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Volume 21 No. 1

In Depth

Never before has the pace of change in digital marketing been this brisk. Technological advancements, in areas such as social media monitoring, advanced video streaming and consumer data mining, have made efforts that were fantasies or mere hopes just months ago not only reality now, but the basis of upstart businesses. What follows is a look at segments of digital marketing likely to grow in stature and importance in 2013.

Focus groups and exhaustive consumer polling still have their place in 21st-century brand marketing. They’re also frequently slow and expensive, and they don’t necessarily question the groups of consumers that brands want to hear from the most. Enter real-time, social media-based polling.

New York-based startup Poptip has been among those staking a leadership position in using Twitter as a means to probe consumers on their reactions and opinions about brand initiatives. Some questions are designed as direct responses on a particular marketing effort, providing feedback on whether to intensify or lessen activation. Others are more general queries aimed at gaining insight into consumer preferences.

Poptip’s platform allows brands to post questions on Twitter and track and display responses in real-time. Clients thus far have included the likes of EA Sports, Pepsi and ESPN, and the company is expanding its service to Facebook and Instagram.

“The polling is really just one part of where we’re looking to go,” said Kelsey Falter, Poptip president and founder. “What we’re after is an overall notion of crowd knowledge, and moving past push marketing to where there’s a real, two-way conversation between brands and consumers.”

The margin of error in Poptip’s instant polls is comparable to or slightly higher than traditional structures, Falter said. But the valuable trade-off is an immediate wave of unfiltered consumer sentiment.

“We think it’s inevitable that crowd knowledge becomes more and more infused into decision-making by marketers,” she said.

ESPN over the last several months has begun to get more aggressive with its online advertising treatments, particularly through site takeovers with high-definition video pushdown ads for movies and TV shows such as “Boardwalk Empire” and the “Assassin’s Creed” video game series. The company then took that takeover mentality to another level last month for promotion of its coverage of the BCS National Championship Game.

Working with the Red Interactive Agency, the ESPN effort featured a collapsible, widescreen video player, complete with a full complement of social sharing tools. But then the treatment, also involving matching side rail ads, took on another element, changing colors in real time to either Alabama’s crimson or Notre Dame’s blue based on users’ sentiment toward the game.

The effort generated more than 200,000 votes, split right down the middle, so the full effect of the color gradation wasn’t visible. But the technology is now being pitched to brand marketers with placements expected during 2013. Similar though less extensive overlay advertising concepts are also starting to be deployed on ESPN’s mobile properties.

“We’re trying to redefine what ad space is on the page,” said Marc Horine, ESPN vice president of revenue and operations for ESPN Digital and Print Media. “The basic idea is to bring in more interactivity into the video showcases, and engage users on a more active level. Before, we had to play more or less within the boundaries and standard ad units. Now, it’s a much more open canvas.”

People often don’t like to feel like they’re an overt subject of marketing, but in most cases, they like to compete and win. Enter “gamification.”

Applications vary widely depending on the particular market segment, including areas such as fitness and sports travel. But the base concept is turning any sort of marketing activity into a game. Users typically earn points for their activity, such as consuming media, purchasing tickets and merchandise, or attending events. Those points can then be redeemed for virtual and actual goods, discounts or other rewards.

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An emerging twist on the concept is quantifying social media activity by fans, and using that as a key rewards mechanism. The Los Angeles Dodgers last month were the latest pro team to launch a reward program in which fans earn points for activity on the club’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram destinations, among other actions to connect with the club.

The move follows similar efforts in recent months by teams including the Miami Dolphins, Baltimore Ravens and Orlando Magic, some of which have also expanded their loyalty programs to include other social areas such as Foursquare and GetGlue.

The programs are collecting large amounts of consumer data that are used for future sales and marketing activity. But with most of these programs, including public leaderboards, in addition to the prizes, the attempt to tap into fans’ competitive spirit puts a far different wrapper on the data collection.

“Being a sports fan is about passion and competition, and we believe through this platform we are entering the next phase of fan loyalty with the ultimate goal of rewarding fans for their support,” said Lon Rosen, Dodgers executive vice president and chief marketing officer.

Sponsor-driven video segments and advertorials have often been viewer turnoffs at many sites. But Fox Sports, among others, has sought to bring life into the concept with additional star power and an increased effort on serializing the story narratives.

Fox recently introduced “Tailgate Fumbles,” an Oscar Mayer campaign for its “Carving Board” line of pulled pork.

Rather than look like an overt infomercial, the YouTube-styled video segments feature former NFL player Dhani Jones in football tailgate settings. The series also has a significant user-generated content component in which viewers are invited to submit tailgate photos of their own and vote on the best submissions.

The network, along with its online property Yardbarker, last fall ran a similar effort with Prilosec OTC and entertainer Larry the Cable Guy, who appeared at NASCAR races and college and pro football games. Other branded video treatments are in development for later this year.

“The usage numbers for all online video are obviously going up fast, so it’s about finding the right fit and developing compelling content,” said Marla Newman, Fox Sports senior vice president of ad sales. “Each use case is a bit different, but we’ve done well positioning these elements, and we’re going to be aggressive pushing this content into the social sphere.”

Twitter last month formally launched Vine, a short-form video sharing service it bought last fall. Vine allows users to post six-second mobile videos that play in automatic loops, providing a new form of content and advertising tailor-made for the super-brief attention spans of today’s consumers.

The service remains very much in its formative stages, but early users include the Brooklyn Nets, Phoenix Suns,

Houston Texans, Seattle Seahawks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Dallas Stars, New York Jets, U.K. soccer clubs Birmingham City and Liverpool FC, General Electric and the Gap, among many others. Most of the early experiments have focused on behind-the-scenes clips for fans, but more formalized treatments and professional-grade advertising are likely as Vine develops, as well as content specifically requested by users.

If Twitter has its way, Vine will become a social media verb along the lines of “tweet” and “like.”

“Posts on Vine are about abbreviation — the shortened form of something larger,” company founder and general manager Dom Hofmann said in a blog post. “They’re little windows into the people, settings, ideas and objects that make up your life. They’re quirky, and we think that’s part of what makes them so special.”

Forget, for the moment, followers on Twitter and Facebook likes. Those basic measurements for social media and other digital campaigns and promotions remain important, but the conversation among agencies, brands, teams and leagues targets a deeper dive.

Consider the U.S. Golf Association. A recent project with Adobe, the digital marketing and media company, aimed to improve annual membership sales and renewals on the golf governing body’s website. To do that, Adobe compared three versions of the USGA Web page: the original membership sales page and two newly created variations.

The results were crunched using a range of measurements and characteristics, from how extensive and expensive the membership purchased was on each particular visit, to how the visitors were referred to the site.

One of the new test pages — described as a simpler layout with briefer descriptions of membership options — led to much-improved results. The USGA and Adobe found slight gains in the conversion rate but, more importantly, a 26 percent jump in spending by page visitors compared with the default page, or $6 more an order.

USA Network worked with agency rEvolution to create an end zone dance competition in five major markets to drum up interest in the network’s “Necessary Roughness” show.
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“We try to stay focused on the end-all objective, and that is the return on investment,” said Chad Warren, Adobe’s global social media lead for digital marketing. “If it’s a retailer, how is what we’re doing or what they’re doing going to drive bottom-line sales? If it’s a sports franchise, how do they put more people in seats? The irony of sports is that because there is so much passion, it’s easy to get caught up in vanity and lose the objective.”

Using various methods, brands and companies in the sports sphere, much like all digital marketers, spend much of their time these days seeking to hone measurement and analysis.

At Adobe, up-to-the-minute data-crunching helped clients such as NBC Universal, Vail Resorts and Active Network glean insights about who their customers are; how they interact through websites, apps and social media; and what motivates them.

NBC Universal, for example, learned that the number of unique visitors to its Winter Olympics website increased by 250 percent between 2006 and 2010. What is more important, for a media company spending billions of dollars for broadcast and online rights, is that the research found that 32 percent of users viewed TV coverage and the website at the same time, a key piece of information for a business dependent on ad sales across multiple platforms.

Advertising, of course, remains a vexing matter for gauging impact and influence no matter the medium. Because of that decades-old dilemma, anything that improves accuracy in analysis, online and beyond, carries considerable allure.

More companies and brands have embraced Twitter and Facebook because the costs can be much lower and the feedback can be measured to a greater extent than just estimating the number of people who saw a particular ad, promotion or conversation.

Cable company Comcast, in support of its Xfinity sports package, has gradually ramped up its social media presence. Matt Lederer, Comcast director of sports marketing, recalled the company first made forays with the site SBNation as a sponsor. That provided entrée to ask members of the SBNation audience whether they were Xfinity customers, whether they would consider becoming customers if they weren’t already and, regardless, what their impressions were of the company and its products.

From there, Lederer said, Comcast became more aggressive. Last year, to promote Xfinity’s tag of “Your home for the most live sports,” Comcast launched a contest to hire someone to become the voice of Xfinity on Twitter. The full-time job, lasting a year, went to Austin Schindel, who recently wrapped up a yearlong odyssey connecting cable channels and other partners with social media. Schindel, who will soon be replaced with the second Twitter campaign winner, built an audience of 13,000 followers by embarking on behind-the-scenes adventures at the NFL draft, during the filming of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” series, and at MLB’s Opening Day and All-Star Game.

“You get real-time feedback,” Lederer said. “As we branch out, we go through the research life-cycle again and say, ‘OK, what does this mean?’”

He declined to provide specific research results but said Xfinity has determined the social media campaigns have not only fostered awareness but also led to increases in subscribers and upgraded subscriptions.

Industry experts told SportsBusiness Journal again and again that online and social media buzz alone can no longer justify the investment of time and money in a digital marketing campaign.

“It should be held to the same standards of all marketing,” said AJ Maestas, president at Navigate Research. “It’s about nurturing existing customers and the acquisition of new customers.”

Steve Seiferheld, senior vice president of customer research at Turnkey, said the success or failure of digital marketing differs little from more traditional campaigns. Because the digital world is a more recent phenomenon, and transforms itself on a constant and accelerated basis, the tools to determine value are evolving and range from the likes and followers referenced earlier to advanced techniques that gauge customer sentiment, attitudes and responses.

Among the examples: Research Now, a data collection and market research firm. The company regularly surveys about 3 million people, with 1 million recruited and retained through incentives to allow monitoring of what online ad campaigns they have seen and then gauge their responses, said Eric Sandberg, Research Now vice president.

More than 300 attributes are considered, but a few get to the heart of digital marketing: what audience was reached, how much time they spent with the message, and whether it resonated with the consumers.

As with other forms of marketing, in other words, who the audience is can be just as or more important than its size.
“It could be 600 people important to one client and 1 million to another,” said John Rowady, president of sports marketing and media agency rEvolution. “We haven’t totally gotten a hold of that [as an industry]. The perception is a big number means it’s successful and if it’s not a big number, it isn’t working.”

The goal, he added, is to build an audience, keep it and talk to those audience members on a consistent basis. If the audience dissipates, Rowady said his firm views it “as negative ROI.”

REvolution looks for extensive, back-and-forth interaction. Last year, for example, for the USA Network series “Necessary Roughness,” rEvolution stirred interest for the show by orchestrating an end zone dance contest. In five high-traffic locations in Boston, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, the agency set up end zones where passersby could go and have a touchdown celebration filmed and uploaded to the show’s website. People could vote for their favorite dances and everything linked online and on social media. The winner’s celebration dance clip appeared during the first episode on the network.

Awareness, media mentions and interest in the show all emanated from what would have been a one-day promotion before the digital age.

At Atlanta-based digital firm CSE, which counts Coke and AT&T among its sports clients, executives said the flood of real-time consumer reactions creates opportunity and pressure alike to respond and adjust campaigns and logistics.

“You can put a campaign out there and if people like it, you can scale it up,” said Adam Zimmerman, president of marketing at CSE. “Or, conversely, you cut your losses. You save a ton of money if you’ve got a stinker. And it doesn’t take six or 12 months [to figure it out].”

Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.

Just as tracking improves for digital and social media marketing campaigns, so, too, can brands and agencies analyze data to make better matches for endorsements and advertising alliances with athletes.

Among the newest entrants: Boston-based BrandMatch Score, a software tool used to pair brands and campaigns with sports personalities. Rather than a simple Q Score measuring how well-known a particular athlete is, BrandMatch considers everything from the brand, goals, budgets, key attributes (family friendly, edgy, etc.), components (appearances, online only, broadcast, etc.) and geography (local, regional, national).

On the other side comes the match with an athlete. The software looks at career performance trends, latest results, the cost of various players, the mutual attributes the player and company share (genuine, disciplined, etc.) and so on.
“It’s important to gauge what’s realistic,” said Derek Boyle, BrandMatch founder and president. “And with this, you have the ultimate due diligence [on track record]. You’re not making decisions based on guesses.”

Rates start at $12,500 for BrandMatch analysis.

An athlete with a clever social media history attracts attention from marketers.
At GMR Marketing, a consultant to Lowe’s and other companies with sports partnerships, closer inspection of social media influence and characteristics for athletes has become an area of increasing importance.

Jonathan Norman, senior director of client strategy, said the follows-likes-mentions criteria still matter, but not as much as sentiment. What do followers say about the athlete’s tweets and Facebook posts, who follows a particular player, and what influence do those followers have?

An athlete with a clever social media history attracts interest because of his or her ability to share some of that equity with a company or product. Some athletes are trendsetters, dabbling in sites such as WhoSay (Usain Bolt and Hope Solo attracted attention at the London Games for their affiliation with that site).

Twitter and Facebook can also lend insight into compatibility. Is an athlete already talking about community appearances and philanthropy that could fit with a company or campaign? Or does the athlete show an interest in fashion, electronics, music or something else dovetailing with a brand’s core business?

The best campaigns elicit enthusiasm from the endorsers, Norman said. Last year, Nokia and ESPN’s ESPY awards show worked with GMR on a digital campaign featuring Donald Driver, Evan Longoria and Mike Miller. “They tweeted and posted photos, we gave them phones,” Norman said. “The athletes loved it. You have to see the athletes as partners.”

Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.