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It’s always easier when the team is winning. The engagement rate goes up, the growth surges, and it seems like every post and piece of content performs.
But, as anyone that works in sports business knows, counting on a winning is not a strategy. Brandon Naidus knows this all too well. Naidus led social media for the Arizona Cardinals and Jacksonville Jaguars of the NFL, but ignominiously never experienced a season with a team better than .500. So, yeah, he knows a thing or two about social media strategy without the benefit of a winning team. It’s the challenging times, however, that reveal the roots of why fans care for the team, and how social strategy ultimately comes to down stories.
Naidus learned quickly as he got going in Jacksonville. The Jags weren’t winning a lot, but Naidus knew there were things happening on the field every game giving fans reason to cheer, and the team was in a good position to use social media to augment and frame the story they wanted to tell about a young, talented team on the rise.
“When you have those disappointing seasons, the focus then becomes what are your storylines?,” said Naidus, who noted the Jags had exciting players like wide receivers Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson to go with just-drafted 1st round quarterback Blake Bortles. “It was the story of telling the story of this young team…It was an exciting time in the sense that those guys were putting up big numbers.”
It was a much different story when Naidus got to Arizona – the Cardinals were perennial contenders and weren’t far removed from coming oh-so-close to winning a Super Bowl. They were poised, and picked by many, to make another deep playoff run the season Naidus arrived. But seasons don’t always go as predicted. Losses and injuries piled up, and Naidus and the social media team had to scramble a bit out of the pocket.
“So people were kind of (saying) their window is closed, so the optimism was definitely down,” he said as the team began to fall short of the preseason positive expectations. “It’s – ‘What are people talking about that we can talk about?’ 2016 it was [running back] David Johnson, 2017 it was [linebacker] Chandler Jones.
Most sports biz pros will agree that even the angriest, loudest fan base is better than a silent one. And Naidus noted that the fans were indeed vocal, but not all positive. So, he had to be savvy when activating storylines on social. You still work for the team and want to portray your players and team in the best light possible, because those are the players you work with every day on content, too.
“Obviously, there are other things they’re talking about that we’re not going to talk about” he explained. “…I always try to lean toward being as positive as possible, because you always have to have those relationships within the organization…”
Every season will have its winning teams and its losing teams, its pleasant surprise teams and those that disappoint. The playing field is further affected by varying sizes, budget, and overall resources for social media teams. But most coaches will tell you that you have to worry about your own team first, to get the most out of your players, resources, and stories. And that’s how Naidus approached social media strategy with his clubs, executing a successful game plan that fit their teams, their goals, and their fans. It’s your team’s story to own, to tell, and to craft the best way you can.
“I think the best thing you can use analytics for is how to implement in your own strategy rather than comparing yourself to everybody else…” said Naidus. “I think every team has different objectives and different resources [which can skew comparing with other teams, even more so when team performance is accounted for].”
Every team enters the season with plans to go 16-0 and then make a run to the Super Bowl, right? But, for the love of David Tyree, no team has yet completed that goal. So the only thing we can count on is our ability to find and craft stories worth telling. That transcends wins and losses.
The best part of working in digital and social media is that we’re surrounded by examples every day. Examples of marketing, of sponsorship, of content, of ads, of engagement – every swipe and scroll is an opportunity to learn. I’m always trying to continue learning – it’s no secret these platforms are changing daily and new ones are popping up, too. The tactics, the metrics, the algorithms – you have to be a lifelong student. There’s also incredible talent and creativity all over, and it’s an excellent ‘free’ source from which to learn.
So, here are the latest Five Finds (examples of sponsored social media or marketing in sports and social/digital):
- Manchester City gave away a signed jersey via sweepstakes in its Instagram Story. The player whose jersey would be the prize was Vincent Kompany, whose thrilling goal was the game-winner. If you’re going to activate a sweepstakes, best to do so when more fans are paying attention and engaging, and IG Story views (in this case) will be above average. You may even throw money behind such a timely sweepstakes in the moment, to reach as many new fans as possible, too.Also, something that definitely stood out was the option to enter to win via Amazon. The Facebook and Google options are to be expected, but not often I encounter Amazon used for such a purpose – something to watch. I also imagine international clubs will other major platforms like QQ, WeChat, and WhatsApp, among others.
- Good stuff from the Boston Celtics, who have taken an asset they’re producing every game for social media – pregame entrances (aka in the NBA as the pregame fashion show) – and put a sponsor on them. Historic numbers and a proven commodity are attractive for partners looking for season-long awareness, and the JetBlue ‘runway’ tie-in (a la the fashion runway) works well here on Instagram (and IG Stories). Also always good to see digital and offline working together, as is the case here with on-site branding of the area players enter.
- Another example of a consistent, predictably performing digital asset – the starting lineup graphic for the San Francisco Giants, shown here on Twitter. While you can have some fun getting creative to showcase and activate a brand partner, when the one of the main KPI’s is awareness (as I’m guessing is the case here), this is perfect. If a dedicated fan sees that Biofreeze name/handle 75+ times during the season’s 162 games, chances are they’ll click to see what the heck it is eventually (I did! Their tagline is on the pic, too, so that gives some clues). Several teams brand their starting lineup like this.
- I wanted to jump to another platform for this example – a final score post on Facebook by the Columbus Blue Jackets of the NHL. There’s plenty of room for novelty and creativity with partnership marketing on social, but there are also classics like the final score to activate. After a win, these posts will get some good engagement organically and it doesn’t hurt many fans are seeing ‘Pedialyte’ late at night maybe right before (or the day after) a night out. (Pedialyte has not so subtly embraced one of its uses as a hangover aid)
- Even though my timelines and digital diet is chock full of sports, I know how helpful it can be to learn from other brands and other peeps. This cool promotion was one I read about online and my interest piqued further when Ad Strategist Jack Appleby posted a video sampling (see below) – Chipotle took to TikTok. The app – known as Douyin in China and owned by Chinese company ByteDance, and formerly known as Musical.ly in the US – is rapidly growing and teams and brands are taking notice. One feature are the hashtag challenges, where users create content (in the form of short videos) in response to a challenge. So Chipotle created the ‘Lid Flip.’ (read more here) These challenges can be fun, quirky and awesome highlights set to music do well, fun stuff like players dancing and high-fiving, and also the well-produced, uber-creative stuff that we used to love on Vine seem to have a happy home on TikTok.
The #ChipotleLidFlip: Chipotle’s TikTok influencer program to try to start a trend.
Looks like it’s rolling out today – curious to see how kids respond to sponsored trends (& ones that pretty much require you to buy a meal to play). Smart to get Dobrik – his fans love him. pic.twitter.com/dB5qqEuHFV
— Jack Appleby (@JuiceboxCA) May 5, 2019
A year in the life of a sports team is truly 365 days now. And while the games are all marked on calendars, with the home games highlighted and underlined, a lot of the biggest planning across the team revolves around so-called ‘tentpole’ events. Many industries have their tentpole events and they represent opportunities to make a big splash.
In sports, tentpole events are now often accompanied by awesome social media content and an attempt to engage fans. The NFL recently had such an opportunity – with the release of their team’s week-by-week schedules. What used to be a simple press release, maybe a website update or email, is now an ambitious undertaking by many teams.
Every year, the content teams produce gets better and better. Many are thumb-stopping, jaw-dropping, and awe-inducing. But what are teams trying to accomplish with their schedule release content – is the goal to collect the most views, retweets, kudos from peers and media, and some of that sweet ‘virality?’ With tentpole events marked by content – content many fans are anticipating on social media – a night like NFL Schedule Release night represents a strategic opportunity that can be thoughtfully planned and executed – so that, sure, you can maximize your virality, but also accomplish some meaningful objectives.
After reviewing the schedule release posts of every NFL club (primarily on Twitter – as most were optimized for that platform vs. Instagram, et al.), one is struck by the diversity, the creativity, and how some (not all) of the best seem to have at least some strategic underbelly, some forethought into why we’re doing it like this. The themes I’ll explore in the examples include teams that fell into a few buckets:
1) They activated a partnership
2) Clubs kicked off their campaigns for the 2019 season
3) Teams that established or reinforced their brand and voice
4) Many sought to ‘Win the Internet,’ showing off their creative chops
Let’s go in reverse order because #4 has the fire you want…
Let’s Win The Internet…but do it in a thoughtful way
The content game in sports sometimes feels like an arms race, especially around these tentpole events, when fans and teams alike find themselves comparing their content to that of their opponents. Social teams want to ‘win’ on the Internet as much as players want to win on the field.
The Atlanta Falcons were one of a few teams that played off the Game Of Thrones theme. But they did so in a way that showed off their smart, creative chops, including shots at opponents and clever attention to detail. This is how Bleacher Report would’ve done it and the Falcons wanted to win the Internet, and do so in a way that showed fans the high standard to which the content team holds themselves.
Football is coming.
— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) April 17, 2019
Why GoT? It’s not just because the HBO show had been a staple for years on NFL Sundays, it’s something content teams know the Internet loves and fans love. Not to mention it’s timely. So, much like puppies and babies, GoT content was bound to win. Check out other GoT-themed posts from the Houston Texans and Washington Redskins
A few other teams put in great effort to produce video game presentations to show off their schedule. The Green Bay Packers made their schedule release into a Pac Man game, the Seattle Seahawks did a nice job integrating their ‘Go Hawks’ chant into their retro game look, the New York Jets want fans to be excited for big plays and did a take on NFL Blitz, and the Carolina Panthers did some incredible work showcasing their schedule through a series of throwback video games any kid of the ’90s and ’00s could appreciate. The Panthers, in particular, were in a good sweet spot of not just ‘winning the Internet,’ but doing so in a way that would particularly appeal to (and be shared by) the Millennials all sports teams want to engage.
Wanna play a game? pic.twitter.com/mF5CeYnGUE
— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) April 18, 2019
I have a soft spot for those in this category that also seem to accomplish a club goal. The Dallas Cowboys would be included here, who did their take on ASMR while helping fans see more of a new star player they acquired last year – Amari Cooper [and the curiosity of what came next kept me watching). Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Steelers created content close to the heart of Pittsburghers with a nod to Mr. Rogers Neighborhood (I didn’t know he was a part of the Pittsburgh community, but I bet many Steelers fans did!) The Detroit Lions used a content motif that tends to perform well on the Internet – referencing The Office (one of two teams that did this), though not sure of any strategic thought behind this one.
Finally, the Los Angeles Chargers entered today with a plan to win the Internet and to do it in a unique way they could be pretttttty sure no team would be doing. First, they put out a thread showing their opponents as Pop Tarts. Then, for the schedule release itself, they put in some good work to find ‘stock footage’ to go along with every opponent to create a video entirely of stock footage. Maybe the casual fan doesn’t know what ‘stock footage’ means, but the selection was so good that it was amusing either way. The Chargers know they’re a challenger brand, so they need to take more swings and distinguish themselves in a unique fashion. Mission accomplished on this day.
Should we REALLY make our schedule release video with stock footage?
yes yes yesyes
yesyes yes yes yes
yes yes yes yes yes
yes yesyes yes yes
yes yesye yes yes
yes yes yesyes pic.twitter.com/wAB8CdAfnB
— Los Angeles Chargers (@Chargers) April 18, 2019
So, yes, try to win the Internet, but do it in a way that makes sense for your team, for the fans you’re trying to reach, and take a calculated swing for the fences.
Building and reinforcing the brand
When you have a chance to reach a large swath of fans, likely for the first time in a long time, it’s an opportunity for a team to strengthen their brand, to reinforce who they are. There were a handful of teams this year that went all in on making sure fans knew they what they’re about and reminded fans why they can be proud to love their team do much.
The Indianapolis Colts embraced their reputation, at least that of their figurehead Andrew Luck, by doing something, well, boring. But it puts their main man front and center and allows fans to embrace the ‘boring’ QB they all love. The Cleveland Browns showed off the dry sense of humor for which they’ve become known over the years – in good times and mostly bad times – and they featured their General Manager John Dorsey printing their schedule on an old-school printer, like something out of 1999.
EXCLUSIVE: The exact moment GM John Dorsey got our schedule pic.twitter.com/EC1tAvMs4E
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) April 18, 2019
I enjoyed and appreciated the effort of the Tennessee Titans, embracing their country Nashville roots, and allowing Dolly Parton and her country music friends with Lanco to bring their fans the schedule. The New Orleans Saints kept it simple but did a fantastic job as their video just screams New Orleans and perhaps no team wraps their team around their city’s character more than the Saints, and they do so here.
Finally, the Philadelphia Eagles put in a helluva lot of work to round up a bunch of well-known Philadelphia figures to take part in their schedule release video – they were first and foremost out to win the part of the Internet that consisted of Philadelphia fans, and let’s just say the eagle landed (Keep reading, I’m here all night!).
— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) April 18, 2019
Kicking off 2019 as they announce the 2019 schedule
The NFL schedule release happened days after many teams started their offseason workout programs and it really starts to feel like the 2019 NFL season has begun. It’s the club’s first opportunity to reach a ton of their fans on social media, and a few clubs used it to set the stage for the season.
While we remember the (amaaaaaazing) Monsters of the Midway motifs from the Chicago Bears last year (and they may be back this year, I do not know), they used their schedule release to begin the yearlong celebration of the franchise’s centennial. Check out their 100 years video below, and it gets you in the mood for Bears history all year long.
— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) April 18, 2019
In a similar vein, the Kansas City Chiefs highlighted their team’s history with old-school clips peppering their schedule release as part of their 60th anniversary season. The Oakland Raiders have the same 60th anniversary season on the horizon and also featured their team’s #1 face (especially with even franchise QB Derek Carr’s situation not as 100% certain as it once was) – head coach John Gruden. History and Gruden are two Raiders pillars as we kick off 2019.
Teams activated or established partnerships
When you have a tentpole event, there is an opportunity to create and activate a partnership – whether that’s a sponsor, a potential ‘influencer,’ or something in between. It’s why extending creative conversations to more team members – sponsorship, PR, CR, sales, marketing – can be so beneficial.
The New York Giants made fans remember they’re big-time as actor/comedian Traci Morgan dropped jokes for every opponent (and it made you want to complete the video to hear them all) – the Giants got the benefit of the celeb tie-in, Morgan got to plug his show, and fans got a comedic schedule release video. Nice partnership! The San Francisco 49ers worked with Bay Area-based artist P-Lo aka Lil Stunna whose track formed the soundtrack for their schedule release video, which included listing his album/track (and some nice pub for him, too).
— New York Giants (@Giants) April 18, 2019
A few other teams were able to tie in corporate sponsors into their schedule release content – the Denver Broncos gave fans an EA Madden NFL video game-inspired video, the Minnesota Vikings had a little ‘poetry’ to describe each game in their schedule – and it was ‘presented by’ Ticketmaster, and the Jacksonville Jaguars executed a heck of a production – entertaining and featuring ‘gameshow host Josh Lambo (go ahead and laugh, it’s their kicker) and sponsored by McGowan’s HVAC
Get your teal out because today your lives are about to change.
— #DUUUVAL (@Jaguars) April 18, 2019
So, yes, stimulate the creative juices, maximize reach and engagement, produce the 🔥 content to which we all aspire, but be thoughtful about it – have a rhyme and a reason, not just a what and a how but a why. Because when content takes off and it’s content that is strategically aligned with the objectives of the organization – that’s really winning the day.
Also…..a ROUND OF APPLAUSE for the work, effort, and thought put into the schedule release content by so many NFL clubs. It’s inspiring to the industry and to content creators and marketers everywhere!