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.
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.
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…
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 👇)
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.”
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.