Cutting Through the Content Clutter in Social Media and Sports By Owning Niches

The sports content world is crowded. It can be incredibly hard to stand out, especially if you’re an official team presence or even a challenger in the space. But it’s not a hopeless battle of attrition, it doesn’t have to be a daily struggle for the attention of fans.

There’s value in truly owning niches. Become the best in certain areas and command the attention of fans by being unique and providing unique value. For Richard Clarke, who spent years amid the crowded fish bowl of Arsenal and later the upstart Colorado Rapids, part of building a content strategy was focusing on owning niches that others couldn’t do as well as the club.

“What you can do is you can own niches,” said Clarke. “At Arsenal, we had great history, so I would want to own the niche of history. We could do stats really well – that was a niche we could own…

“We made sure we owned any transfer announcement, as well. Because that was somewhere where we were properly creating news…Obviously, with the media in England, when there’s a transfer going on, it’s difficult for the club to comment; but what you do do – is you’re the ultimate rubber stamp…

“Suddenly, you’ve got four or five things where you’re the go-to place for that. You build up an arsenal of niches.”

Right there, Clarke identified niches Arsenal could own, ways they could rise to the surface, not just in spite of, but because of being the official club presence. They not be able to pen overly critical columns or entertain rumors and reports as much as others, but there were things they could do better than anyone.

There’s an extensive content ecosystem throughout sports (and all media, really), but providing something fans can’t get anywhere else, using your resources to your advantage can mark a lot of territory in the battle for fans’ time. The most important thing is still creating content and stories that is worth their time, that isn’t just noise or, worse, a lesser version of what they’re getting elsewhere.

“You’ve still got to give value and, sometimes, it is a matter of owning these niches and building a content plan off of that,” said Clarke. “It’s not perfect, and that’s fine, because we go to different websites and social media accounts for different things…”

Fans maintain a steady diet of content consumption each day, often across a variety of platforms. It’s not reasonable to expect to win 100% of that time and attention, better to target a healthy amount that you can dominate. It’s pretty valuable to be the best at something, and it can start with identifying niches that can be all yours.

Richard Clarke Offers Insights Into Building a Successful Content Strategy for Sports Teams

On episode 112 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Richard Clarke, Sport Digital Consultant and Speaker, formerly with Arsenal and the Colorado Rapids, among others.

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

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Preston McClellan is helping to grow the PGA Tour through players, content, and experiences

On episode 111 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Preston McClellan, Senior Brand Marketing Manager for the PGA Tour.

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

Authenticity and Crafting Narratives Can Carry Sports Content

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The volume of stories and the ways with which to tell them is only increasing. For many in sports, this is an opportunity. While some may avoid the always-on, highly scrutinized, no holds-barred nature of new media, the savvy embrace it, and run with it. This theme peppered the chatter at the 2017 Sports PR Summit, held at the Players Tribune in May. A few key topics that arose included the ability for athletes to create and tell their own stories, the NBA treating social media like a grown-up, and ESPN’s venerable Tom Rinaldi dropped some memorable quips on storytelling.

Athletes can be and want to be more than just their sport

When scores, highlights, and the usual quotes are easy to come by, it’s the stuff that shows fans a little about players off the field that can win and differentiate. There is increasing demand for fans for such content and teams and media are answering it.

“People want to know athletes are real people and they can relate to them,” aid Mary Byrne, Senior Deputy Editor/Daily Coverage for ESPN.com.

Social media has given fans a window into the lives and personalities of their favorite athletes. And the media isn’t blind to the fervor with which fans treat an Instagram post or Tweet from an athlete showing a bit of their life off the field or their personal thoughts, in general. For Brian Cohen, Talent Producer for Good Morning Football on NFL Network, social media feeds are a producer’s dream – offering not just clues,but clear signs of an athlete’s interests and of which athletes are vocal and, well, out there.

“We dig deep into the feeds of athletes to find who they truly are…their interests, community involvement,” said Cohen. “The more open they are, the more likely we are to invite them to the show to share their story.”

A panel of athletes confirmed these sentiments later on; more and more recognize and appreciate that the paradigm has shifted. That they no longer need the media to get a thought or a story out there. Former NBA player Etan Thomas said as much, noting that social media outlets allowed athletes like him to go past the writers and media and to tell their own stories to fans.

An interesting insight that was shared via one of the athletes, NFL star DeMarcus Ware, was the need for trust. Ware, who said he picked up upon the importance of trust, from the lessons at the NFL’s broadcast boot camp. When athletes trust the media or the team or the reporter to be genuine, to be true to the story – that’s the way it should e.

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Why the NBA has thrived with new media

Many sports have done well to embrace social and digital media, but the NBA is typically the one held up as firing on all cylinders. It’s not by accident. It is largely thanks to the leadership of Commissioner Adam Silver, who, well, ‘gets it.’ The league appreciates that social media is something to be embraced, not shunned or feared. It is an opportunity the NBA seizes to be their own media, to speak with an increasingly discerning fan base.

“You can no longer rely just on the traditional media outlets to get your story told,” said Silver in an excellent interview. In telling their story, Silver knows the NBA can’t use smoke and mirrors, but must be genuine. “Fans have pretty good BS detectors” he said. “So you have to be authentic.”

Silver went on to note that the league staffs social media 24/7, to engage fan all around the world at all hours. In keeping with the theme of being proactive, and not reactive or fearful, Silver has led the NBA to not just turn a blind eye to fans using game highlights, but to even encourage it (and the NBA has certainly facilitated so).

The NBA permits ‘liberal’ use of highlights and puts their protective efforts into their live game feeds. It’s not that the league has given up on protecting highlights. Qutie the contrary, they don’t see a need to ‘protect’ highlights – they are helping to promote the league and facilitating fan-generated content that markets their sport and their league.

Said Silver – “Our view on highlights – it’s in our interest to get them out there.”

Sports media is everywhere. The league is a form of media, the reporters and newspapers and TV partners are media, and, yes, the fans themselves are media. Silver is savvy enough to realize that the enormous proliferation if NBA media is nothing but a good thing.

“It’s important to us and our leagues that the sports media thrives,” said Silver. The more bloggers, the more reporters, the more sick edits there are, the more interest and content that is out there that is promoting the NBA. Want to know why the NBA has thrived on social media? Look no further than Silver and his mature look at the landscape, understanding it’s something to be fostered, not feared.

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The best stories create an emotional ride

You’ve likely seen a Tom Rinaldi feature story on ESPN. And, if so, you’ve likely smiled, cried, and felt a surge of inspiration of joy. It all probably happened during the same story. Rinaldi seemed to blow the conference as he talked about the science of story. The ESPN legend invoked the undulation of a wave to hammer home what draws one into a story, and takes them through the emotional swings of the his well-crafted tale.

“The key to stories is waves, not lines,” said Rinaldi. “Highs and lows vs. just a box score.”

Rinaldi enumerated his keys to a story. First, one must build a sense of expectation and anticipation – there has to be that waiting for the payoff. A good story also reveals a new understanding. The surface-level box score gives way to a greater understanding of the subject matter as the story ensues. Finally, Rinaldi said a good story reveals a ‘transcendent’ fact. That’s the wow moment. The finale of a Rinaldi roller coaster and the keystone for a strong story.

Sports drives more compelling stories than the pen of even the most gifted authors because it has all the elements – exciting action, peaks and valleys, and real humans who just happen to be able to do superhuman things in their sport. Take a cue from the lessons learned at this past year’s Sports PR Summit. Do what’s right. Be on the right side of history. Build trust, be authentic, don’t be the bad guy or the untrustworthy guy, and invite and tell stories that make fans feel.

PR used to be a bit too much about smoke and mirrors. But today it is so much more. There are fans sharing stories, players telling theirs, and leagues who no longer stand in the way, but can be on the same team. It’s a game everybody can win.

[See a Sports PR Summit Recap here]

The Ever-Growing Ecosystem of Sports Content and How It Has Evolved Over Decades

Remember when the Internet was small? Even longer ago, remember when the idea of choosing content was fairly limited?

There was a time not long ago when the newspaper you got was pretty much the news content you got (sure, you could buy an extra USA Today or New York Times on a newsstand). Then, the Internet came along, but, even then, competition was limited, at first, and especially for sports.

The evolution of sports media in the age of new media has been a lesson in evolve-or-die for the major names like ESPN that have persisted over the decades. It went from broadening the scope of content to realizing there was competition around them, so they had to be better and to stand out, to a recognition, today, that no click or page view can be taken for granted.

I recently had the opportunity to pick the brain of a veteran sports writer, Jim Caple, who spent decades at ESPN writing on a number of topics, especially the off-beat stories that went beyond the play on the field, and he gave great perspective on an evolution through which he has lived, and thrived, after coming to ESPN after years covering the Twins for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. [Check out my interview with Caple]

Caple started early on with ESPN.com working for Page Two, which sought to build upon ESPN’s growing audience by taking on topics and angles that, while rooted in sports, told stories that would appeal to readers whether they were avid sports fans or not. ESPN.com had the size and breadth to tell these great stories that weren’t yet being told, to maintain their dominance of online sports media at the time.

“It was ‘Let’s do something that the other people aren’t doing. Let’s just have some fun with it. And it was really popular at the time…,” said Caple about Page Two. “You just got all these interesting stories. Writing about surfers in Hawaii and what their lives are like. Or just writing something fun off a game…

“We were reaching people [and] saying ‘Look, here is just something interesting. Here is just something fun that you’ll be entertained by. You may not have any interest in this sport. You may not know anything about these people. But this is kind of interesting, and it’s worth reading.’ And people would.”

With a relative dearth of quality sports media on the Internet in the early days, at least those with the credibility and brand chops of an ESPN, ESPN wasn’t necessarily yet competing with the dozens of competitors today. The Worldwide Leader had its competitive eyes on, well, the Worldwide Web. And Page Two’s diverse stories was part of that.

“There weren’t nearly as many [sports] sites at the time. If you wanted to read about sports early on the web, [ESPN.com was] the place to go to…,” said Caple. ‘Then there were so many more options…That’s a good thing for the readers; it isn’t always a good thing for your site…We were trying to draw in as many people. We didn’t want to look for just a [sports] fan…we wanted to look for anybody that was looking for a good story…”

It’s no secret that this ecosystem didn’t remain status quo for long. Sports content, and a lot of quality sports content, began sprouting up all over the Internet. but the most important change? Social media allowed a good story to take off, to get shared, whether it had the clout [and Klout] of an ESPN or not. It also meant that, when there was a good story to be told, there was a better chance that story had already been told and readers [and writers] would easily have seen it. Caple noted that, if nothing else, Twitter gives a glimpse into what people are reading and what articles ARE being seen and consumed. For writers like Caple, it meant a new set of factors to consider when deciding which story to tackle and which angle to take.

“It’s kind of interesting in that in the old days you didn’t see what other people were writing,” said Caple. “And now you see it and you’ll be like ‘Oh, that person already wrote about that if I write about it, will I just be copying or it’s already been written about, so I shouldn’t do?…’ On the other hand, it’s just this is what I want to write about or this is how I want to write about this particular event, then I should write about it the way I want to write about it – take this angle or write about this particular athlete…”

It’s a conundrum for columnists, a risk of redundancy for reporters, especially as the brand power of ESPN isn’t what it used to be make readers choose one over the other. For Caple, he can’t help but notice the other work being published that covers similar topics on his plate. And he is still grappling with the desire to write what he wants and do it better than anyone, while also, well, not being repetitive.

“I don’t go out there searching for [other content on the same topics he’s writing about], but occasionally I’ll see it anyway,” said Caple. “And it will affect how I [write]; I don’t ever want to be accused of copying or [to] be redundant. I want it to be different.”

So this is the part of the article where the big insight is supposed to be delivered, the panacea to creating quality content that stands out and that captures the attention of sports fans and fans of good content, in general. But there is no magic formula.

The solution begins by embracing the wide open world of media, because it’s not going anywhere, and understanding what fans are consuming, how they’re consuming it, and what kinds of content and topics are appealing is more possible and more important than ever. That’s not to say one has to search far and wide to make sure a story or an angle, even if it’s more evergreen and less moment-focused, hasn’t been done before.

Listening to Caple tell about all the unique experiences he’s had, including the treasure of anecdotes compiled while writing and researching and experiencing the stories themselves, I have no doubt the ability to enjoy this kind of content is never going to diminish in the midst of memes and social media fat. Because where Caple and his brethren [and their employers] can continue to shine is having these experiences and helping fans/consumers/readers/viewers get a piece of those experiences, too.

Find a way to convey memorable, sensory, emotional experiences, and you’ll win over fans who want see what it was like to be in those shoes.

Sports Media Adapting to the Modern Fan

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Sports media outlets used to be just about content. The games on the channels were more important than the networks broadcasting them. It’s not like consumers had a plethora of choices from which to get their sports content in the past.

But that has all changed. It’s no longer just ESPN and the local paper. Or even a half dozen sports content websites. It’s thousands upon thousands. So how do the big guys maintain their place at the top of the mountain, particularly in the free-for-all world of digital and social?

They build brand.

Cultivating a brand, and having an active brand presence on every platform on which fans are consuming is an increasingly important concern for players in the social media game. These notions were recently elucidated at the annual Sports Business Journal World Congress of Sports, held April 20-21, 2017 in Dana Point, CA. (Check out a recap)

“SportsCenter is not a show, it’s a brand,” said ESPN Executive Vice President of Programming and Scheduling Burke Magnus. “It lives online, social, mobile, our OTT [over-the-top] apps.”

ESPN has long been more than just a set of TV channels, and nowadays they recognize the need to be that omni-channel brand that fans know and trust. As the cable paradigm continues to diminish, too, sports media brands like ESPN know it may be a direct-to-consumer play, not protected by the bundle.

President of Turner David Levy emphasized the need to ‘control platforms’ and not to dice up the distribution, especially in sports. Appreciating the shift in the ways fans are consuming content was a central motif of the conference’s opening panel. Michael Neuman, Executive Vice President, Managing Partner, Scout Sports and Entertainment – ‎Horizon Media, noted in a tweet: “[The] Biggest theme of opening panel is “decentralization” of media consumption and inability of youth to embrace current delivery.”

So how are sports media businesses seeking to combat this conundrum? Build a unique brand, of course.

For Turner and Levy, it means serving a cross-section of the interests of their fans, earning more of their attention every day. “The definition of a network is changing,” stated Levy, specifically speaking about Turner’s brand now including Bleacher Report. “The future of B/R is a cross between sports and culture (music, fashion) and maybe live games.”

Perhaps the best manifestation of finding success with a unique brand in sports media is Barstool Sports. Their irreverent, authentic, informed, unfiltered take on sports stories and content has found some startup success in an increasingly crowded sports marketplace. They’ve done it by letting the punch line that are Internet takes and memes drive much of their hyperbolic content.

“We are SNL [Saturday Night Live] if it were born out of the Internet,” said Erika Nardini, CEO Barstool of Sports: “We have the fan base and loyalty…

“Brand has to be part of the conversation.”

The lesson lies in the fact that fans are no longer coming straight to you in droves. Consumer have so many choices for content and their attention must be earned; you’ve got to make yourself easy to reach and then you’ve got to them want to come to you.