On episode 154 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Chris Gehring, Senior Manager – Digital Media for the Washington Wizards. 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.
In September 2019, Advertising Week held its New York conference, bringing together several thoughts leaders and practitioners from the world of advertising.
What follows is a collection of the best quotes, stats, insights, and observations shared from the event via Twitter #AWNewYork. Thanks to everyone whose tweets helped fuel this recap and for Advertising Week for putting together a great event!
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.
Once you work in sports business, you’ll never experience sports and sports marketing the same way again. Once you work in social media, you’ll never be able to relate to the average social media user again.
These may be well-worn adages, but they nevertheless true. It’s why we must be always be inquisitive – you can read all the studies, observe all the data, but nothing beats a conversation with a human – to get the true take on their perception, their habits, their values, their reasons, and their experience. And it’s why for the 150th episode of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, I spoke with a ‘normal’ sports fan – my brother, Steven Horowitz.
I uncovered some interesting insights on fan development, on driving game attendance, content consumption, engagement channels and habits, and more. Here are 7 1/2 findings from my chat with Steven, trying to go inside – as much as possible – the mind of the modern millennial sports fan.
Push Notifications are incredibly important
Many of us live on Twitter in sports. We may even have notifications turned on for noted bomb droppers like Woj, Schefty, Shams, Rosenthal, and Bobby Mac (bonus points if you get all these nicknames). But guess what? Most fans aren’t first seeing that news on the platform with the blue bird – they’re more likely getting an alert from their preferred sports app or hearing about it secondhand from a friend via text or private message. Steven explained, using a recent example related to breaking news about his favorite team – the San Diego Padres:
“For me, how I’m finding (big news) on a normal basis…it’s typically a push notification from one of my apps…[Steven gives the example of a recent Fernando Tatis Jr. injury] I happened to be on Twitter when Kevin Acee from the (Union Tribune) broke the story…shortly after seeing that on Twitter…I started getting notifications from the apps on my phone. When I did find that out about the injury, I was texting someone I work with that’s a big fan of him just to let him know…For the most part, it’s finding out from notifications or another friend or colleague texting me if they hear it before I do.”
We think of apps and push alerts as afterthoughts, oftentimes, but the fact is they work. Fans may not open every alert or expand every alert, but rare is the alert that goes unseen from one’s sports app. And with app downloads for teams only slated to grow as mobile ticketing nears 100% and fans access tickets via their team’s app, push notifications can’t and shouldn’t be simply an afterthought. There can be just as much data analysis and targeting as there is with digital marketing and social media content. Are your push alerts analyzed and executed thoughtfully?
Fans don’t default to pirated streams anymore
A generation of us grew up with Justin.tv (which later morphed into Twitcb – heard of it?) – as an endless source of free live TV. Other sites popped up offering similar free streams and many are linked off from Reddit. They may be grainy, they may get pulled down frequently, but they’re free and they’re difficult to police. But with more options than ever to pay only for the content you want, needing nothing more than a connected device of any type, not as many fans it seems rely on the pirated web to satisfy their sports needs. Steven explained his evolution (and, yes, an income has something to do with his evolution, too) –
“I used to (watch pirated streams) a lot. It’s been a couple years since I’ve done that. There was a time when it was a lot easier and then they started cracking down on it more…Now, I get the Red Zone (subscription) every year. Sometimes, if there’s a big boxing match, I’ll try to stream that on whatever sites are available, but other than that I’ve gotten away from (watching pirated streams).”
Steven noted he’s heard of many new players and platforms in the sports streaming space – DAZN, ESPN+, YouTube TV, et al. (but not so much fubo TV, Pluto, and Flo Sports). The pirates may not be winning as much as they used to, but the live sports space is becoming ever more fragmented and we can’t take for granted fans are aware of all the emerging platforms out there, which sports are on them, and how best to bundle their subscriptions to meet their needs while also not paying more than they have to. We can’t take for granted the average fans keep up with this space, it’s hard enough doing so when you’re actually trying to keep up!
Season Tickets are emotion-driven > value-driven
Yes, fans today seem to be more attuned to what, exactly, they’re paying for. And the term ‘membership’ has largely displaced season ticket holder in many cases (even if some, not all, seem more lip service). But being a member is not all about a laundry list of benefits, 10% off at the team store, access to a preseason VIP or seat selection event – those can all be great perks – and it’s not a mathematical equation looking at average cost per game or potential resale value investment – even though many do sell their tickets, let alone ‘members’ that are actually brokers – it’s still a purchase largely driven by emotion and connection to a community and an experience. Steven was once a San Diego Chargers season ticket holder (yes, San Diego, this was years ago) and he tried to articulate his reason for being a season ticket holder:
“I’d say the real reason why I wanted to go and get season tickets was my love for the team. There’s nothing I enjoyed more than tailgating at Chargers games, spending the day at the stadium, and seeing them win…It was a good time and I always look back fondly on those times…”
Getting season tickets wasn’t a calculated decision for him. It was because he could picture no better way to spend a Sunday than heading to Qualcomm Stadium, pigging out at a tailgate, donning his jersey – those powder blues are pretty cool – and cheering on his team among all his fellow fans, friends, and members of a community connected by that shared passion. Maybe this is an anachronistic, nostalgic view of things, but if being a season ticket holder was about love for a team a decade ago, becoming a ‘member’ is sure as heck about an investment of the heart, an emotional tie.
Football watching when you don’t have a favorite team
As a follow-up to the previous point, Steven abandoned the Chargers when they abandoned San Diego. He then became like many fans today – cheering on their fantasy players and their chance at winning money / beating friends instead of cheering on a specific team. Worrying more about who scored than the final score, more about the name on the back than the name on the front. With players shuffling around the superstar-driven NBA, fans growing up in a culture of fantasy and rarely attending games (pr being priced out of games), it’s the new norm. And while local broadcasts still do big numbers, there’s a reason fantasy and daily/weekly fantasy keeps growing each season and more fans are filling their Sundays with Red Zone or a panoply of highlights and updates across a suite of apps. Steven described his fandom nowadays:
“To me, the NFL has become different. I still enjoy watching it, but the way I experience NFL now really revolves around fantasy football. I watch it to see how my fantasy players are doing, see how my team is doing, and that’s really how I go about watching football now (Steven notes he won his fantasy league last year)…I’m able to be unbiased now about who I choose for my teams, who I start in my weekly matchups because I don’t have to worry about (if they’re playing against the Chargers)…It’s definitely changed how I watched football.”
Fans of teams, fans of players, fans of gamble-able outcomes in sports — no matter how they’re watching, plenty of reasons remain for fans to be as attuned as ever to live content and content about who will win and why and to learn more about the players on their rosters and driving these exciting moments each night.
Daily fantasy (and gambling) can create new fans
Speaking of fantasy and gaming, many in the sports world see a future of new fans and more avid fans brought on by the growth of gambling and continued growth of fantasy options. Will these new opportunities bring about new fans? Steven has lived one fan’s story, finding himself a more avid fan of the NBA than ever – thanks to daily fantasy:
“I never hated the NBA, but I was not a huge fan of it. I followed it casually, but more so in the playoffs. But how this happened is – on the daily fantasy website that I play on typically, they gave me a free play (to win money) for a NBA (game) and I think I ended up pretty high in the standings and won some money…and that got me hooked, and I started playing NBA dailies almost every day and that quickly evolved into enjoying not just following the sport, but I also found myself watching the NBA regular season on TV and I hadn’t done that in years.
“I would check Rotoworld a lot because I was having to teach myself about some of these players, too…I would check their stats, I would also see who they’re up going up against…It’s a lot of fun and I’m looking forward to continuing to playing it.”
It’ll be an interesting next few years to see how teams, leagues, and rights holders can harness these fans entering via gambling and fantasy channels and bring them into their ecosystems. The gateway is there, but it remains to be seen how this new wave of potential fans plays out.
Sponsored content is fine, but don’t be disruptive
There are a lot of ways sponsored content is presented these days – a logo bug in the video, tagged on the social platform, the incredibly original “‘sponsor name’ x ‘team name'” or ‘presented by’ in the copy, an end card, pre-roll, and many more options. The good news? Fans don’t seem to mind if a sponsor is involved or even integrated as long as the content is quality. But don’t be disruptive. Don’t interrupt content viewing or steal attention to simply insert a ‘normal’ commercial or ad. Steven shared his thoughts:
“I would say overall I more tune it out and I’m not really paying attention to who those sponsors are. Even sometimes, if I pull up a video and there’s an ad before it, I’ll turn off the sound for it before the content even starts…
“I would say sometimes when they do videos and they do an ad in the middle of the video, I will turn off the video – whether it’s because I don’t care what’s coming up or it just didn’t have me interested enough to continue to wait 20-30 seconds…I will sometimes just turn it off…”
Fans want the content. And, unlike the days of previous decades, fans and users don’t necessarily see sitting through ads as payment in their side of the value exchange for the content they actually want. There are too many ‘free’ options out there and too many content creators doing a better job of integrating sponsors whether passively or actively. Don’t abuse the attention and don’t disrupt the experience – add to it or, at least, don’t detract from it.
Consistent promotions FTW (and be mindful of price sensitive fans)
There is no secret sauce or magic pill that made live gate for sports rise to the level of 20 years ago. Attendance isn’t falling everywhere, but the trend is clearly a downward one from the highs of previous decades when no one gave thought to building stadiums with smaller capacities. But nowadays, even as many teams and schools are awash in media rights money, getting butts in seats is more challenging than ever. So what could we learn from asking a fan about his experience being driven to go to games? Let Steven share his take:
“Over the last year, I pretty much have been only going to Padres games and occasionally a Gulls (AHL hockey) game. How I hear about them? I obviously follow the Padres pretty closely, whether it’s through an app or the team’s website or social media pages..I just know there are games going on. In regards to the Gulls…I don’t go to a bunch of their games, but really what does drive me there is when they do do promotions – they do $2 beer nights sometimes on Friday nights, I’ll go to those games…”
[Steven notes he finds about Gulls promotions typically through their organic social media and will sometimes check their website to see when their next $2 beer night is]
Marketing and sales staffs at teams are getting more and more sophisticated with targeted emails and ads, retargeting previous buyers, and doing their best to assure the right fans see the right promotions. But a takeaway from my chat with at least this fan, Steven, is that, while advertising and digital/social media remains a key tactic, you can’t rely on these platforms to always assure fans find out about your upcoming bobblehead giveaway or flash deal. Which deals are most effective and/or which promotions are the easiest for fans to recall? If you ask an average fan of your team – especially one not coming to every game – to name a promotion the team runs, what would they say? It may be fun to joke about LeBron usurping ‘Taco Tuesday’ for his own, but every Padre fan, including Steven, knows Tuesday games mean Taco Tuesday at Petco Park. Get the word out about unique or ad hoc sales and promotions, but try to create some that stick with fans, so they look forward to your next Half Price Beer Mondays without having to see multiple ads to remind them.
Why does he attend several Padres games? Nostalgia, atmosphere at the ballpark
What drives fans to go to a game, especially if it’s not a novelty or a one-off? Well, the previous point touched on promotions, but the compulsion to seemingly always have consideration top of mind, the internal notion that watching at home is never the same, the key to penetrating the heart and mind of a fan – that doesn’t come overnight. For Steven, our fan guide, much of his inherent desire to be at the game comes from a sense of nostalgia and a practice and bond that originated as a kid. It’s why so many leagues and teams are focused on getting kids to their games while they’re still in grammar schools and they’re just developing their earliest passions and memories that’ll conjure goosebumps of nostalgia when they look back in 20 years. This is how Steven tried to articulate why he finds himself more than once at Petco Park every season:
“Obviously my love for the team. You and I have been going to games since as long as we can remember. We used to go with our dad all the time to the games…I always look back fondly on those times; I love going to games and I still like watching on TV, but if I have the option of going to watch the Padres in person, I’m gonna be there…”
We’re drawn to things that remind us of good times – and nostalgia plays a big role in that. It’s why those in sports say we’re in the business of making memories. Every game is a chance to help a fan form a memory that’ll last forever and bring up of warm feelings every time an element of that memory is resurfaced. Every night is an opportunity to build a fan for life.
Marketing is much more than Mad Men these days. Sure, a good story still matters. But if it’s not backed up by sound digital strategy, strong social media content – paid and organic, analytics to measure and adjust, and documented processes to allow marketing last beyond campaigns and management turnover – then even the strongest stories can fall short of delivering success.
During my recent foray into digital and social consulting, I’ve encountered different business practices and challenges, both from clients I’ve worked with directly and others I’ve observed or actively encountered along the way, and over the years at my last job – working with several dozen clients of varying scale and sophistication. I’m no expert, let alone anything resembling a guru or ninja, but here I discuss a few lessons I’ve learned about the areas businesses of any size can heed as they seek to optimize and develop their own digital and social strategy.
- We’ve always done it this way
There is almost always going to be resistance to change. But if a system seems to rely a bit too much on plugging holes with manual workarounds, it may be time to question. Or if an office manager is the only one that really knows how something works (and the company may just be screwed if he/she was gone tomorrow), it may be time to question. If there are questions you wish you could answer and have a sneaking suspicion others can, it may be time to question. It’s hard enough to run a business every day, while evaluating how replicable, cohesive, and documented one’s systems are, but don’t let inertia preserve a status quo that isn’t as good as it could be and should be.
We have data, great! We can track key metrics like click-through rates, reach, engagement, conversions, conversion rate, and all that fun stuff. So, are these numbers good? Sure, you can try to look up industry benchmarks, see what comes up in a Google search of recent articles and blogs, but the most important benchmark is your own. And to benchmark your data requires not just measuring metrics today, but making sure you can quickly, easily ,and effectively compare it to last year, last quarter, and to this ad or that post in a similar context. We may focus on delivering reports period to period, but if you’re not benchmarking, it’s pretty much impossible to discern whether you’re performing well or not, whether you’re getting better or getting worse.
3. Thinking single touch
These ads delivered no conversions – what went wrong? For years, we blindly accepted the practice of spending money on billboards, radio and TV ads, magazine and newspaper ads, and, later, digital banners and then social ads. But, with the exception of straight coupon / discount offers, rarely could these marketing efforts be traced all the way to a monetary conversion. If it was a multi-touch world the last several decades, today’s consumption-heavy era can involve even more touch points before a consumer is ready to buy. And digital and social ads, in particular, see consumers at all points in the funnel, many of which can be led down the funnel to that last click or that conversion. It’s okay for a “conversion” to not involve a sale – it can be a video completion, a form or contest entry, or just engagement with a post. It’s not typically single touch and that’s not only ok, it’s often expected.
4. Having paid and organic social working in silos
Buying and optimizing social and digital ads is not easy. It involves knowing (and keeping up with) the small and not-so-small changes that seem to occur with the platforms, targeting options, and tactics every day, and making adjustments to copy, creative, audiences, keywords, and placements to deliver the best results. For this reason, many small-to-medium businesses and teams will enlist an outside agency to take of their digital marketing. Meanwhile, the organic social, digital, and email content is usually produced and handled internally. Having these teams in silos eliminates some of the sweet synergies of aligning and working together – sharing and creating content that can and should be used in ads, having a strategy to post dark or boost posts, using the data and learnings from both paid and organic to inform and improve the content strategy on each side, and so much more. It’s not easy and, in many cases, it’s far cheaper on the surface to pay an agency than to hiring a full-time employee, but it doesn’t mean it’s okay to accept silos.
5. Naming conventions
This is not just a pet peeve, but a potential obstacle to organizing data to drive actionable insights. Clean data means naming conventions, and better naming conventions allows for far more effective analysis on the back end. There’s a reason Google has their UTM parameters in place – so digital marketers can track every link down to the campaign, creative, and copy. Likewise for social media ads, if campaigns, ad sets, and ads have arbitrary names, it won’t be too efficient when evaluating ad performance over time that ‘Ad 3’ performed best last quarter, while ‘Ad 6b’ performed best the same quarter last year. You can do the legwork to look it up, but a strong, organized nomenclature is pretty much a necessity these days of big data, and allows for consistency over time as people, roles, and platforms change.
6. Overthinking content
Say the word ‘content’ and some will run away screaming. Sure, the thought of producing content for so many platforms in so many forms, multiplied by days, weeks, and months can be freakin’ frightening. But it doesn’t have to be. If you’re a worthwhile business, you’re providing value to consumers or fans in some way. You have the ability to earn the attention of your customers and prospects by leaning into content that’ll make them smarter, make them laugh, make them feel something, or make them empathetic. Be a thought leader – curate and share knowledge; be a friend – share something that’ll make your customers smile because it resonates with who your customers are; tell me about people like me – share stories of your customers and lessons learned or ideas they try. And don’t be afraid to repurpose and repost! A video can beget a blog post can beget a quote or stat graphic can beget a poll can beget a blog post summarizing poll results can beget UGC and so on. And don’t whip out a camera or bring in a video producer to create a single video for a single content piece – instead of shooting for two minutes for one piece, shoot for 12 minutes and get a whole lot more, so you won’t have to touch a camera for weeks or months. Content does take work and does take strategic forethought, but it doesn’t have to be hard as we make it out to be.
7. Underthinking content
The other side of the spectrum when it comes to content should be avoided, too. Don’t post or send content just to post or send content. There should be a why and it’s always helpful to take a step back, put yourself in the shoes of the scroller, and think if it’s truly something would slow your scroll or something you want to consume or engage. Every piece of content, email, ad is an opportunity to strengthen your brand and credibility, or to weaken it. The attention of consumers is also not something to be taken for granted. Give content the thoughtfulness and quality your fans, your customers, and your future customers deserve
8. Put the *action* in actionable data
You have data to review, awesome! But don’t just look at it, and then go about business as usual. Learn from it – insights should often lead to action, if you’re not uncovering insights, you’re probably not asking the right questions of your data or looking at it in the right way. It’s not easy to take the time to think through and execute changes, but that’s the point of the data – to justify and assure the effort taken to deviate from the status quo. When reviewing performance metrics, make sure to answer the ‘So what?’ and follow that with ‘So then let’s try this.’ Don’t force strategic overhauls, but don’t sit back when the data is telling you to move.
9. The fallacy of relying on ‘best practices’
Ok, a bonus one to tie much of this together: the fallacy of overly relying on best practices.
A funny thing about ‘best practices’ – once they become best practices, everyone using best practices has regressed to the mean. Another thing about best practices – they’re at best a guide, far from a prescription. Spend less time studying best practices and more time testing, measuring, and benchmarking with your audience (or that of your competitors/peers), and studying and evaluating their engagement and consumption habits. There is a whole lot of variety among the businesses and brands utilizing digital and social media marketing, and thinking there is a uniform set of practices that are optimal for them all is not the foundation upon which to form a strategy.
It’s easy to get stuck in a tunnel of just keeping up every day and sometimes impossible to see, or take the time to look for, areas to improve and insights to uncover. Sometimes it takes a different set of eyes, or the courage to ask and attack the difficult questions. There will be wins and there will be the losses, but once you get in the game, you’ll have far more control of the outcome, able to veer toward victory in the end.