Sports Businesses Seek ‘Engagement’ to Make Consumers Out of Fans

·5 min read

“Engagement” is a term frequently used within the sports and entertainment industry. Rights owners, rights holders and brand partners are all said to be after it. But the buzzword is rarely defined. Conversations with a host of senior media executives, marketing agents and sports executives—including Minute Media president and CRO Rich Routman—indicated that while engagement can be used in multiple contexts and measured in a multitude of ways, the term is “ultimately about getting the consumer to take action in some way, shape or form.” That action can help define the depth of their fandom—and allow companies to monetize that connection (and any opt-in first-party data), either through products purchased now or in the future or through leveraging that captured information to create data-enhanced advertising platforms for its marketer partners.

JWS’ Take: The term engagement is used within the sports and entertainment ecosystem in two main contexts. The first “is more of as a catch-all term for mindshare and brand loyalty,” TeamWorks Media CEO Jay Sharman said. “A sliver of that fan’s brain is dedicated to [the team, league or media company], and they take actions that exhibit that (think: buying team products).”

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The second is on a more practical level. Teams, leagues, media companies and brands use engagement metrics “to define how well their content is performing,” former Bleacher Report chief executive Howard Mittman explained.

Measuring engagement with content that airs on linear television is relatively easy. While the Nielsen ratings system is not perfect, it does provide a universal means of quantifying viewership.

Digital engagement is different, says Speedway Motorsports chief strategy officer Mike Burch. “On social networks, it can mean many things,” he said. “Viewing, downloading, liking, following, reading, forwarding, clicking, purchasing [or] responding.”

And unfortunately, the digital realm, with its multiple mediums and platforms, lacks comparable standardizations to Nielsen data. So, “what you often see is a roll-up of data into a single engagement metric,” Mittman said. “Ultimately, what everyone is trying to do is place a measure of objectivity into a highly subjective, ever-changing—and occasionally manipulable—environment.” One must look no further than Ozy’s recent downfall to see the potential for shenanigans relating to measuring engagement.

As Mittman noted, the fact that digital engagement metrics are constantly moving targets has been a headwind in the face of standardization. “Five years ago, it was all about vanity,” Sharman said. “How many followers does your account have? That has evolved into what percentage of your followers engage with your content.”

The highly subjective nature of engagement metrics has been problematic as well. Post engagement rate (think: divide the total number of interactions with a piece of content by the number of followers and multiply that number by 100) is a commonly used benchmark within digital media circles. But as Mittman noted, it leaves out both shares (think: retweets) and time spent, which makes it less than an all-encompassing statistic. “Those are key metrics in understanding how a community interacts with a brand and its content,” he said.

It’s also worth pointing out that there is a ton of nuance to the data. “Someone may say their video generated 10 million views. Well, how many of those people made it past the first five seconds? How many people made it all the way through? How many people were so compelled by the video that they felt it was important to share it, post it or comment about it on social,” Routman asked.

Because digital engagement metrics are not the most consistent or objective forms of measurement, Mittman says they should be just one of many data points a brand, advertiser or stakeholder takes into account. “It’s far from being a holy grail,” he said.

“The end goal is for that engagement to also be meaningful so that the relationship with the brand is not transient,” said CSM Sport & Entertainment chief creative officer Darius Naficy.

While not an exact science, mindshare and brand loyalty can be measured. Rights owners, holders and brand partners are able to conduct market research on brand awareness and affinity, and with deeply engaged consumers, “they have all the data that supports if someone is a super fan,” Sharman said. (Think: email open rates, product sales history.) He cited Barstool Sports as a brand with a deeply engaged audience, with fans who “wear their gear and put flags on their houses.” Overtime would be another example.

There is a pecking order that prioritizes the digital engagement metrics used to capture the relationships teams, leagues, media companies and brands have with their respective audiences on every medium or platform (though the metrics and pecking order vary by entity and are dependent on their objectives).

Using Twitter as an example, Sharman laid out his company’s thinking. “A quote tweet endorsing something, sharing it with your network, is the highest form of engagement,” he said. “Down to hitting ‘like’ on a post, which is nice … even if it doesn’t necessarily mean they read the article to the end.”

Routman said the “next level down” in terms of engagement focuses on consumption of the content. Sharman agreed, pointing out that “time spent watching a video” is particularly valuable metric. Because unlike linear viewership, “you know who [the viewer] is, even if it’s anonymized.”

Of course, for tier-one sports rights owners, it is a difficult metric to use, since nearly all of their live game content still airs on traditional television.

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