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Volume 20 No. 42
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ESPN’s well-researched sales pitch

Company has built a powerful presence in media research

The way ESPN’s Ed Erhardt recalls it, his marketing and sales team had been trying for years to convince manufacturers of men’s grooming products that their products needed to be featured on the all-sports network. With few exceptions, there was general reluctance. The prevailing thought was that women bought health and beauty aids for their significant others, and those women were better targeted elsewhere.

Four to five years later, nearly every ESPN media platform has ad buys from the likes of Procter & Gamble, Unilever and Dial. P&G went strong into sports with brands such as Head & Shoulders, as did Dial’s Right Guard, Unilever’s Dove Men + Care and Axe brands.

ESPN tracks consumer behavior across the growing list of media platforms.
Photo by: ESPN
While it may not exactly have been cause/effect, before the migration started, ESPN research was able to demonstrate to advertisers that not only did men buy more of their own grooming products than was generally acknowledged, they ranked price “low” and brand name “high” when considering grooming purchases.

Through qualitative and quantitative measures, which included following shoppers into stores, “We were able to show that the kind of men ESPN attracts are high-margin customers that any brand wants,” said Erhardt, ESPN’s president of customer marketing and sales. “These are high-margin consumers that shop quickly, are more brand loyal, and tended to not shop for price.”

Those are the types of customers whose shopping habits are best reinforced through advertising, and an ideal story to tell anyone reticent to add ESPN media to their marketing mix.

Such is the power of research at the all-sports media giant.

Evidence of ESPN’s influence in media research can be seen in its leadership position within the Media Behavior Institute’s USA TouchPoints, a cross-platform initiative designed to enhance marketing and media return on investment. ESPN also has leading involvement within the Coalition for Innovative Media Measurement, an organization founded by 14 national TV content providers, agencies and advertisers to promote measurement innovation. The two organizations use their research to support the media advertising market.

“Our research is a difference-maker and we believe we have to have points of view from network, client and agency represented on our side to formulate good answers, so we have invested,” Erhardt said.

“They really are the master of integrating research in their pitches,” said Darren Marshall, executive vice president of

consulting and research at rEvolution, currently involved in the company’s first project with ESPN research. “They are just more sophisticated about using new research to show what sports can do for brands, versus dumbing down media metrics for sports sponsors, which is what usually happens.”

In recent years, sports properties have pushed cross-platform, as they also have become media companies. ESPN was establishing the basics early, perhaps the most important of which is that cross-media usage is additive, not dilutive.

“You go back 20 years and all media was measured pretty adequately, whether it was television, radio, outdoor or print,” said Artie Bulgrin, ESPN’s senior vice president of research and analytics. “Today that is not the case. Now, the big question is, how can you make everything work together and measure it cohesively in a cross-platform world?”

Bulgrin presides over a department that has grown from two people when he arrived 15 years ago, to 60 today, with satellite offices in Europe and Central and South America.

Just as questions about sponsorship’s efficacy multiplied as pricing increased and the recession squeezed marketing budgets, so too did sports advertisers see new accountability from sports media. Thus, ESPN has produced more campaign-specific research in recent years.

“It used to be just about high ratings and reach, and that was enough,” said Julie Propper, director of advertising analytics at ESPN. “Now, there’s a lot more accountability, so we have gotten much more granular. Across different dayparts we can tell clients what the most effective use is within a cross-platform buy. In an overall sense, awareness is easier to move. [Purchase] consideration is where you actually see that the diversity of a media mix really impacts results.”

ESPN called on 15 research houses to study media consumption of World Cup coverage.
Photo by: Zute Lightfoot / ESPN
In early 2010, ESPN launched the first of a series of large cross-platform research projects, the first of which was on an unprecedented scale, using 15 research houses to measure media consumption of the FIFA World Cup across all media platforms.

Considering the global nature of the World Cup, along with time shifting and the fact that soccer is easily followed and digested in highlights, perhaps the amount of mobile consumption might have been expected. However, the degree to which soccer fans employed mobile to follow the tournament surprised even those within ESPN.

“The degree of [mobile] usage was so astonishing that we actually had a moment where we wondered if we should report the numbers,” said Glenn Enoch, vice president of integrated media research at ESPN.

Additionally, the cross-platform research showed that in some cases, advertising on mobile alone performed as well as advertising on TV alone.

Outside of the World Cup research, Bulgrin said mobile research has been able to isolate even more qualities about the growing mobile advertising world.

“Generally, we are seeing that mobile is so powerful,” he said, “because not only is the orientation very personal, but when using mobile, users are often with other people, so it throws off an immediate and influential word-of-mouth factor.’’

Looking across the multiplatform universe during the 2010 World Cup, the research indicated that out-of-home TV viewing, along with other cross-platform media consumption, added 1.5 million viewers per minute to the World Cup TV average audience. Non-TV platforms, such as mobile and the Web, added a million people to ESPN’s average audience.

Other large cross-platform projects include a 2010 NFL and NCAA football audience study. The study demonstrated that radio listening and out-of-home TV viewing increased ESPN’s reach by 15.5 million people, or 23 percent, over in-home TV viewing. The increase in time spent with the content was even greater, a lift of 9.1 billion minutes, or 40 percent, over the average in-home TV audience.

To illustrate the power of advertising within NFL programming, ESPN had an agency design a campaign for a fictitious candy bar. Favorable ratings for that faux product rocketed 40 percent within NFL programming versus non-NFL shows.

A recent revelation, of great interest for those looking to tap into the millions of smartphones in use, is that while those screens are considerably smaller than those in a living room or even on a tablet, ESPN research shows that because the ads encompass more real estate on mobile devices than television, they can be just as effective, and in some cases are more so. The findings on this were boiled down to “eyes resize.”

Research also affects programming, since it can tell advertisers whether using talent, billboards, features or any combination therein within certain dayparts on specific media is working.

A few years back, advertisers insisted that ESPN’s “Bottom Line” graphical news feed at the bottom of most telecasts was harmful to ads, since they believed it would detract. Through viewer studies, ESPN showed that commercials with the “Bottom Line” retained their audience as well or better than ads without. The “Bottom Line” now is more widespread than ever.

Much of that investment centers on cross-platform research, and not only because ESPN is probably the leading purveyor of cross-platform sales. It’s the nature of a sports fan to crave information: “Best available screen” is the term ESPN coined to characterize this fan obsession.

“Sports fans are the biggest consumers of media via cross-platform devices, because of this urgent need to stay connected to sports all day,” Enoch said. “Whether it is game-casting or managing fantasy leagues, or just keeping up with headlines, that’s what makes sports fans different.”

For all the emphasis on sports, there is a school of thought within “the Worldwide Leader” that likes to play down games and emphasize numbers. Enoch referenced a 50-slide deck under his arm that he was about to show Unilever execs. Of the 50 slides, only five or six were sports specific, and none were specific to ESPN.

“People think we’re exclusive to sports, but that’s not it at all,” insisted Bulgrin. “We measure media behavior and where ESPN fits into that world. One of our goals is to move cross-platform research from a custom project for [ESPN] advertisers to a standard practice, and to get there we really need to be agnostic. Some advertisers have moved our data into their own modeling reports, which is a big step forward, because one of the big issues in this business is that many of the standard media models are broken.”

ESPN’s 7 cross-media principles

1. New media create new strata of users: When a technology is introduced, some will adopt it but most do not. There is no foreseeable future when every person has and uses every available device.

2. No new metrics: Measuring new media does not require new metrics — it requires metrics that unite behavior across different platforms. They may be called different things in different media, but they have the same meaning: How many, how often and how long.

3. Users and usage: “How many” is not the same as “How long.” Both users and usage are valuable metrics in analyzing cross-media behavior, but mean different things and must be considered separately.

4­. A heavy user is a heavy user: The heavier user of one medium tends to be a heavier user of other media as well.

5. Cross-media usage is not zero-sum: Doing one behavior more does not mean doing another behavior less. Media usage is no longer constrained to limited locations and opportunities — people can consume media throughout the day, wherever they are. We call this “new markets of time.” TV viewing continues to grow because the media pie is getting larger.

6. Simultaneous usage is widespread but limited: While people do consume multiple media at the same time, it represents only a small amount of total media usage — just minutes per day.

7. Best available screen: People are using different platforms at different times and in different places for different purposes. Cross-media behavior isn’t about convergence — it is about the opportunity to follow the consumer throughout the day, fulfilling specific needs and building touch points.

Source: ESPN