Changing the game: how social is shaping the future of sports

After Campaign’s Future Fit event earlier this year, We Are Social Sport marked its home debut on 25th April by hosting an evening looking at how brands can #RewriteTheRules of sports marketing. Our Senior Writer, Ruaridh O’Donnell shares a round-up of the key insights and trends.

On a night of heavyweight UEFA Champions League football, you could be forgiven for thinking that Bayern Munich’s home clash with Real Madrid was the biggest fixture in last Wednesday’s sporting calendar.

Yet the real action was taking place over at our London HQ, as we hosted an evening to celebrate our new dedicated sports division, We Are Social Sport.

Those in attendance were treated to a stellar line-up of speakers, including We Are Social Sport Director Joe Weston and Creative Director Gareth Leeding, as well as the NFL’s sponsorship director, Lindsey Eckhouse, and the strategic lead for Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign, Kate Dale.

If you did decide to stay at home and prioritise the football, don’t worry. You can watch the whole thing back via our Facebook Live stream. Or alternatively, read on to find out the evening’s key takeaways.

“A fundamental shift in viewing behaviour”
For sports fans, it’s no longer enough to just watch the big game on TV, they want to share their thoughts and opinions, get real-time stats and lol at the latest sporting meme as soon as it happens.

Joe believes this change in viewing consumption is only going to accelerate over the coming months, with social media platforms driving the shift by purchasing OTT rights to games. We’ve already seen Twitter and Amazon partner with the NFL, La Liga host a game on Facebook and last week discovered that this year’s US Open (tennis) will only be broadcast online in the UK.

If the platforms do decide to flex their financial muscle and invest in these rights, he predicts a whole host of opportunities that could potentially arise for brands when the second screen becomes the first.

For brands to navigate this shift, they need to understand the platforms and the digital natives they’re designed for. It’s our job as marketers to guide our clients through this change in audience behaviour.

“Social was the beating heart of the campaign”
To illustrate social’s power of community, Kate talked us through This Girl Can – a campaign run by Sport England to encourage women to take up exercise.

The #ThisGirlCan hashtag connected women together from all over the UK, while an expert team of community managers were on hand to support and embolden women as they broke through the lifestyle and social barriers associated with getting fit.

Additionally, Kate’s team introduced a series of personalised social activations to elevate the sense of togetherness. For example, one feature enabled women to upload and share their own image over the typography of the print ads, thus enabling each user to become the face of the campaign.

Not only did this creative approach help spread awareness, it demonstrated the ability of social to unite people under a common goal – as over 2.8million women motivated each other to get into exercise off the back of it.

“Building authentic connections”
Another major talking point was the way in which influencers are changing the game. The influencer marketing industry is growing significantly, and it’s predicted to be worth $2bn by 2019.

Yet one brand who won’t be contributing to that is the NFL. Lindsey explained that they choose not to pay influencers. Instead, they bring them along to events and hope they enjoy the experience enough to share with their followers.

The aim is to build a real connection between influencers and the brand, which Lindsey believes is far more likely to filter down and generate legitimate interest from the influencer’s fanbase.

If the influencer really does enjoy the spectacle, their support becomes authentic. And the positive sentiment that comes from this authenticity is something that money just can’t buy.

“Don’t buy influence, grow it”
Gareth echoed Lindsey’s view with a case study on Tango Squad FC, a team of micro-influencers assembled by adidas for a branded episodic show that’s since accumulated over 20m plays on YouTube.

In a bid to tap into the pool of influence that stems from dark social (over 70% of online shares happen in this space), Gareth’s team set out to cultivate an organic network of football creators who push trends in playgrounds, cages and locker rooms around the world.

Over the course of the series, we’ve seen the 16-man Tango Squad micro-influencers almost equal the views driven by manager Xabi Alonso and his 15m followers, despite having less than 17% of his follower count.

This reach speaks volumes for the power of micro influence. So next time you’re on the lookout for people to front your campaign, don’t be afraid to break the rules and search outside the existing market.