Things To Consider In Digital + Sport In 2019

It’s a new year, which means the annual list of things to consider in the industry. This past year I spent a lot of time thinking about the state of digital. How does the changing social climate, from declining organic reach to passive consumption, impact our work? How can we set digital teams up for success? And, how do we get back to the basics of a strong brand foundation? Hopefully, you’ll see this list reflects a lot of these themes.

As always, this isn’t meant to be a forecast of what’s to come, but a list of things to consider focusing on as we head into 2019. Everyone’s goals and objectives are different, but hopefully, there is something in here that will spark a new idea, approach or thinking.

So, here’s a list of what to consider in 2019 with some help from Twitter and friends in the industry (note – these are not ranked by importance):

1- Own your fan relationship.

Isn’t it a little ironic that we invest so much into a channel (social media) where we have little control? Algorithms change. Organic reach declines. Engagement rates are dismal. We have very little ownership of our fan relationship within platforms, yet we continue to invest more into them. What happens if one day these platforms disappear and/or consumers go elsewhere?

Yes, it’s unlikely that the channels will simply disappear anytime soon. It is likely though that consumer behavior and platform priorities and reach will continue to change. So as my friend Cristian says, it’s time as marketers to own our relationship with our fans again:

We’ve shifted so much focus to social platforms that we’ve lost sight of a really important key: owned channels and first-party data. Social media is a shiny, public-facing and fun tool that’s a huge and important part of your digital strategy. But, social is a piece of a larger digital ecosystem. In 2019, it’s time to stop putting your eggs in one basket.

First-party data allows us to build smarter and more personalized marketing campaigns. And, more importantly, it allows us to drive long-term loyalty with our fans. It’s time to take back our relationship with our fans and focus on our owned channels and lead gen strategies as much as social.  Your relationship with your fans is the most important thing you have. Own it.

2 – Fewer, bigger, better.

How do we make the biggest impact? By doing fewer things, much better. This philosophy from Kellyn Smith Kenny, the CMO of Hilton, should be one that every digital marketer considers adopting in 2019.

So often it seems like digital teams in sports are a wheel that keep on churning. The focus is on the output instead of quality. There’s a mentality to push out a  bunch of “stuff” whether it aligns with the organization’s priorities or adds values to our fans.

The digital industry, and specifically in sports, has created this frenzy. There’s an addiction to the output and we have put an insane amount of pressure on ourselves to produce. The reality is that volume doesn’t speak to the work. Marketing has never been measured by the volume of output. It’s been measured by the quality of the work.

In 2019, it’s time to actually buy into the idea that quality truly is better than quantity:

Imagine the work that could be done if the team had permission to do less and focus on what actually drives an impact. When teams have a strategy in place and permission to not be everything to everyone, incredible work can be done. Instead of focusing on the daily churn, it’s time for teams to focus on the moments where the biggest impact can be made for the brand.

It’s time to take the pressure off the volume and put the pressure on doing good work. The teams and brands that stand out — and will continue to shine — are the ones that are focused on doing the most impactful work. Define your why and stick to it.

Note: I heard the fewer, bigger, better piece on the CMO Moves podcast with Kelly. If you’re looking for a good industry podcast with some of the brightest marketing minds in the business I highly recommend giving it a listen.

3 – Accountability & advocacy.

This is a little tough love talk. Digital is no longer the tool handed over to the intern. Thanks to the maturation of ad tools, targeting and analytics, social media has become a lot more visible within organizations. There’s still a lot of work to do as far as getting buy-in within organizations, but I also believe we (in the industry) need to be accountable for how social media maps back to the larger business goals.

If you stood in front of your president or CEO to pitch more resources and touted engagement rate as your shining metric, would that win the case? My guess, for the most part, is no. If you work in digital, it’s your responsibility to understand the larger organization’s goals and then figure out the role that digital/social can play in them. We can no longer complain about buy-in, advancement and investments if we are using the platforms just to play. Focus on the actual business case:

In 2019, spend your time developing a strategy that matters to the organization, evangelize it and execute on it. Advocate for the work so people understand how digital is helping to drive organizational success across the board. Our jobs are about a lot more than likes and retweets. Prove that.

4 – Highlights 2.0.

Highlights were a hot commodity in the glory days of social. Today though, leagues and partners have loosened the reins on rights (all at various degrees) and there are a lot more highlights surrounding games.

We waited for access to highlights for so long, that once we got them, we stopped thinking about what’s next. The reality is highlights don’t stand out in-feed anymore.  The access has stopped us from innovating and has caused a sea of sameness across social media.

Anyone that works in social knows being stagnant is not an option. So now the question is, how can we make highlights more original? It’s time for teams, leagues, etc. to put their own spin on them. We have to evolve to highlights 2.0.

Making highlights more original adds to the second screen experience. It provides something different from the broadcast experience. It separates the content from all the clutter by providing a unique angle. And, it pushes creativity by demanding teams do something different than clip and share.

The good news is there are so many ways to evolve highlights today, whether teams film their own footage or add some flair through original effects. Below are a few examples of highlights 2.0 that have stood out:

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186 total yards… AND HE CAN PASS!!!

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5 – Take GIPHY seriously.

GIPHY is a powerful tool for brands that’s rarely talked about. In 2018, GIPHY served 7 billion GIFs and stickers to 500 million people every single day. The NFL’s channel has seen nearly 17 billion views, while the NBA has close to 15 billion. FC Bayern hit 1 billion views this year.  Long story short, GIPHY is a huge opportunity for teams and leagues.

We all know GIFS have won over the hearts of everyone. And, thanks to smart integrations by GIPHY, they’ve found their way into iMessages, tweets, slack conversations, IG Stories, etc. GIPHY has become a powerful search engine that allows brands to be part of everyday conversations. As Alex Chung, CEO of GIPHY said, “the triumph of he GIF was its ability to turn advertising into content”.

In 2019, it’s time to invest in GIPHY. Teams should spend a little less time focusing on how to broadcast on their channels and more time thinking about how to empower fans to share on their behalf. Dark social isn’t nearly as sexy as the public-facing metrics, but it’s just as important (if not more, really). It’s time to put more energy into the interactions we can’t see.

6 – Go bold with game coverage.

As much as the industry has evolved, it seems like gamedays are an area where teams and leagues are afraid to do things differently. Scroll through any league’s Twitter list during a game and there is a good chance you’ll see a lot of the same things: Pass is incomplete, we got a first down, there’s 3:41 left in the 3rd, we still lead, etc. Dry play-by-play and updates.

We live in a world of excessive information where fans have the option to consume game updates in multiple ways and from multiple sources. There’s a good chance if a fan isn’t in front of a TV that they’re having updates sent to their phone. And as such, the weight of every play does not rest on a team or league’s Twitter account. It’s time to stop treating it like that.

There is a ton of clutter on social media during games today. If you want content to stand out and capture attention, you have to completely rethink what has been done in the past. Today, #smsports is less about informing and more about entertaining, engaging and telling your brand story well.

In 2019, it’s time to go bold with game coverage. How can accounts be more raw, show personality and make fans feel like the account is a friend sitting next to them on the couch? How can teams take fans places they typically can’t go, providing unique access that no one else can own? How can we use the captive audience we have during games to develop a stronger 1:1 connection with fans? The approach during games should be less about the actual scores and more about the storylines that surround it and the emotion of the game.

The opportunity to stand out and build a deeper relationship with your fans is huge during a game. After all, that’s when the audience is most captive. Whether teams stop so much pushing and focus on a 1:1 connection or stop reporting and focus on color commentary, don’t be afraid to take a risk and do things differently for games.

7 – Less covering, more curating.

Too often content feels like deja vu in sports. Batting practice, pregame warmups, the huddle. There’s a sense from teams that they have to cover everything, all the time, week after week. And so many times, it leads to redundancy.

The mindset of covering in sports leads to dumping content without understanding why. Think about Instagram on game days. Too often teams post 20 times a day and garner less than a 2% engagement rate. That’s a serious flag that we need to give thought to why we cover everything. A less than 2 percent engagement rate should show a serious need to pivot (and no, don’t blame it on the algorithm).

In 2019, instead of “covering” everything, it’s time think about how to “curate” everything. Look at the totality of the season and curate a plan that shows every moment, every angle, every storyline over time. The *over time* is key here.

Curating vs covering will take effort. It will require defining the content buckets and priorities for the team, and then, brainstorming the potential shot list. It will require patience to know that it’s okay to not share everything. It will require looking back at what you did last week to not be redundundant, while also looking ahead. The goal is to bring your fans interesting moments, unique angles and variety throughout the entire season and not in one day.

In 2019, it’s time to strive for more curating and less covering. We don’t have to dump everything on fans all at once. We should consider what has already been covered and offer up something different week after week. If we plan and curate smartly, we can unfold the story in a natural and organic way *over time* without being intrusive to fans’ feeds.

8 – Brand over everything.

The internet has made us impatient as marketers. Too often we turn to the flavor of the day instead of the work that really matters. In this wild, wild west of digital the notion of a true brand identity has gone out the window. We resort to gimmicks versus what actually moves the needle.

It’s important to remember that not all engagement is created equal. Hop on a pop culture meme, share a random animal video or throw snark someone’s way and you’re probably going to generate attention. Does that mean it’s right for the brand or is helping a team reach its goals? Not necessarily. This image sums it up perfectly:

Our jobs aren’t to win the internet. Our jobs are bring the brand to life while capturing attention. Your brand is stronger than the flavor of the day.  It trumps pop culture GIFS, the meme of the week and every other vanity play. Seth Godin said it best in his latest book This Is Marketing:

Your tactics can make a different, but your strategy – your commitment to a way of being and a story to be told and a promise to be made – can change everything.

In this sea of sameness, the foundational things matter more than ever. Values, vision, focus, storytelling and connection. A brand’s why. These things build and come to life over time. In 2019, it’s time to buy into the notion that your brand is the most important thing you can focus on.

What does your brand stand for? Why do fans gravitate to your team? What’s the emotional connection? What’s the unique story you have to tell? Every team has scores. Every team has highlights. Every team has ups and downs. It’s the emotional connection beyond the field that teams need to own.

I’ll leave you with one more Seth Godin quote from his book: Specific is a kind of bravery.  In a world where our work is public and we’re all competitive, it’s easy to get caught up in the vanity plays and tactics. As marketers, we shouldn’t try to be everything to everyone. We should focus on the audience and the work that moves the needle. Define your North Star and stick to it.

Below are a few examples of teams who owned their brand well in 2018 beyond the scores. While these are one-off moments, they bring to life the DNA of the brand and their values in a powerful way:

9 – Small is the new big.

There’s a unique challenge going on in our industry today. It’s declining organic reach and passive consumption. Think about how most people around you consume. Scroll, scroll, scroll. Tap, tap, tap. We’ve spent so much time over the years building up these large audiences across social media, but is anyone really paying attention?

The numbers speak to this challenge. According to CrowdTangle, across all NBA teams the average interaction rate for each platform the past year was: 1.082% on Instagram, .033% on Twitter and  .033% on Facebook. With these low interaction rates, the value isn’t in the masses anymore. The value is in the audience that’s actually paying attention. Josh said it best when he said “small is the new big”:

In 2019, consider narrowing your focus on the audience that is active and eager to engage instead of focusing on a volume play. How can we strategically make our most passionate fans advocates and active participants?

There are so many ways to focus on creating meaningful action with an engaged audience. Teams can leverage fans as micro-influencers to distribute content and drive deeper relationships. Or, teams can create content that encourages active participation. Either way, keep in mind that small is the new big and focus on creative meaningful interaction versus broadcasting to the masses.

Below are a few content examples that encourage active participation:

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Which pair suits you? ??

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10 – Crack the code on 1:1.

In a similar vein to small is the new big, one-to-one communication is an area where teams and brands need to spend serious time cracking the code. As people get access to more information, more people and more content, they will continue to crave more personal interactions. Facebook’s VP of Messenger Stan Chudnovsky explained the human need perfectly:

“One-to-one private sharing trumps everything. If you think about it, forget about the Internet. Think about us as humans. That’s actually a basic human need. That stayed with us for as long we’ve existed as humans. Stories like Robinson Crusoe are wonderful, but you know they’re not true because any psychologist will tell you a person on their own on an uninhabited island will go crazy in about six months. If you’re very strong, maybe eight. You have to have other humans to interact with, or you stop being human. So, one-to-one conversation is a very basic need we cannot survive without.”

In 2019, it’s time for teams and brands to focus on driving these one-to-one interactions with fans. And, there are two main areas of focus for this: Community management and technology to scale with messenger apps.

First, social media is not just about pushing content. It’s about building a community and relationships with fans. Working in sport is a powerful platform because fans want to connect on an emotional level with teams. It’s time for teams to invest in true community management as a means to do this. We need to hire community managers whose main job is to cultivate relationships with fans. A reply or the opportunity to surprise and delight someone can leave a lasting impression. Simple gestures of appreciation for fans go a long way to building lifelong customers.

Second, messaging apps present a huge opportunity for teams and brands. WhatsApp has more 1.5B monthly active users; Facebook messenger has 1.3B monthly active users. That’s more than Instagram’s 1B monthly active users. Yes, it’s time that teams and brands take messaging and chatbots seriously to scale personal interactions. It’s no longer about checking the box with these tools. Teams and brands need to find ways to innovate. Whether chatbots are used to deliver highlights or let fans subscribe to content of their favorite player, they give teams the ability to deliver to fans content they want, the minute they request it.

Long story short, 2019 is the year teams and brands should finally take 1:1 seriously and invest in it (even though we’ve been saying this for years).

11 – Mature vision for digital teams.

When I started in digital nine years ago there was little pressure. Organizations didn’t quite understand what the landscape meant for their business, but they knew they had to be there. So, for the most part, young people got the keys to the platforms with little vision, oversight and pressure to produce ROI.

This is no longer the case today. Organizations understand that these tools aren’t a place to play. They are an opportunity to build brand love, engage with fans and drive revenue. As a result, the pressure and focus on digital is ever-increasing (as it should) across organizations.

Too often though, organizations expect success in digital without knowing what that means for infrastructure, investment, culture and growth.  Teams are understaffed. Hires are made without thinking strategically about the actual needs. Leadership lacks a digital background. Organizations cannot articulate what growth looks like for someone in a social role. Digital needs to mature within organizations to set teams and people up for long-term success and growth.

In 2019, it’s time to get serious about setting up digital teams and people to not just survive but to thrive. This means hiring leadership with a digital background. It means hiring and building out teams intently and with a vision for the future. It’s about providing growth for people in social roles. And, it’s about giving teams the resources and autonomy to do good work.

When expectations increase, investments should increase too. It’s time for digital teams to get their due within organizations by providing the right structure, resources and opportunity for growth.

12 – Continued emphasis on creative + design.

Teams can’t invest in digital today without investing in creative power. Period. An investment in creative means an investment in your brand. Creative isn’t just a flowery thing today. It’s critical to stand out from the crowd.

The sports world has made incredible strides as far as investing in creative and content. In 2019, it’s time to put a continued emphasis on this. Teams, leagues and brands must commit to creating a visual identity and pushing the envelope with creative if they want to capture attention.

From a visual identity perspective, it should be clear which team, brand or league the content is from with or without a logo. And that’s where a strong graphics package that reflects the brand comes into play. When teams put in the work to define their visual identity and actually see it through, the result is work that instantly connects with fans.

Once the visual identity is set, teams must continue to push the envelope with creative executions to stand out from all the noise. From illustrations to moving image, below are just a few examples of strong creative executions this past year:

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And let the city celebrate! #Celebrate08

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??? #LARvsCHI

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That’s a record. ????????

A post shared by Minnesota Vikings (@vikings) on

13 – Consider the social ad boom.

Here’s the good news: Brands aren’t only driving awareness and engagement through social media. They’re also driving revenue. Thanks to the maturation of ad tools and first-party data use, teams and brands are able to focus on the full funnel. Not only can we drive awareness, but we can also get fans to convert.

Here’s the bad news though: We’re experiencing a social ad boom. The secret is out about social advertising, especially as it relates to Facebook. One out of every four Facebook pages now use paid media. This means more competition and potentially higher costs.

In 2019, it’s time to expand and test a team’s digital advertising portfolio. From Instagram’s ad sets to venturing into podcasts and OTT, there’s a whole slew of opportunity. The brands that will continue to be successful in the space will look ahead and test new ways to drive ROI beyond the Facebook feed.

14 – Focus on distribution.  

With the way engagement rates are trending today, teams and brand need to think critically about distribution. What’s the purpose of spending hours and weeks planning and creating content if you aren’t going to maximize its impact?

In 2019, it’s time to buy into the idea that a distribution strategy is just as important as a creative strategy. Declining organic reach is a very real thing. This means that posting your season hype video once across three platforms doesn’t do it justice. Teams must spend time understanding how content can be repurposed. And, teams must invest in paid media to boost organic content to make the creative efforts truly worth it.

Too often we spend valuable time creating content to post it once and walk away. Give the creative its due by putting in the time to create a plan that will elevate the work to the audience it deserves.

15 – Experimentation with AR.

AR is one technology I’m not bullish on. Why? Because fans can access the activation as long as they have their phone in their hands. Because of the accessibility, it’s something teams and brands should have on their radar in the coming year:

AR is something everyday people have adopted (in a large part thanks to Snapchat). This willingness to adopt it, along with its ease of use, makes AR a worthwhile and immersive fan experience for teams, brands and leagues to explore.  In 2019, it’s important to continue to experiment with AR has a way to drive immersive storytelling and reward fans on owned platforms such as apps.

Below are a few interesting activations from 2018. You’ll see that the opportunities are endless from in-venue to season tickets:

17 – Go beyond the weekly recap.

Week after week so many teams look ahead with the same highlight reel. The reels often involve big plays and hype music with no story or life to them.  Teams are missing a huge opportunity to chronicle the team’s journey throughout a season beyond the stats and scores.

In 2019, it’s time for teams to go beyond the recap and tap into the journey of the season week after week. People are invested in the emotion that comes with sport. Capitalize on it.

If teams can go beyond the stats and talk about what it takes to get from here to there (the highs, the lows, the emotion, the work) then recaps become an actual story that taps into a brand’s DNA. Fans feel a stronger connection when emotion is tied to content and are more likely to share it. That’s a win for everyone.

UGA, Clemson and the Ravens have created episodic series that go beyond the scores. Check them out below for inspiration:

I know sometimes this feels like a broken record, but it’s our job as marketers to own our brand. These episodic series from the teams above are a great exammple of going beyond the weekly recap to own your brand and the story. More of this in 2019, please.

18 – True strategy for Instagram Stories.

Instagram Stories is growing like crazy. Today, it boasts 400M daily users compared to Snapchat’s 191 million. According to Recode, it is arguably the fastest-growing media format ever. Some 31 percent of Instagram users post a Story every month, according to a recent survey from RBC Capital, up from 21 percent a year prior. And 47 percent of users watch them at least weekly, up from 32 percent a year ago.

But just like everything, marketers are out to ruin Stories. Week after week the platform is cluttered with the same thing. And, teams and leagues are inundating fans with 20+ frames a day.

In 2019, it’s time for teams to define their purpose on Stories. To get creative and do something different. Instead of focusing on the daily churn (again), how can teams get creative and tell a story? The best example of this was the Chicago Bull’s Beauty and the Bull musical (was on Snapchat, but would obviously work for Instagram Stories):

We need to stop abusing and taking advantage of the captive audience we currently have on the platform and start delivering entertainment and value before it’s too late. If we aren’t careful, we’re going to lose our audience there.

19 – More from the #smsports community.

Now it’s your turn to sound off! What would you like to see in social media + sports in 2019?

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  1. Brilliant curation Jess and this could be read three times and you’d get something extra out of it every time.

    Thanks for caring so much about the why not just the how in Social Media.

  2. As someone who has worked in / around sports & social since before the dawn of Facebook, I tip my hat to you, Jess. I agree with pretty much everything you’re saying here, and we’re in the process of re-tooling our strategies along these lines. Adjusting course isn’t going to be easy but I believe it’s necessary and will pay off. Thanks for the thought and work you put into this piece, and thanks for sharing.

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