The sports and greater sports business world keeps getting more complex.
It’s normal for industries to evolve day after day and year after year, but it sure does feel like the sports world gets involved in every new trend capturing people’s attention. It’s the blessing and the challenge of being part of an industry that’s driven by passion, unconditional fandom, and an endless supply of stories, characters, and live events.
But that’s kinda the point of it all.
Sports evolves with the mediums because it intertwines with the means to the important ends of connecting with others and feeling part of a community. Sports serves as the keystone upon which conversations, stories, and relationships are built.
As the universe gives way to the metaverse and gaming (or, at least, interacting in video game environments all day), the sports world already looks to be part of it. Gamers have been buying up ‘skins’ for their avatars to wear for a while now, sports teams have their own esports teams across a number of game titles, and organizations are imagining complex venues inside games, complete with sponsor signage and all. But look closer and those key underlying principles come to light — playing games is a pastime to do while you’re spending time with friends. You wear the skin featuring your favorite team partly because it’s a signal to other gamers to engage if they also like that team, an invitation to connect and interact.
The gaming ecosystem has also helped to usher in connection through related communities, backed by an array of diverse Discord servers and through other live audio rooms (like video games without the games) such as Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces. If sports are among the original points of community and social connection, they can now give life to smaller, but highly engaged micro-communities. Just as gamers in Fortnite can come together because of their mutual love for the team, how can sports teams serve a similar platform?
If fans playing games can come together because of mutual interest in a given team, could sports teams do the vice-versa — help fans of the team connect with each other around additional interests? Fans of the team that play the same video game, or that have young kids, or perhaps those that are also CrossFit adherents, etc. etc.?
We’re used to chasing big numbers in sports, but big communities don’t feel quite as special as they once did. And the world of non-fungible tokens — better known by the ubiquitous acronym NFTs — is serving to build these more exclusive, connective communities. In sports, they may become the new loyalty program — tracking/rewarding how fans engage, introducing those with similar passions and avidity levels an opportunity to connect.
Yes, there is the fiscal side to NFTs, with the community conversation often superseded by aspirations of making big bucks; creating financial assets more than communities. It’s not unlike the promise of gambling’s arrival to US sports. In the short-term it means big-money deals with sponsorships AND, the hope is, more engagement from bettors seeking to get an edge and to watch their wagers play out in real time. The long-term hope is that gambling can be an entry point for fans, as those buoyed by winning bets develop a genuine passion for the players and the team that helped win them money. And, vice-versa perhaps for teams, that existing fans become even more engaged as they learn to gamble.
Many fans are learning about money lines and parlays through their favorite teams and team/league partner activations. Fans will likely soon learn about blockchain technology through sports, too, as ticketing evolves in that direction. Other fans are also learning about NFTs, DAOs, OTT, AR, and other new technology (even non-acronyms!) Sports will continue to be a key platform through which consumers try out new technology and learn new ideas that they’ll take with them to other parts of their life.
Sports have been aspiring to transcend into lifestyle brands for years now. Look at the sports fan experience today — many will arrive at a game in the Uber or Lyft lot, they can order food [or even merch] to their seats often through a partner like Postmates or Doordash or even GoPuff. They’ll check the weather, make betting-like predictions, and (I’ve even seen) purchase and manage insurance plans all in the team app. For years, many in the west have expected Facebook or Instagram to become more like the super apps of the east such as WeChat and Alipay. Could sports apps start to head in that direction, too, with more of fans’ lives orbiting around their favorite sports? (You can read a good article about ‘super apps’ here if you’re interested)
The pinnacle is when one’s team becomes part of their identity, such that they wear the brand (in the physical and/or digital worlds) and feel a part of a community. This same feeling is starting to prevail in communities that form and germinate from fans of influencers, be they musicians, YouTubers, TikTokers, etc. In the influencer world, fans show they’re part of the club through buying subscriptions, emoting digital gifts, and, yes, purchasing NFTs. Many NFTs are now laden with experiential benefits, too, such as attending a Gary Vaynerchuk event, getting face time with their favorite influencer, access to exclusive events or merchandise, and more. Which influencer’s NFT will come with tickets to a game or series of games, or access to exclusive team swag and experiences? Influencers could be a viable entry point for fans to further connect and engage with the teams they love or could grow to love, too.
Athletes were among the ‘original’ influencers. And they are starting to seize the opportunities presented to them in the increasingly influencer-focused economy. Leagues and college programs are facilitating athlete success on social more than ever now. They want to turn their athletes into influencers with the hopes they’ll reach and cultivate more fans. Many leagues and teams already work with the traditional influencers, but they’re starting to realize there are powerful social and digital influencers who are already on their payroll.
The past year has ushered in rapid evolution of new ideas and technologies in sports and beyond. The majority are still wrapping their head around the opportunities that lie with blockchain, NFTs, influencers, web3, metaverse, and super apps and super brands, and the accessory mediums that pop up within and around these areas.
But, as becomes more clear every year — as things keep changing, the foundations that make the sports business great only get stronger. There’s passion, connection, community, and identity. I don’t know what 2022 will bring for sports, but I have little doubt we’ll all find a way to cheer and take it all in together.
In November 2021, Instagram released a new way to collaborate with other users and to create organically viral content themes across the platform. It’s the ‘Add Yours’ sticker, which Instagram describes as ‘a sticker that creates public threads in Stories.’ To use it, just select the sticker when creating your IG Story post and enter the reply prompt for fans. Then, when fans reply their avatars will be seen on your original Sticker and a new sticker with the same prompt will be seen in each fan respondent’s Story by their followers. It’s still fresh, even for the rapidly evolving world of social, but use cases and ideas are beginning to bear fruit in sports social and beyond.
One of the first campaigns to take off came from a call for users to post a picture of themselves and their pet and, in exchange, a tree would be planted. Because of the meta nature of the Add Yours sticker — each reply to the sticker creates another degree of separation from the original post, kind of like an old-fashioned chain letter — it became unclear who was responsible for all those trees, which numbered approximately 2.3 million.
While tons of Instagram users found themselves connected by a love of pets and/or dendrophilia (a love of trees), the opportunity is also powerful in sports, where fans are connected by their passion for the team. Duke Men’s Basketball recently tipped off their 2021-22 season in a much-anticipated Champions Classic matchup against Kentucky at Madison Square Garden. And since their millions of fans around the world couldn’t join them at MSG, the team used the Add Yours sticker to help the community feel connected.
They posted two Add Yours stickers in their Stories, one calling for fans to share how they were watching the big game, and another inviting fans to post their game night outfits. As each fan posted their own Story in response (which also reposted the same sticker), the movement grew and more fans participated. The Duke account itself could only see the first-degree respondents, if you will, but each subsequent response to the responses (is your head spinning yet) begat more participating fans, growing the initial flake to a snowball — err, collections of snowballs — of Duke fandom.
Bundesliga football [soccer] club Borussia Dortmund similarly activated their worldwide fanbase but took it a step further in resharing some of the responses sent their way, kind of like retweeting a fan’s reply, but in IG Stories instead. And it got even more meta when a fan reposted their repost to share their excitement about the team sharing her post. (This new IG feature can get comically meta). The club asked fans to share their gameday moment and they clearly got several great responses. They picked out a few of their favorites to repost to show fans they were listening. But consider the movement they started — but instead of tons of dog and cat pictures like the example cited earlier, it was a viral chain of Borussia Dortmund passion.
User-generated content (UGC) is powerful in sports, where fans were accustomed to cheering in unison at arenas and stadiums, they now channel their collective roar on digital platforms. The Adds Yours sticker is one way to help fans connect with each other, but it’s an accelerant and firestarter for UGC. It’s not the most effective method for the brand or team to collect and reshare the best UGC. Some organizations try their best to curate and collect UGC through hashtags (and then DM each user to get permission to use the content), but others are increasingly turning to more effective ways to collect and clear content from fans at scale using new technology.
Greenfly’s +Engage product is empowering teams, leagues, brands, and more all over the world to invite fans to submit photos and videos, which come into the organization’s Greenfly channel automatically organized for review and download (And cleared for use). Some are also using +Engage to collect fan data, source creators, and activate sponsorships. Check out a few examples here, here, and here. As Instagram’s new sticker makes clear, some of the best content creators in sports are fans, and there’s an increasing array of opportunities to activate that fan-generated content, with the right strategy and solution in place.
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.
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.
[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!]
Social media and sports pros are asked to deliver a lot. They must drive the key ‘vanity’ metrics to ensure the brand is reaching a wide audience, keep the engagement rate high in order to be attractive to sponsors, aaaand help develop new fans across generations — and do all that while building and enhancing the brand of the organization and activating their presence across a number of disparate platforms. And, oh yeah, create content and track and interpret data, too.
Yeah, it’s a lot.
The volume of demands and output requires a keen sense of brand development, and a deep understanding of each social channel. There are still some that press ‘send’ and see their content, copy, and creative plastered across platforms identically to drive up the vanity metrics; but the vast majority do not, and for good reason. I recount all this to set up the insights offered by Austin Penny, who helped develop and execute social media strategy for Auburn Athletics and Auburn Football, as well as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — recognizing each organization’s unique goals and how to effectively execute against them across platforms, while staying true to stated brand goals and values. Penny was able to frame the discussion in clear and stark terms, noting the similarities and differences of moving from Auburn to the NFL and the Bucs.
“Everything that we did at Auburn was based around recruiting,” said Penny, who had two separate stints working at Auburn around his time with the Bucs. “At the end of the day, you’re creating content to show what it’s like to be an Auburn Tiger; [to] really give that 14 to 18 year-old the best insight of what it would be like if they came and played a sport and studied at Auburn. So that was our goal every single day is how can we create content that’s going to show that?…
“[Then] with the Bucs], it went from recruiting to revenue…”[It was] ‘let’s do our best to create content, sell [social] media, work with corporate partnerships to make sure that we’re marrying the right content to the right partner.'”
The trick is to create content worth marrying to the partners in a way that aligns with the brand that the Bucs wanted to put out there, too. A brand that fans would want to identify with and wrap their arms around, and also a brand with which sponsors would want to partner. When Penny joined the team, the Bucs were about to set sail (sorry, had to do it) on a reinvigorated brand strategy, creating a desirable brand in which fans could take pride. It’s one thing to talk about a brand, another to articulate it, and yet another to execute and convey it. Penny described the pillars that guided him and the Bucs on social media. With an identity in place, they were ready to go when moves on the football side presented an opportunity — wind in their sails, if you will.
“We had fearless, we had being piratical and really taking advantage of our mascot — who we are — [and] we had being heartfelt,” said Penny in describing the Bucs’ brand pillars. “Then you start to have these [player] signings where you’re getting Tom [Brady], you’re getting these guys and the hype is starting to build, and then you’re rolling out this new brand.
“And you can see it from [around] last February into April — the brand transition, along with the jersey change, that’s kinda what helped spur that on, and then you get a brand that is high-class. You get a brand that’s really focused on the customer service side and look how cool we are. You want to be a part of this, you definitely want to be a part of this. Look, we’re winning now. “
Penny conceded that, of course, winning makes everything easier. But even the best teams still face the challenges that every organization does in trying to be intentional about their brand — being engaging to different fan demos on different platforms. The tactics, voice, and content packaging, substance, and strategy can all differ when speaking to diverse groups of fans and on different social networks. It’s not about trying to be everything to everybody; that’s a doomed proposition. To have success on each social channel is to respect and use those differences; to understand who you’re talking to on each platform and how they like to engage there. The brand’s north star can be consistent even as it floats to different platforms; it’s not unlike how, well, real humans have distinct personalities even if the way they talk around their aunts and uncles is different from the way they talk around their friends. Penny gave a thoughtful explanation of how the Bucs looked at some of the major social platforms.
“On Twitter, we were way more engaging, we knew that we had to constantly be talking back to fans — not in a bad way, but talking back to fans and engaging with them, making them feel like they were a part of this whole thing,” said Penny, who today works as a Social Media Manager for sports digital and social marketing agency STN Digital.
“On Facebook, we started a Facebook Group for our fans and we would always be in that engaging with them, giving them opportunities for giveaways and that type of thing. So we were a little bit more not necessarily reserved, but we were more appreciative, I guess you could say, as a brand. On Instagram there were times where we were telling people to walk the plank because they were clapping at us and saying how terrible of a game we had or how bad we were, and we’re just like ‘Hey, you know what, whatever we’re coming after you at times.’”
The reason it is so necessary to have presence across a growing number of platforms is that teams and schools and sports organizations are trying to reach everybody. They’re trying to reach existing fans across a variety of sociodemographic groups, while also reaching and converting potential new fans, particularly among the younger cohorts. It’s easier said than done, however, and it’s why hitting big numbers overall is not always a clear signifier of success on social media. And it’s why such a thoughtful approach across social networks is essential.
Penny broke it down further: “It’s not necessarily about just growing platforms,” he said, “but it’s doing it the way that we know that we should — are we putting out content that our fans are actually engaging with and then, to take that a step further, how are we locking in on the 14 to 18-year-old next crop of NFL fans? Are we showing content that’s resonating with them?
“And then it’s like, okay, how are we going to do our job so we can make sure that 10 years from now we’re still able to have a job because there is that next crop of fans coming. And that’s every professional sport league…”
Penny continued, hitting on what guides social media teams in making economical decisions about how and where to deploy their limited resources.
“Every platform has its own world, really, and you may have fans or followers that follow you on every single platform and kind of going back to my earlier point about having a different voice on [each platform] that kind of gives them incentive to follow you on everything. But from actually breaking it out and figuring out where we’re going to put our resources, it’s really prioritization of the buckets of the people that we’re trying to hit.
“Every platform is going to have a key demo that you’re going to hit and once you figure that out and you kind of understand that better, you can really start to attack it, divvy up your resources better.”
There’s no one way to identify success on social media, because each organization comes with its own goals and distinct brand. The best know what they’re trying to do, they’re intentional about it. Every decision, post, and piece of content is not about what will earn the highest engagement — that’s part of it, sure — but it’s what will earn the highest engagement while helping ‘x’ goal and conveying ‘y’ brand and reaching ‘z’ audience, among a number of other letters of the alphabet representing variables.
There are a lot of pathways to earning the engagement and impressions that many use to measure success, but the routes and destinations are unique to each organization. Every strategy needs to start by mapping out the routes and destinations that make sense for them. Don’t ever lose or forget the compass, it’s the only way to get where you need to go.
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:
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.
“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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…”
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.
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.
Social media is easy, right? It’s the vocation of iNtErNs, after all. Everybody knows how to post content on social media, almost everybody has posted on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. etc.
But don’t let the accessibility and ‘fun’ nature of social media obscure the fact that it can and should be an integral part of business strategy. A thoughtful, effective social media strategy can create and build brands, can cultivate and activate audiences, and can make or break the short-term and long-term success for an organization, campaign, and balance sheet.
The key to understanding social media strategy — the key to understanding just about anything — is asking ‘why?’. Why should a business or brand post on social media? Sure, more followers, more engagement, and more attention is usually not a bad thing; the whole ‘all publicity is good publicity’ epigram at play. But it’s at the next level where professionals reside. Where there’s a method to the madness. David Brickley, founder and CEO of STN Digital, a ‘social-first’ marketing agency talked about the importance of understanding the why of it all.
Brickley explained: “That’s the big thing that we help do is [define] ‘What’s our core purpose?” What’s our mission? What’s our North Star? What are our brand pillars? What audience are we trying to attract? Where do they live?’
“All those things I think sometimes get left behind and people just start posting content or ‘let’s grow to a million followers;’ [it’s] like, ‘Wait a second. Do you want a million followers that are more the Gen Z demographic? Do you want a million followers that are more 35 to 54 [age range]?’ That’s an important distinction to make before you just start creating content because you want to attract the right viewers that ultimately, from an ROI perspective, can purchase your product or tune into your television network or what have you…
“[Otherwise] how do you know if you’re successful or not?”
It can be challenging, however, to work toward strategic objectives when the giant scoreboard often equates performance with the vanity metrics. Social media goals can’t be defined by some vanity metric without context and forethought. This is what separates the ‘anybody can do social’ strategy from the pros. Brickley walked me through a scenario in which the vanity metrics scoreboard didn’t necessarily tell the whole story.
“We have some clients that really want to increase their Gen Z demographic (or) they really want to increase Latinx or their Black audience,” said Brickley, who has overseen STN Digital working with some of the biggest names in sports and entertainment. “So those are the things that we’re looking at — is our Gen Z audience that’s only 17% this month, can we get it up to 18% next month? So we may lose [net] followers, but if we lost, no offense, the 54 to 65 year old demo, and we gained a bunch of 18 and 22 year olds [then] that’s actually a win, even though the net score looks like we lost followers this month.
“So we work with a lot of brands that are trying to re-identify themselves, or they have a new initiative from the top down saying we need to get younger or we need to get more diverse audiences and consumers. And those are the things that we look at rather than maybe your traditional vanity metric, which is followers.”
Sometime in the early days of digital advertising, marketers began tracking return on investment (ROI). After years of billboards, TV commercials, and radio ads that largely lacked direct ROI measures, digital offered more insight than ever. And then social media arrived on the heels of digital and those direct ROI measures were expected, too. But just because new mediums arose, the marketing funnel itself didn’t disappear. Customers are rarely created with a single ‘impression.’ And expecting every social media post to have a directly attributable ROI is missing the forest for the trees. Brickley broke down the framework with which to look at social media (and, really, to look at for any form of marketing).
“I think [what] frustrates some marketers is they can’t attribute ROI immediately,” Brickley explained. “But there’s such a thing as upper funnel and lower funnel marketing. And a lot of what social is is upper funnel and awareness. And then you can kind of drill that consumer down to take action in the lower funnel.
“But we have clients that say this all the time — they want to go straight to lower funnel. But if you haven’t built education, if you haven’t built rapport, if you haven’t built brand loyalty or brand trust with something, it’s gonna be very difficult to have (somebody) buy a car if you’ve never heard of that car before.”
Customer acquisition, even with the help of social media, is nonlinear. The most valuable ‘engagement’ happens off-platform and the most valuable part of the social media marketing funnel often can’t be found in the metrics. The highest demonstration of success isn’t direct attribution of a social media post to a sale or conversion — it’s inspiring a current customer (or follower) to evangelize and convert their friends and family. To turn one follower into fifty and truly activate the network effect of social networking. The focus can’t always be on finding the next customer or follower when the surest path to doing so is augmenting the avidity of the existing ones [and to ensure they don’t unfollow, because all it takes is a quick click].
“I think your goal as a brand is to continually engage [and] evoke emotion from your current audience, but also attract a new audience,’ said Brickley. “How do you attract a new audience? Well, you gotta have your current followers reshare your content. Maybe they DM their friends this content. I’ve been a big golfer here for the last year or so because of COVID and my friends are constantly sending me fun golf memes…And all of a sudden, I start following those accounts because I enjoy the content they’re putting out. So that’s one way to acquire a new fan.
“But absolutely once you get those hundred thousand followers, it’s your job to keep those followers. I was talking to Lyndsay Signor over at NBC Sports — I think she said this on my podcast: ‘You know, they don’t haveto follow you, right? At any time someone can unfollow you.’…”
So, putting it all together, social media strategy targets specific goals while staying true to brand purpose while attracting new followers and fostering current ones while keeping up with the ever-changing nature of platforms, user behaviors, and online culture in which they operate.
Okay, on second thought, maybe it’s not so easy, after all.
Social media has to wear a lot of hats. For a sports team, they have to learn a lot of positions, if you will. Social media is marketing and fan development. It’s communications, community, customer service, entertainment, partnership marketing, and it’s the most visible and powerful manifestation of the brand.
Many may sum up social media with metrics like engagements, views, reach, taps, clicks, and swipe-ups. But while those numbers can signal the success of tactics, strategic objectives sound more like those important to the business — customer development and acquisition (attracting fans, growing the database), customer retention and user experience, brand awareness and sentiment, and, ultimately, making money.
“I think the most successful social media teams are thinking about revenue every single day,” said Marissa Mast, Vice President of Social Media and Brand Strategy for the Arizona Coyotes NHL club. “I came in with a journalism background, storytelling was my passion. Over the years I’ve spent a lot more time learning about how do we bring in revenue on social media? How can we continue to grow there? And think about different ways to really meet the team goals.”
The pathways to reach those goals can be complex, but goals themselves can be clear. They want to create more fans from all walks of life, drive attendance, enhance love for the brand, and produce value for sponsors. With this (admittedly oversimplified) list of objectives in mind, it was enlightening to hear from Mast, now in her sixth season with the hockey team, walk through many of the ways her team attacks their goals. Mast told me about the team’s recent investment in influencer marketing, which includes working with local and national celebrities or influencers and typically having them attend a game. The goal of the influencer marketing tactic is not tied to those social media metrics like double-taps and video views; it’s about activating fandom. About showing different audiences what it’s like to be a Coyotes hockey fan.
“A big push for us in recent years has been influencer marketing. And having people showcase what it is like at a Coyotes game because we all know hockey on TV and hockey live are just two very different experiences,” said Mast, who worked for E! Online and NBC’s Olympics coverage before coming to the Coyotes. “So for us it’s all about if somebody is not physically in our arena, how do we bring them?
“I think a big part of our strategy has been more the micro-influencer, who lives in Arizona, talks to people who live in the Phoenix area all day long. And having them showcase what a game day is like and why people should want to come to a game or should want to buy the cute beanie — all those elements that can go into it. Not just showcasing the game, but we love when they show the food options, the drink options, what they did before the game, what they decided to wear.”
There are thousands of different experiences and perspectives at every pro sports game. When teams can showcase and amplify those diverse points of view, the different people and ways to relate to the excitement and value of going to a game — that’s inviting, reaching, and bringing in new fans.
Fan development and growth. Marketing the game experience. Check and check. Mast and the Coyotes know they’re more than a hockey team and more than an entertainment option. The team can bring together Arizona like no other businesses can. So it’s vital for Mast and her team to appreciate that they’re stewards for a brand that can and does mean a lot to a lot of people. The Coyotes need to be a brand people can be proud of, want to support, and one to which they feel a familial connection. That’s a heck of a responsibility and an essential objective.
“We really want to be a brand with a purpose,” said Mast. “We want to showcase how much we are giving back to the community and really how important sports are to the fabric of the community. (It’s) so much more than just ticket sales and a game day. It really is, I think, a huge part of the culture of a city.”
In order to achieve all of these goals and help fans fall in love with the club, the players, and the brand, teams have to earn attention. Because of this mandate, social media staff for sports organizations often have to think like companies that make their living off earning attention. It’s why the kind of content sports teams produce often bears resemblance to Netflix, Hollywood, and TV networks. Stories are currency and are inherent to the unpredictable nature of the season. But when teams have programming and content that fans will want to consume regardless of the team’s record, the success of their strategy is not as contingent on the elements ‘wingagement’ (credit to Mast for that term!). And, just like media companies, there arises opportunities to monetize quality content. Entertain fans, help fans fall in love with the players and team, and drive revenue through partnerships. That’s a tic-tac-toe beauty of a goal right there.
“We’ve always taken the approach that we don’t need to rely on wins to have ‘good’ social media. I think at the end of the day that we’ve had that (mindset) for so many years,” says Mast. “(Because) we’ve been able to think creatively and think like a media company or an entertainment company, we’ve been able to do things like ‘The Bachelor Report’ or ‘Home Trippin’…That’s allowed us to entertain fans and…give people a reason to follow us besides just in-game action.
“From there, we were then able to pitch it to White Claw and White Claw loved that it skewed female. It was this perfect success story of creating great content and then bringing in a sponsor and then bringing in revenue.”
It’s true that social media was once left to entry-level employees or interns (I was one of them way back when). But those days are long gone. Social media is the most powerful lever brands, sports or otherwise, have their disposal. Hearts and minds are captured on social media, brands are manifested and felt, and the ingredients of business strategy come together on social media. Social media has grown into an adult, and the organizations that fully embrace and activate its capabilities will come out on top.
As a new year begins, there will be no shortage of prognostications, trends, and visions in the social media world. Some (though increasingly fewer) industries take years to evolve, but in social media, seismic change can happen overnight. While the social networks evolve, the packaging looks different, and the surface-level behaviors may alter, they are all tied to principles of intrinsic human nature that pale any platforms.
So, before you jump on the next emerging social media trend or network, consider what behavior, what natural human want or need is being activated or exploited. Here are 7 ideas that form the roots of so much of what we have seen, continue to see, and will see in what takes off in social media.
1. People want to be seen and heard
Look at the trends emerging in platforms today. Twitch has made streaming more interactive than ever, and users are even paying for premium emotes to ensure their favorite streamers notice them. Meanwhile, the greatest thrill continues to be appearing on the video board at an arena or stadium. The only thing that can come close to equaling the hormone hit for a fan is getting a reply, retweet, or DM from their favorite team or athlete. The individual that has their question responded to in an Instagram Q&A, or whose comment leads to the team posting a specific photo from the pregame warmup, or whose video gets reposted by the team — all help fulfill that fan desire to be seen and be heard.
At a deeper level, people want to know they’re seen and heard in bigger decisions. It may be polling fans on the littlest of decisions or taking into account their collective thoughts on a highly visible or significant decision. Even the appearance of fans being seen and heard can yield considerable cachet. If more fans are feeling seen and heard, you’re doing something right. Embrace this idea going forward and always think about elements of engagement that make fans feel like someone’s paying attention to them out there.
2. People want to feel connected to others
Several months without large gatherings only reinforced this human need. But it goes beyond simply being around other people. It’s about shared experience, yes, but also shared emotion and shared interests. And, to conjure back the previous point, to know somebody else out there sees or hears them. How else could so many of us (myself included) have survived 2020 without painful feelings of loneliness? Social media lends that feeling, however real or artificial it may be, of connection. It’s why it’s difficult to enjoy a sporting event, a piece of social media content, or any moment at all unless there is someone to share it with.
A lot of times in social media, especially in sports, the primary source of content and attention is front and center. And while it’s fun to watch the Verzuz showdowns, for example, it’s even more fun to feel connected to so many others that experienced it or are watching it alongside you live (digitally). How can we continue to uncover new ways to drive human connections in 2021 and the years to come? As social platforms keep evolving, keep in mind this why and less about the shiny new toys and the ‘what.’
3. They like to feel anticipation and reward
As social networks, most notably TikTok, prioritized video completions to help inform their ‘For You’ algorithm, many creators realized they could leverage our human enjoyment of surprise. The chemical and hormone-induced excitement of uncertainty, suspense, and anticipating a denouement is enthralling. It’s one of the many reasons we love sports and the unpredictable, tension-laden action. It’s why, for years, movies and TV shows have made us wonder what’s around the corner. And it’s reinforced by comedians working their way up to a punch line as the audience holds their breathe for that payoff. Heck, it’s even part of some of our favorite music, which often builds to an awesome riff.
This buildup of suspense is becoming more intentional as the social platforms place greater importance on users spending the time to get to that payoff. And publishers on social media strive to play off that formula of creating anticipation (sometimes even explicitly with notes telling us to ‘Wait for it’ or ‘Watch til the end’). Strive to creatively come up with ways to build those feelings of what’s coming and what’s gonna happen, and give them a payoff feeling complete. And maybe even anticipating the next journey you’ll take them on.
4. We want to feel feelings (the emotional roller coaster)
Whether it’s in social media content, entertainment programming, marketing, or storytelling — the best stuff makes us feel something. Awe, joy, delight, anger, fear, sadness, inspiration. We feel alive when we feel. When sports came back following the pandemic-induced pause, whether our teams were winning or losing, something just felt invigorating about feeling feelings again, getting back on the emotional roller coaster.
We think and talk all the time about goals and metrics and executing (or gamifying) our way to those goals and metrics. But it can help to start with the feeling. What feeling do you want to induce and how successful is your content in creating that feeling? And then work from that point. Because if the consumer isn’t going to end up feeling something — anything — it’s not going to break through.
5. They want to socialize and need a reason to do so
The group chats, the social feeds, even the phone calls all light up when something wild happens in sports or significant news drops. Groups (in normal times) gather together at a buddy’s place or a bar to watch the game together or head out to the arena for a night out. And when sports went away, so did a source of connection and of socializing with friends and family.
How can we help foment friendships, start conversations, and give more and more reasons for others to socialize, converse, or message with each other? The best part of experiencing the excitement of a Woj bomb, a buzzer beater, or watching a hilarious or awesome video isn’t in the moment itself. It’s that it is an invitation to talk about it, share it, or experience it with others. To restart that previously dormant group text, or to slide into someone’s DMs. Keep this in mind moving forward. Entertainment and information is great, but as a source of kindling for friendship and socializing, it’s even more powerful.
6. People want things to talk about
I won’t wax poetic on this one quite as much, because it very much relates to the previous point in #5. We all want something to break the silence, something to bring up besides the weather. Among the most important, valuable things sports provide is something to talk about. There has been a renewed effort throughout 2020 to embrace this need, because there were no games or transactions to fill the void. And we could only talk so much about ‘these unprecedented times.’
All of a sudden the constant trend was teams and brands asking questions [or its relative, ‘pick/choose one from the choices presented’. Looking for users to flood the replies and comments. And while this kept engagement up during a time when nothing much was happening to talk about, think and go further moving forward. There is just as much value in the conversations being created (and the fodder being served up help start them) that happen outside the comments. The interest and enthusiasm won’t ever wane in the team or sport if it’s providing a bountiful font of conversation topics. We all want something to talk about.
7. We want to remember and recall personal memories
Nostalgia ain’t new. For years and generations we’ve realized the power of nostalgia. South Park satirized the proliferation of nostalgia with their ”Member Berries’ storyline. But something else is happening now, too, making nostalgia more personalized. Because just about everyone loves nostalgia, but we’re not all nostalgic for the same things. Social media isn’t segmented by generation, but when it’s more personal, it’s easier to activate. Not everybody recalls watching that game or playing with that toy, but everybody CAN recall (or look up) who their favorite player was at 10 years old or the first concert they ever attended.
How can we create opportunities for people to reminisce, to delve into their own personal vaults and pull out a memory? Every chance to revisit those times pours a little gas on the internal flames to keep them blazing. It could be from the earliest childhood memories to even where we were when something significant happened with the team or sport at any time in our lives. When the strength of the feeling and experience is conjured back up, we can all feel it. Nostalgia and memory will continue to play a key role and there will be more creativity and activity to evolve it in the years to come.
It can be easy to get caught up the trends and the trending tactics. To adapt or imitate, to ride the wave of proven concepts. But step back and ponder why something is successful and what base-level human traits and wants are being fulfilled. That’s what can help drive new ideas and original executions. And that’s what will keep you ahead of the curve, always. Because the platforms may change overnight, but human needs have been around, largely unchanged, for millennia.
The coolest part of the so-called reputation of Gen Z is that they don’t simply subscribe to the way things have always been. That it’s good to question ideas and strategies that many proclaimed as just the way things are done or as best practices. Don’t just think outside the box, build a new box. Heck, build a whole set of new boxes.
With that inspiration in mind, I want to enter 2021 questioning every status quo. If something has been deemed the best way to do something for going on decades, make it live up to that billing today. Because fans look different, technology changes, culture evolves, and traditions and best practices are replaced by new ones. That doesn’t happen without challenging the way things are, first, and then testing new hypotheses in search of the next paradigm-shifting idea.
Here are five areas in the sports and social media ecosystem that could be ripe for disruption. Not just evolution but revolution. These are my ideas and what immediately crossed my mind, what are yours?
Sports Broadcasts Haven’t Changed Much in Decades. Why?
Ever since our parents or even our grandparents first began watching live sports, the broadcast paradigm has not evolved all that much. Broadcasts started off with an announcer providing play-by-play. Then a color commentator was added to complement the play-by-play with color and analysis. Monday Night Football added a third in its early days, boldly trying to make their broadcast more entertaining to a wider national audience over the years. The camera views and sound have improved greatly, sideline reporters provide eyes and access behind-the-scenes. But as we enter 2021, outside of cooler cameras and clearer views, broadcasts are not all that different from 20, 30, or 40 years ago.
Megacasts have provided an interesting experiment here and there, and Amazon Prime Video’s alternate audio for NFL games is a peripheral trial with good intentions. But a couple of Snoop Dogg appearances started opening the eyes to more. His commentary of a NHL game last year went viral and in late 2020, his stint calling a couple boxing matches for Triller were the talk of the town.
There is a marriage to tradition because so much of the country rejects any aberration from what they’ve always known. But what could it mean to blow up this paradigm? To make a broadcast weigh more on the side of entertaining than informative? There are plenty of contractual and technological barriers that perhaps stand in the way of such innovation, but time is running out. Younger generations of sports fans eschew watching live sports in favor of highlights and other entertainment. This is not because of attention span deficits — many watch their favorite Twitch streamer for hours. There is no single right answer and I’m not here to provide my own. Just to make us think ‘what if?’ What if broadcasters are not talking at fans but with them, not diving into the details of a specific play call but more on jokes or storytelling, not cutting to a sideline reporter sidling near coaches but cutting to a reporter watching alongside a crazed and costumed fan? The paradigm can’t change until somebody changes it.
Sports Teams are So Much More Than Sports Teams
One of the neat initiatives from teams across sports during the COVID-caused pause was the production of fun and even educational activities for kids. Some teams also had their strength coaches lead workout and yoga sessions. Other had team dietitians and chefs talk about healthy eating and perform cooking demos. Even mascots found creative ways to entertain fans of all ages.
Sports organizations are good at a lot of things. Building and managing a team of elite athletes, sure, but also event management, video production, graphic design, preparing food, physical training and recovery, mental performance, and so much more. Without games to cover, live in-person events to produce and manage, and tickets to sell, organizations had all this capability and talent at disposal.
What can teams do with this expertise and ability, many of which more closely resemble agencies than sports teams? Could teams produce scripted content, extensive educational programs for kids, educational programs for adults (who want to learn Photoshop, After Effects, Premier, Social Media Strategy, marketing strategy, data analysis, and more), fitness classes, a cooking show rivaling anything seen on Food Network, etc. etc.? Some teams have even built their own branded gyms, could hotels and restaurants be next? There are many boxes to think outside of, more opportunities yet to be explored.
The Bachelorette as Competition for Sports
It doesn’t matter how exciting the game or collection of games are that are playing at any given time. If The Bachelor or The Bachelorette is on, it will find its way toward or at the top of the Twitter trends. Perhaps only the Super Bowl could make fans turn away or post about something else. Maybe. With live viewership and share of heart and mind more competitive than ever, what is there for sports to learn?
I do not watch either of the aforementioned matchmaking shows, but it’s impossible to escape between Twitter, fantasy leagues, and active online communities everywhere. There is more storytelling in sports than ever, but is it mostly the kind focused more on turning casual fans into avid fans? Nowadays, there is more data for the growing gambling fans (many hope!), more sources of deep insight into the strategy and analytics, and great info on the athleticism and real-time decision making. But what disruptive thinking can get fans emotionally invested into every player, each game feeling like a drama unfolding? What can attract not just casual fans, but people who aren’t fans at all (yet)?
Showcasing the drama of sports is not a new idea, NFL Films pioneered that long ago. But how can that elevation be brought into the everyday, and into the real-time experience? There are steps getting us there with each game, each season. Is there a revolution to come out of the evolution? I can’t dream it up today, but perhaps somebody will, if there is such an avant-garde movement to come.
What Happens When Highlights are a Dime a Dozen?
Back in my day…well, my day wasn’t all THAT long ago, the omnipresence of video on the Internet and on social media wasn’t a thing. Such proliferation hasn’t even been around ten years. It’s easy to take for granted that missing a big play in a game, or just about any play in a game, doesn’t matter these days because the video will be on Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, or elsewhere within minutes, if not seconds. But the more readily accessible all this video — and the more one’s timeline is everybody sharing the same clips — the more the currency of highlights gets diluted.
As the value of highlights diminishes by their widespread availability, what’s a team or account to do to add value? What does it look to like to upset the status quo of game highlights? There has been some evolution in the space, with some leagues dispatching correspondents into places bigger broadcast cameras can’t go, grabbing unique angles and access for fans on social. More advanced cameras, too, can give fans 360-degree looks at a play. There is room for even more innovation for the real-time phenomenon of highlights as it enters its second decade.
If the focus is less on providing a volume of highlights (or changing how that volume is shared), there exists more leeway and time to produce something different, something original that turns a highlight into something more. It could be adding in data about the action in the play (which some have done), enhancing the video with special effects, production elements, and music, making them interactive (whatever that may mean), providing them to creators or fans and letting them produce something cool in the moment, or any number of other ideas one can cook up. When scarcity starts to dry up as a value proposition, that’s the sign of an opportunity to innovate and to try to pivot to what’s next.
The Power of Player-Led Content
One of my favorite things to take off in recent years, and 2020 especially, is the passive camera opportunity for players, particularly in the NFL. You’ve no doubt seen the ‘Showtime Cam’ from games where players celebrate in front of the video screens in the end zone after touchdowns or turnovers, watching themselves ham it up for a national audience. A handful of NFL teams similarly set up cameras at training camps inviting players to participate with a prompt or just giving them the lens to do whatever they wanted. Athletes are more comfortable creating content and filming themselves than ever before (thanks in part to the prolonged sports pause and period of sheltering). And they appreciate the value of that content more than ever, too.
Something’s just different when players can perform and seek out attention on their terms. To make it onto the team’s or league’s platforms, when they don’t have to be reliant upon to a reporter or team associate coming up to them or get requested by a media member. Or have to awkwardly interact with and perform for the person behind the camera. The results have been content gold with more unfettered player personality and endearing fun. Players have their own accounts and their own autonomy to tell their story, sure, but they’re also gaining more agency over the content going on team and league platforms, too.
The best content teams can produce comes from the players themselves. The old paradigm of players as subjects only has been disrupted and will continue to evolve. They’re co-producers and directors now. They’re more authentic and more fun when they’re not performing for somebody but instead embracing ‘just do you’ (and maybe here’s an idea if you need one). I look forward to how this trend comes together, with players able to figuratively raise their hand more to be part of content and teams partnering with players on content instead of feeling like it’s a give and take relationship. The status quo with player relations has always been more rigid, but 2020 helped all sides realize that at the end of the day we’re all playing for the same team. We’re all coworkers looking out for the short-term and the long-term success of the organization. This box is bursting and it’s been a long time coming.
Ask Why and What If More Often
Not many will call 2020 a great year, but it sure was an important one. The status quo was questioned, demanded to pass muster or be struck down. Younger generations are leading a new awakening, just over 50 years after the late ’60s saw a similar movement. A difference now is that it’s not just about a young generation with new ideas, it’s the first that has grown up and come of age in a time when transformative change (led and accelerated by technology) seems to happen every year.
Give yourself permission to question longstanding practices. The status quo may pass snuff, that’s fine. But there will also emerge opportunities to create a whole new world.