Sports as an industry is going through a tough time right now due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Events out of organizations’ control have caused seasons to grind to a screeching halt, causing not only teams and leagues, but sports networks, reporters, and event staff to wonder when normalcy will return. In the meantime, teams have turned to digital channels such as Twitter to maintain fan engagement, which I went into more detail on in a previous post.
But even in the best of circumstances, digital has become more than just a simple component in a sports team’s marketing strategy; it has become central to it. The reach that digital marketing has is exponentially larger than more ‘traditional’ marketing mediums in today’s day and age. Its versatility is also much greater, as constantly-improving technology allows for more and more sharply targeted and segmented messages to be sent out to fans and potential fans.
However, digital does have to align with several of the same strategic guidelines that marketers have always had to keep in mind.
Tom Hoof, Vice President of Marketing and Game Entertainment for the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes, outlined three of these guidelines when I reached out:
“1. Know your target and make sure your advertising resonates with that target.
2. Make sure the creative (advertising) you do is simple and to the point.
3. Make sure your advertising is run on appropriate channels.”
Sticking to these guidelines helps steer organizations away from the ‘spray and pray’ approach of throwing content out there and hoping something resonates and sticks. In turn, this will save both time and money because only well-targeted and appropriately-channeled content will be created and released, increasing efficiency.
With digital marketing encompassing the use of almost all internet-connected devices, we see it including all social media platforms, email campaigns, and online advertising. One huge area of opportunity that many teams could be using to a greater potential is the team-specific app. When used in conjunction with the team’s social media, teams can connect with fans like never before.
Cindy Cuadra, Mobile Application Specialist at the Miami Heat, weighed in on this matter:
“…If you think about it, we live in an age where everyone is glued to their phones, even while watching live games in person or games on TV… So whether that engagement comes through user-generated content on social media or having fans of the team download an app with a widget to keep track of the score when they’re not able to watch the game, it’s an important aspect to take advantage of. It allows our fans to be a part of the experience.
Specifically, in sports marketing, we want our fans to become our brand ambassadors and wear the jerseys and the memorabilia, and hashtag their favorite teams. Using mobile devices/apps to capture those moments, whether on a live stream, with a simple Instagram picture, or buying tickets from our app, [will] bring in high engagement and possibly expand our target audience.”
It’s certainly true that fan engagement both during and around games is crucial. As Cindy said, all teams should want their fans to become brand ambassadors themselves, and that begins with making them feel part of the experience, and in many ways, of the team itself.
Fan engagement with the sport itself doesn’t have to be the only objective of a team’s digital marketing efforts, however.
Tom Ravenhill, a Marketing Strategist for the Vancouver Whitecaps, brought up a significant role that digital marketing can be used for by sports teams, one that transcends sports themselves while still using them as an avenue:
“The most crucial aspect of any sports team’s digital marketing strategy, for me, is social cause – now more than ever! Sports truly does transcend the field, and brings people together like nothing else – so how can you utilize that [influence] for the good of your local/wider community?
The greatest example of this for me is AS Roma using their highly engaged social media posts announcing new players as a vehicle to help find missing people around the world – they understand that their brand and platform can be used for so much more than football…”
I encourage you to take a look at the article he sent me which illustrates this campaign’s effectiveness; BBC link.
Let us also not forget that the sports industry encompasses more than leagues and teams. Journalists and networks are part of the beating heart that keeps fan engagement high. The quality and strength of their digital marketing strategy need to be top-notch to be effective.
Maria J Medrano, Event Marketing Coordinator at ESPN, shared with me her perspective:
“…Now more than ever, as the world becomes more and more technologically savvy, digital marketing is a great tool that can not only help segment and target the audience you’d like to reach but also have the ability to create unique content. In the sports industry, networks and digital channels are learning how to stand out from the rest and finding ways to create unique content in untraditional ways…
I believe it’s very important to not only understand what [the] digital marketing goal is overall but to also understand the metrics and analytics you gain from each strategy. With the help of those two, you can come up with ways that best suits your practice and help guide you in creating content.”
Of course, in the current climate, there’s a higher than usual degree of difficulty in creating content for the sports industry, with all sports paused until society can begin to move past the global crisis. With no sports events, fan engagement is impossible to maintain at the same level, if at a noticeable level at all.
In thinking about how this might be addressed, I reached out to Anthony Miyazaki, Executive Director of Marketing & Analytics and Brand Strategist for Florida International University. He suggested that sports industry marketers should consider three areas of opportunity if they’re not already doing so.
“…First, build stronger brand communities across geographic areas because, even though people are more transient than ever, they can remain connected via digital.
Second, encourage a greater amount of positive customer content to help in building brand communities and to leverage the creative drive and talents of fans.
Third, diversify into digital revenue streams that could compensate (to some degree) for issues like the COVID-19 shutdowns.
These could be online meetups with players, coaches, or managers; subscription services with premier content; and/or exclusive online gaming platforms.”
If anything, the current situation has shown us the degree to which a digital presence and the efficiency it enables have become essential for all manner of industries to thrive and persevere. Despite the inherently physical nature of the sports industry product, it is not exempt from digital dependence. From what I’ve observed thus far, the entities that have the most developed digital presences are the ones I believe are most likely to bounce back relatively quickly once the crisis has passed. These are teams that continue to engage fans on social, networks that continue to produce quality content, and journalists that adapt their posts and podcasts to maintain relevancy.
The Digital Age is not brand new. It is, however, ever-evolving. I believe we have reached an inflection point within the current era, and marketing strategists need to continue to grow along with the digital ecosystem and prioritize it more than ever. And, as we so often see in sports, those who fail to keep up are left behind in the dust. Those that stay ahead of the curve will continue to set the standard for excellence.