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 have to 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.