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Switching up the game: Sports marketers must be agile to thrive

(Image credit: Image Credit: Massive)

The days of fans supporting their teams in a packed stadium isn’t something we’ll be able to resume for quite a while. However, that isn’t stopping the sports industry from quickly adapting to the new parameters necessitated by the global pandemic and redefining their approach so fans can still participate – albeit from home. Just take a look at the likes of the Premier League about to restart behind closed doors, professional darts played from home and Danish league fans taking to the stands via Zoom, to name a few.

As consumers have adjusted to spending the majority of their time at home, online content consumption has soared – from online streaming to social media. So it’s clear there is a huge appetite for content, not least from loyal sports fans who, though unable now to enjoy a match in person, still want to follow their favourite teams and players both live and on demand.

What that means is that there is a fantastic opportunity for brands to get in on the action if they play their cards right. With the sports industry adapting to suit the current situation, so too should marketers. However, it is important to note that goal posts have shifted, meaning brands must take an agile approach and change their objectives in order to succeed. Consumer spending has been hit hard, so it is not realistic to use immediate sales as a benchmark. With so many staying at home, the key to success is building engagement, emotion and loyalty through thoughtful content and a digital first approach. To win the tournament and maximise return on investment, marketers should focus on second screen experiences to capture the hearts and minds of an audience using multiple devices more.

Stealing the limelight with social media

Social media platforms have become an increasingly important aspect of lockdown. With fans unable to travel to matches, go to the pub, or even watch matches with groups of friends at home, social media has a vital role to play in enhancing the sports experience and rebuilding fan communities. In our new closed ecosystem, fans are changing the way they interact with each other, find entertainment and express their emotions. The statistics speak for themselves with consumers having spent 21 per cent more time on social media due to coronavirus. From more established platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to relative newcomers like Snapchat and TikTok, all are seeing healthy increases in audience and interaction. Facebook Live was up 50 per cent from February to March, Instagram Live was up 70 per cent from March to April, Twitter’s total ad engagements increased 25 per cent year on year. Targeting younger demographics, Snapchat had 229 million worldwide daily active users (DAUs) in Q1, up 17 per cent from Q4 2019 while Snapchat and TikTok saw an 18 per cent boost in downloads over just one week in March.

With a raft of sports organisations investing in social media from the NFL and Wimbledon to the Premier League, there is every reason to get involved in the social media action. These platforms offer a cost-effective way to build deeper connections and better engagement with target audiences who always have a phone or tablet in hand. More importantly, they are enabling diversification of audiences and engagement amplification like never before. As consumers take to social media to share everything from reactions to ads, songs, fouls, goals and more, this is the perfect opportunity to engage where they are, leveraging the second screen to maximise both the experience for fans and its longevity. In doing so, brands can ensure the buzz and excitement lasts well beyond the event for the next generation of sports fans.

Getting it right, however is not easy, and it is important that brands understand their responsibility in ensuring that ads are not only authentic, but that they are also safe for consumption.

Ultimately there is a lot that marketers can gain if they leverage social media in the right way. As well as growing a better relationship with customers and increasing engagement, there are further benefits. Let’s not forget that social media spend can also save you time, effort and, of course, money – all of which, during these uncertain times, is a huge benefit.

Helping customers through the “new normality” with real-time conversation

As well as looking at different social media platforms brands can leverage for engagement, they can help – with thoughtful and different content - to provide some consistency to audiences as they adjust to the first stages of “new normality”. While it’s true, sports will be played behind closed doors, fans will still be able to watch their favourite teams and share their enjoyment with each other. It’s possible that audiences might be even bigger than ever before, and we’ll certainly benefit from greater insight as the sports behind closed doors gives rise to a completely new event.

We are living in completely unchartered territory, but brands and sports organisations are already rising to the challenge. Some, for example have been harnessing the power of nostalgia for their game – rerunning historic events to remind fans of the good times while play is paused. Others have understood the positive impact that they can have and using their influence for social change. Ashley Young, Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry and Roberto Carlos are just some examples of players supporting social distancing messages and the StayAtHome message, while teams and players have also been raising funds to support charities.

As we get ready for sports to restart in earnest, brands should keep in mind the captivating moments that live sports creates for large audiences that they can harness. As many viewers are simultaneously on second screens, this creates an opportunity to drive real-time conversations.  Brands have the opportunity to create a surround-sound experience and connected context to search, social and display advertising by syncing creatives with real-time moments during a sporting match.

With so much change, it’s important that brands are mindful of how they assess how campaigns perform. They need to think about what success looks like, what the end goals are, how to engage and how to plan for our completely different landscape. It’s no longer enough to judge a campaign solely on sales. Instead, it’s important to look beyond this and incorporate more meaningful ways to measure engagement – social media interactions, video engagement rates, visits to the brand website.

Audiences are already beginning to experience a completely new way to enjoy sports, one which for them is played out entirely on digital platforms. With this new type of event setting, all official and non-official sports brands and sponsors will need to be agile and focus on delivering a long-lasting experience on multiple screens. If done right, brands will be able to build meaningful engagement with fans, nurture new relationships and attract new customers along the way.

Karl Knights, revenue organisation, 4C insights