How Fanatics Uses FaceTime Calls with NFL Rookies to Engage Fans

How Fanatics used FaceTime calls with NFL Rookies to engage fans

Jeff Alston sits down with Hashtag Sports in our latest question-and-answer series interview.

In his role as Senior Manager, Branded Content and Athlete Marketing at Fanatics, Jeff Alston is responsible for developing and overseeing innovative marketing strategies to produce fan-forward content and promote the Fanatics brand. His team is behind many of Fanatics’ successful projects, including capturing content at the NFLPA “Rookie Premiere,” and the unique “Tuesday Night Fortnite.”

Alston clued us in on what goes into picking the right athletes for branded content, the importance of quality over quantity in raising brand awareness, and how Fanatics builds relationships with hard-to-reach audiences.

How has the “connected fan” altered the way Fanatics thinks about its marketing spend?

It’s always been important for us to create opportunities that amplify pride and create connections for all fans. We found that athlete content and giving fans the opportunity to see a different side of the player they idolize – not necessarily the side they see on Sundays – is important.

Brands can play in the sports marketing sandbox in a variety of ways. What are the advantages of leveraging athlete storytelling and branded content?

Athlete content helps us with engagement, and it helps us with our brand awareness. It also helps our authenticity when we can align with the athlete. I mean, it really helps us across the board. We’re more than just the logo or the jersey company, we’re now the company that supports the players off the field as well.

I would say athletes are the true drivers for our branded content pieces. A good athlete can take a decent creative concept and do good things with it; great athletes can take it to another level. When I say “good” and “great” it doesn’t necessarily mean the skillset but more so how good is the fit for the spot we are casting.

During the NFLPA Rookie Premiere last year, Fanatics helped connect fans with their favorite athletes via FaceTime. Where did this idea come from, and what was the objective behind it?

This is one of the coolest projects we are currently working on here. It started around three years ago when we were trying to come up with an idea of how we can interact with a fan who recently purchased an item from us. How do we get that interaction going?

We threw out the idea that we’d have a player call fans after they recently purchased their jersey. Rookie Premiere is a great event because you get 40 guys in the room, the new superstar rookies, which is pretty cool and exciting. It kind of blew up, and built its own momentum but it really just started off as “We need to figure out how to make this a cool experience when fans buy a jersey or a hat.” Now it’s something that we try to do across different sports, but Rookie Premiere is always one of the [events] we like doing [this] at. A lot of fans are really excited about the upcoming season, and a lot of the guys tell you they’re excited to have their jerseys on sale for the first time. So it’s like a mutual respect where a rookie is like “Hey, my jersey is on sale and this fan was one of the first people who bought it.” It’s the common love there that we like to highlight. Baker Mayfield was really good. He was super excited and stoked to give this kid a pep talk. He came into the room with the juice; he was awesome.

Example of photography from NFLPA Rookie Premiere in final marketing assets
Example of photography from NFLPA Rookie Premiere in final marketing assets

Last fall, Fanatics teamed up with Twitch and Epic Games for “Tuesday Night Fornite” a first of its kind series streamed weekly which saw football players and gamers faceoff through Fortnite matches for charity. Can you share more about how this concept came to life?

The NFLPA and Epic were in discussions about bringing together the gaming world and the NFL world, and of course, we were interested. So this is a fun, cool, testing-the-water phase for us to see what it’s like. It was cool to see the players’ personalities come out a little bit. We’ve all gamed before, but it’s funny to see how competitive people are not only on the field but also off it. We had a couple of episodes where guys were at their house and they dressed up in Halloween costumes and stuff like that to show the lighter side of life. I think that’s the cool thing about doing this type of engagement.

How do projects like the above two examples help to set a new benchmark for engagement?

When you think of engagement for us, a lot of our content is either directly aimed at a fan, like the fan FaceTime series or when we have players deliver products to fans’ doors. So we’re trying to raise the bar through things like that or through comment sections on Reddit or Facebook Live. It’s not necessarily how far we reach, it’s more so the opportunity to get something out of the person or the people that we reached during that moment. That’s the cool thing for us: we’re getting real stuff with fans and engaging with fans in real-time. We’re not necessarily the type to put out a ton of stuff and expect a bunch of comments on it. We’re more so trying to interact with fans right then, right there. Get that raw emotion.

That’s what the FaceTime calls have become because we’re not calling 1,000 fans; we’re really calling three or four. But that one fan’s experience is the same experience 10,000 people would like to have, and it’s super cool to share that with that fan.

How is Fanatics measuring/defining the success of branded content in 2019?

To be honest, we produce a lot of content in a very short period of time. When I first came on board in 2016, we really weren’t doing any content. So right now, we’re just trying to figure out which distribution channels are our best: social, YouTube, wherever it’s at. For us, —and I’m part of the brand team—at the end of the day, brand awareness is huge. So as long as we’re pushing that brand awareness lever and we unaided and aided awareness keep going up, we’re doing the right thing.

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Is there a project or campaign that you’re proudest of?

The Facetime calls are so cool and original, and they are something that I’ve seen other groups try to do. We do them in a super unique way that I don’t think anybody else can replicate because of what we sell and who we are as a company.

Although I will say that my proudest project would probably be my first one. Even though it didn’t do great, it was a learning experience that got us to the next step. We started three years ago with Facebook Live during the NFL season. The NFLPA helped us set up a 16-week schedule. We did basically a Facebook Live every Tuesday throughout the season, and it was just raw cellphone video. Players gave us a tour of their house or we showed them hanging out in a restaurant after practice, while interacting with fans through the comment section. It was real-time, and we learned a lot about live feeds, live content, and how to interact with fans in the comments section. It was a great learning experience so I don’t think we would’ve gotten to the place where we are now with Fan FaceTimes or Gameday Commute or Fortnite Night if we hadn’t learned from Facebook Live. So I would definitely say the FaceTime calls are my favorite, but I think the proudest was the first project because that helped us learn a lot very quickly.

Marketers are facing an increasingly difficult challenge of standing out from the competition with young, fragmented audiences. What are some of the most creative ways you’ve seen organizations other than your own utilize branded content to build relationships with hard-to-reach demographics?

Now that everybody has a cell phone with a high-quality camera and anyone can capture content, I do think the Overtimes of the world have a place, and how they figure out how to navigate the space is really interesting.

Uninterrupted and Bleacher Report are best-in-class; everything—like Kneading Dough with Chase Bank—that Uninterrupted is doing now is great. I think Bleacher Report has such reach that they also have an opportunity to throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks. They just had a project they did about Percy Harvin which was really interesting. It was with Master Tesfatsion, and they just played pool and had a Q&A with Harvin. It’s super basic and conversational, but it gives light to a players’ personality in a more relaxed, dynamic environment.

Examples of photography from NFLPA Rookie Premiere in final marketing assets
Examples of photography from NFLPA Rookie Premiere in final marketing assets

What’s the best piece of feedback you’ve received from an athlete on a creative project or campaign?

To be honest, the ones when athletes say “keep me in mind for future projects” because then you know they like working with you, and they also like the finished product. Whenever an agent or a player asks us to keep them in mind for the next time, that means we’re doing our job.

Making this kind of stuff, it’s cool to see the finished product, but there’s a lot of things that you have to do to get the project done, and I think it’s that kind of stuff that I really love. I know when a player says that, it means they generally respect what we’re doing and had a good experience. I’ve had guys that literally begged us to get the content to them immediately. They’ll be like, “Hey send, this could be as soon as it’s done, I can’t wait to post it.” It’s not the normal Q&A chat or press conference so a lot of them really enjoy this kind of stuff.

What emerging trend or technology do you believe will revolutionize the way marketers connect with fans in the next few years?

One for me is how fans are consuming live sports. I think there’s a content play there just because of consumers’ lack of ability to stay locked into a live sporting event either in person or watching it on TV or a live stream. Whether it’s when a player gets a first down you can click on him on the screen and you can get an interview with him where maybe he talks about his dog. There’s got to be something there for the consumer that’s not the die-hard, ‘I need to see every down of the football game’ or ‘I need to see every pitch of the baseball game.’ There’s definitely something there with interactivity that’s going to happen through the live stream.

To be honest what lots of people are bullish on right now is experiential marketing at events which is a little hard for me to wrap my head around sometimes. When people go to a live sporting event, they want to experience a sporting event, but then we give them all the options to not experience the sporting event, and I think that’s becoming more and more prevalent.

For example, I saw the Dallas Cowboys have a photo booth set up in their stadium where they can take pictures with the players. That’s super cool, you’re going to get a certain kind of fan for that, but you’re also taking fans away from sitting in their seats and watching the game. So yes, some of the in-game experiential stuff I’m a little wary about.

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