A Tipping Point For The Era Of Custom Content

ESPN’s recent layoffs on the “talent” side, add fuel to a trend towards narrower vertically oriented sports media content.  In the May blog, a look at how research can inform those sports marketers looking to capitalize on this “one-to-one” dialogue.

One hundred audience-facing jobs weren’t the only things lost, with the recent bloodletting at “The Worldwide Leader.” We’ve heard for years in other verticals, that marketing to “the segment of one” is a fast approaching reality.

But ESPN’s recent restructuring signals that sports content distribution is not immune to our growing ability to harness the fusion of big data and traditional marketing research to lend insight towards a greater focus on narrowcasting and delivery of custom content.

Perhaps the most resonant narrative surrounding the re-set in Bristol is the recognition that with their gutting of significant talent focused on NHL and MLB coverage, ESPN will become even more obsessed with their often excessive NFL and NBA star worship.

This coupled with a growing attention on talent that loudly likes to stir the pot, provoke controversy, and what many have labeled to be an unwanted foray into political commentary, will in my mind drive further audience erosion and fragmentation. In other words, this opens the door further to a macro-trend that our research has observed: Fans who want truly introspective and experience enhancing sports content are going to continue to defect to more targeted vertical channels.

Certainly, the confluence of growing digital capabilities and a greater market acceptance of analytics have accelerated this new content delivery reality. From our vantage point as consumer-facing marketing researchers and database analysts, this has created significant opportunity for sports marketers of all stripes.

Firstly, the ability to micro-segment audiences brings about hyper-fragmentation and an easier pathway towards the delivery of customized content. While I’ve warned about the misinterpretations that marketers can make by exclusively listening to “echo chambers” rather than conducting research among representative samples, the existence of these echo chambers means that sports marketers have an opportunity to find the correct voices to become part of them, to truly connect with fans and target audiences.

Next, the erosion of consumer trust that we’ve witnessed among more mainstream communications channels (and ESPN, perhaps falls into this category), has bred further desire among audiences to engage in a direct dialogue with their vertical special interests.

The inherent appeal of The Players Tribune and various team-oriented fan sites are perfect examples of how these delivery channels ostensibly eliminate a filtering or bias that many fear have diluted the value of mainstream content. Couple this with the inherent strength of self-curated social media, and you have a perfect recipe for creating a more individualized fan experience.

For brands active in sports marketing, this also suggests a greater public relations emphasis on niche or controlled communications channels. In fan research that we conducted just last month, for a professional sports team seeking stronger levels of fan engagement, a key takeaway was that their ability to control the dissemination and clarity of their message was a critical success factor in aligning their brand vision with fan perceptions.

Another relevant learning from a different study that we conducted for a sports media brand showed that not only must the message be effectively targeted, but it must be succinctly delivered, particularly when video content is the delivery mechanism. This research identified an extremely narrow window within which consumers decide whether or not they should further engage with video sports content.

All of this may seem incredibly daunting. We have a consumer expectation that sports content must be acutely relevant to them as individuals, a growing intolerance and migration away from mass media channels, and a greater comfort level in self-curation of content from our target audiences.

But this new reality needn’t be a threat to sports marketers. Rather, I’d maintain that with the deployment of carefully considered research and analysis, there’s a growing ability micro-target these segments with “mass customized” content. Behavioral analysis can identify the most lucrative customer segments.

The fusion of this “big data” with marketing research tools like concept and usability testing, along with attitudinal and behavioral market segmentation can surface the appropriate content and tonality of messaging that will resonate with these behavioral segments.

Finally, the technology platforms that continue to evolve, will allow the dissemination and proper placement of this content. Certainly, the “re-set” in Bristol doesn’t foreshadow the extinction of mass channels.

After all, someone has to continue to pay the rights fees and package the events themselves. However, we do see a continuing migration towards micro-channels for delivery of related content.

Therein lies a broad and exciting opportunity for sports marketers who want to be part of that conversation. Hopefully everyone will do their homework, before diving into that dialogue.