As VP of Analytics & Strategy at the most engaged sports publisher on social, Bleacher Report’s David Liss and his team analyze audience behavior and content performance to identify ways to improve an already best-in-class content team and grow the brand’s verticalized channels including House of Highlights, BR Kicks, and more.
Sitting down with Hashtag Sports, Liss discusses how Bleacher Report marries “art” and “science” to create content and platform-specific engagement strategy, the state of Gen Z sports fandom and changing expectations of what the next generation seeks in sports content, and how B/R and HoH are winning the branded content game, not only across sports videos but across all digital video—period.
For clarity, this interview has been condensed and edited.
What does engagement mean to you?
We think engagement is the #1 tool to evaluate performance in the current media landscape. It’s pretty well documented at this point that high engagement leads to the continued ability for content to pop in social platforms’ algorithms, which helps sustain a business long-term. And it’s also a great metric to take out to the advertising marketplace – if our content resonates with fans, our branded content should too.
B/R owns engagement – fans spend more time our app and interact with our content more on social than they do with any other sports brand in the market today. How we get to peak engagement though is even more important. There are very few words more important to us at B/R than “authenticity” – and I think engagement is a phenomenal indicator of how authentically we’re resonating with our communities.
Bleacher Report was built by and for a different type of sports fan who legacy media wasn’t best engaging. How does the profile of the “connected fan” differ from that of the traditional sports fan?
The range of interests of today’s sports fan is just so much more diverse than those of a generation prior. Here’s an anecdote – we recently partnered with YPulse to better understand the sports consumption behaviors of Gen Z audiences vs. Millennial audiences. One of the shocking stats that came back was that 12% of Gen Z checks sports coverage in an average day, versus 33% of Millennials. Now, that’s not saying that the next generation of people aren’t sports fans – but rather that their fandom is oriented as much around what’s happening outside of the game itself (the culture of a sport, the latest trade rumors, what their favorite players are listening to or wearing, and so on) as it is around Team A beating Team B.
As a sector of social video, sports content is ever-growing in views and engagement. Yet, consumption habits continue to evolve. Facebook is losing views, for example, while Instagram and Twitter have seen double-digit growth, over the past year. How has the connected fan influenced Bleacher Report’s monetization plans and strategy? Can you share a bit about how you are investing in and monetizing verticalized channels (i.e. House of Highlights, BR Kicks, etc.)?
Absolutely. We have very robust – and platform-specific – strategies for each of those three social platforms you named and are constantly trying to optimize each of them. But at the same time, we never want to be too tethered to any individual social platform. We’ve seen the pitfalls of publishers who put too many eggs in one platform’s basket, only to have an algorithm change and significantly impact their business. That’s part of our rationale for the verticalized channels you mentioned – which we call our “portfolio of brands” – not only do they give us an ability to engage consumers around a specific area of passion, but from a business perspective, they also help minimize the risk of getting too dependent on one account or platform.
The goal behind Bleacher Report’s verticalized channels is to get in front of highly targeted audiences. Groups of aggregators that Tubular Labs call “connectors” do a good job in activating channels centered around niches by bringing in creators and redistributing creator content through their platform to quickly build up organically seeded content communities and feed underserved audiences. What are your thoughts on this type of strategy, especially as Bleacher Report continues to invest in new content channels and content types?
Curation has been part of B/R’s strategy since Day 1. Before social, before video, back when B/R was just a dot-com website, we were one of the first outlets to distribute other publishers’ content. Our ultimate goal has always been to provide the best user experience for sports fans, regardless of who created a piece of content. So when social came along and it was time to craft a strategy, User Generated Content (UGC) simply made sense to be part of that strategy. However, we’ve always tried to strike a balance between curation and original content creation – our view is that if an outlet is solely focused on aggregation, there’s much less in that outlet’s brand for a user to latch onto, and it becomes much less sticky over time.
Back in May, it appeared from research that B/R is growing in terms of views whereas a lot of your competitors are losing market share. Case in point, Tubular Labs April leaderboards showed that the NBA, WWE and B/R are the top 3 sports publishers. How do you measure social video success and to what do you attribute your ability to consistently top rights holders and content aggregators in engagement?
Our biggest metrics are video views and engagements – and you’re right, that by those metrics (or others), our social business is quite strong. There is obviously a litany of factors, but above all else, I’d point back to the word “authenticity”. That mission bleeds into the content we choose to create/curate and the voice with which we distribute it.
Which platform should sports marketers be buying/selling right now?
Well, I’d be remiss not to give a shameless plug to B/R’s app – which many users treat just like they do a social platform (in terms of the amount of time spent, as well as the types of experiences they can have in that ecosystem). But assuming you mean traditional social platforms, I look at where users – and in particular young users – spend the most time. In that regard, and in no particular order, I’d think about Instagram, YouTube, Snap, and TikTok.
How are analytics and authenticity married to create Bleacher Report’s broader marketing and fan engagement funnel?
Part of my role at B/R is to oversee our Content Analytics team. That group is embedded into every content creation and/or distribution decision that happens at B/R. It’s not just them though – our whole social team thinks in a very data-driven way, in trying to provide the best possible experience for the end consumer. It’s cliché, but we really do employ a healthy mix of “art” (creative) and “science” (analytics) in crafting or improving a strategy for a platform or a piece of content.
What’s the best data-driven decision that Bleacher Report has ever made?
The single best is a tough question, but I’d point to the acquisition of House of Highlights. We discovered the account when it had a couple hundred thousand followers but was growing at a tremendous clip, had a tremendous engagement rate, and was regularly discovering UGC before major outlets (including us). All credit for that decision goes to Doug Bernstein (GM of House of Highlights) and of course Omar Raja (the founder), and to the rest of B/R for not getting in the account’s way!
Branded content is huge in sports – on Facebook alone, for example, 2.1% of all sports videos are branded versus 0.6% for the rest of digital video. B/R is the top partner for a lot of these campaigns. How do you use digital/social video as a vehicle to create new opportunities for brand marketers and advertisers who are eager to reach fans in the places they already consume content?
This has definitely become an area of strength for us. Tubular recently published an article that credited B/R and House of Highlights with 8 of the 10 most engaging branded content videos on Instagram among brands and media publishers in the first half of 2019. That’s an amazing accomplishment and the result of a long-term strategy that consisted of building a social-focused sales team, creating social-focused content (specific for each platform), creating marketing materials that highlight the prowess of both our original content and our branded capabilities, continuing to focus on growing our organic distribution, and more. That’s a very matrixed puzzle that we’ve been able to put together, and which has resulted in our ability to drive a tremendous reach for so many of our clients.
What’s the most creative application of data you’ve seen recently from a sports organization other than your own?
This isn’t a sports example, but I absolutely love Spotify’s Wrapped campaign. It creates a great, authentic experience that users actually enjoy and highlights (in an understated way) to advertisers how comprehensive Spotify’s data is.
What emerging engagement analytic do you believe will revolutionize the way publishers create content and connect with fans on social platforms in the next three to five years?
If I knew this, I’d go build it myself!
In all seriousness though, I would predict that we’ll see a big uptick in the ability for disparate data sets (from different platforms, in different mediums, etc.) to get connected at a personalized, individual level. That’s less about a new metric emerging, and more about a standardized, universally available, set of metrics being widely accepted within the industry – no different than Nielsen did for TV or ComScore did for Digital. I think the unique piece of social media (and the data these platforms sit on) is the natural connection points to people’s affinities and human-to-human connection points – whereby data sets can be much more powerful than simply what content someone clicks on, and instead, help paint a more accurate and dynamic picture about any individual consumer.
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