Sponsored Content: Nailing the Concept

Sponsored content is all the rage these days. As, it should be. It’s helped bridge the gap between organic social and driving business goals for teams, leagues and brands. After all, there isn’t anyone around the leadership table that’s going to complain about revenue opportunities.

If we’re increasing sponsored content in our feeds though, we must commit to executing right. Slapping logos on content and treating channels as billboards will make people tune out, unfollow and disengage. Sponsored content is a beautiful way to prove ROI, but it’s not an easy “check the box” if you actually want sponsored content to do its job.

There are many keys to getting sponsored content right (see here), but this post tackles one of the most important: Nailing the concept. This is what moves you away from a billboard to actually interesting, engaging content.

Nailing the concept requires two things. First, connecting the dots between both brands. And second, leveraging design to integrate the sponsor seamlessly.


Connecting the dots.

The best sponsored content is one that has a natural tie to the sponsor, while still being relevant to the team or brand. It’s about finding the synergy that exists between the two. I typically attack connecting the dots in the three phases below.

Do your research.
The first step in connecting the dots is to do your research on the potential sponsor. Spend time understanding the product and their value proposition. Browse the potential sponsor’s website to learn about their values, mission and the language they use. Understand their products. Look at their social media accounts and voice. Do everything you can to learn about their product and their brand DNA.

Write down phrases.
While researching the company, jot down any phrases or words that could relate to your team/product/sport/brand. Don’t leave anything out during this process. Jot down anything closely and loosely related. This isn’t a time to overthink or play favorites. You never know what can spark an idea.

So, for example, let’s say you work for an NFL team and Ford is a sponsor. During this phase, write down anything that ties into their brand and potentially the team/the sport. Quick examples include: Drive, Go Further (their tagline), on the road, built tough, miles, the full lineup, ride, etc.

Start the brainstorm
After the research and writing down phrases, it’s time to start actually concept content series based on the synergies you found. How do the words tie into your team/sport and content that would interest your fans?

A few examples of how it might work with the Ford examples above:

“Drive” is an easy one since it’s synonymous with the game. You could showcase the “drive of the game”, the winning drive, etc.

“Go Further” could be a sponsored series around good returns, showcasing the significant yardage. Whether you want to do a return of the game of a monthly highlight package that showcases the best returns.

“On The Road” or “miles” could be a series that showcases where the team is traveling for away games. The “miles” could be a series during the schedule release to showcase how many miles the team will travel in total. And, the “on the road” could happen during the actual season for each road trip.

“Ride” could be a human interest series during the NFL Draft or Rookies that showcases each player’s “ride” to get to the NFL.

Hopefully the above illustrates how you can connect the dots between potential sponsors and your brand. Some of the connections will be strong and easy to make (like Ford), others will be more subtle and take time.

It’s a creative process. Trust in it. You are going to come up with a lot of ideas that don’t work, but commit to the exercise and throw anything and everything out there. You will land on a gem. The key is to keep talking through it and fine-tuning the ideas.


Design seamlessly.

Once you have nailed the concept you want to move forward with, it’s time to approach how the creative will come to life. Design plays a critical role in making sure the sponsor integration feel natural. When done right, sponsored content won’t disrupt the feed. There are a few keys to take your idea from concept to execution while working with sponsors:

Keep platforms in mind.
Not all content belongs on all platforms. Once you decide what concept to move forward with, it’s important to think about where it should come to life. Don’t force a series across all platforms to guarantee more impressions for the sponsor if it isn’t going to perform there.

Set expectations.
When bringing concepts to a sponsor, it’s important to set the expectation that creative should feel seamless to your brand. If your team has a look and feel, even sponsored content should follow that. Approach this as a positive thing (because, it is). If the creative feels like everything else it won’t feel like a billboard, and as such, will perform better.

Create a style guide.
In a similar vein as expectations, take the time to put together a style guide and examples of what the creative on your channel looks like. If partners see your look and feel before the concept is final, they’ll have an idea of how it will come to life. You’ll get less pushback when the look is more seamless to your brand vs pushing the sponsor’s colors and guidelines.

Bring it to life.
Once you’re ready to bring the creative to life, it’s important to take a content-first approach. Don’t let the fact that you have a sponsor attached to it affect your design. Create as you would, making sure that strong and engaging creative is the top priority.

Another key is to make sure the message comes to life. In your creative brief, let the designer know what to accentuate. So, with the Ford “drive” example, the design should play into the idea of “drive”. The fan should connect the dots between “drive” and “Ford” easily,

Finally, work with your creative team on logo placement that gives visibility but doesn’t distract. If you’re accentuating the key message, it should be easy to make this happen.



So, what are some examples of sponsored content that connects the dots and integrates design seamlessly? Below are a few examples to see how it all comes to life. It’s important to note that all of these examples go beyond slapping a logo on a piece of content. They find the synergy, and that’s the key.

Chicago Bears + Tide

For Mother’s Day, the Chicago Bears, Tarik Cohen and Tide helped moms to “take a load off” on the holiday. THIS is the perfect example of a brand partner integration. Good content, fun play on words (attached to the product), access to a player and something people want to share.

Verizon + Miami Dolphins

This example from the Dolphins showcases how to align a product with a series. Phones are for talking, so it’s natural for Verizon to sponsor quotes from players and coaches.

SuperCuts + MLB

SuperCuts tagline is “Ready to Go” which lends itself perfectly to so many scenarios in sport. In this example, MLB aligns the sponsored series with MLB debuts and the idea of being “ready to go”. When someone gets a hit in their debut, this series is triggered. It’s a seamless integration that does not feel forced.

Zoom + Warriors

While stats aren’t necessarily that connected to Zoom, this is a great example of how to leverage design to integrate the sponsor. This content is visually appealing and the sponsor doesn’t feel intrusive, even though they have quite a bit of visibility.

Indochino + Yankees

Indochino is men’s clothing company where everything is a custom-made experience. The suits are literally, “Made to Measure” as their tagline says. The idea of “Made to Measure” is a natural fit for stats and integrates their brand proposition seamlessly into this content series.

Delta + LAFC

When it comes to airline partners, series that showcase the team on the road are a perfect fit. The creative execution from LAFC on this is strong. The Delta branding feels so natural in this creative that it does not feel like an ad or sponsored series at all.

Sleep Number + Vikings

This from the Vikings is an interesting example of finding the synergy that’s a little more subtle. It’s hard to imagine tying in sleep patterns to a team’s content, but the key here is timing. Fans will stay up way past their normal bedtime to watch their team, especially in a big game or rally. The timing behind this — after a big win — makes the content relative and relatable for fans.

Adobe + Chicago Bulls

Interesting team art is a big trend these days, so I love this series #BullsIllustrated series form the Chicago Bulls. It’s a content-first approach aligned with a partner that makes sense. Because the partner integration is so natural and strong, it does not take away from the great, creative work.

Tijuana Flats + Orlando Magic

It would be easy with a Tex Mex restaurant to resort to a sweepstakes or promo code, but the Orlando Magic found a way to take a content-first approach. Playing into the idea that tex mex food is hot, they created a throwback video looking back at “fire” plays. And, the graphics in the video are a great tie to the Tijuana brand.

There’s a lot more to the process of nailing sponsored content, but I hope this high-level overview and examples provide some inspiration. It’s important to remember that the best sponsored content provides value to the fans, the sponsor and the team. That requires a content-first approach and nailing the execution. Take the time to get the process right for coming up with concepts and pushing the creative boundaries. It’s hard work, but worth it.

As we continue to sell social sponsorships and the volume rises, integrating right needs to be a big priority. Invest in sponsored content, but also invest in doing it right.

What good examples of sponsored content have you seen? Share your examples and thoughts!

3 Strong Content Plays from the San Jose Sharks

During the NHL Playoffs, there were a few things that caught my eye about the San Jose Shark’s approach to content. From a dynamic GIF series to opponent match-up content, they manage to the push the envelope and stay true to their brand. If you need a little content inspiration, check out the three strong plays from the Sharks below.


Dynamic, doodle GIFS.

The San Jose Sharks have one of the most creative and dynamic in-game GIFs series I’ve seen. The GIFS remind me of a stellar Snapchat doodle, but animated. They’re unique, well executed and infused with personality. Take a look at them.

The best in-game GIFS play to the emotion at the time. These work because they entertain, show personality and add to the viewing experience. And, on top of that, they push the creative execution. The San Jose Sharks in-game GIFS are a great example of dynamic content that captures attention.


Fun, game day information content.

There are certain things you have to publish on your channels that are going to be a little drier. That’s a fact. Things like game day information aren’t meant to entertain; they’re meant to inform. Still, that doesn’t mean you can’t try to have some fun with drier content to get people to pay attention.

During the playoffs, the San Jose Sharks had a series that showed fans “how to get in playoff mode”. The step-by-step instructions were a fun spin and the information was easy to absorb. Plus, the creative was eye-catching. It’s a good example of taking something that could be extremely dry and having a little more fun.

6️⃣ easy steps to turn #PlayoffModeOn for Game 4.

A post shared by San Jose Sharks (@sanjosesharks) on

As mentioned earlier, there are certain things you might have to push out that aren’t as bright and shiny. Still, it’s worth pushing the envelope on how to convey that information. We are all competing for attention. If your fans need to know important information, find a way to make them see it.


Fun opponent content.

There is something about the brand the San Jose Sharks that is a little eclectic and can push the edge. And, during the playoffs, their they did a stellar job hyping up each opponent match-up.

Their face-off content often infused culture and a little bit of savageness to get fans hyped (but in a way that was brand right). While this wouldn’t work for all teams, it feels right for the voice and tone they’ve built. And, I love the extra dose of creativity here.


A post shared by San Jose Sharks (@sanjosesharks) on


A post shared by San Jose Sharks (@sanjosesharks) on

It’s always fun to see how teams push the limits of their creativity. And, the San Jose Sharks are a great example of that. What have you seen during the NHL Playoffs that stood out?

Set Yourself Up for Career Growth

There has been a lot of talk about the highs and lows that come with working in social. The “newness” and growing pains associated with this industry can be exhausting. It often results in countless reorgs and lack of a clear path of growth for people on teams. No doubt, there has to be a shift within organizations to set their digital teams up for success.

I recently wrote about what digital teams need to survive and thrive, but there’s another side to this story. And, it’s about what we can do personally to set ourselves up for success. The key is to be proactive with your own career.

The list of tips on being proactive could go on forever, but below are four big keys to consider for anyone working in social.


Advocate for the work.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned about working in this industry is never make an assumption. Do not assume people understand the work. Do not assume they know what you do on a day-to-day basis. Do not assume they know the hours it takes. Do not assume they know your long-term goals.

If we want organizations to take digital roles seriously, we have to find ways to bring the work to life. We need to show the totality of the work that’s going on and not shy away from celebrating success. This can come in many forms.

At one organization I was with we used to do a weekly email called “7.5”. Each week we highlighted “7.5” things the team and senior executives needed to know about our digital channels. This included big wins, lessons learned and industry updates. The extra “.5” was always something more lighthearted and fun. Sure, the email highlighted the success of the team, but it was also informational, educational and fun. And, most importantly, showed how the team was helping to move the needle for the company. It wasn’t boastful, but educational, and made people more invested and interested in the work.

The weekly email is a very small example of how you can help advocate and educate others about the work of the team. Every organization responds to information differently, so find the best medium to bring the work to life. But remember, it’s not about boasting as much as it is educating and showing how the work back to organizational goals.


Move on from the tactical role.

The more tactical roles in social media are bright, shiny and fun. There’s a certain thrill that comes with covering games and being in the middle of the action. Anyone that’s work in social knows what a “case of the refresh” means. It’s addicting at times, right?

Eventually though, to move up the ladder, you have to peel yourself away from the actual execution and control of the channels. You have to go from a tactical role and into a strategy role – and one that is bigger than social. You have to start focusing on digital as a whole and larger marketing initiatives. Find ways to take on other projects within your org outside of social to give you more visibility and a wider range of experience.

No one can expect to stay in the exact same role, doing the exact same work and get promoted. It’s critical to push for more work outside of the tactical platform work if you’re looking to grow.


Take time to career map.

If you asked me early in my career what I wanted to do long-term, the answer was always “work in social”. It took years and stops along the way to understand there was so much more opportunity beyond the platforms. And yes, that I had a keen interest in those things.

As mentioned earlier, when you work in social, it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day work and not think about the long term. And, because of the certain adrenaline rush that comes with the tactical work, people aren’t always eager to get out of their roles.

People that work in social often stay in tactical roles too long. One, because organizations don’t understand what growth looks like in digital departments. And, two, because the work is fun and there isn’t an urgent need to take on another role. Suddenly people blink and they aren’t where they thought they would be with salary, position or a combination of both.

This is why it’s so important to spend time understanding what your long-term career goals are. If you want to lead a team, become a VP or a CMO, that’s going to require you move on from the day-to-day of social and on to a broader role.

Think about what you love in your current role. Take that and apply to the bigger picture years down the road. And, start slowly taking on new work that will get you there even if that means stepping away from some of the tactical things you love.

If you take the time to career map, you will make more sound career decisions.You’ll know when it’s time to move on and what your next step needs to be. You won’t be flying blindly, but instead, will be leaping strategically.


Expand and take leaps.

I’m a big believer that getting a variety of experience (this can be internal or with another company), especially early in your career, is a good thing. It broadens your skill set, exposes you to new thinking and helps make you much more adaptable.

If you aren’t getting what you need out of your current role and organization — and you’ve advocated for those things — then it might be time to take that leap. Again, don’t let the thrill of working in social hold you back from what you want to do long term. At times the best thing we can do is take on something new.

This list skims the surface of how to start setting yourself up for success long term. I’m curious, what have you learned? Share your thoughts below.

This Is What A Playoff Campaign Should Look Like

We talk a lot about digital being marketing and marketing being digital. But in order to walk the walk, we have to approach our channels and campaigns more seamlessly. This means that every marketing campaign or initiative should start with a singular idea or message. And, from there, the message and execution is molded to each channel.

Of course there will be times when you have digital-only initiatives, but for the most part, everything should still ladder back to broader brand priorities. This type of marketing maturity takes focus and purpose. Too often it feels like teams operate in the wild, wild west (especially in digital). There is inconsistent messaging, a focus solely on scores and the in-venue experience completely different than the digital.

Brand marketing might be one of the most underrated aspects in sports, especially with how it relates to digital. A strong brand strategy gives a reason for being, focusing on what makes your team unique and helps to build an emotional connection with fans.

The Sixers rolled out an amazing campaign, #PhilaUnite, for the playoffs in honor of their first birth since 2011- 12. The campaign fires on all cylinders, from in-venue to creative and fan engagement. The inspiration behind the campaign is rooted in their city’s history while also celebrating the present and its new edge (read details here).

According to the team, the campaign “builds upon the ‘Spirit of 76’ initiative by combining the bell logo, inspired by imagery from Philadelphia’s 1976 bicentennial celebration, and the segmented snake, a hidden feature on the City Edition uniform that is derived from Benjamin Franklin’s historically-significant political cartoon of 1754.” More insight below:


“The ‘Phila Unite’ campaign was thoughtfully developed for our fans and city over the past several years in anticipation of this moment, the moment when the 76ers returned to the NBA Playoffs,” said Chris Heck, Philadelphia 76ers President of Business Operations. “The energy in the Greater Philadelphia Area is electric right now and we wanted to rally together all of our fans from not only this region, but from around the globe. ‘Phila Unite’ pairs the rich and storied history of our city with the passionate, proud fans who we consider irreplaceable members of the 76ers family. We’re thrilled that this moment has finally arrived and look forward to watching the best fans in the world come together for the 2018 NBA Playoffs.”


If you want to know what a thoughtful and deliberate brand campaign looks like – that’s integrated across all channels – look no further than #PhilaUnite. Below is a quick look at how it came together across channels. And, as you’ll see, the concept and execution is flawless.


Social + Digital

On social, the campaign has come to life seamlessly. The launch was led with a strong hype video, and from there, the design elements and messaging have been carried throughout (even with sponsored content).

All of the design work great example of what it looks like to refresh and elevate your messaging + graphics package when you’re on the big stage. And, how to keep it consistent yet fresh during a campaign.

Game one, win one. | Game recap presented by @honda

A post shared by Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) on


Fan Engagement

In addition to strong creative, the Sixers gave fans the tools they need to get involved. Through a microsite, fans can join the movement and make their very own playoff graphic.

We talk a lot about UGC in the industry, but I especially like this because it’s UGC with purpose. It’s a badge of honor that rallies and unites their fans. And, it makes them feel part of the journey.


Leveraged Philly Athletes

We all know that it helps to have athletes and influencers join the conversation. And, #PhilaUnite has had it’s share of athletes join the conversation.

Enlisting influencers and athletes in and outside of your roster is a critical piece to your distribution strategy. It helps expand the reach and adds a level of credibility you can’t get elsewhere.


Physical World

Integrating campaigns into the physical world, especially when we talk about rallying a community, is a huge piece of an integrated campaign. And, it appears #PhilaUnite presence is felt throughout the city. The Sixers staff strategically placed the campaign throughout the whole city. More than 10,000 76ers playoff logo decals were distributed by their staff and they adorned their city walls with #PhilaUnite murals.

Whether it’s the street art or a decal scavenger hunt, the people of Philadelphia will no doubt stumble on this campaign and hopefully get engaged. And all of these initiatives are Instagram-worthy, so there’s a very real chance the installations are being shared online.


A post shared by gabriella vena (@gab_riellllla) on


Game Presentation

And finally, from the pictures it looks like the campaign came to life beautifully in-venue. The perfect bow to tie it all together.


A post shared by Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) on

One look at #PhilaUnite and it’s easy to how much thought and energy was put into the campaign. Aside that this is a really strong brand marketing push, here’s what I like about the campaign:

1. They executed well across all channels.
A vision without execution is just a hallucination. Sorry for the corny phrase, but this is so true. The Sixers did not just do a great job concepting their campaign. They did an amazing job bringing it to life across ALL channels. The result is an impactful and cohesive campaign that is guaranteed to reach their consumer, wherever they are. That’s no easy feat.

2. Their creative is driven by insight.
The best type of campaigns are driven by strong creative briefs and clear objectives. It’s evident that this campaign was driven by both. There is so much intent and meaning behind their design, infusing both history and the present. Good brand work comes when creatives are armed with the right information. It’s so critical marketing teams spend time on the brief and that collaboration is seamless with the agency/creative.

3. They thought about the fans.
This campaign was as much about the fans as it was the teams. The Sixers made it easy for fans to get involved, rally and share the #PhilaUnite message.

The beauty about sport is that it’s so much bigger than the scores. It joins communities and brings people together. And, every marketer in sport should be focused on giving fans the tools they need to share in their fandom, just like the Sixers have.

The #PhilaUnite campaign is a great example of what a 360 marketing campaign should look like. The Sixers aligned on a message and overall direction, then figured out how to bring to the campaign to life across all channels. The result is an impactful brand push that is consistent across channels, no matter the consumer touchpoint.

Breaking down silos across channels is the only way to get work done like this. It’s about looking at marketing holistically from digital to game presentation. It’s about being focused and purposeful with your message. And, it leaves a lasting impression.

Everyone in sports should be paying attention to brand plays like this. After the scores, the thing that separates every team is how they define their DNA, their culture, their personality, their brand.

What Digital Teams Need For People To Thrive

If you have worked in social, you know it’s a different beast. Between the always-on nature to the ever-evolving landscape, no day or role you take on is ever the same. The work often includes long and unthankful hours. And while the adrenaline rush and challenge of it all is exciting, this industry can also be exhausting and frustrating.

Lately, it feels like a lot of good and seasoned people are leaving out of frustration, burn out or a combination of things. People that this industry needs as we look for digital natives to take on more seasoned leadership roles to drive the thinking home.

Jayrd Wilson, formerly of the Hawks, is one of the latest – and he’s been candid and honest about his decision to leave (read his blogs here). With the long hours and frustration that come with working in social, it’s not a surprise, but it’s disappointing. It doesn’t have to be like this.

I’ve been giving this a lot of thought lately about the struggles and need for change in the industry. There is one thing that keeps coming to mind. Organizations want digital success without understanding what that means within infrastructure and culture.

As mentioned, working in social (and especially social in sport) is a difference beast. It requires leadership to approach the team, work and expectations differently. There’s nothing traditional about the 24-7 nature of social media + sports and it can’t be approached that way. In order for digital teams to thrive (not just survive) the following things need to happen:


Leadership, that grew up in digital.

There are people who have “grown up” in the industry who have enough experience now to take on leadership roles. Digital teams desperately need people with digital-first thinking to have a seat at the table in a decision-making capacity.

A person whose career started in social / digital understands the roles and work required of their team. Because they’ve been there, they understand what it means to be a community manager and what growth should look like in roles. They know the long hours, the pressure and the stress. And, how to spot talent and structure the team.

Putting digital natives in leadership roles will build a strong foundation for the team. They will be able to mentor, provide growth and relate to the struggles and the triumphs of the industry. They’ll be able to translate the work / results to business goals and celebrate success. They’ll add a different perspective to the leadership table and advocate for their team. It’s something that’s sorely needed.


A true structure, with thought.

Today, digital is marketing and marketing is digital. It’s the front door to brands. And, as a result, the expectations on teams keep increasing. It takes a true village to do good work in digital. Teams need strategists, creators, community managers and more. It’s not the job of one or two people at all anymore.

Too often I see teams hiring blindly without understanding what true structure should look like. Hiring without understanding why doesn’t fix headcount issues. It puts a temporary band aid on them.

Every team should do an audit of their current structure. Take a step back, talk to the current staff and identify the actual needs and holes. Don’t assume you need another strategist when your team might actually need a creator. Don’t assume you need another community manager when your team might actually need an email coordinator. Bottom line: Don’t hire blindly, hire intently. A lot of issues can be fixed — without having to hire 20 people — by thinking through the structure and making smart, strategic hires.


A team, not a person.

Often it’s the sole responsibility of one (maybe two people) to manage the account and community. One person to manage the calendar, write copy, distribute content and respond to fans. Even some times, one person is expected to run strategy and produce content. Come on now, that’s crazy!

After years of being in the industry, I’m a firm believer that the one role you should double up on is community manager (well that, and content creators).

Why is it important to build a team of community managers? First, it allows people to have some balance. We’re lucky to work in sport, but that doesn’t mean people should sacrifice their lives. If you have a team of trusted community managers people can rotate shifts. That way coverage is always taken care of, but without the high risk of burnout.

Additionally, a team account should never be about one person and their voice. When you have a team contributing together to the voice of an account it makes it about the brand and not about one person.

Don’t expect one person to be on 24-7. Don’t make the account about one person. Build a team of people who all help contribute to the account. You’ll have a more energized, productive team. And, an account that’s about the voice of the brand and not a sole individual.


Balance, encouraged.

Most of us are guilty of being on all the time, whether it’s sending emails at odd hours or answering them on PTO. People who work in digital are innately “always on”. It’s so hard to turn it off. But, it’s critical to unplug at times to get energized and avoid burnout.

Because digital teams work unconventional hours (even more than others in sport) and can’t seem to turn work off, it’s important to have candid conversations about expectations and even office hours. If your team worked until midnight, are they allowed some flex time the next morning? Does your team feel comfortable coming to you if they’re feeling a little burnt out (a very real thing)? Leadership must set clear expectations, welcome honest conversations and celebrate some kind of balance.


An understanding of growth.

Like any role in any org, it’s so important to understand what growth looks like on the team. Too often in digital people get pigeon-holed into tactical roles. For any front office or organization looking to build out their digital team, make sure you understand the path for growth. Your digital team members aren’t button pushers; they are a critical piece of the marketing team. No one should be staying in a community manager role for years and years, while piling on other thing.

Social & digital team members MUST be integrated into the bigger picture. They need to have a voice at the table and be allowed to take on bigger and broader marketing roles as they grow within the org. Don’t put them in a corner.


Autonomy + appreciation.

Finally, digital drives business result. It drives revenue and brand awareness for teams and orgs. And, it’s time that the industry gets its due. Trust the people that you’ve hired and empower them to do their work. Appreciate what they contribute to the org by providing growth and the appropriate pay for the hours they put in and the way they elevate your brand. Autonomy and appreciation goes a long way.

Look, working in social and sports is a dream come true. This isn’t meant to take away from the fact that I’m so thankful and lucky to work in this industry every single day. But, I do believe that people don’t have to sacrifice their lives 24-7 to work in social. Organizations must understand how different of a beast it is to work in this field and build a culture and team that offers some balance. Otherwise, the industry will continue to lose talented people.

What do you think needs to change in the industry for people in digital to survive and thrive? Share your thoughts below!