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How Social Media Affects How Front Offices Act

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The impact of signaling in trade markets and what teams can do.

(photo via SB Nation)


The real-time nature of platforms such as Twitter, but also of Facebook and Instagram, have completely upended sports journalism, and as a result, has also changed the way fans have consumed their media. It’s also no secret that these same platforms are looking for further integration via live streaming rights. However, social media has also changed the way front offices are operating, and may continue to do so, as they reach the so-called economic equilibrium in the new world order.

One way that social media can affect front office decisions is through signaling.


A Primer On Signaling

While the linked paper focuses on the job market, signaling theory applies to many other aspects of life — including free agency in sports and trade market (which essentially boils down to a job market anyways).

Signaling is exhibited in markets where there is asymmetric information — that is, when one party has more information than the other. In Spence’s model, education acts as a signal to employers about their capabilities. If the employer has the perception that a college degree is more likely to result in a good employee, they will also have a more positive outlook on a job applicant with a college degree.

This is actually extremely valuable in the real-world, where both sides benefit: good applicants are more likely to invest in education (with bad applicants being less likely to invest due to the costs of signaling), and employers are more likely to gain, with the assumption of costly signals.


Signaling in the Trade Market

Signals also appear in sports, particularly in both the trade and free agency market. My focus here will be on trades.

A good example applies to players who are being shopped on the trade market.

If a team is actively looking to trade a player, it is because they are not receiving sufficient value from them — the cost being either the monetary value (which especially matters in salary cap leagues, but also in non-salary cap leagues), playing time, or a negative effect on culture. If there are two teams, A (the giver) and B (the receiver), and B knows that Team A has been looking to trade a player, it can act as a signal that there is something wrong with them.

Perhaps this player is mean to his/her teammates. Maybe they don’t practice very hard. Either way, there is some invisible information that is being conveyed when the player is being shopped.

Since all teams are looking to extract maximum value out of trades, it is rational that Team A would downplay trade rumours, which would decrease their own leverage in trade negotiations.

We saw this happen just last year in the NBA, when Kings GM Vlade Divac adamantly denied claims that his team’s franchise player, DeMarcus Cousins, was on the trade market — just two weeks before trading him during the 2017 All-Star Weekend.

And these denials are less effective than ever: in sports such as the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB, where reporters such as Adrian Wojnarowski consistently break trades, rumours, and signings, teams (and fans) are less likely to be fooled by general managers’ and team officials’ attempts to protect their player’s value.


How Signals Can Be Used for Good

Or, rather, how teams can leverage signaling theory for their own advantage.

If we split player value into tangible performance (i.e.: goals, points, assists, etc.), and intangible performance (i.e.: leadership, competitiveness, work ethic, etc.), it becomes immediately clear that, while intangible performance is important, measuring it also becomes a qualitative and imprecise science.

Much like the practice of hiring employees in traditional labor markets, measuring intangible performance comes down to the use of signals.

Signals including number of teams the player has played on, draft position, body language, and interviews all contribute to the evaluation of a player — whether this evaluation is implicit or explicit.

Since a team’s utility function will only comprise of observed variables, and since this model is more likely than not to be a mental model, front offices will place a greater weight on what they can see.

With math, there are many techniques to control for the effect of unobserved variables. Techniques such as instrumental variables and first differencing exist to help with this problem.

But if a team primarily uses mental models to evaluate intangible performance, this simply isn’t possible.

Consider this example: if there are only three possible variables to be used in evaluating intangible performance — leadership, competitiveness, and work ethic, but one of those variables are masked (say work ethic), a greater weight will be placed on the remaining two variables. Any signal that indicates leadership ability or competitiveness will be factored into an evaluation of a player, while work ethic will be ignored.

In this example, if a player’s work ethic is poor, the prospective team would have no way of knowing this.

Similarly, this can also be used in real trade markets — when unfavourable information about a given player is released, a team should release more information such that it acts as a positive signal and counterbalances the negative signal. This ensures that the negative effect of the unfavourable information on the player’s value is mitigated.

While much of this is the responsibility of many individuals on the team staff, a large burden of the responsibility will fall on the team’s public relations team. It’s one reason why good, effective PR matters! Effective PR tactics will provide value to all teams, and influence a team’s success, beyond just marketing.


This piece has been presented to you by SMU’s Master of Science in Sport Management.


Front Office Sports is a leading multi-platform publication and industry resource that covers the intersection of business and sports.

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Daniel is a writer at Front Office Sports, primarily covering sponsorship marketing and technology trends in the sports industry. Currently a Data Scientist at Bell Canada, Daniel has also worked at IMG and Wasserman in both strategy and consulting capacities.

Digital Marketing

PopSockets Turns to Learfield to Drive Cross-Program Partnership

The company activated across programs such as Miami, Colorado, Alabama, and Penn State.

Adam White

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PopSockets - LearfieldIf you don’t have a PopSockets on the back of your phone, chances are you know someone that does.

In 2017 alone, David Barnett, a former Philosophy professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, saw 35 million units of his handy invention delivered.

During the early days of the company and even up until this point nearly six years after he first debuted the product on Kickstarter and four years after the product became available for sale, marketing spend was limited.

Seeing as celebrities and YouTube influencers were seen rocking them and free PR was easy to come by, there wasn’t a massive need to spend to reach an audience they were already getting in front of.

As the company looks to continue its growth, it turned to Learfield to help deliver a cross-program partnership that would see Miami, Colorado, Alabama, and Penn State produce social content around the item and leverage their “Swipe Up” features to drive conversions on Instagram.

For PopSockets, the campaign was about tapping into the passion and affinity college football fans have for their favorite team and university.

“There’s a certain passion, loyalty and fan affinity that’s unique to college sports,” said Becky Gebhardt, PopSockets’ CMO. “This was an exciting opportunity for us to do something different, share our message and products with key audience groups and immerse ourselves into what we consider a larger-than-life type environment, the college fan base.”

Working alongside Learfield, the brand chose four distinct universities out of the 130 that Learfield represents.

The four selected were chosen because of their “engaged fanbases” and the fact that “four of the leading conferences in the country were represented” according to Jack Patterson, VP of digital and social media at Learfield.

Created by Learfield, Patterson and his team lead the way with the concept, taking it from ideation to helping the four partner schools execute the creative.

SEE MORE: SMU Wants to Bring Tailgate Experience Inside Stadium With ‘The Stables’

When it comes to the partnership, the most appealing part of the opportunity was the chance to get in front of a group known for its engagement and desire to share relevant content with their friends.

Examples of the content created included everything from asking fans how they held their phone with the PopSockets to showcasing mascots like Sebastian the Ibis being able to take a better selfie.

“Our audience (college students and passionate alumni) is more likely to share content with friends and make purchase decisions based on engaging social content in their feed,” said Hunter Ansley, director of social media for Learfield. “For this partnership, we focused on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram Stories to reach the key demographics that the client requested.”

Not only were they able to get the content in the feed, they did so in a way that showcased the product and its uses, something that Patterson noted added value to the partnership beyond just the awareness generated.

“Weaving the actual product into the content creates a more lasting and more shareable connection with a retail brand.”

Not only did PopSockets and the university benefit, but so did Learfield, which was able to showcase how brands can work with the company to engage with digital audiences according to Patterson.

“This is allowing us to win business with brands and agencies of all sizes and leverages the unparalleled enthusiasm found in college athletics.”

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How The Colorado Buffaloes Embrace Digital Storytelling

The team at CU has embraced the platforms to create specific and tailored strategies for each.

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One of the graphics made for Colorado’s schedule. (Image via @RunRalphieRun)

In the mountains of Colorado, you’ll find one of the nation’s most picturesque college towns in Boulder. In recent years, Boulder has also been home to some of the most striking and impressive digital content in the sports world, created by the digital team in CU Boulder’s athletic department.

This group is headed up by Director of Digital Strategy Curtis Snyder. After spending nearly two decades as a member of the Buffs’ staff, you won’t find too many people with more insight into CU sports that Snyder. He uses that knowledge and his wide range of technical capabilities to oversee the Buffs’ website and social media presence as well as mobile applications. But while social media is one of three components of his job, Snyder estimates that social takes up over half of the time that he devotes to his role.

“Our apps are pretty self-sufficient, so there’s sometimes of the year where we are working on them. A lot of the time they’re just taking care of themselves. The website is always there and a big part of the job. But social is 24/7/365 and to do it right, it’s just so much quicker and faster than other communication mediums, it takes more and more of our budgeted time.”

In addition to Snyder’s multifaceted role, he jokes that CU leads the Pac-12 “dual-role” staffers. Take for example Maggie Still. Before recently assuming a full-time role as CU football’s social media manager, Still served that role in the fall while also working as the sports information director for several spring sports.

“We’re kind of fall sport heavy. We don’t have a baseball team or softball team. In the spring, we have track, golf, tennis, and lacrosse. In the fall we have football along with volleyball, soccer, and cross country, which we regularly compete for national championships.  Because the workload is heavier in the fall, her job in the fall is a lot more just social.”

Since returning to work at her alma mater, Still has been heavily involved in several projects that have elevated the team’s social media to new heights. Snyder recalls how Still utilized Instagram stories and the new features associated with it to engage the team’s audience in new and unique ways.

“For example, she would put a poll out on the story ‘Do you want me to be in the tunnel and or standing beside Ralphie for her run?’ And she let people vote and they decide where they wanted her to go. So the fans could kind of drive our story. I’m pretty proud of that because I can’t imagine how we ever would’ve done that even a year ago.”

CU’s digital team, in addition to a limited number of highly talented and carefully selected student interns, also makes use of two full-time graphic designers and two separate video departments. One of these video departments works exclusively with the football program, producing game film and highlights for program use in addition to behind-the-scenes content. These inside looks at the Buffs’ football program earned the video team multiple regional Emmy awards within the past several years.

The Buffs also have a video crew known as Buff Vision who create content for the video boards and home events and produce games for broadcast on the Pac-12 Networks. In fact, CU is one of only two schools in the Pac-12 who are trusted to provide their own broadcast workers.

“From my point of view, we get the best of both worlds,” explains Snyder. “I think we’re probably unique nationally and that we have kind of those contrasting video departments that one creates long-form, high quality winning Emmys content and the other one if I called today and said, ‘Ceal Barry went into the basketball hall of fame last night. We need a 30, 40-second video of her.’ They can find it, turn it out and get it to us in an hour. So we’re pretty lucky in that regard.”

In realizing this, Snyder chuckles as he realizes the strange double-edged sword situation he finds himself in with such a large abundance of quality content.

“It’s almost to the point where sometimes it’s a struggle for me to figure out the best way to get every piece of content we have out. Are we doing everything so that it’s getting the most eyes on it? We are sometimes moving so fast and have so much content that it’s hard at times to take a step back and say ‘OK, are we maximizing our viewership and readership of all this stuff?’”

In order to achieve this maximum viewership, Snyder and team have adopted several different tactics recently.

  1. Some changes to their website

“I feel like we built the website the last five or six iterations every couple of years the last decade with the main goal of impressing recruits, 17 and 18-year-olds. Recruits are not swayed by a really cool athletic department website anymore. They’re swayed by really cool social. So that’s a completely different conversation. Which segment of our fan base are we servicing with the website?  So our next redesign will be significantly different and will look different. But I think it will get more of our content in front of people who visit the front page instead of having a lot of really good content that doesn’t have a place on the website because you have a photo that takes up the entire screen when you first visit.”

  1. Catering to platform-specific audiences

“People come to every platform for different reasons.  Facebook wants more person-to-person interaction, so as a brand, how do you present content to encourage those conversations.  Also understanding that how you present a story on your website on an Instagram story is much different than what a Tweet should say.”

  1. Experimenting with different features

“Take Facebook groups for example. We are thinking about moving away from pages and towards groups. If you join a group you kind of know you’re going to engage more with that audience. Would we rather have 5,000 really invested fans in a group or 70,000 people on a page? We’re doing some testing on this right now with a big sport in a small sport and really trying to get those groups built up to see kind of the analytics and what they’re like.”

The Buffs have also made use of their recent partnership with Team Infographics in order to publish high-quality gameday content quickly. Snyder details how the partnership came to fruition.

“Using them has been huge because it honestly wasn’t a huge monetary investment for what we got. When I called them I told them I’d love to do this but my budget isn’t that big, they came up with a way to make it work.”

“I also came to them with an idea that I had that they hadn’t necessarily ever investigated before. With a lot of companies the answer is, no, we can’t do that, maybe next year.  They understood it was valuable to us and had it done in a week or two. I was really impressed with that.”

Incorporating motion into their graphic design elements was something that the Buffs saw an opportunity in to improve their social footprint. Team Infographics has been a big help in that department.

Aside from their talented content creation professionals, Snyder and the athletic department also rely on SIDs, administrators, and in some cases student-athletes to maintain the social presence of the individual teams at CU.

“For the individual teams, we’re trying to build up some solid resources at the center that all sports can utilize, but then we really do need somebody from each team to kind of step up. We don’t really travel with every team, so whether it’s a director of operations or a coach team manager, somebody. That person really needs to kind of take the reins and help out a lot with social.”

“Sometimes if it’s a trusted student-athlete we’ll give them access to do something like an Instagram story on the road. Or we recently started implementing Facebook live segments where athletes interviewed each other and we ended up giving every sport a weekly Facebook live show.”

Lunch With LAX

Lunch with Lacrosse Sophia Gambitsky, Blair Sisk and Carly Cox.

Posted by Colorado Buffaloes Women's Lacrosse on Thursday, March 1, 2018

In the same way that CU’s student-athletes reached D1 status through hours of practice and putting themselves out there, Snyder believes that the quickest way to a job with a high profile digital team like his is to put the time in.

“Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. Go meet with people. There’s somebody on every campus that does what I do and there’s always people that are willing to talk.  Go make those connections and you’ll create a path to get where you want to go.”

In a way, it’s funny how in a place so well-known for trails and wanderlust, Snyder’s’ advice ends with the advice of taking matters into your own hands and blazing your own trail in the digital space.

*Team Infographics is a proud partner of FOS

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Why NASCAR is Turning to VaynerMedia to Help its Drivers Build Their Digital Brands

The association sees the partnership as a way to bring value to drivers, partners, and NASCAR as a whole.

Adam White

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Mickey Cloud, SVP and head of VaynerMedia’s Chattanooga office (on the left) and Rob Mickinney, Director, Driver & Series Marketing at NASCAR (on the right) chatting before the Homestead-Miami 2017 Championship in November. (Photo via VaynerMedia)

When it comes to building brands, no one might know how to do that better than entrepreneur and CEO of VaynerMedia, Gary Vaynerchuk.  

Now, NASCAR is tapping the company that bears his namesake to help their drivers capitalize on a digital landscape that is turning famous YouTubers into millionaires and every mom with a food blog and a few thousand Instagram followers into a Betty Crocker brand endorser.

Although VaynerMedia went through the standard RFP process with NASCAR, their experience working with Anheuser-Busch on NASCAR related deliverables gave the association even more belief in what the agency could bring to the table.

“We were interested in bringing in a fresh set of eyes to look under the hood and help us see things maybe we weren’t seeing. Sometimes brands like ours need a different perspective to help us understand what we’re doing well, and where we should perhaps make some tweaks to our approach,” said Patrick Rogers, Managing Director of Driver Marketing for NASCAR. “VaynerMedia had a great feel for what we’re looking to accomplish and introduced some really creative ideas on how we can dial in our strategy. Plus, they have experience with our sport having done incredible work with Anheuser-Busch.”

“It’s important that we increase the visibility of our young stars. They are the future of the sport and they’re going to be highly successful, so let’s not wait until they’re winning consistently. Let’s build that visibility and their personal brands now, so that when they start winning more often on Sundays, people know who they are and already have a connection.” – Patrick Rogers, Managing Director of Driver Marketing for NASCAR

At the start of the 2018 NASCAR season, pundits were worried about the popularity of the sport given the fact that some of its most visible stars had either retired or were planning on it. For NASCAR, the influx of youth talent on the track provided the association with a unique opportunity to capitalize on the digital native drivers and the millions of engaged followers many of them already have.  

Unlike NBA, NHL, and even MLB players, NASCAR drivers are most visible on the track only once a week. Being able to leverage all the other time that the drivers are doing something, whether it’s traveling, being at practice, or even just hanging out became a massive potential opportunity for not only NASCAR as an association, but for its drivers, and its brands.  

It was this opportunity that turned into one of the driving forces behind the investment in bringing on VaynerMedia.

“It’s really about all three. Drivers represent the face of NASCAR as well our biggest asset in terms of cultivating new fans,” said Rogers. “If we can create even more meaningful connections between drivers and fans, it not only elevates the drivers’ profiles, it generates added value for the brands their associated with and the sport as a whole. A high tide raises all ships.”

On the VaynerMedia side, the company saw the opportunity with NASCAR to integrate not only the media side of the business, but the talent side too, while building out a program that reached every aspect of the association.

At VaynerMedia, we have best-in-class strategy, research, creative and media services that could help NASCAR frame up the opportunity,” said Mickey Cloud, SVP and Head of VaynerMedia’s Chattanooga, TN office. Those core strategic offerings, combined with VaynerTalent’s experience in helping high performing people develop social & digital content, own their narrative, build an engaged following online, and leverage that digital presence for whatever business objective they may have, became the heart of our pitch.”

The talent aspect might be the biggest advantage NASCAR now has for its drivers as they will be able to leverage the skills and people that VaynerTalent employs to help grow the social followings of the more established drivers, while also providing drivers with smaller followings the tools to build awareness and equity around their personal passions and stories. For Lindsay Blum, VP of VaynerTalent, this is where the drivers will get the most value out of the partnership.

“This is about reverse engineering success for each driver,” said Blum. “For those drivers who already have a passionate social community, we will provide the tools and tactics to accelerate engagement, growth and brand affinity.”

When it comes to the drivers and how they will help them, no stone will go unturned for Blum and her team.

“We will not only help less known drivers build awareness and equity around their passions, stories, and skills in a way that elevates the demand and size of future business opportunities for both themselves and their teams, we will help all drivers maximize existing opportunities like PR appearances, events and partnerships by documenting and amplifying their experiences throughout.”

“Something new and different is truly happening at NASCAR right now, they see an opportunity to leverage content as a vehicle to open doors and opportunities. It’s a mindset shift across the entire ecosystem that is signaling that they are now marketing at the speed of culture.”- Mickey Cloud, SVP and head of VaynerMedia’s Chattanooga, TN office

As for goals, the two entities have one thing in mind: Grow the popularity of the sport by elevating the profile and personalities of the drivers.

“Our collective goals are to grow the popularity of the sport, especially with new fans and broader audiences,” said Cloud. “VaynerMedia will be building a program that supports the entire NASCAR ecosystem: drivers, teams, tracks, anyone who shows the willingness to participate.”

Rogers echoed Cloud saying, “Elevating the profile of drivers and personalities throughout the industry is a key part of our overall marketing strategy. We want to give fans a true sense of what really makes our drivers tick by peeling back layers of the fire suit, so you begin to really understand what drivers are like, on and off the track.”

Whether it is through unique storytelling, a cohesive brand approach, or leveraging the talents VaynerMedia brings to the table, it is clear that this partnership is a win for everyone from the drivers to the brands and NASCAR itself.

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