How Eric Nichols Molded and Mastered Marketing Athletics at Two SEC Schools

On episode 126 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Eric Nichols of University of South Carolina Gamecocks/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.

Posted by Neil Horowitz

Follow me on Twitter @njh287 Connect on LinkedIn

In the Social Media Game, the Most Important Competition is Yourself

The gym is an interesting place. There’s people of all shapes and sizes utilizing a vast variety of routines and techniques often with different goals in mind. Some are trying to lift the heaviest weight each time, some are trying to burn the most calories, to build the biggest muscle, and so forth.

And yet we can’t help but compare. Can’t help sizing up the person on the bench next to you and taking it as a challenge to outperform him or her. But is it fair to compare unless each person in this scenario are the same size? Are their objectives the same? Is this habit of comparison, to try and best the biggest and strongest in the room, the best road to success?

The gym analogy works well to describe the varying challenges of what it means to succeed in social media. When leagues often inform their teams of where they stand in the rankings across a number of team digital and social media metrics, it can be easy to get lured into obsessing over where your team stands. And it can get even more difficult to avoid it when leadership joins the fray, thinking they can win the championship of social media as easily as they can the league title.

But not every team is a 6’5″, 300 lb. behemoth. When dealing with gross metrics, follower sizes, website traffic, video starts, et al. – it’s not a fair fight and it’s not a worthwhile  comparison for either side. And yet, just like FS1 wants to beat ESPN, it can sometimes be hard to get away from these lists.

It’s not so black and white, however. Even those atop the rankings may not be ‘winning’ in a traditional sense. They may not have a strong brand, an engaged audience, a graph of their metrics on an upward trajectory. The most important benchmark is your team’s stats last month, last week, last year.

That’s not to say benchmarking against one’s (relative) peers is a bad thing. There was an interesting Twitter exchange recently in which some respected pros in the space lent opinions on this topic. Of benchmarking, the well-respected Senior Director of Social Media Strategy for the New York Yankees said it can be “extremely motivating when done right, and extremely chaotic when done wrong.”

If it’s done in alignment with the organization’s goals, that allows them to not just maintain but strengthen their brand and their affinity of their fan base — a desire to move up the rankings can lead to greater investment and resources.

But even then it’s important to mind the metrics that matter most. It’s not easy to measure, of course, but it’s not impossible to develop meaningful metrics that  can be shown to drive the fans and the brand, that contribute to the bottom line. Those are rankings that are harder to come by, but those are the ones teams should value the most, vanity be damned.

This is all easier said than done, of course. And it takes evolution across the board, most importantly from the leadership up top. Because for generations it was fairly black and white; we didn’t know better nor could we measure better. But defining success is more a science than an art these days, social media and sports is growing up. Pat Muldowney, Director of Social Content for The Ringer, who previously spent several years in social media for FOX Sports, summed it up perfectly.

 

“Most of the requests for this type of [rankings/vanity metrics] reporting come from a level of leadership that’s familiar with ratings or traffic as barometers for success,” said Muldowney. “Instead of ‘Are we succeeding?’ it’s ‘Are we winning?’ Hopefully this will evolve over time.”

So we return to our gym rat, who now realizes everyone in the gym may be defining success that day in a different way. They’re all out to get better every day, to achieve a level of health and fitness, but they’re not all chasing the same numbers. They’re trying to succeed themselves, not trying to win the weight room. Their only benchmark is themselves.

 

You can see much of the original Twitter thread here

Sports Biz and Fan Engagement Observations from the LA Rams Playoff Game

January 6, 2018 the Los Angeles Rams hosted the Atlanta Falcons in the first NFL playoff game in Los Angeles since…a long time ago. With the Rams losing, it was also the last game of their second season back in Los Angeles, playing the LA Coliseum.

I had the chance to go to the game and, as always, was on the eye for lessons and notables, from a sports business and fan engagement perspective. Here 15 quick observations:

 

  1. Branded hangout areas w/ TV’s 

    Many stadiums nowadays have social areas – a place to have a drink and maybe catch up with your group of friends away from the bleachers, especially at NFL games where most Sundays there are tons of other games happening during the ones fans are attending. The Rams game was no exception with multiple areas with between the concessions with TV”s, bar tables, and other seating. It came in handy as we stopped to watch the end of an earlier game. Easy opportunity to brand these areas and the Coliseum did so with the tent/umbrellas and (maybe?) the TV’s. The main things missing were charging stations and maybe some more loung-ey furniture.
    ramns1 

  2. USC all over 

    The Coliseum has for several years been home to the USC Trojans football team. And it was certainly notable that, despite the importance of this first NFL playoff game in LA in so long, the building concourse was decidedly USC. From the paint colors to the names of hte non-branded concessions stands, the Rams as a renter was readily apparent. I’m not sure what kind of restrictions were in place, but I hope everything possible was attempted to create a venue that screamed Rams that Saturday.
    rams3 

  3. Pop-up stores 

    Venues used to just have one big store if fans wanted merchandise for the team. Then, mall-like kiosks came for hats and maybe t-shirts. Now you’ll often see more pop-up stores where fans can feel and browse what’s for sale. The Rams had a few, including this one for their ‘premium’ merch brand ’47.rams2

  4. Branding Help Desk 

    Learn the partner’s brand and mission, figure out how it fits into the fan experience. For Southern California Honda, they’re all about being ‘Helpful Honda’ Dealers. Well, the Rams know their info booth is an integral part of game day. So it was branded for Helpful Honda [Helpful Hut]. A great way to inject the brand in a way that reinforces their messaging while providing real value to the fan experience in an entirely organic way. More activations like all over the fan experience.
    rams4 

  5. Concessions maps / no app 

    The Coliseum is not known as a beaming beacon of modernity and there was a certain ’90’s vibe to their concessions maps up on the walls around the venue. Digital screens or even a venue mobile app would have been a welcome way to navigate the venue than crowding around an old-school wall map.rams5

  6. Cinnabon 

    It’s always good to have venue (and/or team) partners that serve food from their known and loved brands, including national ones like Cinnabon (smells so good), and local loves like Randy’s Donuts and Trejo Tacos.

  7. Clear bagsIt seems like most sports events now in college and pros have a clear bag policy in place, meaning fans can bring in items provided they are stored in a clear bag of a specified size. Messaging around this clear bag policy has taken up multiple pages of social and PR strategy. And, of course, it represents a great opportunity for teams to sell or disseminate clear bags to make it easier for fans, and get their brand out there more. It’s also a valuable opportunity for a helpful sponsor to assist in giving fans a very helpful bag.

    rams6

  8. Rally Towels 

    I’m not sure who invented the rally towel, but it is a damn good fan engaement tool, in many ways. Create a communal and fun atmosphere at the game [not to mention, solid Instagram pics], while also creating a valuable place to expose a team partner. The towel may end up lost or trashed after the game, but the cheap giveaways are worth every penny.

  9. A few big brands 

    The Rams no doubt have a large portfolio o corporate partners, but if you were to ask fans to look around the game, there are maybe 4-6 brands that would be can’t-miss. For years now, instead of filling every nook and cranny, teams have looked for more integrated partnerships and more meaningful activations. It seems to be a good trend as teams don’t have to divvy up every impression and effort and content piece, instead identifying the more opportune, relevant ways to integrate partners.

  10. 24 Hour Fitness Flex Cam 

    I saw this same promotion at the LA Galaxy game at StubHub Center, and it’s a fun one and a good one, with an obviously relevant tie-in to the partner.

    rams7
     

  11. Whose House?! 

    Call and response chants are a powerful thing in sports, and every team should have one. They bring together thousands of fans like nothing else, and becomes a way for fans to connect and share their enthusiasm like nothing else. I wasn’t aware of the Rams’ call-and-response of “Whooooose house? Rams’s house!” chant before this game, but you better believe I knew it by the end of the game. Whether it was the PA inciting the crowd, random call outs in the concourse (and, yes, even the bathroom), and banners and shirts, the mantra is ubiquitous and Rams fans can’t get enough of it. It was pretty darn cool to see fans come together as one to take part in chant after chant throughout the game day.

  12. Social media-like overlays 

    Just about everyone is familiar with, and delighted by, graphic overlays, mostly referred to as lenses. And the Rams get creative with their fan cam that adds Ram horns to excited fans. It’s like Snapchat and Instagram on the big screen. The only thing missing is the chance for fans to save and share these pics. The excitement of getting on the video board is timeless, and the Rams are keeping that strong with a 21st century twist that turns fans into Rams. Of course, poor cell and no WiFi made social media-ing tough, limiting my ability to share my experience.rams8


  13. Tagboard / #LARams 

    Social aggregation platforms like Tagboard are all over in sports and entertainment these days. If getting on the video board is goal #1, getting your selfie from IG on the board is perhaps #2 on the excitement chart. While these activations are admirable, they never seem to quite get the participation they would seem to merit. I also noted they didn’t push their official NFL Twitter hashtag, #MobSquad, instead deferring to perhaps the more organic and voluminous, #LARams. Similar to some experiences I’ve had at other events, I saw pics repeated multiple times [perhaps intentional]. UGC will remain an integral part of fan engagement, though the means and medium and presentation will no doubt evolve and improve over time.
    [See Flexcam pic above for an example of the callout; the only place I saw social media pics coming in was on the side of the video board]

  14. Snoop Dogg and other celebs 

    It’s LA. It’s Hollywood. So the game wouldn’t be complete without a celebrity appearance or two. And while they may not have a ritual like the Carolina Panthers pounding of the drum, the Rams do have the aforementioned ‘Whose House?’ chant that is perfect for a cameo to lead. Tone Loc (who just made me think Ace Ventura: Pet Detective) was first to rap and chant for the crowd. Later, Rob Lowe also made an appearance. Meanwhile, all the millennials rejoiced (myself included) for the chance to see LA’s own Snoop Dogg perform at halftime. It wouldn’t be a big game in LA without a little star power.rams9

  15. Metro Cards 

    While my party was considering where best to book an Uber (there is no designated zone at the Coliseum), the Metro made their mark, too, with a prominent tent near the exits/entrances, inviting fans to buy and load cards there. It’s an easy and effective way to activate the partnership in a manner that’s super-helpful for fans. The ATM machines in the stadium were also branded with a banking partner (again, easy enough).

rams10

 

Overall, it felt like a Rams team doing the best they could in a building in which they’re just a tenant. Connectivity is a limitation, too. The stadium didn’t seem conducive to kids, with plenty of beer gardens and lounge areas, but no attraction for kids – kids area, face painting, photo-ops, etc. The lack of open space also likely accounts for little novel sponsor activation happening. No memory makers, contest, displays, or pop-ups. We went to a football game.
The video board promos were not bad, and the music selection was good. However, there were multiple times when a replay wasn’t shown or a Twitter-like GIF was used when all I wanted was to see video of the play. There were times those with me missed the close coverage one gets on the couch. But that’s the tradeoff for the atmosphere.

It was a great opportunity, if nothing else, to witness the passion the Rams fans have. While the team remains a tenant, for now, their Inglewood palace is coming, and the experience will be much different. In the end, it’s about giving fans the feeling after the game of wanting to come back.

Brandon Steiner Knows the Path to True Fan Engagement is Making it Personal

On episode 109 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Brandon Steiner, Founder and CEO, Steiner Sports.

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.

Posted by Neil Horowitz

Follow me on Twitter @njh287 Connect on LinkedIn

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

spns

There remains a fine line between advertising and sponsorship.

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

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

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

Let me tell a story. I’ve lived this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How the Minnesota Wild Create Quality Social Media Sponsorship

It wasn’t so long ago I received some sponsor copy that I was to copy and paste onto the team’s social media channels. That was sponsored social media in the relative stone age.

I didn’t like it. Fans didn’t like it. And did little or nothing for the corporate partner.

There’s a better way. And, as Minnesota Wild Social Media Coordinator Katlyn Gambill explains, the organization is not just fulfilling orders, they’re working closely with corporate partners to design or incorporate an activation that fans will actually enjoy and will further the sponsor objectives. As sports teams have started acting more like content production companies, they’ve also started to put those skills to work for their corporate partners.

“Our main focus is ‘What do the fans want, and are they going to enjoy it?’ Gambill told me in our recent chat. “Our corporate department is fantastic on selling, and going back to a partner and saying ‘We want both sides to be successful in this. So, while this may be the idea, here’s this tweak that’ll fit our fans better and our brand. And it’ll produce better results for you. Are you cool with this?'”

Beyond serving as the informed intermediary and content producers for their sponsors, the Wild also take the time to understand the brands, figure out the fit, and evaluate the best way to activate. Because social media is active media and the beauty of it is it can and should produce actions, going beyond the longstanding payoff of ‘impressions.’ When there is a defined goal, campaigns can be tailored to fit those goals and to achieve results against those goals. While her title may not have ‘partnership’ or ‘sponsorship’ in it, it’s clear from speaking with Gambill, and most social media and sports pros, that a deep understanding of ROI and partnership activation is not only a plus, but a requirement for these roles. Gambill gets it.

“I’m also not a fan of just plopping a logo on something; I don’t think that does anything on social media,” said Gambill, who has been with the Wild for over three years. “If the company doesn’t have social media presence, (then) it’s really difficult for me to buy into it, because what are they getting out of it, then? Are they looking for just leads? Are they trying to build their social media presence to allow fans to follow them and, in time, buy their product or whatever they’re trying to do?”

It can’t feel forced or out of place, because fans these days will sniff that out quickly. If it feels natively baked into the experience and the content, the sponsor doesn’t feel like an advertiser, the sponsor feels like a partner. And that’s a win for all sides. Sometimes, it’s integrating a sponsor into a content feature or promotion already tried, true, and welcomed by fans. Other times, it’s working with folks like Gambill, that understand the community and the brand, to identify something fans will like.

“So we work really closely with them on trying to tie something in that we’re either already doing on social and digital media, and how we attach it to a partner,” explained Gambill, who credits her time working with the New Jersey Devils as a beneficial experience to helping her understanding of effective sponsor activation. “Or – what does the partner want, what are they looking for, and how can we build something that will fit both our side and theirs?…So it’s a lot of going back and forth, and trying to make sure both sides are really happy.”

There is no doubt that the nature of sponsorship and advertising has changed. For sports, this means increased opportunity, but also increased responsibility. Fans will consume content and give their hearts and minds to their favorite teams, and sponsors can benefit from this investment. But there’s a wrong way and better ways.

The better, more enlightened path may not be quick and easy as a copy and paste job. But the benefit of a little work and a little collaboration can lead to tremendous partnerships and partnership activations. The era of advertising is over. The era of partnerships is just beginning.