideration, he said, as esports looks to capitalize on these opportunities is to recognize the audience and the platform, and produce a presentation that is optimized for each. Because an avid esports audience is different from the casual and curious community checking it out.

 

  • More sponsors started to gravitate to esports, too, seeing an opportunity to reach and engage fans viewing live events. ESL’s Paul Brewer said the most common way brands are measuring their esports sponsorships now are brand sentiment and share of voice. Brands are still learning the space and AT&T’s Suzuki noted how important it is to do the research of the fan base first and to always be thinking of how a sponsorship can produce additive value for esports fans. Brewer also pointed out how esports is starting to also look for ways it can mimic the traditional sports sponsorship activations menu to which brands are accustomed, such as corporate hospitality and experiential opportunities.

Platforms

  • It’s no secret that TikTok has enjoyed explosive growth across the board during this stay-at-home period, including sports, athletes, and sports fans gravitating more and more to the social network. TikTok’s Harish Sharma presented the platform’s POV when it comes to sports, suggesting that TikTok is a place for teams and athletes to share about themselves away from the field. Sharma also recommended activating around ‘exclusive moments’ and ‘seminal moments.’

 

  • Facebook facilitated and even unveiled a lot of new features or behaviors and opportunities on its platforms during this period. They’ve long been focused on developing Groups and this feature remains a strong and growing part of the platform. Facebook Sports’ Nick Marquez talked about the engagement and data collection potential with Groups. He also lent a little inspiration calling Group members potential ‘ambassadors’ for the brand.

 

  • Facebook (as well as Instagram) saw a lot of creative usage of its Live capability, including archived content and virtual watch parties, during the sports shutdown. Digital-first content overall picked up by necessity, with no live games and accompanying highlights, and in their place Marquez pointed out how sports teams have been able to build up digital content franchises that then become valuable sponsorship assets and entitlement opportunities. Sports teams and leagues are digital publishers, Marquez said, that happen to play sports. He also enumerated four buckets of content where sports found a lot of success during the shutdown, including archive (as noted above), fitness, cooking, and gaming. One last feature to keep an eye on are Facebook Messenger Rooms, a product many saw as an answer to the usage of Zoom during the pandemic for social interacting.

 

  • Instagram has also been an essential part of sports organizations’ fan engagement strategies for the last few game-less months. Usage of IG Live has grown a lot — in case you somehow haven’t noticed — and Instagram has been working with sports organizations on monetizing the platform. Instagram Sports’s Will Yoder identified three ways sports biz has been monetizing IG: Branded content (which is treated the same as organic content in their feed algorithm, Yoder noted), shoppable posts, and Instagram ads, including direct response ads.

Analytics

  • The NBA’s Jorge Urrutia del Pozo talked about their efforts to build a ‘golden record’ for each fan, by collecting data strategically. The key concerns for them are a) utilizing data to deepen fan engagement and b) determine the next best action or step for each fan to take to drive optimized lifetime value.

 

  • Both the NBA’s Urrutia del Pozo and the NHL’s Heidi Browning noted that collecting fan data has to deliver value back for the fan. The NBA collects information from fans progressively, delivering something back to fans at each step; this so-called ‘zero party data’ is valuable for the league in its efforts to personalize and enhance fan experiences. The NHL’s Browning called out the league’s ‘learning campaigns,’ which similarly asked fans for information while delivering tangible value back to the fan at each step. That exchange of value is vital.

 

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The past few months have felt like a year passing and the sports industry has evolved at a similar rate. Thanks to Hashtag Sports for putting on a great event! Subscribe to their newsletter, follow them on social media, and attend their future events.

A Look at The Debut of Venue: Facebook’s New Live Sports Companion App

The second screen for live sports. The app that fans are checking and refreshing while watching the game.

Which social media network comes to mind?

It’s likely Twitter is on the tip of your tongue, but as you may have seen Facebook is taking another swing at being sports fans’ second screen, with the launch of Venue. ‘The live event companion experience,’ as the headline of their blog announcing the app states. ‘[Venue] brings passionate fans and expert commentators together to experience live events in a new interactive way,’ they promise.

The first event to go live in Venue was the Supermarket Heroes 500, a NASCAR race held at Bristol Motor Speedway this past Sunday (May 31). The ‘expert’ host was NASCAR Twitter personality @nascarcasm (he also has ~ 45,000 Instagram followers, but over 180,000 on Twitter). His Twitter feed is full of the interaction and commentary that Facebook’s product team wanted to host their first ‘venue.’

Below you’ll find a look at the Venue app as it played out during the race, along with some commentary from my experience hanging out in it during event. There were also a couple of occasions when @nascarcasm asked for product feedback from all of us users (even explicitly stating that Facebook’s product team was listening). It looked like between 800-1,000 users were in the venue together during the race.

Overall, the MVP (minimum viable product) has the foundation of a unique offering. I don’t think it is meant to replace Twitter, but could be more like a combination of Twitch and IG Live/IG Stories, with some WhatsApp genes in there, too. There was only one ‘venue’ available for this race, but the idea is there could be multiple venues across multiple events, primarily with ‘expert commentators’ (based on their description), but after this review you can decide for yourself how it could evolve (and even if it has a future at all).

Come into the ‘Venue’ along with me:

Getting Started

These are the three introductory screens to introduce new users to app prior to getting to the registration screen. One must either sign in or create an account, which requires entering age and email address. Notably, there was not an option to sign in with your Facebook, Instagram, or phone number/WhatsApp. One also then selected their @ name, typing into an open field following the ‘@’symbol. You can also see the App Store entry below for further insight into how the team is describing their app right now.

venu1

IMG_1331

Home Screen

The home screen showed all live venues, in this case just the one was there for the NASCAR race. It’ll be interesting to consider how this home screen evolves as more venues are live (or still accessible after an event has ended) concurrently, and how the app may recommend live venues to a user based on their engagement and friends/follows/followers.

venu2

 

Inside the Venue

There was a live scoreboard showing the current standings and the lap the race was on. The live content provided was very limited (which fans pointed out), but that’s also kind of the point. Venue isn’t trying to be a way to watch and consume the game, it’s trying to be your ‘live companion.’

The only one who could post in the vertically-moving timeline was the host, @nascarcasm, and he was typically reacting to notable events in the race, such as a caution, crash, lead/position change, or end of a stage. A piece of feedback from fans was wanting to be able to ‘comment’ and ‘like’ the stuff @nascarcasm was posting.

There was periodic interaction, with intermittent opportunities for fans to ‘chat’ and for @nascarcasm to post polls. You can see the countdown clock, which was 60 seconds for polls (from what I saw) and 285 seconds for chats. Fans seemed to enjoy the polls, and it was a cool touch that – after submitting one’s own vote – users could see the ratio of responses move in real-time. It looked like, at least at the moment, polls were limited to two options. Users saw polls from three different sources during the race — the event itself the Supermarket Heroes 500, the host, and, in this inaugural event at least, the app itself, Venue.

The chats were fast-moving with the countdown clock and were more of a passing interactive element than a key feature of the venue. Though fans certainly asked for a way to chat continuously and even to form their own group chats within the app. Chats were in response to an event or prompt from the host or a note from the event (as you can see in one of the examples below). You can see the arrow symbol in the chat (and in @nascarcasm’s posts), which functions the same as the ‘reply’ function in WhatsApp. You can also see the expert’s chats are highlighted in red. Once the timer is up the chat is closed, but one can go back in to review it and even scroll back up the timeline to see previous chats, i.e. chats in response to events or specific prompts from the host. As users scroll up the timeline to revisit old posts, too, the scoreboard and lap number adjusted to show the state at that point in the timeline.

venu3

 

venu5

 

Multiple times during the race, including after the finish, the Venue app opened a chat asking fans for feedback. The majority had a positive response – some of the commentary I gleaned included [paraphrasing real statements]:

  • Not as good as Twitter during the live event
  • Want a place to continuously chat with each other throughout the event
  • Fans want to be able to like and comment on the host’s posts on the timeline during the race (instead of only when he started a limited time chat)
  • Better than Facebook Groups live chat
  • One fan made the logical suggestion of letting fans start their own ‘venues’ on which to host others
  • There was a call for video or highlights
  • Complaints about the dearth of live standings and a lag in that scoreboard updating during the race

IMG_1330

 

Other Notes

  • It’s going to be difficult to be the primary second screen without photos and highlights. Even though the expectation is fans in the venue are watching the live event, I think being able to watch and re-watch highlights while discussing them is important. Facebook may be limited by content rights, while rights holders eagerly live-post video throughout the race on Twitter.

 

  • As one of the fans mentioned, and something logical to consider is fans creating their own interactive, and perhaps customizable, ‘venues’ to enjoy with their friends or build their own communities. There may be some synergy with Facebook’s recent new app – Rooms, a video chat room app, with venues being a room to experience live sports events alongside friends. Different experts and ‘everyday’ people can also start venues for specific communities – an interactive version of the megacast ESPN has tried for major events, trying to target different types of viewing audiences with a unique viewing experience. Gambling may have a role to play, too, eventually.

 

  • For fans accustomed to the speed of Twitter during a live sports event, Venue feels like going from an all-out green NASCAR lap to something even slower than a caution lap. (Yes, I love my sports analogies). That makes it less taxing to keep up with, but there remains something special about a Twitter timeline ‘blowing up’ during a big moment in the game/race/match. Perhaps that’s where Venue would have a contained chat box pop up for those moments. But the long-ish periods of nothing new in the timeline are a deterrent from making Venue the always-on second screen.

 

  • There was only the one venue to choose from for this race, so it remains to be seen how the app experience will be when many more are available. With the venue more of a one-way experience, with interaction opportunities intermittently.

 

  • The timed chats and polls give a sense of urgency to the experience, making one check in regularly, even if the pace of the timeline is slow overall. The app sends timely real-time alerts for interaction opportunities – chats and polls the only options for now, which helps fans to not miss one. The alerts were helpful and really important for users to have turned on for this reason.

 

  • At least for now, there’s no way to share the venue externally and/or invite others to join. There didn’t appear to a way to access an external link, let alone share to one of Facebook’s apps. This will almost certainly change as the product evolves.

 

There is nothing like experiencing live sports together and social media has been an integral companion now for years. Facebook has had trials over the years of trying to create a product offering to complement live sports. Now they’re hoping Venue can be the solution fans need to to complement their experience while they’re watching a game.

Check out the app yourself on iOS and Android.

Will the ‘Lasting Legacy’ of the COVID Sports Shutdown Be Athletes’ Embrace of their Platforms?

Every season the number is shrinking. We’re not far away from sports leagues where every athlete will have been born into a world in which Facebook, Twitter, smartphone cameras, and ubiquitous social media are the way of life.

But that moment can wait. Because this extended period of sheltering has accomplished as more than any generational shift ever could. Over this strange spring of 2020 just about every athlete experienced the epiphany — that fans still care, that they still have notoriety, and that their platform can still be powerful even when the games stop.

Maybe that connection is growing because the walls are being broken down and athletes are being seen at eye-level.

“This is the time where people feel like they’re just like these athletes, because they’re doing the at-home workouts, and they’re just like you having to wear a mask and not going to the gym, not traveling and not going and sitting courtside,” said Jacqueline Dahl  of 1UP Sports Marketing on a panel for the recent Leaders Week.
“So I truly think this is such an opportunity for athletes to engage with their audience because they feel just like them.”

It’s more than that, though. Many marvel at LeBron James not just for his prowess on the court, but also because he has seemed to understand the power of his platform and his brand from day one. As this public health crisis has ensued, many more athletes are realizing they too have a potentially powerful platform and that fans want to hear what they have to say. They always had a feeling they were influential, but now many are acting more like influencers.

“What’s been interesting with athletes is a lot of them are at home and they’re using Facebook and Instagram — they’re used to using these tools, but now they’re becoming power users, which has been amazing to see.,” said Kevin Cote, Facebook’s Director, Sports Partnerships on a panel at Leaders Week. “Leveraging our tools in new and creative ways, doing it themselves…seeing them use tools like Instagram Live to both entertain, but also to inform and support.”

Things really hit home when Dr. Anthony Fauci went on Instagram Live to discuss the coronavirus and the nation’s health and safety. His interviewer/host — not some national news anchor or reporter, but former NBA MVP and true national influencer Stephen Curry. Sure, not every athlete has the clout of Curry, but every one of them is an influencer of some degree and all it takes is to post a bit more personally, engage and interact, and those same athletes have their eyes opened what an enormous audience is there listening, watching, and talking on the other side. Cote took a visionary view, commenting on what this period could mean moving forward.

Coronavirus: Obama joins Stephen Curry's talk with Dr. Fauci - Los ...

“What athletes have especially shown is that they have these massive audiences, they can go directly to these people and connect in so many different ways,” he said.

“…In this moment athletes are stepping up in so many different ways, to identify themselves as they are human beings as well, there’s an ability to connect directly with their fans, directly with other public figures for good. And I think that’s going to be one of the lasting legacies of this time.”

Pro Athletes on Social Media: A Difficult Dichotomy - SMW Toronto 2019

How long would it have taken for so many of these athletes to get on TikTok, Twitch, and Instagram Live without this extended idle time at home? When would these same athletes have realized what they’d been sitting on all this time? When you combine the inherent clout of an athlete with the intent and mindset of an influencer, there is incredible power unleashed.

There are far more important concerns as we all hope this pandemic passes. But these strange circumstances have perhaps helped to usher in a new era for athletes on social media. And even things aren’t quite the same when sports start back up again en masse, the door has opened, athletes have seen the light, and for many things will never be the same again.

(PS: Learn more about Leaders Week)

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Episode 169 Snippets: Uni Watch’s Paul Lukas on the Sports Uniform Geekiness and the Community That Can’t Get Enough

On episode 169 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Paul Lukas, founder and writer, Uni Watch.

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 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.

How Social Media and Sports Can Pivot During this Pandemic

Talk to a lot of social media pros in sports and many will tell you they’re working harder than ever. There may be no games, no practices, road trips, scrums, and suits – but they’re pooped. Because it’s not easy to come up with content to fill every day, try to create value for sponsors, and – most importantly – keep fans engaged. To assure fans will remain just as avid even as their favorite teams and players aren’t competing.

There has been a lot of creativity at this time — from pick ‘em posts to trivia, Q&A’s, watch parties, kids activities, UGC, and so much more. The creativity goes beyond sports, toom as platforms like TikTok, Twitch, Houseparty, and Instagram Live all growing rapidly. Everyone is starting to think differently. For years, sports teams have become more like full-time content companies. It may be tougher to create content without the built-in routine and flow of stories from games and news, but these organizations are still content machines teeming with talented creatives and strategists.

So it’s time to think outside the box, right? Games aren’t coming back before the summer, it seems, so what can do social media and sports do to pivot right now?

Experiment

In case you weren’t sure, yeah – social media usage is way up during this COVID-19 quarantine. In times like these, there are few truly dumb or bad ideas. It’s time to brainstorm! With fans consuming more content on social media right now, how can you experiment – and think like a content company first, and a sports team second?

That’s ultimately what this article is about. One area to explore, given the trends, are uber-specific social media accounts that can build an audience while having some tie to the team, however loose. What if your team created a Twitter account to post one random player from the team’s history every day or an Instagram account that only posted sick dunks or blocks daily, or a TikTok account that curated trick shots, or a YouTube account that taught dances, etc. etc. 

There are so many areas of passion that thrive on social media — sports, fashion, music, and more — and so many ways to build content around them. Lean into those skills and that knowledge now, and experiment with new ways to build an audience that can become fans of the brand, not just the sport the employees of that brand typically market and play.

Content Creation

This is a topic that can manifest a number of ways (and plays out all the time as teams create GIFs, stickers, Instagram Effects, lenses, and the like). But as TikTok and Instagram Live, in particular, grow at this time, fans are leaning into performative content more than ever. I mean, what else are they doing stuck at home, so why not create a TikTok themselves or with their kids?

Teams are certainly leaning in here, with a ton of creative UGC campaigns, celebrating fan creations. But a recent article on TikTok got me thinking about the role teams could play in providing the similar value that TikTok and other platforms do in making available effects, audio, and other creative accoutrements. How can teams use their bank of content to give their fans such creative enterprise, to create their own quasi TikTok with highlights, sounds, and maybe even some effects with which fans could create content. Challenges and trends could also play a role, as could team staff, alumni, broadcasters, and ideally players.

The trend that TikTok has been creating and riding has been driven by the incredible energy, enthusiasm, and talent of its network. They’ve provided the tools and sometimes even the prompts, and they’ve let their users take it away. Teams may have the machinery and tools and content to do the same, or some sense of it whether on their platform or influencing use of another.

Entertainment companies

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings famously said his company’s biggest competition was sleep. Meanwhile, sports teams see platforms like Netflix and Twitch as their competition. It comes down to earned attention – but teams don’t have the new highlights and stories that help that earn that attention right now.

But it’s about focusing on what we do have and trying diverse ways to entertain fans with content. There’s an ecosystem of influencers (players and talent), a bank of brand and proven content, and a talented team of content producers. How can all this be deployed? Could you write a recurring comic strip (like the Philadelphia Flyers tried), create a short children’s story or a cartoon, a cooking show, a talk show, short fiction stories, musical and performance guests, motion effects games, and so much more. Step out of the tunnel a bit on the routine content and become a student of producing entertainment in general.

pivot

Community Relations

Many teams right now are doing extraordinary things to help combat the coronavirus pandemic. They’re opening up their venues for use in storage or medical services, they’re donating and helping to prop up local businesses, and using their platforms to deliver information to masses of fans they’re able to reach. 

What are the typical things community relations would be doing at this time and how can digital and social media help keep those activities and that mission alive? It could be reading to kids, much like a player or team member would at a school visit (the Dallas Mavericks had a video of JJ Barea reading a story to his kids) — how much of a typical school appearance could be re-imagined for a livestream or digital distribution. (At both a broad social and direct to school level). There aren’t enough FaceTime calls to go around, but even a few to children’s hospital wards I’m sure would be welcomed, and excerpts could be cut to share on social.

The goals of community relations, as well as fan development, remain important, so the type of applied ideation we’re taking to fan engagement can be taken to these parts of the organization, too.


Visual Entertainment

Something that has caught my eye recently has been the success of street magicians on TikTok. Getting users to say ‘Wow’ is one way to win engagement on social media and the magic, along with the reactions of the people in the videos experiencing it, make for fun content. This isn’t to say teams should crowdsource magicians and magic content (but maybe they could), but the quick hit entertainment is the key idea to hone in on.

Take inventory or brainstorm around ways to make people feel those certain feels that drive social media engagement (mad, sad, inspired, awed, laughing, learning), particularly in quick hits. Maybe it’s shots of celebrations, stupid human tricks, quick artistic creations, trick shots, fitness performances, and, yes, even magic tricks. There may be something here, there may be nothing, but the point of this post is to explore what it means to think like an entertainer first.

Learn from other masters

Of course, we should all always be students of the game. And now more than ever, time permitting, it would pay to study those that are winning this game. The top Instagram creators, YouTube influencers across the board, and TikTok talents that dominate the platform. There are plenty of examples in sports, too, whether it’s Dude Perfect, House of Highlights, or so many more, including individual-driven channels. 

How can teams and sports organizations consider utilizing their talented content teams, influencers, and individuals to mimic the success of these established masters? Sports commands mega audiences on social media, but without games the playing field is acutely level on social between them and the behemoth individuals that have amassed audiences in original ways on social. Teams shouldn’t necessarily imitate them, but they can learn and adapt insights and ideas into their own strategies, as they seek to keep fans coming to them for however long it’ll take to defeat this pandemic.

Hang Out

There has been some impressive content on live social media platforms in the time since this quarantine started. Live musical performances, in particular, have been pretty cool. But there have also been plenty of live sessions when audiences congregate, but, well, not much is happening besides a notable person hanging out. Even just a couple days ago, Barstool Big Cat got almost half a million viewers for his Periscope that featured him hanging out and eating ice cream while engaging with fans.

Many gamers have built huge audiences for live streams on Twitch, more so for their personality and conversation, with the games serving more as a backdrop. So many prominent athletes and alumni are sitting around with not much to do and so many fans would welcome any chance to hang out with them. Even better if it’s hanging out with a group of them. These players could be watching an old game, playing Words With Friends, or a version of the Newlywed Game with each other, or just enjoying a glass of wine and chatting. How can teams get fans opportunities to hang out — with each other, with special guests, with broadcasters, with celebrities?

Help Players and Fans

I have another article on this topic, but it’s worth reiterating — help players and help fans use all these shiny social media platforms right now. It is easy to take for granted that everyone has a basic understanding of all these apps, let alone an advanced fluency with all of the nuances and tricks to get the most out of them. 

This article started by linking to some stats around the growth of social media usage right now. People are jumping on more than ever, including the players, and teams could do a tremendous service by educating all of them. How to make your first few TikToks, go live with a friend on Instagram, navigate Twitch, try an effect or lens or GIF or sticker, and tag someone in a pic on Twitter. Give them the knowledge, the tools, and then the opportunities to engage, to create, to practice the sport that is social media.

What an exciting, inspiring time it is right now for sports and social media. There is so much creativity and originality playing out every day, and I’m psyched to see what more will come in the following weeks. It’s time to expand the playbook. The only bad ideas are no ideas at all.

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.
Zooms

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.