Alessandro Gasparro on the Importance of Understanding How Fans Speak and What Engages Them

On episode 113 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Alessandro Gasparro, Director of Social Media Strategy, Endeavor.

What follows are some snippets from the episode. Click Here to listen to the full episode or check it out and subscribe in iTunes or Stitcher.

Posted by Neil Horowitz

Follow me on Twitter @njh287 Connect on LinkedIn

Mark Burns Summarizes What Sports Business Experts Think of VR, AR, OTT, esports, and more for 2018

On episode 110 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Mark J. Burns, founder of Sports Business Chronicle.

What follows are some snippets from the episode. Click Here to listen to the full episode or check it out and subscribe in iTunes or Stitcher.

Posted by Neil Horowitz

Follow me on Twitter @njh287 Connect on LinkedIn

Figuring Out Social Media and Sponsorship in Sports Isn’t Easy, But It’s Essential

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There remains a fine line between advertising and sponsorship.

At risk of oversimplifying, advertisers intrude, sponsors add value. And today’s fans/consumers are equal parts skeptical and understanding. They’ll sniff out an ad (and often it’s not that hard), while appreciating a sponsor. The key to finding the happy medium for social media and sports lies in the authenticity – in messaging and in platform.

I couldn’t help but notice a conversation among social media and sports peeps on Twitter (don’t you love those?) prompted by a tweet from Jessica Smith (yes, THE Jessica Smith, aka @WarJessEagle) noting a San Diego Padres Instagram post that looked more like a McDonald’s ad, noting fans could get free McNuggets because the Padres won. [see below]

Now, the Padres are one of several pro sports teams that have similar deals with restaurant partners, whereby an offer is activated by a team win or achievement. It’s a nice way for a partner to celebrate along with fans. This is a fine way for a restaurant sponsor to activate their partnership with the team. The idea is not the issue, it’s the way the platform is usurped for nothing more than an ad.

Let me tell a story. I’ve lived this.

A major restaurant sponsor worked with me on a BOGO (buy one get one free) deal activated by a team win, which we’d deliver and track via mobile. Pretty standard. I worked on a few mockups as examples of how it would be communicated to fans on digital and social platforms. There were players and sick team graphics, ideas for player reads and skits and photos, and a GIF. All co-branded and delivering the offer message.

And all that work was turned down. It’s nobody’s fault, really. They were beholden to their branding and, despite my reasoned protestations, wouldn’t (and kinda couldn’t) budge from their creative, which looked like a coupon one would find as, yes, an advertisement.

The result? After weeks of lackluster results, we reviewed the data. It was short of expectations, and the brand’s team wanted ideas for improvement. It starts with replacing ads with content, and commercials with sponsor activations.

So how can this all be avoided in the first place, resulting in better outcomes (short-term and long-term) for fans and for corporate partners? It takes a lot of trust, first. An exchange of brand activation between partners (team and sponsor) is a big deal. But collaboration and using each one’s knowledge of the customer / fan is a good place to start.

No one knows the platforms better than those who live and work in it every day. The respective social media teams for the teams AND for the partner brands should have a seat at the table. They can see the content from the fan’s perspective better than anybody and make sure something doesn’t just pass the smell test, but is something fans want to sniff out. (Did that extension of the analogy work?)

Respect the fans. Respect the platforms. Be bold. Create content. There doesn’t have to be a value exchange (with fans getting ads, so they can get content), there can be value from added from all sides. A net outcome that favors everybody.

Social networks represent a powerful opportunity. But it’s a power that cannot be taken lightly.

Lessons on How Sponsors Can Sharpen Their Game to Engage Fans at Events

Despite the deluge of digital and social, there is no greater chance for exposure and engagement than that experienced IRL (in real life). But even those opportunities to come face to face with consumers in a welcoming environment, whether at sports events, festivals, or the like, are only as effective as the execution.

I recently had the opportunity to attend the opening event for the 2017 season of Formula Drift, a league for the DRIFT sport (cars drifting!), that boasts over a million fans around the globe and reaches tens to hundreds of thousands on a weekly basis. Their events also host dozens of mostly endemic sponsors that engage and activate and seek to drive value with, for, and from fans.

This up-and-coming generation of consumers have increasingly higher standards to engage, but they also recognize value when they see it. It’s always fun to learn from these events and how business execute. Here are ten lessons from Formula Drift’s event in Long Beach, where there were true connections and genuine engagement between fans and corporate partners.

Data exchange for free swag

There were tons of places giving out, well, free swag. And many of them had tablets mounted where fans waited in line to input their data in exchange for bags, t-shirts, hats, and more. And fans didn’t seem to mind the requirement at all. This is not an all-too-uncommon tactic, but the clear understanding of exchanging ‘x’ for ‘y’ was so evident that it stood out to me. It was organized, simple enough, and fans knew what they were there for — the (branded) swag.

Relevant swag – Adding value to experience, in exchange for data

Not all the free swag was relevant, but some of it went beyond token or knick-knacks to swag that fans wanted. Ford was giving away ear buds for fans that many have wanted to listen to the event commentary on their devices. There were also interactive photo ops to make memories (and digital content to share), and car accessories perfect for this crowd. There were lots of keychains, pens, stickers, and such, but the best are giving away relevant swag (related to the brand or service the partner produced or offered) and value-add swag and items (that added to the experience for fans at the event). Check off one of these boxes, check off both of these boxes – golden. And fans will gladly give data for that.

Methods – Tablets and paper [and spin to win]

Two common themes I noticed between sponsors at a NASCAR event and at the Formula Drift event – lots of opportunities to spin a wheel to win, and tablets to input information. The ‘try your luck’ element and the, well, fun of spinning a wheel with everyone watching attracts fans – and they’re willing to hand over some information for the opportunity. As mentioned previously, tablets were used by many – fill out the form and get some swag. Not only do the best have some relevant swag (see above), but they’re also mindful about what they’re requesting from the fans. The more fields there, the less likely it is fans will complete (or at least take care to complete it accurately). Many of these sponsors kept it simple and relevant – name, email, vehicle make/model/year. Some got even more targeted to their market. Some also asked for, frankly, a bit too much info – name, email, phone, street address, vehicular info, age, education. Choose wisely and make sure every piece of info asked is worth the ask.

Ambassador appearances

When possible, there is perhaps no better way to attract and engage a crowd than having the endorser or ambassador on-site. At the Formula DRIFT event, where fans can up close to the drivers and cars before the competition starts, sponsors were activating around them. This meant going lighter on the designated sponsor area, resting assured fans would come to see the driver and see their car. And they did. And when they did, they were exposed to the brand’s setup, too – with product on display, swag and data capture, brochures and on-site experts. Sometimes the bait, and the credibility it can lend, is the first and most important step.

Building brand with apparel

Just about every single brand at the Formula DRIFT event was endemic. They sold car parts, accessories, and stuff that I am not educated enough about cars to understand. But there was also a ton of apparel. Some even had apparel partnerships or full lines of t-shirts, caps, and hoodies to serve as a considerable part of the setup and a revenue stream. Just because you sell tires and suspensions, doesn’t mean fans won’t wear your gear. Perhaps the best way to create a visible brand is to create a visible brand.

Photo-ops and sick displays/cars

Visual appeal, sights that scream photo op, and a sense of feng sui can go a long way in getting fans to come your way. And there was plenty of that to go around among the sponsors at Formula DRIFT. It’s hard to resist the pull of an eye-catching, wow-inducing car (and to take a picture next to it). This not only drives foot traffic, but earned media as the brand is shared out. But wait, there’s more. There was incredible care with which stuff like exhaust pipes or steering wheels or mufflers were displayed. There’s an art to it and, fo the ones that take care and know what they’re doing and why, it can go a long way. It’s an all-channel, all-senses world (ok, maybe not smell so much; though there was an air freshener sponsors).

Premium areas

There were a couple areas that attracted the most stares – and they weren’t accessible to the public. A couple major partners had some fancy VIP areas, complete with big screens, buffet,decorations, and more. They were surrounded, too, by a typical setup with product and activations for the public. The VIP areas were special guests of the brand and the local retail partners that sold them. While it may not engage every fan that attends the event, there is intangible value gained not just from the eyeballs it attracts, but the credibility and repute it adds for the brand, as a Formula DRIFT partner.

Products on display and brochures, presentation

This is a pretty simple idea, but sometimes can be lost in the midst of activities and shiny objects and swag. Particularly for a brand endemic to the sport and of interest to the fans – they want to learn about what’s out there. They want to know about the top brands in the space and learn more about, well, how to make their own cars go faster and look cooler. Many also had brochures for more info and a handful had digital brochures and microsets on touch screens (tablets are for more than just form entry). The touch screens can be hard for any curious fan to resist and it offers an entry to engage, as well as an opportunity for the staffer on-hand to start a conversation.

Social media and earned impressions

Plenty of sponsors post hash tags and Twitter handles abound at events like these. (Including one brand that just promoted its YouTube and Pinterest accounts only). But, for some, there was a premium placed on social media impressions and gains. There were the straightforward ‘Follow us’ on social media for some free swag. One brand, however, had some pretty extensive instructions to share a picture in front of a specific standup via social, using a hash tag and tagging the brand, and following the brand – all to get a small knick-knack. The burden of effort was a bit too much for me, but it is clear social media is on the mind of many. The key just needs to be a focus on authenticity. If a fan is posting something on social media out of a sense of obligation or because someone told them they had to in order to get ‘x,’ the value of that so-called earned media is no doubt diminished.

Deep engagement and conversation

Especially at events full of big crowds and thousands in eyeballs and foot traffic, there can be a commitment to scale – reach as many fans as possible, but there is a lot of value in the quality of engagements, too. Fueled by the knowledge that there are a bunch of car fans here, sponsors on-site could approach with relative assurance there was a receptive audience of fans loitering and looking because they were genuinely interested. It can help to go beyond just thinking about conversions and consider conversation, where quality can trump quantity. In a world where we equate numbers with success, it’s important to appreciate not all consumer engagements and touches are equivalent. Value what’s valuable.

There is so much to consider when you have the opportunity to get a casual glance from a fan and a potential customer. Don’t just make it a data grab, but it’s okay to ask for it – just make sure it matters. And never take the attention and engagement with fans for granted.

Why Sports are Still Growing and Glowing Beacons: Leaders Insights

Big picture thinking. Thinking about not just what’s next, but why it’s next. Taking the time to think beyond going through the motions and transactions.

At the annual Leaders Sport Summit, these were among the themes and traits, backed up by insights, by stats, by where their own leagues, sports, and teams and organizations are going. Below are some of the themes that stood out at the event where leaders from sports leagues, teams, and related businesses spoke; along with facts, quotes, and stats shared at the event via #Leaders17. This is Part 1 of 2. [See Part 2]

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(Also see the Leaders Day 1 and Day 2 recaps)

How Sports are Upholding Models, while the Models are Changing

One of the panels opened with the notion that the reason sports is thriving across media platforms is because it is content that is made for multi-platform consumption – the best available screen. As is often stated, too, it among the last bastions of content that must be consumed live, another factor behind multi-platform engagement. All this results in making necessary unique partnerships, such as Turner and CBS teaming up to maximize revenue from rights to NCAA March Madness games, selling ads across platforms and cross-promoting each other. The multi-device platforms also enhances sponsor activations.

However, as it was stated, all the ways content and media can be shared and consumed means, as it was stated, contracts have gone from 14-16 pages to 250+ pages. Yeah, the media landscape is a bit more complex now.

The metrics can’t keep up, either. Nielsen is trying, but it was lamented that their cross-platform measurement isn’t there yet.

Turner is excited about early eLeague results

Executives from Turner were there, talking about the auspicious results of their eLeague, an eSports league they’ve invested in and gotten fully behind for linear and digital programming. With 50 million esports players in the US, which was a stat dropped, Turner had high hopes and they have been exceeded. Ratings, they said, are matching those of regular season games in the NHL, MLB, and MLS. Turner sees it as a way to reach younger, more digitally savvy audience. In fact, 90% of eLeague consumption is happening via digital, with just 10% on TV. Live events are growing quickly in esports, as well as other leagues. Turner will have even more company in the space soon.

On Sponsorship

There were a couple speakers from Dow Chemical and AT&T, two bug business that are very active in sports sponsorship. They offered some excellent high-level insights, offering a better understanding of the keys to successful partnerships. Joe Harlan of Dow Chemical put it succinctly: “You need partnerships, not transactions. That means you’re in it for reach other.”

Harlan continued on how teams can approach their partners; it’s about finding the mutual benefit point, the intersection of interests. “Focus on what you do and what you deliver. Then the conversation is about relevance, not price.” For example, they worked with PGA Tour to reach business execs, who are among the golf demo, and also had great success leveraging opportunities to test technologies as a NASCAR partner.

Along with recognizing the value of the brand – fit and what it adds to the other brand — the point was made to USE the access partners are granted within sports, as sponsors. This simple, but succinct point is oft-overlooked.

Why and What with Sports?

There was additional insight shared on sponsorship and how and why to activate it. Citi’s Tina Davis noted the importance of sports providing a ‘live audience at scale,’ while AT&T’s Ryan Luckey pointed how sports partnerships rally the organization itself. The way these sponsorships are being put into practice have undergone immense change.

AT&T, Luckey said, doesn’t think of themselves as a phone company, as in decades past. They are a video/content company, with Luckey noting that 60% of AT&T’s traffic is video. Further, as it pertains to sports sponsorships, Luckey emphasized the now seemingly obvious point that, with only 5% of fans actually attending games, on-site activation is not nearly sufficient.

Twitter’s big bet on sports

Twitter COO Anthony Noto gave an enlightening look into Twitter’s past, present, and future with sports. The NFL content seemed to be a perfect fit when they noticed the huge spikes in Twitter activity, affected by NFL games and topics. Marrying conversations seemed logical. The results were promising, with Noto making note of deeper data, like the fact that 30% of the Thursday Night Football audience was from outside the US and exhibited higher female viewership than traditional TV.

But Twitter has ambitions to make hay with “under-served fans,” citing investments in sports like darts and lacrosse. (200,000 fans followed/viewed Darts competitions apparently). Unlike linear TV, Twitter has “unlimited shelf space,” they boasted. Twitter is also looking to their international audience, specifically noting sports fans in the UK and Japan, as places of interest at the moment.

In Q4 2016 alone, Twitter had over 600 hours of live content, and 55% of it was sports. Twitter is not out to challenge linear TV when it comes to mainstream sports streams, like TNF, either. “We are very happy with bringing an incremental audience,” said Noto. “There is a younger audience that doesn’t want to pay for TV. We can serve that audience.”

How will Twitter monetize all this content? Noto said they’re considering all economic models, including charging for live content. But there was no clear indication of any immediate plans.

How the Minnesota Wild Create Quality Social Media Sponsorship

It wasn’t so long ago I received some sponsor copy that I was to copy and paste onto the team’s social media channels. That was sponsored social media in the relative stone age.

I didn’t like it. Fans didn’t like it. And did little or nothing for the corporate partner.

There’s a better way. And, as Minnesota Wild Social Media Coordinator Katlyn Gambill explains, the organization is not just fulfilling orders, they’re working closely with corporate partners to design or incorporate an activation that fans will actually enjoy and will further the sponsor objectives. As sports teams have started acting more like content production companies, they’ve also started to put those skills to work for their corporate partners.

“Our main focus is ‘What do the fans want, and are they going to enjoy it?’ Gambill told me in our recent chat. “Our corporate department is fantastic on selling, and going back to a partner and saying ‘We want both sides to be successful in this. So, while this may be the idea, here’s this tweak that’ll fit our fans better and our brand. And it’ll produce better results for you. Are you cool with this?'”

Beyond serving as the informed intermediary and content producers for their sponsors, the Wild also take the time to understand the brands, figure out the fit, and evaluate the best way to activate. Because social media is active media and the beauty of it is it can and should produce actions, going beyond the longstanding payoff of ‘impressions.’ When there is a defined goal, campaigns can be tailored to fit those goals and to achieve results against those goals. While her title may not have ‘partnership’ or ‘sponsorship’ in it, it’s clear from speaking with Gambill, and most social media and sports pros, that a deep understanding of ROI and partnership activation is not only a plus, but a requirement for these roles. Gambill gets it.

“I’m also not a fan of just plopping a logo on something; I don’t think that does anything on social media,” said Gambill, who has been with the Wild for over three years. “If the company doesn’t have social media presence, (then) it’s really difficult for me to buy into it, because what are they getting out of it, then? Are they looking for just leads? Are they trying to build their social media presence to allow fans to follow them and, in time, buy their product or whatever they’re trying to do?”

It can’t feel forced or out of place, because fans these days will sniff that out quickly. If it feels natively baked into the experience and the content, the sponsor doesn’t feel like an advertiser, the sponsor feels like a partner. And that’s a win for all sides. Sometimes, it’s integrating a sponsor into a content feature or promotion already tried, true, and welcomed by fans. Other times, it’s working with folks like Gambill, that understand the community and the brand, to identify something fans will like.

“So we work really closely with them on trying to tie something in that we’re either already doing on social and digital media, and how we attach it to a partner,” explained Gambill, who credits her time working with the New Jersey Devils as a beneficial experience to helping her understanding of effective sponsor activation. “Or – what does the partner want, what are they looking for, and how can we build something that will fit both our side and theirs?…So it’s a lot of going back and forth, and trying to make sure both sides are really happy.”

There is no doubt that the nature of sponsorship and advertising has changed. For sports, this means increased opportunity, but also increased responsibility. Fans will consume content and give their hearts and minds to their favorite teams, and sponsors can benefit from this investment. But there’s a wrong way and better ways.

The better, more enlightened path may not be quick and easy as a copy and paste job. But the benefit of a little work and a little collaboration can lead to tremendous partnerships and partnership activations. The era of advertising is over. The era of partnerships is just beginning.