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BLOG: The Engagement Game – how to balance editorial and brand content on social

The attraction of a sports property’s social media offering is becoming an increasingly important element in partnerships with brands – but maximising this relationship in editorial terms to the satisfaction of both parties requires a delicate balance, with engagement at its heart.

The eternal balance: editorial v commercial

There is nothing new in the tension that exists between editorially led and commercially focused information. Newspaper and TV adverts were the primary revenue driver of media houses for decades, demanding column inches space and airtime in an acknowledged trade-off between editorial needs and financial necessity.

The evolution of the public relations industry ensured these lines began to blur somewhat as advertorial-style content became more prevalent in journalistic output – some of it in more subtle guises than others.

The birth of the internet then put its foot on the accelerator of change, hitting overdrive with the onset of social media.

The tension in the age of social media still exists, but the difference is that it’s more nuanced, and the battle for attention is so much fiercer as there are so many players out there. As a content producer, you are not just competing against established media houses anymore. Anyone can produce content and pretty much everyone with a social account does.

The newspapers and TV stations that went out of business in the 1980s and 1990s may argue that competition was just as cut-throat then, but in today’s hugely fragmented market, it’s hard to rise above the rest even in a niche area. And whereas the traditional indicators of success were circulation and ratings, the key metric now is engagement.

Engagement: from which everything follows

Vanity numbers dominated the early years of social media. Perhaps taking their cue from traditional analogue benchmarks, followers and impressions were presented to advertisers as the markers of where to assign their media spend. The landscape evolved quickly as brands sought optimal value – and soon realised the potential of social media to offer more tailored investment strategies.

Engagement thus became a vital measurement of content success.

For advertisers, it showed exactly where audiences were spending time and actually interacting – and therefore obviously being of more value than a piece of content which may or may not have been noticed. The platforms themselves reacted to this with algorithms tweaked to ensure engagement was rewarded.

The benefits of well-engaged posts are multifold and self-perpetuating. It’s not just having the clear advantage of an engaged vs. a passive audience; the better a post is interacted with, the more it elevates an account’s other posts. Even a reach play is driven, fundamentally, by engagement because a post will be served higher up feeds the more interaction it receives.

So, even though the issue for content producers on social media is similar to that faced historically by all publishers – how do you increase interest in your editorial while satisfying the needs of your commercial partners, needs which are usually not the reason your channels are followed – the rewards are far more tangible. And as the key metric has changed, so have the tactics in how to increase it.

The pull of sports properties

In the world of sport, it’s natural for popular properties to be attractive propositions to brands. Sports rights owners such as competitions, clubs and – increasingly – players will stand for certain values which the brand sees as similar to its own, or certainly values the brand would like to be associated with. It can be the continuation of a brand’s ethos that has been in place for years, or mark a shift in how it wants itself to be perceived. It can be a very powerful agent of change.

Moving this to social media is not necessarily straightforward. Maybe nowadays we are at the stage where one of the attractions of a sports property to a brand is its social media presence.

Either way, it is now de rigueur for contracts to flesh out how partners can utilise these channels for the promotion of their brand.

The example of Cristiano Ronaldo may be an extreme one, but well illustrates what is happening at the top end of the market: the footballer took home $47.8 million from paid Instagram posts alone in 2019. It’s not just the fact he has a huge following – it’s that he has a huge and engaged one. It’s the type of direct, quality access you could not even consider achieving through, say, television advertising.

Returning to how brands work with sports properties, often the promotion of a brand takes the form of a piece of content that the partner has created themselves or via one of their agencies which they may use on their own social channels, or on another medium such as television.

These ‘brand slap’ posts more often than not perform poorly on sports properties’ platforms. They are out of keeping with the usual editorial content feed and are an immediate turn-off for that property’s following. A piece of content that receives relatively poor engagement doesn’t just affect that particular post but drags down the visibility of that channel’s other content – including other sponsor posts.

The trick in gaining engagement lies in presenting partner promotion in such a way that it doesn’t turn off an audience whose expectation is to see a sport’s organisation’s ‘usual’ offering – this is branded content.

Branded content

What that usual offering might be depends on the goals set by the organisation and editorial team – and it has a direct impact on what sponsor content can be produced. Branded content is not a new phenomenon, but doing it well requires getting the balance just right. Associating a brand with an element of your property that has a distinction with the rest of your editorial output – but is still in keeping with it – is a tried and tested approach, and has the power to do the following:

  1. Give the brand a direct, seemingly exclusive relationship with part of the property
  2. Tap into a value or set of values that is represented by the property or that part of it
  3. Create content that achieves high engagement and more exposure for the brand

The numbers tell the story: content produced for a brand by the editorial team will almost always perform better than content pre-delivered by the brand for unedited posting on the property’s channels.

The key to this is knowledge of a property’s audience based on analytics and demographics, and the people with the best insight into this is the editorial team, be it the posters themselves or the analytics unit, depending on team size and their priorities. The ‘battle’ is to persuade the brand of the above approach – to convince partners to move away from more traditional forms of advertising and to make content specifically for social media and, to be more precise, a particular social media audience. That is how to get engagement and the proof is in the numbers.

Manchester City took this a step further, running a branded content series on Facebook to show the wider value on offer: their Freestyle World Tour featured top freestyle footballers showcasing their talents in different Etihad destinations. A brand lift study conducted at the end of the campaign demonstrated significant increases in three key metrics: purchase intent, ad recall and awareness.

Worthy investment

Achieving best in class branded content takes time. It requires many actors and sign-offs at various levels but once an activation is established, it can be run by the editorial team with little need for the brand to be involved. There is an onus not just on brands, but on rights owners to choose their partners carefully and find ‘value synergies’ that allow for optimum public perception – and not just in the content sphere.

Nevertheless, there is inevitably a lot of compromise involved in the creation of these branded content products, but the goals of both parties really remain the same, or certainly should: achieving the best possible engagement for the posts themselves.

Ensuring this gives the brand as high exposure as possible, while not adversely affecting the performance of the channels that make them such an attractive proposition in the first place.

eSports – are you ready for a new era in sports advertising?

It is no secret that the world of eSports is growing rapidly year on year, with bigger tournaments and larger prize-pools attracting a worldwide audience of gaming enthusiasts. The International, arguably one of the largest eSports events on the calendar, has seen unprecedented, consistent growth since its inception 2011 with a prize pool of over $24.75 million at the 2017 tournament, a majority of which is funded directly by players of the game. Often selling out traditional sports stadiums with audiences of 50,000+ combined with online viewership soaring above 60 million (in the case of the League of Legends World Championship 2017), eSports are increasingly giving traditional sports a run for their money.

It’s time to accept eSports is mainstream

With greater presence and an ever-increasing audience comes a tangible opportunity for sponsors to engage with fans. In March 2018 it was announced that Snickers would be the official sponsor for Season 5 of Rocket League RLCS (2018), joining the likes of Old Spice, Mobil1 and StateFarm who are also holding sponsorship positions. This takes an interesting side-step from other tournaments which are typically sponsored by gaming hardware (and related) brands such as PlayStation and G FUEL in the case of Call of Duty World League Championship 2017, and Alienware, Dell and HyperX in the CS:GO ELEAGUE Major in the same year.

Where exceptions do exist, it has previously been the more prominent title sponsorship positions that have been taken by brands which appeal specifically to a gaming audience. It is clear that as the term “eSports” becomes more mainstream, so too do the brands sponsoring it; and since virtual sports have evolved so rapidly over the last few years, it seems the lines between the two camps are becoming increasingly blurred.

The RLCS along with many other eSports tournaments is streamed to fans via the world’s most well known dedicated live-stream gaming platform, Twitch. Now owned by Amazon, the service saw 43.6% of live streaming traffic in the US in 2014. However, when it comes to advertising, the key difference between traditional sports and eSports is the way in which sponsors are using the platform to better engage their audience.

“Spamming” is no longer a bad word

Snickers sponsorship of RLCS is a great example of a brand recognising the need to interact differently with their audience, given the new challenges which eSports pose to advertisers. Everyone is familiar with this confectionary giant; yet it is clear that the marketing team behind the nutty snack went out of their way to appeal to a cohort who are not used to (or keen on) long drawn out, high-budget, advert breaks. The centrepiece of their RLCS campaign is an amusing 30 second video punctually shown after each game finishes, featuring a news anchor blindly following autocue prompts from an operator who has fallen asleep on his keyboard due to being “sleepy” – Snickers being the obvious cure to this predicament!

While the anchor and weather presenter are stuck mumbling “AAAAAAAAAA”, the viewer is left to question what would cause the presenters to babble such drivel. A very simple premise with a straightforward punchline.

 

The beauty in this campaign, however, is not the use of an amusing video on its own – Snickers have realised the value in the in-stream chat utilised by viewers who have signed in through Twitch.

Seemingly one doubtless, timeless fact concerning gamers when presented with a chatroom is that they will inevitably spam it – the act of repeatedly posting the same word or phrase over and over again. “AAAAAAAAAA” is a very easy phrase to type, and even easier to copy/paste. Viewers of the Snickers advert during the 2018 RLCS stream were unable to contain themselves when Snickers handed them the opportunity to spam this brand message for the full 30 second duration and beyond.

In a previous InCrowd article, Seb Lear wrote about the importance of “talk value” in a recent Bud Light commercial. This is a perfect example of what I would like to coin; “spam value”! Gaming fanatics relish the chance to be part of the mischief of spamming and in doing so, reinforce the message and draw attention to the ad for all viewers.

Granted, the Snickers ad is not exclusive to RLCS streams, but the marketing team behind this have demonstrated appreciation for the worth of achieving “talk value” in the stream by introducing the Snickers branded “AA” emoji (see below). Relevant and on-point, when appearing inline this emoji stands out from the rest of the chat, unashamedly drowning out all other messages to give itself prominence.

in-stream Twitch chat

Sign up incentives and in-game branding go hand-in-hand

Participation requires that viewers sign in with their Twitch account, but anyone is free to view the stream without doing so; so what if they haven’t signed in? Rocket League are a step ahead – anybody watching the stream through a connected Twitch account is rewarded at random with in-game items unique to Season 5 of RLCS. Once RLCS is over, the items can no longer be obtained, making them rare and collectible. This keeps the fans watching and interacting, and once logged in, there’s no reason not to participate. Rocket League has traditionally taken full advantage of distributing branded in-game cosmetic items since it was released, with notable partnerships from; DC (comics), Nvidia, Rick and Morty, and WWE.

RLCS Fan Rewards promo (2018) – Credit: rocketleague.com

Be aware that our attention span is minimal

As a viewer, it is clear how impactful the Snickers campaign has been in this RLCS series. This may in part be down to the fact that the core viewer demographic is currently considerably more defined than that of traditional TV-based sporting championships. With the average eSports viewer being male between the ages of 18-24 (across Europe in 2016), the majority of the viewership is no longer used to being bombarded with 5 minute commercial breaks which interrupt content. This audience wants something quick, to the point and engaging.

This case study indicates a swing away from ‘lazy’ traditional advertising towards a new era where engagement is key – a move which we are seeing in other sports too. The success of this is clearly demonstrated in the viewer responses in which Snickers is met with a barrage of ‘spamming’ on a level which surpasses that of a game winning goal being scored. The value of a single, appropriately targeted ad, is of considerably higher value than many which are not.

eSports are no longer playing catch up

In many ways, eSports are becoming increasingly similar to mainstream traditional sports. Starting from humble beginnings as one-off LAN events and slowly building towards specialized global tournaments, eSports are now seeing booming revenue and increased following, with one estimate suggesting that by 2020, collective eSports viewership will exceed that of baseball in the US. eSports has provided a platform for change and diversification from mainstream counterparts – targeting a new type of audience with innovative use of technologies. The necessity to target viewers in more meaningful, platform specific ways has enabled eSports to offer a more compelling fan experience.

Fan-centric experience has always been the natural direction for eSports in particular given that their developers lean towards this mindset in their day-to-day working. Compared to traditional sports, eSports have been offering predictors, rewards and stats trackers since their inception, and it is good to see how eSports are also beginning to forge their own path in regard to sponsor interaction.

I am in no doubt that new exciting ways to captivate fan interest will continue to be refined into the future as the success of moments like these are realised.

I leave you with a selection of top plays in the RLCS EU promotion tournament:

Why rightsholders need to think like creative agencies AND media owners

Why sponsorship has the potential to be stronger than ever

I read a fascinating article recently by Michael Broughton titled ‘Sponsorship is burning’. It highlighted the recent growth in digital media, specifically programmatic advertising, and how this growth threatens the sponsorship share of advertiser’s budgets from which rightsholders have historically benefitted.

The question posed, is that given programmatic advertising can target the right person, at the right place, at the right time…why on earth would you do anything else? Why spend money on sponsorship which is often expensive and cannot accurately track the subsequent benefits, when you can run a programmatic campaign and track every penny of revenue?

It is a very real question, and one that is currently being posed to rightsholders from potential sponsors, and ultimately having a dramatic effect on the market.

However, through the doom and gloom, there are 2 key reasons why sponsorship has the potential to be a stronger proposition than ever before, in today’s ever evolving and complex world.  But as Misha Ser wrote recently in ‘Sport asleep at the wheel’, rightsholders need to ‘evolve’, and in this piece, I discuss why I feel rightsholders should begin to view themselves as both creative agencies, and media owners in the face of the rise of programmatic advertising.

  1. Brands need compelling content ideas now more than ever

‘Content is king’ is probably one of the most used statements in the last year or so in the marketing industry, but is obviously a relevant one. With consumers now seeing on average 5,000 adverts a day, brands need a way to stand out from the crowded market place, and communicate with their target audience. It is often the job of creative agencies to come up with ideas that create that emotional bond with the consumer, and media agencies to then to deliver the message to that audience in the right environment. However, given the sheer amount of content now available through social media, websites and elsewhere, delivering that compelling brand message is becoming increasingly difficult. Take the recent McDonalds ‘Fillet-o-Fish’ campaign disaster as an example, where, if nothing else, it highlighted the extent a creative agency went to create a story that would resonate with the audience. It failed, on a quite spectacular scale, and I imagine at quite a cost.

This is where sponsorship still has its unique position. At a cost, arguably comparable to the work of a creative agency, it helps provide brands an identity to align with, ideas for inspiring content, a platform to share their brand message, and a credibility that will attract consumers. In a world where data and research influences every penny of marketing spend, the fact that 64% of people would rather buy from a brand that sponsors their sport, than one that doesn’t, highlights sponsorships unique offering (PSG Sponsorship). Sport generates a passion in humans that is rarely matched, and brands can tap into that in a natural and meaningful way.

I remember everything from the first ever Southampton FC game I attended at the Dell as a 6-year-old. I remember the soundtrack the players ran out too. I remember the smell. I remember the chants. And yes, I remember the Sanderson shirt logo, the Carling Premiership branding and the Draper Tools signage around the scoreboard. Why? Those brands stuck into my mind because of the sheer passion I had for Matt Le Tissier et al. Content therefore, ranging from fans unique experiences, to the epic, emotional battles on the pitch, provide brands with ammo to align their overarching message with.

This is something programmatic simply cannot do.

Programmatic is not a magic wand that can magically generate results, which is often the perception. The hard graft (and cost) of creating a brand identity remains.

However, back then, the 6-year-old me was clearly not in any need of power tools for example, and therefore you could argue that the Draper Tools sponsorship was wasted on me. And of course, it was, back then at least. But a prime target for power tools would have been my Dad, who as well as being a devout Southampton fan, also regularly did DIY work in the garden and around the house. Therefore, if there was a way back in 1996, for Draper Tools to subsequently translate his passion for Southampton FC and need for power tools into direct, trackable revenue, in a targeted and efficient way…then I’m sure they would have jumped at the opportunity.

This is what programmatic can do.

Surely then, rightsholders should be thrilled that their partners, have a way of further translating the benefits of sponsorship into trackable revenue, in the same way a creative agency would be thrilled if a media agency translated their work into a successful, profitable campaign. And in that sense, rightsholders should begin to view themselves as creative agencies, providing brands with ideas, stories, and an identity, which can then be amplified through programmatic and other channels. The fact that the activation-to-fee ratio has passed two to one for the first time ever, and that 98% of brands use social media to further activate their sponsorship, highlight this is happening, which was not the case back in 1996. (IEG)

This philosophy alone, however, assumes that money grows on trees, and that brands can afford to not only spend a chunk on sponsorship, but also spend a further amount activating through other channels to ensure revenue from that sponsorship is driven. Michael Broughton in his article is actually a big advocate of sponsorship, but questions how rightsholders will fare when brands are allocating budgets.

And that is why, it is crucial, that rightsholders also begin to see themselves as media owners.

  1. Brands demand a ROI

Put simply, the days of impressions are dead.

It’s a worthless metric.

Not only in sponsorship, but in the advertising industry as a whole. Brands are now under incredible pressure from board room level to deliver results from every penny of marketing spend. As a result, post campaign presentations no longer focus on impressions, reach, or even clicks. It’s all about that headline number. Test drives. Hotel bookings. Bets placed…Revenue.

This of course, is where programmatic has thrived, and forced the channels of print, TV, and even social media to think hard about how they service this requirement.

Sponsorship, and specifically rightsholders are now very much now in the same situation. IEG research highlights this, by showing that assistance measuring ROI was the most desired service expected from a rightsholder. Thus, in the same way that traditional print media owners have had to evolve from print to digital, to then working with data management platforms (DMP), simply to survive…rightsholders also need to act. They need to think like media owners.

A logo on the front of a team’s shirt, in isolation, is no longer enough. Don’t let the short termism of Chinese betting brands or Premier League sleeve sponsorships this summer cloud that statement…rightsholders need to prove to brands that they can drive trackable ROI from the partnership, otherwise, as Phil Stephan from Two Circles suggested in his blog, “they risk being left behind”. In today’s world, that means being digital first. The 2017 report ‘What sponsors want and where the dollars will go’ summed up these challenges well when explaining that sponsorship spend may have dipped due to “a lingering gap between sponsor expectations and properties’ ability to deliver when it comes to both personalised marketing opportunities based on data, and valuable digital content and platforms”.

Rightsholders have the huge advantage, that they have substantial, passionate fanbases waiting to be unlocked. Listening to Gareth Balch, CEO of Two Circles, recently was fascinating. He explained that his message to their clients, is that there is a treasure chest of fan data, just waiting to be opened to the rightsholders benefit. As Two Circles are proving, this is true, and they are helping rightsholders drive revenue using data through ticketing, retail and sponsorship. In a similar vein, rightsholders should also be confident that they have another valuable treasure chest, which they can offer to their sponsors.

As the latest Nielsen report points, “the smartest rightsholders are already using their in-depth knowledge of their fan base to ensure brand partners are activating in the most effective way. The smartest brands are already demanding such information from their sponsorship property”. It’s only a matter of time before the majority wake up, and if rightsholders begin to show to brands, that through a fan focused, owned digital platform, they can clearly drive a trackable ROI from sponsorship spend…then I feel rightsholders will have gone some way towards protecting themselves from programmatic cannibalising brands budgets.

Obviously, this is where I begin to talk about InCrowd’s work in this area. For another time…

In summary, yes, it might sound weird to describe rightsholders as both creative agencies and media owners, because of course they are not. Rightsholders are unique and powerful in their own way. However, by thinking, and learning from how those organisations work with brands in today’s complex world, then rightsholders will ensure that sponsorship has never been a stronger proposition for brands.