How to Develop Fans of Your Team from Scratch

    Take a close look at the fans in the stands at the next NFL game in the UK. Or the next exhibition match of Premier League teams in the US. Or when there’s an NBA game in Mexico. What you’ll notice is a virtual rainbow of team jerseys—fans representing a variety of teams from the league or even the sport at large.

    They may not be watching their favorite team, but they look to their left and right and recognize they’re in a special club, and they finally have an opportunity to congregate with fellow club members. They may not cheer for the same team, but there’s a sense of unity, still, as fans of the league or sport in a country where such fans are in the minority for now. These are revelations that Harry McIntire has witnessed throughout his career, building up fan bases where they largely didn’t exist before. And yet something magical happens when fans recognize a familiar peer, even if they’re wearing a different club’s crest.

    “There is this natural commonality and this bond of being a fan of the sport or the league in particular,” said McIntire, who is the Director of Digital and renowned agency SPORTFIVE. “I think the perfect representation of what this is in America is the Premier League Fan Fest…

    “There is this interesting bond that forms as a soccer fan (in the US) because you’re a fan of the same sport that is a bit niche still, and you can have this kind of a natural commonality of having to search hard to find all the best information on your favorite team or see what all the transfer rumors are because…you’re not getting it on all these traditional outlets in the same way you’re getting after the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and so on…”

    But cultivating a fanbase of a minority sport isn’t just about connecting existing fans, it’s about developing new ones to join the fold, too. The goal is not to have the sport or team or league remain underground, but to find ways to bring more fans in and foster an ever-growing fanbase to blossom. And just like there are these intersections of commonality among the existing ‘punk rock’ fans, there are points of intersection where future potential fans can find their way onto the path to fandom.

    McIntire gave a poignant example of US Soccer star — who plays for Premier League team, Chelsea — Christian Pulisic, who also happens to be a New York Jets fan.

    “So when [SPORTFIVE] helps the New York Jets internationalize to the UK market, as they were one of the winners of the [NFL’s international marketing rights for the UK], one of the first things we tried to do was work with Christian [Pulisic],” McIntire explained.

    “It was a no-brainer…Now we can work with him to try and communicate the message of the NFL game of what the Jets are in that market and have this soft entry in to potential fans.”

    Pulisic is not just a potential familiar face to drive fans to sample the NFL, he represents an opportunity for American sports fans to find a familiar face, a point of intersection with the English Premier League and the sport of footba — I mean, soccer, at large. International players are a meaningful entry point for sports fans in countries abroad to fall in love with the team, the sport or both.

    Think about how many South Korean sports fans love Tottenham and the EPL because native son Son Heung-min is among their top players. Or why so many sports fans in China started watching the NBA when Yao Ming burst onto the scene, many of them becoming Houston Rockets fans (though the passion of Chinese fans for Kobe Bryant is incredible, too). For teams hoping to build an international fan base, activating around a native son can be a powerful arrow in the quiver. But it can’t be everything; it’s a foot in the door, but the goal is to develop fans that fall in love with the entire team.

    “Fans are smart. They do research on their own because they’re just excited and interested in the club,” said McIntire, discussing SPORTFIVE’s work with German top-tier club Borussia Dortmund (aka BVB). “If we were marketing to the US market by just putting (American player) Gio Reyna in every single place possible, we’d be missing the boat because there are people who became fans of the club because of Gio or because of [former Borussia Dortmund player] Christian [Pulisic]. But at the same time, they’re now BVB fans…

    “So yes, the player might be a vehicle at the beginning to try and get someone excited about a club, but it’s not the end goal. The end goal is how you turn into a fan of the club itself.”

    Look, it is different for fans that live in the club’s home area. They are surrounded by a town full of fans of the same team, they can go to the historic grounds and see the team in person, and they can see the organization and its activity in the surrounding community. But just because it’s different that doesn’t mean fans around the world aren’t significant and can’t be just as passionate and dedicated. It’s just different.

    But there’s something that’s common to pretty much any and all sports fans — they want to know the club sees them. That they matter and that the club will engage and serve them just as they do for those back home.

    “[Making] a fan feel appreciated is always the goal. Because people wanna be heard…” McIntire said, discussing his work developing international fans through a localization strategy. “[These teams] are cultural representations of the local identity.”

    There’s a magical point on the fandom path at which the team or league becomes part of one’s identity. It doesn’t happen overnight, nothing truly significant does, but each impression, feeling, touch, and tweet accumulates. There is no magic pill that makes a fan a fan, let alone a fan for life. It’s all of what was discussed in this article — and then some. The way McIntire put it, the strategy is like stacking a lot of pebbles, with the occasional boulder of a tentpole event or mass-gathering, to construct fandom.

    “When I think about social, it’s like that daily grind, that pebble, if you will, that’s just building up and you just gotta keep doing it day after day after day,” said McIntire. “You know, you’re looking six months from now, you’re gonna be so impressed that you built a mountain of pebbles, but you shouldn’t forget you can have those tentpole moments where you can build a mountain purely by doing something amazing and massive…

    “So just creating those tentpole moments that can collaborate with those pebble ones, so pebbles vs. boulders in a way, allows it all to synchronize together.”

    There are reasons that sports fandom conjures up some of the most intense emotions humans can feel. There’s a sense of identity, unity, family, and appreciation. And there’s a powerful synergy when that all comes together, an everlasting flame of fandom alights, burning for generations to come.

    LISTEN TO THE FULL INTERVIEW WITH HARRY MCINTIRE

    ESPN, Sowing the Seeds of Iterative Content, and Where the Avalanche of Social Media is Heading

    We’re in the remix era of social media. Trends, memes, duets, reactions — a powerful seed of content begets a tree, which can turn into a forest. Content snowballs, with creators from across the world, in different communities, and from various subcultures, with original POVs, adding their unique take. No snowflake is alike, to complete the analogy, and AI-infused feeds seek to deliver the precise snowflake that’s perfect for you, the content that seems targeted to an audience of one — you.

    So what’s a media behemoth, a decades-old brand like ESPN to do in this space, where they’re one of many voices on social, working with the same sports content and stories everybody else is? There’s no easy answer, but in many ways ESPN is spreading and discovering seeds, helping plant the trees across an array of diverse sports fan communities. I loved the way ESPN’s Senior Vice President, Original Content & ESPN Films Brian Lockhart put it on a panel at the ESPN Edge Conference [click to watch] in October 2022.

    “How do we open source [a] story,?” he said. “Maybe deliver this to a different partner that has an authentic voice on a different platform. “That same piece of IP can have new life breathed into it and hit different for different audiences.”

    For much of social media, user-generated content provides a lot of seeds. Whether it’s home videos, serendipitous discoveries of content, memes, and everything in between — fans are planting seeds all over. ESPN Vice President of Social Media Kaitee Daley applied a perspective related to Lockhart’s ‘open source’ idea in describing how they activate user-generated content and inviting diverse voices to put their spin on it.

    “Nearly half of all media consumed is user-generated media,” Daley said. “This notion of someone down the street from me went and filmed their kid doing something incredible in the backyard and that’s going to perform as well on our channels as a really well-done highlight. When you think about how we approach that, sometimes I think people go ’Well that’s not innovative at all because anyone can do it.

    “But what we’ve started to do on TikTok in particular is bring voices like Omar Raja to those moments. So we’re storytelling user-generated content in a different way and it’s made for that audience. They consume and they think ‘this is for me’ And that speaks to that inclusivity as well.”

    So, yes, create your content and serve your fans. But also invite others to build off the content you produce or curate. When platforms like TikTok strive to deliver the exact right content to the tiny, exact cohort of users for which that video is a perfect match — trying to be everything to everyone is a losing battle by design. There are too many segments and sub-segments, communities, and sub-cultures — the forest is appreciated for its trees.

    That’s one of my own key takeaways from hearing the insightful conversation on the ESPN Edge Conference panel.

    How the Savannah Bananas are Crushing TikTok and Inspiring a New Generation of Baseball Fans and Beyond

      TikTok has disrupted social media strategy for everybody.

      Because anybody can go viral, every account is on a treadmill chasing that next big hit. The next video that’ll rack up hundreds of thousands or millions of views and engagements and capture the attention of lots of…people. It may not be entirely clear what it means when a post goes viral on TikTok, but the most strategically savvy brands, teams, and organizations have a strategic foundation for all their content — ensuring that virality has value.

      The millions of fans that discover The Savannah Bananas on TikTok may not have a favorite MLB team, let alone know much about baseball at all. But with over 3.5 million followers on the platform, the Bananas know that every encounter is a chance to execute against their core mission to proselytize the sport; in brief, to spread the joy and the game of baseball.

      “We have the sole goal to make baseball fun,” said Savanah Alaniz, Marketing Coordinator for The Savannah Bananas. “So anything that we do or post, we think how is this going to show making baseball fun?

      “When I post something on TikTok, I hope that whenever anyone sees it that they think it’s so intriguing that they have to do exactly what I did the first time I saw the Bananas — they have to go to the account and see more and all the other things they see make them laugh and then make them wanna show their roommate or their sister or brother, dad — like, ‘Oh my gosh, look what this baseball team did.’…

      “My hope is that we post something that just pulls you in, even if it’s not all the way, but pulls you in just enough to where you have to [wonder] what the heck is this?”

      TikTok may be that first touchpoint for many fans. That first engagement or encounter may not lead to a purchase, let alone a lifetime of fandom — that shouldn’t be the goal, really. As Alaniz noted, it’s to pique that curiosity, get them to want to see and learn more. And the more they see, the closer the Bananas get to accomplishing their goals of propagating the joy of baseball and positioning the Bananas as the beacon for that message.

      Social media was never about driving a sale. A ‘conversion’ on social media can mean a lot of things. And as exciting as it can be for Instagram Stories to add swipe-up links or for TikTok to try and sell tickets, we know better. Rather than chase the fraction of a percent that may click through, let alone complete a purchase, focus on the most powerful part of social media — giving friends or a community something to talk about. When content cuts through, the fans become the marketers, and the invaluable pathways of dark social take over — and the brand comes along for the ride as the purveyor of that social capital. In the global ecosystem of social media and digital-first (or even digital-only) fandom, being a ‘fan’ can mean a lot of things. It becomes even more clear to hear Alaniz tell it.

      “We want the Bananas to be global,” she said. “We want every single person to know the brand. So whenever you’re walking on the street and you see an LA Dodgers cap, like you’re gonna recognize the logo immediately. [We want the Bananas] to be like that…just to be super popular. [Fans] may not be able to attend the game, yes, but they can share the video online with their TikTok or online with their friend. Then maybe that person is in a city that we’re touring to and then they can go attend a game where they like the team, they can buy merchandise…”

      What’s the ROI of a smile? It’s difficult to say, of course, but we know a smile is a win on social. Smiles add up and smiles can help form a positive relationship with a brand or a sport or a person. The Bananas know that every smile conjured by baseball gets those viewers closer to recognizing the joy that baseball brings. So, in many ways, the Bananas are building fans and celebrating metrics, sure, but they’re also just chasing smiles.

      “How can we reach a new audience of not only ticket buyers, but just people in general, baseball fans and non-baseball fans to be like, ‘Hey, baseball is cool, baseball is fun’,” said Alaniz, who has been with the Bananas since 2020. “We love the sport, we want it to keep growing, and bringing joy to people and reaching people that baseball wasn’t able to reach before.

      “So I think that’s the big goal is to continue making baseball fun and then obviously we want everybody to know about the Bananas. They should. It brings a smile to your face.”

      Just watch any Savannah Bananas video or even the ESPN+ series ‘Welcome to Bananaland’ and you’ll see the fun and novelty of the team. But TikTok is a heck of a beast to tame and once you think you understand it, something unexpected takes off while the thing you expected to perform well falls flat instead. Video trends or trending sounds can feel like the way to go, oftentimes, but it’s what you do with the trends that determines whether it leaves a lasting impact on the viewer. Something resonates beyond just another iteration of the trend they’ve seen throughout the scroll. I love the way Alaniz put it when describing how the Bananas approach TikTok trends, inventing the word ‘Bananafy.’

      “We have a meeting every single day at 4:00 where we talk about what are two trends that we saw last night while we were scrolling TikTok in bed and how can we ‘Bananafy’ those trends?…”I think if you scroll our content, you’ll find a way that, yes, we completely gave in to a TikTok trend and we did it on the mound or something. Like, we just did the trend because we knew it needed to be done; the people wanted it so we gave it to them…”

      But Alaniz continued, talking about what it means for the Bananas to ‘create’ a trend. The success of said trend is not necessarily going viral on TikTok with hundreds or thousands of imitators. Sometimes the best sign of success is videos of Little League parents showing off their kids having fun on the baseball field recreating something they saw the Bananas do.

      “[We try] these weird things that have never been seen before in a baseball field [and] Little Leaguers are trying to do it. I think that’s pretty cool,” said Alaniz, who is still a kid herself, almost, having just graduated from Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in 2022. “Will we ever start a super crazy viral trend like Charli D’ Amelio and Addison Rae? Probably not. But the Little Leaguers see it and that’s pretty cool.

      “I think that’s more important than the masses.” 

      The Bananas are reaching generations of fans that didn’t know you could have so much fun by breaking the rules. Or creating new rules. If spreading the joy of baseball is the Bananas’ core belief, a key tenet of the doctrine is to err on the side of trying something new. Call it defiant innovation, naive exuberance, and not so much a rejection of the status quo but the absence of unconditional reverence for it — that is what has helped guide the Bananas to such massive success on the field, in business, and on social media. Alaniz feels that encouragement to take swings (to borrow baseball parlance) and it comes directly from the top in Bananas owner Jesse Cole.

      “Typically you don’t have owners of teams telling you ‘Hey, break the rules, do this crazy thing. You see the line, now go a mile past it,’” she said. “You don’t have team owners selling you that. But Jesse gives you the confidence that you can do that, and it’s okay to fail at the Bananas because if you don’t fail a couple of times how are you gonna know what works and what doesn’t?”

      It’s time to redefine what success means in social media strategy. To chase goals bigger than virality. To reframe failure as a pit stop and not a dead end. And to focus on the feelings and storytelling we want to inspire more than the metric. Because if you’re having fun along the way and leaving every fan with a smile, nobody will even care to remember the score anyway.

      ************

      BonusBecause Savanah and the Bananas have crushed it so much on TikTok, I wanted to include her going into detail about their TikTok and social media ideation and execution strategy:

      “[It’s] definitely a lot of scrolling. I call that my research. I do spend a certain amount, anywhere from like 15 to 20 minutes [or more] depending on what I have for the day. Just minutes of my day scrolling, seeing what people are saying on Twitter about certain things, or TikTok — what are the sounds that people are using? Or Facebook even, like, what are the PTA moms up to these days?

      “So then I kind of figure out, alright, this is what the people are talking about. So I have a long-running list; I have a note in my phone and then I also have an Excel sheet, and then also I bookmark a lot of tweets. I bookmark a lot of TikToks to go back to, but I typically add links in my notes, and then I’ll add like a little note under there of just what I’m thinking of. Normally when I see a trend, I think in that moment, like, ‘Oh, this is what I wanna do.’ So like I said earlier, Caitlin and I have this 4:00 meeting every single day where we talk about what are two trends that we saw yesterday. That way we constantly know that we’re growing and learning new things. And half of these, more than half of these — 75% of them will never see the light of day. It’s just we wanna keep that creative muscle in our brains working and thinking of ways to Banana-fy trends or think of new trends.

      “There have been times where I’ve just like sat and stared at the wall and kind of hoped that an idea would come to me and, like, it doesn’t really work. I would rather scroll. But yeah, there have been a couple times where I’ve just had to like sit and look at the sky and kind of wait for something to come to me. We also have ideas sessions. So that is where our team gets together, we’re told topics beforehand and we think in these buckets and these categories of trying to think of, like, hitter walkups that are unique or run celebrations, for example. 

      “So we’re constantly around here thinking of new ideas and working that idea muscle.”

      LISTEN TO MY FULL CONVERSATION WITH SAVANAH ALANIZ

      How an NHL Team Built and Executed its Brand: ‘You need to have a vision and a north star’​

      I remember my first social media job in major pro sports. I was an entry-level, one-man content band for social, among other platforms. And nobody told me what content to create.

      Early on that often meant piggybacking off the beat writer stories until I got more comfortable talking to players and coaches. And, looking back, I had some strategy in my head — stories to tell, events to amplify, and my interpretation of the ‘brand’ of the team on the marketing side and how that should manifest on social media.

      Social media has grown up since then. One-man bands in major professional sports are no more; social channels are powerful and they command more resources and efforts now. Strategy is now table stakes. The best teams have social media leaders collaborating with the rest of the organization, carrying out a thoughtful, cohesive brand through content and social media activity.

      The content and social strategy starts with the brand, not the other way around. That’s an important distinction that can be the difference between engagement and connection, short-term results that can set up long-term wins. A strategy built out from a strong brand foundation stands the test of time. I recently spoke to the New Jersey Devils’s Senior Manager of Content Strategy Chris Wescott about the team’s success in building a distinct, relatable, objectively successful cross-platform content practice that effectively activates the team’s brand.

      “You need to have a vision and a north star for your brand,” said Wescott, who has been with the Devils since 2019, the third National Hockey League (NHL) team with which he’s worked. “And then you kind of build your content plan around that, build your marketing around that, and you kind of build your voice around that.”

      One reason that’s so key for social media, too, Wescott explained, is because the voice should not be the voice of the person on the keys. It’s the voice of the team and it should remain so even as key pushers change.

      “The whole point of having a brand identity and voice is so that you can survive turnover at the creative level, too…,” he said. “You have to invest in [social and creative] positions. So that’s where you’re going to get a little helter-skelter in terms of brand voice and then you’re gonna see things that don’t necessarily make sense coming from that team.”

      It’s just as integral to realize that a brand is more than the copy and memes on the team’s social media channels. It represents and manifests from the organization as a whole. And because brand is always the first brick laid, upon which the strategies and tactics are built, it’s vital that everybody works together and works out from the same foundation. That everyone has the same north star. Wescott talked about how this process played out for the Devils as they sought to reinvigorate and define the team’s brand in recent years.

      “Our social media team does not operate in a bubble; we operate alongside marketing brand strategy…,” said Wescott, who previously worked with the Chicago Blackhawks and Edmonton Oilers before joining the Devils. “We all kind of sat in a room and started [asking] what are the Devils? Who are the Devils? Who are we gonna be five years from now? Who are we gonna be 10 years from now?

      “There were a lot of meetings and discussions that went on with this evolution of our brand and how the voice should not only complement who the brand is, but really work in tandem with it to grow brand affinity.”

      Think about one of your own favorite teams or athletes. How would you define their brand? Then consider how the content they post, what they talk about, how they talk about it, how they interact, and whether it all lines up with this overarching ‘brand.’ The word brand gets a lot of play nowadays (I hope you’re not playing a drinking game for use of the word ‘brand’ in this article), but less discussed is how you go from the strategy to tactics, how you put into practice what is put down on paper. As Wescott and his colleagues defined the brand of the New Jersey Devils, it was up to him and his team to activate the brand through their social media.

      “We are Jersey’s team and there’s a certain pride and toughness that comes with New Jersey…,” said Wescott, describing a bit of the team’s brand. “We wanted to reflect that pride, that toughness, that roll off your shoulders kind of mentality in our voice. There’s kind of an attitude and a bit of a swagger with it…if you come at us, we’ll swing back. We’re not gonna take it from anybody, we’re gonna dish it back.

      “And I think that plus a little bit of irreverent humor really kind of blends together with that attitude and toughness to create who the Devils are on social media.”

      One of the best parts about social media, too, is that it offers both quantitative and qualitative feedback on whether the brand, strategy, and tactics are working. Wescott noted that the team has seen largely positive results since they adopted the more ‘Jersey’ brand. And what’s cool is that it’s not just social media. That brand north star really permeates throughout the rest of the organization in a lot of ways.

      “There are certain times where you kind of hold off on integrating it,” Wescott cautioned but also noted, “But I think for the most part, like game presentation (for example) — everything should have that tone to it because you’re the Devils and everything that you do should have that tone to it.”

      Tone, voice, and personality are important parts of a brand. But they’re not the only parts. Particularly in recent years, what a brand values — and how they actively demonstrate they hold those values — is of utmost importance. Remember, the Devils are ‘Jersey’ and that means not just representing the personality and tone of New Jersey, but showing that they really do love and support the Garden State. Wescott discussed how that well-rounded brand plays out through the team’s content — the team and the brand are more than their tone and voice.

      “I think that there are some people [that] just think ‘Oh, the Devils are rude or they’re always roasting [people]’ or something like that,” he said. “But if you see what we do in the community and the amount of social justice initiatives, the amount of helping different underserved parts of our community and what we do for [the] ‘Hockey is for Everyone’ [program] and all those initiatives; it’s also welcoming people into our family, and once you’re in our family, you’re family…”

      A significant part of forming an emotional connection is getting to know someone. It’s hard to form a relationship with someone inconsistent, to understand a disparate collection of interactions. The same challenge persists when sports teams don’t know who they are and who they want to be — if they don’t know, their fans certainly don’t know. The end result is often weaker connections, perpetually chasing short-term engagement day-to-day. A brand north star changes that. It creates a gravitational pull around which everything else orbits. Things just make sense and fans can get to know you, to appreciate you, and to fall in love with you. That’s how relationships form that will stand the test of time.

      LISTEN TO MY FULL CONVERSATION WITH CHRIS WESCOTT

      How Creative Teams in Sports Can Execute Thoughtful, Effective Strategy

      It sometimes feels like magic. All of our favorite sports teams — college, pro, US, international — produce and post incredible content every day. There are graphics and GIFs, videos and memes, and they all activate the brand, convey information, and oftentimes tell a story.

      But it’s not magic spells that conjure all this creative, it’s teams of producers and designers that execute a strategy, serve a purpose, represent the brand, and aim to keep up with the insatiable demand of teams and fans. It’s a lot for even the most seasoned creatives to take on, who must balance that volume with their artistic desires and the purpose of each piece. Oh, and at best, they may earn a second or two of fans’ time. Kennon Pearson, who works in Duke Athletics, talked about what’s in mind for him and his team as they begin a new piece.

      “Even though we have our baseline look, a lot of times there still is creative freedom. [So] it’s like, what do I want to do with this? Or what’s the focal point?” said Pearson, who is Assistant Director of Creative Services and Graphic Design for the Blue Devils [Duke Athletics’s name]. “Like with records or number of wins, usually we like to highlight the number in big [font], and then it’ ‘Alright, do we have cutouts for this? Do we want them to be smaller? Do we want them to cover it up? Do we want them to be inside of it?’…

      “Usually when we’re creating, we look at the two things we start with — is there a focal point text or person, and then how do we want to color it?…“My philosophy is always whatever that focal point is, it needs to be pronounced enough to where [users] don’t get banner blindness and they just keep scrolling. They see a number, they see a word, they see a person and they’re like, oh, who is this? What is this? And they stop.”

      Stopping the scroll is the challenge, and beautiful pieces like those Pearson and his colleagues produce are the solution. But while they want to indeed exercise that creative freedom, they are still all creating for the same team, so to speak, the same brand — Duke Athletics. So it now becomes cutting through the clutter that fans see fill their feeds every day, creating something that stands out, but that still looks like Duke. But Pearson takes that responsibility seriously, especially for the special occasions he enumerated like milestones and historic achievements. Those moments, and the creative marking them, shouldn’t look like everything else, and it’s worth the extra effort to make something unique within the Duke palette.

      “It’s really just artistic interpretation where we’re making something unique for every single [moment],” said Pearson, who noted that the football and men’s and women’s basketball teams have dedicated creative staff. “And that can sound like a lot — it is if you think about it — but we’ve gotten so used to doing it, that it’s just kinda like we want those pieces to stand out because I think that no matter what, they’ll still look, and feel like a Duke piece and they’ll always try to keep it to looking like it is part of that team. You don’t want it to look exactly like the last landmark that another team did.”

      Here’s where it’s instructive to get a peek behind the magician’s curtain. There is at least something of a method to the madness, tips for the trade that help to scale creative by controlling (and streamlining) the controllables. Creative teams have to seek out any efficiencies they can because producing graphics and videos and art requires time built-in for, well, the creative part. It was informative and interesting to hear Pearson talk about how he manages the creative production process.

      “One thing for example is we use a lot of the same sizes,” said Pearson, “something that’s a 4×5, 16×9 — so I have a folder on our Box [cloud storage]…where I have a 4×5 PSD, a 16×9 PSD. Or if it’s something where I know I need to use multiple artboards, I’ve got that set up, so that way I’m not having to open it up, add a color and add guides every single time; it’s already set up…

      “Currently I’ve been using my own library where I have logos saved, any common textures that I use for all sports or even for some sports — colors, because we do have different blues…“But basically everything is starred. I have templates saved, I have folders in Box that have textures I might need. So everything is accessible as quickly as possible.”

      Even the most streamlined operation does not mean creative teams become factories, content for the sake of content. There is no quenching the thirst of fans for quality content, but the asks add up and time and resources are never endless. Every digital, social, and marketing team must be inclined to ask why. Why do we need to post this, create this, ask for this, to dedicate some of those scarce time and resources for this?

      “In general, everything we design…we try to make sure that it has a purpose and we have an outcome we wanna reach instead of just making it for the sake of making it,” said Pearson…It would be cool to do some more fun stuff like [memes], but I think that in general, we try to make everything as purposeful as possible, and it works really well for us.” 

      There is a temptation nowadays to measure everything in raw numbers. When the success of a given social media operation, for example, is judged in its end-of-season report by impressions, engagements, views, and engagement rate, it seems perfectly sensible to say each piece of creative should be judged the same way. There can be value in that. But it may be missing the forest for the trees.

      Pearson noted that, yes, analytics are important. They do tell part of the story as to how much the creative resonated with fans and followers. But Pearson does see the forest, too, talking about impact and value that goes beyond double-taps and hearts. When the creative team is charged with producing vast volumes of content that most fans will see for a split-second as they scroll or tap through their feeds, it comes down to making those moments matter and setting up the operation for scale.

      “It becomes kind of a gut feeling,” said Pearson, mulling over the notion of success of creative. “Like, when we’re putting something together [we ask] what is going to be impactful? And if even just a few people like it and see it, that’s still successful. Of course, you want it to be big numbers and huge shares; you want your analytics to be insane. Sometimes it doesn’t happen, but that doesn’t mean that something was a failure.

      “I think that a lot of times what you might consider a failure is is it something that we created, like a template, that didn’t get used or used enough or didn’t make sense? I think that’s probably more I would say is a success is — is it something that we made that is used frequently if it’s a template? Or if it’s not a template, is it something that caught somebody’s eye?”

      The bar is only getting higher for content to stand out and to have impact. There is more competition for attention, ever-more ephemeral trends and aesthetics, and a rising demand for creative (because we’ve gotten better at extracting revenue from creative efforts, too). The creative teams of the future will be even more efficient, removing any friction in the production process so that they can focus on what they do best — create.

      LISTEN TO MY FULL CONVERSATION WITH KENNON PEARSON

      If Everything Matters in the Process for Coaches and Athletes, Social Media Does Too

      It wasn’t that long ago that social media was anathema for college athletics.

      For high-level college coaches, social media was at best a distraction for their student-athletes and at worst was a place the athletes could get themselves or their school in trouble; let alone be exposed to toxic vitriol from fans. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

      Slowly but surely, coaches realized the power of those platforms and how a new era had arrived for not just their student-athletes, but themselves, too. Alex Cervasio was among the early sherpas showing many high-level coaches the way. He helped them see the opportunity this new era presented for them.

      “I think before the internet and social media really, coaches were at the mercy, so to speak, of the gatekeepers; and a lot of those gatekeepers were beat writers and the newspaper people before them, or the SIDs at the university,” said Cervasio, who heads up CVAS Consulting and co-founded The Daily Coach. “I think first and foremost, it was controlling that message. Not letting the gatekeepers dictate what is said about you and what you’re saying or what people think about you.”

      Outsized coach personalities of decades past were ultimately built through beat writer stories, postgame interviews, and press conferences. So now, more than ever, coaches, athletes, executives — all these public individuals — already had the notoriety; now they get to frame it. Cervasio said it’s authentic intention that forms the core of an effective approach. Find what makes you naturally stand out and activate it.

      “(It’s) really leaning into every coach’s uniqueness,” Cervasio explained. “What is different about [them]? What is that coach’s niche that differentiates them that no one else can copy? That is something that’s going to appeal to the decision-maker, whether it’s the student-athlete themselves or in their family or in their circle to get them on campus.

      “The coaches that are successful are the ones that are authentic, that do not try to imitate or copy someone else.”

      That authenticity is so key because if a coach portrays themselves one way publicly and acts another way privately, well, word gets out. It’s too easy these days — word always gets out. And all of a sudden the story coaches are telling to recruits and donors isn’t so credible. Those stakes are everything for coaches, trustworthiness is everything for any leader.

      “If you make it your own, just like any creator, any person out there — if you’re putting something out there, you have to own it. (Otherwise) people see through that, especially nowadays,” Cervasio asserted. “It has to be raw and it has to be true, and it has to be the same person that they see on social media that they’re going to see if you’re sitting in the living room and you’re offering [recruits] scholarships to come play for you.”

      Coaches now appreciate more than ever the power, benevolent or not, of social media platforms. And they see what it can mean for their student-athletes, too. Whether the players have professional careers ahead of them or (more likely) have four years to spend in the spotlight sports presents — coaches have a responsibility to help them make the most of those four years. Now with athletes able to monetize their name-image-likeness (NIL). And while there are risks to regularly engaging on social media, the mindset is shifting from abstinence to responsible use.

      “I think coaches — you’re seeing it now — there’s educational components in the offseason, making sure [players] know the do’s and the don’ts the best practices of how to leverage that,” said Cervasio. “Some are better than others. Some athletic departments and schools are better than others, but I think everyone’s cognizant that this thing is not going anywhere.

      “Let’s embrace it. Let’s educate everyone on how to best utilize it. And let’s be honest with ourselves that if we do it correctly, there are going to be some wins and, you know, unfortunately, there’s always going to be a negative connotation in the shadow and you just have to ignore those focus on what you can control.”

      The positives outweigh the negatives by a country mile. Many players can change their lives through their notoriety as student-athletes. For some, it’ll mean spending money for food and leisure or rent money for families; for others, proactively building a brand can set them up for life well beyond the playing field. Because it’s not just about followers, it’s about taking advantage of that limited time when perhaps more doors are open than they ever will be for the rest of their lives, Cervasio posited.

      “(Student-athletes) are building a brand on campus,” he said. “I say it all the time — when you’re on, let’s just say University of Oregon’s campus for four years, you can pick up the phone…and a major booster, a major donor will take your phone call because you are playing football for Oregon or basketball for Oregon. The minute you step off campus, unless you have that relationship or that one-to-one or maybe you won the national title or whatnot, it’s a lot harder for you to get in those doors and those phone calls and meetings.”

      For athletes, for coaches, for executives — for anyone, really — the low-hanging fruit may be to just lean into what earned the notoriety in the first place. But this goes back to Cervasio’s earlier point about being different. If everyone is a football player, everyone is the same. Cervasio said each student-athlete, or whomever, should figure out what they love outside of their primary occupation/sport. Because it’s not about ‘constructing’ a brand or persona, it’s just being yourself and indulging it. Remember, people don’t engage with ‘brands’ quite so much, they engage with people.

      “I always go back to what is your passion? You know, what gets you up in the morning besides when you’re playing (your sport)?” Cervasio said. “Do you read books, do you play video games, do you want to design golf courses in your free time? Whatever it might be, everyone has something unique that is maybe a little quirky or that they don’t share enough, but you got to lean into what makes you [different].

      “So you need to be strategic about what you’re doing and what you’re trying to shape and who you are because at the end day — I always go back to you gotta be honest; what they see out there they need to see on social media, in person, on the playing field, in the interviews, all that. Otherwise, the engagement won’t be there.”

      It’s easier to be honest and genuine when you’re in control. And if there is one thing that unites all these individuals that have achieved to an elite level in their chosen occupation or sport, it’s that they seek to control what they can control, give 110%, and insert your other favorite sports cliches. Social media and personal brand are part of that. For coaches, mastering social media is one more ingredient for a successful recruiting recipe. Cervasio hammers home to those he works with that it’s all important to the process.

      “Everything matters,” he said. “If you don’t treat everything as the most important thing to success, then you’re going to miss something that could have helped you do something. People always say I don’t have time for social media, I don’t have time to do this video, I don’t have time to do all of that. You make the time…Everything matters.”

      If you’re gonna do something, do it right. Because it’s all connected. The best coaches and the best athletes tend to be the best at building their brand. That’s no coincidence. Many adhere to their ‘process,’ and social media is now part of it. And we’re all better for it.

      LISTEN TO MY FULL CONVERSATION WITH ALEX CERVASIO

      Six SMSports and Leadership Lessons from Industry Luminary Amie Kiehn

      Social media and sports roles didn’t exist when most of us were born. We couldn’t list Social Media Manager for a sports team as a dream job for the fifth-grade yearbook. So the pathways, the lifestyle, the strategies — everybody is still trying to figure it all out as we build it.

      So it’s instructive to hear from those continuing to pave the way, leaving legacies in their path. Amie Kiehn has been one of those trailblazers. She didn’t start in the smsports stone age (that would be me), but what she accomplished in her 5+ years with the Carolina Panthers and what continues to do now as the Head of Community at Gondola has touched the industry in meaningful ways. I recently spoke with Kiehn on the Digital and Social Media Sports podcast and came away enlightened and inspired.

      Here are six big lessons for social media and sports (and beyond) from the thoughtful, reflective Kiehn:

      Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there

      Kiehn talked about making her own breaks — sending countless cold emails to pros in the sports space, getting replies back from only a few. Years later, she runs into many of those people as peers, many of whom were too busy to get back to ambitious Amie back then. Reaching out is free, and doing so instantly separates you from 90% of aspiring students and young professionals that don’t.

      “It took a lot of [bravery] to just reach out to people and be like, it’s okay if they don’t reply,” Kiehn told me. “So that’s what I would tell a lot of young people — if they’re willing to put themselves out there, the universe will reward them with hopefully good things.”

      Learn to lead in different ways for different people

      The best social media staffs in sports have a lot going for them — creative talent, resourcefulness, buy-in, and strategy — but leadership and strong, cohesive teams are underappreciated and integral. Great social media squads also require a diverse set of players, all working together in harmony to manage the output, the brand, and the short-term and long-term strategy. Before beginning her sports and social media career, Kiehn spent years teaching through the Teach For America program. She talked about the important lessons she learned from her time in the classroom, where not every student learned the same way and could be instructed the same way. She took that to heart with the panthers

      “So once I realized that, and where I felt like I was hitting my stride, was when I was leading where not everyone got the same Amie,” she said. “Some people just wanted to be like, ‘Hey, I’m good. Approve my budget. Let me go.’ And other people needed some nurturing, which was fine because that’s the type of leader I am…I’m an empath, I really care about people deeply. So that was an easy thing to click once I got it…That’s how I felt like I was being my full self, when I was leading and helping others.”

      Don’t take this all too seriously

      When every tweet, Story, and TikTok will reach tens or hundreds of thousands or millions, it may be natural to feel a little intimidation. You’re part of a team that works hard and plays a game among fierce competitors where winning is everything. You’re part of a multi-million or billion-dollar business with big budgets and impressive production teams. But you can’t get bogged down in all that, can’t be afraid of failure and taking healthy risks. Sports are supposed to be fun, social media is supposed to be relatable. Kiehn and her team embraced a spirit of innovation and a dedication to, well, fun.

      “I think sometimes we can take things too seriously in the content space and that’s okay,” Kiehn explained. “At the Panthers, I always felt like our voice was something that you could kind of poke fun at yourself a little bit. So we often would make content that maybe wasn’t super-polished and didn’t always have the most pristine look, like it was a meme that we saw…We really tried to have fun with it.

      “I think that was how we had so many (social media) home runs… is because we tried to have fun ourselves and make our team laugh; then we had set the precedent that like, okay, we’re going to try it. The Panthers team always would hear me say this: ‘Okay. Let’s try it. And let’s watch the comments like hawks’ We would post stuff…[being] like, let’s [just] post it. But let’s immediately get feedback from people. And if it’s not a hit, let’s just take it off. But if it is a hit, let’s find out what we did there that we can try to capitalize again on.”

       Sometimes you need to reset and that’s okay

      It’s very easy to get addicted to the routine. You kind of have to, at times, in the social media and sports world just to keep up and keep your sanity. But that doesn’t mean teams should eschew a consistent pursuit of progress and keep everything the same even if it feels stale, stilted, or no longer suitable. This was key insight Kiehn picked up in her time as a teacher, where classrooms could get chaotic at times and everybody just needed a reset.

      Said Kiehn: “If I felt like things were not grooving in the right way, I’d be like ‘Alright, let’s all get together, let’s talk about it. Is there something that I’m doing? Is there a process that needs to be rehashed out? [Does] someone just kind of need a break? Let’s talk this out so we can fix it and it’s not that big of a deal. So I started trying to make those conversations happen more often.

      “So that’s a big thing of [being a leader] for me was [to be] someone willing to call out [when] it seems like either morale-wise, content-wise, just the process of how we’re managing projects — do we need to reevaluate something? So I always was fine with re-evaluating something, even if it was a process that I loved and [others feel] this isn’t working.” 

      What comes first — the buy-in or the measured success?

      Okay, it’s kind of a trick question. Because each begets more of the other. In learning from Kiehn and what drove such a great reputation and results with the Carolina Panthers social media, she attributed a lot to the trust and buy-in. That included her immediate supervisors all the way up to team owners David and Nicole Tepper. And that trust gave them the agency to continue to take chances, have fun, and continue to build the social media brand of the team to the point that fans came to anticipate each post and poke.

      “Our team really felt pretty empowered that — if the ownership group is being like, yes, you guys are kind of funny, keep it up — then it really enticed us to keep momentum,” Kiehn reflected. “When you’re organically making fun content and you’re hopping on trends that make sense for the brand, it shows up in the numbers.

      “And we had [created] such an established voice on social that people were like, oh, I want to see what the Panthers do…We were getting great numbers because we were doing something that was fun and different, and people really liked that.”

      Work-life balance is possible in sports, it’s just defined differently

      The last couple of years has seen the sports industry face a reckoning amidst the broader ‘great resignation’ happening in the US. Kiehn herself is among them, becoming the Head of Community at Gondola, where she can continue to support creatives and pros in social media, and at a job that also affords her more time at home and with her family. Most everybody accepts that sports business happens during business hours AND during non-business hours; sports are weekdays and weekends, sports happens on holidays, and there will be early mornings and late nights. But sustainability is more possible when the working hours are more a series of peaks and valleys, and not excessive with no end. Kiehn gave a thoughtful perspective on the challenge of work-life balance in the sports industry, who says the working hours in sports are ‘like a pendulum.’

      “I honestly don’t believe there can be work-life balance in how people imagine it, [as in] I do work 50% and I live my life [50%]; I don’t think that works,” she said. “I think people in this time right now are craving flexibility. So I hope that in this new workforce we could have something where you both work and life can be flexible and that you can finally hopefully maybe have more of an equilibrium.

      “I always try to remind people that…it’s like a pendulum a little bit; some days with more heavy work, some days heavier at home…I think all people should have…as much of an equilibrium that works for you as possible.”

      ***********************

      Thanks so much to Amie for lending her thoughtful, articulate insight and expertise! We will continue to learn from her and leaders like her for years to come…

      LISTEN TO MY FULL CONVERSATION WITH AMIE KIEHN

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

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

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

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

      (listen to the full episode)

      The Importance of Crafting Voice and Copy

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

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

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

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

      Appreciating the Why behind Content: Understand the Goals

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

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

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

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

      Understanding and Appreciating the Value of Good Content

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      Content Strategy is not about Conformity

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

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

      LISTEN TO MY FULL CONVERSATION WITH JONAH BALLOW

      The Thought-Provoking Possibilities for Sports and Social & Digital Media in 2022

      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.

      Instagram’s Add Yours Sticker: How to Use it, How Sports are Using it, and How it Fits into UGC Strategy

      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.

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      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.