DVR and subscription services have changed how people watch TV and movies, leaving sports as one of the few things we still consume live. When the game is on, people are watching. And more than that, people are sharing.
In response, the smartest sports brands put an emphasis on Real-Time Content. Sports fans are huddled by the TV using social media (typically Twitter), switching between their main screen and second screen, searching for enjoyable running commentary. It’s a ripe opportunity for brands to engage with their targets.
But with so many brands aware of this, it’s easy to get lost in the crowd. Having one’s content seen, consumed and shared takes more than simply choosing to participate. It also takes smart execution to make that content shine brighter than others.
Here are three major sports brands that kill it.
Where It Excels: Curation
When it comes to real-time basketball content, the NBA has an obvious advantage: It owns the rights to all broadcast footage. But commissioner Adam Silver takes a progressive stance on highlight-sharing, which levels the playing field for everyone. “Highlights are marketing,” he said at the 2015 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. He wants other people to share his content.
But despite that magnanimity, which allows any old Joe to curate basketball highlights, @NBA is the best in the business. Its Twitter feed is a real-time masterpiece, mixing original content with commentary from the 30 separate team accounts and blending visual posts with stats and analysis. Even fans who missed the games receive a modest sense of what happened.
Other accounts try to mimic this, but the NBA does a better job curating. It’s a smarter version of what Twitter Moments wants to be for sports. Short of creating an app where fans can customize which players and teams they care about—a project innovative companies have already started working on—it’s the best way to communicate the NBA’s nightly experience.
That makes @NBA a must-follow, which in turn spreads awareness, which in turn boosts ratings, which in turn makes the league more profitable. Like Silver said: Highlights are marketing.
Where It Excels: Creation
SB Nation GIF is an account dedicated solely to real-time sports content. It’s a branch of SB Nation, the sports blog network owned by Vox Media, and has become a must-follow for fans who watch games with second screens.
Other editorial sites embrace the viral power of GIFs and Vines, but none dedicate the time or nail the execution like SB Nation. Most create GIFs and Vines on their broader accounts, but those same accounts post articles and features too. SB Nation separates written content from real-time content, which allows it to post with more frequency.
Thus SB Nation has narrowed its demographic to an impressive list of 58,000 followers. When a GIF or Vine sees strong engagement on the GIF channel, it is also then pumped across the main channel, which has more than 220,000 followers. The GIF account becomes a viral testing ground.
Also of note (although this is more subjective): SB Nation excels with strong, incisive copywriting. Its captions add value to the media, providing cheeky text beyond just keywords and hashtags. This can turn an already compelling post into a very compelling post. Compare how its GIF post with the following copy…
…performed against Sports Illustrated’s straightforward image post about the same play.
SB Nation GIF’s account (58,000 followers) received 602 retweets and 413 favorites. Sports Illustrated’s account (1.37 MILLION followers) received 17 retweets and 19 favorites. It’s a slightly flawed comparison—SI’s tweet was click-bait intended to draw web traffic, which is why it included a still image—but the difference in those figures remains eye-popping.
SB Nation lacks the name-recognition of Sports Illustrated, which is why it targets engagement instead of pure link clicks. It needs to spread awareness by making shareable content, and combining real-time GIFs with clever copy is one of the best ways to do that. The content meets the goals to perfection.
Where it Excels: Connection
The Twitter account for the Belk Bowl, a middle-tier college football bowl game, has become a fan-favorite for its ability to connect with followers. It creates real-time content that’s designed to induce replies, and then it follows those replies with sharp community management.
The smartest thing @belkbowl does is not take itself too seriously. It participates in college football Saturday as if it’s a fan or a writer, bringing jokes instead of overt corporate plugs. Following the account feels more like making a friend than subscribing to a newsletter.
Which doesn’t mean the account lacks purpose. The Belk Bowl represents Belk, a department store chain with more than 300 stores in 16 Southern states. It sponsors the bowl game and runs its account with the ultimate goal of boosting sales. It is still, at the end of the day, a brand.
But the social sphere is flooded with brands that look and sound like robots. Belk Bowl comes off more like a person, which has earned it a loyal group of followers, many of them writers and influencers. That is who it targeted with last year’s “Best-Dressed College Football Writer” bracket, which landed it, among other things, a writeup in Charlotte Business Journal.
For a firsthand example of how @belkbowl’s strategy works, scroll through the replies to that tweet. Engagement from fans and writers never wavered, and the bracket process, which decided each round’s winners based on fan voting, incited great participation.
Creating a bracket before the first College Football Playoff was a shrewd piece of topical content creation. Involving fans and responding to well-known writers was even shrewder. Each fan @belkbowl engages with spreads awareness before the game in December.
This is how a brand wrings the most out of corporate sponsorship.