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ESPN: How the Worldwide Leader In Sports Stays Social

by Khoros Staff | Jun 19, 2013

Katie Richman is the Director of Social Media Strategy & Social Products for X Games & espnW at ESPN. She is speaking with Spredfast's Chief Marketing Officer Jim Rudden on a panel at the Corporate Social Media Summit in New York this week. Katie sat down with me to talk about social at ESPN from her vantage point within the organization.

You are the Director of Social Media Strategy & Social Products for X Games & espnW at ESPN. How is social coordinated across ESPN’s many social presences?

Like most companies it’s an ever-evolving structure. It’s been an interesting conversation throughout time to identify where social media should fall within the company. Communications? Marketing? Content? At this point it has really permeated throughout the organization. We are getting more and more organized. Marketing leads the brand voice on social. We have a team that leads our third-party partnerships and relationships, and a team focused primarily on the integration of social with our studio shows. Then there’s social integration across our games and events on the road, which is where I tend to help out. But at this point, social is really baked in to most people’s roles.

How large is the team that manages social across all of ESPN’s media properties?

At ESPN, there are very few people who are not touching social media in some way. Our PR and Communications group, our Programming team, our Digital Media team: I can’t even think of a group that isn’t working on social media or with social media in some way at this point. A few years ago, everybody was saying that social media would become a part of everybody’s job, and I really think we’ve gotten there.

Various ESPN properties have an active presence across Twitter, YouTube, and Pinterest, how do you approach content across multiple channels?

We’re really specific about where we choose to be present. There was a time when you could dabble in any channel that looked interesting but with so many platforms now, it’s no longer possible. Our approach is to look at our demographics; who are we talking to? For example, with espnW we’re talking to women, and there is an active female audience on Pinterest. Secondarily, we look at the types of resources that we have. Photography and images are a primary interest for espnW and Pinterest is a highly visual channel, so it’s a natural fit. Those are two key questions in determining where to be present on social: Who is your demographic? What resources do you have at your disposal?

There are a number of ESPN personalities that maintain active social presences. (Darren Rovell, Skip Bayless, Jay Harris, etc). Are they considered brand ambassadors/ subject matter experts in ESPN’s social efforts? Do they need to follow a corporate social media policy?

The talent and personalities at ESPN are truly individuals and it’s been that way since 1979. When I first got to Bristol 8 years ago, I was floored because the office experience is so much like the commercials. ESPN has cultivated a culture that it really is one team. Everyone has cubicles, both the talent and the employees. So when twitter accounts first became a thing, there was a question of how do we wrangle this? The fact of the matter is that you really can’t, you either get on board or you sit on the sidelines. We implemented policies that basically said, “you are free to do what you want to do, but since you work here, here are the guidelines.” And now it’s a really positive thing where everyone sees the huge benefit of having our personalities out there, speaking as themselves. But it took a while to let go and get there.

What business goals does ESPN seek to achieve on social?

We used to say things like “increased brand awareness,” now we need to push ourselves a little bit further and demonstrate a return on investment. We are investing in social media and we need to show how it is returning money to the business. From where I sit with X Games and espnW, we look towards what our sales partners are trying to achieve on social media and what we are trying to do and we try to align those things. So we’ll do visual programs like a photo-a-day challenge that have a real content flow with hopes that it will align really well with something that a partner would want to participate in and create a win for everybody.

The second screen experience is huge for live sports broadcasting but social commentary from viewers has also been incorporated into a number of analyst shows. Can you speak to the logistics and policies needed to make that possible?

NCAA Women's Tournament

There are so few opportunities where live chatter and backchannel second screen experiences can be really successful — sports, politics — and there are humongous opportunities that we haven’t yet started to take advantage of. In my world with espnW and the X Games, we’re looking at incorporating photos in a live sense.

During the Women’s [NCAA Basketball] Tournament, we found photos from athletes that we curated using hashtags and handles and built graphics to incorporate them into programming. We literally had a social producer in the control room pulling athlete’s pictures from a team lunch or tweets from earlier that day into the broadcast. To bring that full circle, we created a hashtag and invited viewers to tweet or share pictures using that hashtag for a chance to see themselves incorporated into that experience.

Then we pulled that curated album back onto our site. When we did this for the Women’s Tournament we set the goal of .5M pageviews for the album. By the end of the tournament, we got 1.8 million pageviews, it was great. A major goal of mine at the company is pulling this activity together across platforms. With the common goal of pageviews, we were able to follow up with regional production teams and communicate the immediate results that an on-air mention or visual had in terms of driving traffic. We were able to work as a team across dot-com, social, and TV towards that common goal.

The word “social” is losing its steam. It’s really about cross platform content integration. It doesn’t matter where your audience is connecting with you — it’s how. So if you can't control where people experience you or how they share that experience with others, what can you control? We are finding ways to bake in our branding to content so that we are happy to have it shared broadly and then are trying to tie it back to our home base, our website.

espnW is currently running a cross platform #98DaysToShine campaign that is receiving a lot of great engagement. Can you talk about that program and what you are trying to achieve?

98 days is the length of summer from Memorial Day to Labor Day. espnW is celebrating the fact that summer is what you make of it. We decided to create a photo challenge, similar to those you may have seen proliferating across networks like Instagram and Twitter. The goal was to provide our audience with a low barrier opportunity to participate and contribute to this big montage of photos that could be experienced in many places and many ways. So not only is the content searchable using the overall hashtag and each specific day on Instagram and Twitter, that content is being pulled back onto our site. We also are sharing the “best of” back on social channels and awarding prizes, including US Open tickets at the end of the challenge. We are seeing tons of participation; it’s really fun to watch. This is a great example where we have a highly engaged audience with specific interests that could be turned into a partnership opportunity.

Many cities including Detroit and Austin are heavily incorporating social media into their X Games Bids. Will those efforts and engagement on social channels factor in to the selection process?

It is definitely being seen. It’s been great to see so much passion around the different cities and the bids, especially the pride coming from people wanting the bid, not just the organizers. Watching the grass roots side is very inspiring.

How do you see social evolving for media brands in the next year?

In the next year, media brands will be focused on connecting all of the various social presences back to owned properties. I’m passionate that as much as we love third parties, places like Facebook and Twitter, tying those presences together and back to our home base is important. Our goal is to be present wherever people want to reach us, so it’s not just a social media view, it’s more of a cross platform content view. We will be looking at social networks more as open APIs and opportunities to gather data rather than as platforms that we “go on”. We’ll be answering the question, how can we pull social back on our sites?

Want to hear more about how ESPN and other leading brands are driving innovation in social business? Follow along with the hashtag #CSMNY June 12th-13th. More details on developing a strong social presence, read our Social Media Pocket Guide.

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