You Either Have to Be First or Sit Back and Learn – ESPN’s Ryan Spoon on Innovating For Every Platform

Q&A: ESPN's Ryan Spoon Is Innovating For Every Platform

As the SVP of Digital & Social Content, Ryan Spoon oversees the creation of content for ESPN’s digital channels and manages the execution of ESPN’s social strategy, content, and shows. Spoon has been with ESPN since 2012 and has held a variety of roles driving audience engagement and development.

As much as anyone in the space, Spoon understands how to create digital content that engages today’s fan. This interview, originally conducted at HS18 by Kerry Flynn of Digiday, has been condensed and edited.

Pretend that, for some reason, someone doesn’t know what ESPN is. How do you pitch it? How you describe yourself, and what’s the audience today?

We are sports, and we exist as sports within coverage, discussion, and partnerships. I say this all the time—every one of us, no matter what job you have, has the same business card and on the back it says, ‘To serve sports fans anytime, anywhere.’

That was the same mission the company was founded with; it’s the same today, and it’s invoked in almost every conversation. I think a lot of what we will end up talking about today, as we talk about different platforms or screens or pieces of content is [simply] how is it serving fans, and how are [we] doing it on the platform and in the location that exists today?

So would you say that nothing has really changed about the company? Because if it’s tied to the mission, I would think that your job is newer than what ESPN used to be.

Plenty has changed with the company—I can’t imagine a company of any sustained period of time that doesn’t go through significant change. That doesn’t mean the mission has to change though. I think what my job represents (and what people like Katie Nolan and Jason Fitz and the talent and the resources we have around) is really thinking about how we interact and engage with new platforms, in new spaces, and in new mediums—some of which are on mediums that we create and we operate and some of them are in places where we have large followings outside of our own site and screens.

So that function itself is relatively new. The three of us (Ryan, Katie Nolan, and Jason Fitz) have been working together for sub-one year, but ESPN has been doing this kind of work in these kind of spaces—and I would argue pioneering new reach—since its founding.

What social and digital platforms would you say are the most important to ESPN?

We don’t play favorites because we think of everything as its own property. One thing I’m very proud of, and we have the freedom to do this and the luxury of having the resources and so forth, is we don’t create something and press publish across everything because we know it doesn’t work that way. Again, that’s a luxury that we are able to take on, but what Katie [Nolan] does on Snap is very different than what Jason [Fitz] will do on the Twitter shows. You can’t take the same effort that we do on Snap and say “This is really good. Let’s put it on Facebook or let’s take that same piece and put it on”

We think a lot about what necessitates being honest to the environment, and how to take advantage of the platform. Turns out, when you do that, the fans like it more, the partners like it more… We see better results. It does take greater resources, it takes a lot of experimentation, but what you’ll find is that what we do on each platform is itself unique to that effort.

Time of day also matters. Is it being watched live or on-demand? Is it interactive? [Our] Twitter stuff is all live, it’s interactive. The Snapchat stuff, we might publish it at 5 a.m., but you might choose to watch it at noon. So all of those things—how the user finds it, and the environment, meaning what other content it sits next to, and whether it’s chronological or so forth—all that stuff matters, and it drives how we think about not just what content [we create] but the presentation or the way that we interact with the fan.

I know that some publishers are maybe more resistant to jump onto the next platform. Interestingly with ESPN, you guys were one of the first partners on Snapchat Discover when it launched back in January 2015 when no one knew what it was. Looking at ESPN’s strategy, are you going to jump onto each new platform?

My prior life before this job was doing product. I headed up our product team, and it was a very similar strategy, which is that you either have to be first and do a great job, or when that doesn’t make sense, sit back, watch, learn, and then choose to enter at the right time.

So we did that with all the platforms. If you want to access the ESPN app, it’s on every platform. There are times, like Snap, we weren’t just one of the first launches on Discover in 2015, we were also one of the first shows when it rebooted. We look at that as something that if we’re going to do that, it’s a significant investment both in people, in time, in effort. If we’re going to do that, then we want to do that really well.

Snapchat is a phenomenal platform. The numbers are significant. But then there are times when something comes out, a platform, and again it might affect where we want to put digital reach. It might affect social executions where you have to decide the concept of a minimum viable product. Can you do something to launch, and be proud of it in a way that sustains and learns, or should we sit back and watch?

We think about that all the time. We had two efforts go up the day of Instagram TV because it coincided with the NBA Draft, which is a marquee event for us, and we thought it was important to be there and try it. Do we know what it means yet? No, we don’t fully understand how those numbers sit next to another Instagram post or a story we did that night, but that’s the fun part: we can sit back and watch and learn.

My point of view on almost everything is that we should test, and we should go into every effort saying “Before we do it, how do we define success or failure?” It will likely be somewhere in between, but at least have an idea going into it that we understand what we’re measuring and what we would classify as success. Then, you can make a determination quickly, and that’s the key to it. If you test things, you need to understand quickly whether you think they were positive or negative and adjust.

I think the very first rankings reaction shows on Twitter were nothing more than wanting to try it. I don’t think we would have gotten to the point we are now where we have a series of runs that we are committed to, Twitter is committed to, if we hadn’t tested those early ones. By the way, we didn’t know what we were doing from a distribution standpoint, let alone the content side. You just have to figure that stuff out. If we had made the first effort something where we had thought we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t have worked as well.

What have you guys noticed about the different audiences between the platforms? We’ve talked about Snapchat and Twitter, [where] some would say that they skew really young overall, but in terms of ESPN’s audiences, is that true? Are you speaking to a younger generation compared to what you do on television and your other owned properties?

That definitively is true. Each platform itself is a little different. Snap is obviously very young and predominantly under 35. If you step back and say, what is the audience and how does he or she differ on each platform, that’s also just as important as age or anything else.

We do billions of YouTube impressions. That is intent-driven, and it is long tail. We do billions of Twitter impressions. Those are live, and have to be of-the-moment which is very different. Facebook sits somewhere in between, and Instagram is remarkably visual. You’ll see that it is a very different tone and presentation than what we think would work on YouTube.

Again, it’s not just how the audience looks different from one platform to another, but what is that users habit and intention show us when he or she opens up that platform? How does he or she find our stuff? And it’s very different from platform to platform.

Let’s go back to television. Some would argue that live TV in sports is the last stronghold in the rights and money aspect. Would you say that ESPN still has this stronghold on television rights and is putting it into digital properties?

We should be clear: we put it into digital properties all the time. will do 125-150 million uniques a month. We’ll do multiple tens of thousands of events streamed via the app. What we chose to then put between TV,, the ESPN App, ESPN+, and how that fits with other platforms, I think there’s a difference between putting those games there verses on our air.

We broke down the NBA Draft, which is televised on ESPN, via streaming on the ESPN app with big numbers. Clips of it and highlights and analysis were available throughout for free and across Twitter with 1.5 million people on a Twitter show.

We want to amplify those events as significantly as we can and to do that you need to be in and speak to fans in the places where they are. But we definitely put a lot of effort into our own digital properties.

I think the College Football Playoff and the championship game in particular, is a great example because [Jason] Fitz and [Mike] Golic Jr. were live from the field [in 2018] for the hour before the game on Twitter, and I think over 3 million people were watching. That culminates—hopefully it’s a great show and it was—but it culminates with, “All right, time for the game.” The game occurs, the game ends, Jason was on the field filming on Snapchat. Meanwhile, we’re cutting the clips, distributing the highlights via the app, via Twitter, Facebook, wherever fans might be. Then Katie [Nolan] did afternoon [content] for the game, the remarkable overtime, and all the analysis around what Saban did, etc.

We’re covering all the angles, but if you want to watch the game, we weren’t interfering with that.

How much do you guys do social listening? In terms of looking at Instagram, Twitter, or other properties for other people’s posts.

I think there are two tactical pieces to it. One is everyday we have a fantastic editorial team who itself has dashboards running of what’s trending and what’s topical. We do a lot of articles and reporting and also social posts of what athletes are saying. That all comes through social listening.

On the pure social side, I think where the Twitter shows become interesting is when they are interactive. To do that, we’ve learned that you can’t force discussion or topics. You need to surround yourselves with topics and discussion that is already occurring. So that itself requires the social listening, and in some ways, it is very radio-like. That’s why we’ve had a lot of success with talent like [Jason] Fitz who are great on both platforms.

We have a Facebook show called ‘First Take, Your Take’ which by definition is social listening. Today, at 3 PM we’ll post a 10-minute or so show of Steven A. Smith and Max Kellerman debating a topic, and it will end with, “We want your opinion. Come post it in the Facebook group…” and in the next 48-hours fans upload their own opinions. Wednesday at 3 PM, we have a team who’s curating those and positioning them into a fun, good-looking video that comes out Wednesday. Wednesday ends with, “Did you see your face here? Come back Friday and see one of you debate Steven A. or Max K. live.” So that in itself is social listening.

How much do you think is scripted and production as opposed to relying on these talent/personalities to just ad lib?

The most important word is authenticity. It might change over time, but most of the worlds we live in generally are live. Even the Snapchat shows, while they are produced, we try to film those in lighthearted and lightweight ways so they don’t come across as stiff or produced.

If you think about the people who are the faces of a lot of these platforms, whether it’s Katie Nolan and Jason Fitz or Steven A. Smith or Golic Jr., they are people with big personalities who balance expertise with the ability to carry time and interact.

The interaction part is really key. The personality can’t be manufactured, but it is such a core part to what we do. If I was even a little talented or an expert, it doesn’t mean that you have personality and are able to do this right. The expertise has to be there in some form, but the personality and what you can sense just sitting between Katie and Jason, that’s what matters.

Let’s talk about audio. There’s a big push from publishers into this space, whether that’s investing more in radio or using Alexa voice skills or doing podcasts. What is your overall audio strategy? What have you done in the past, and what are you doing differently now?

I used to have a powerpoint presentation, and it started with three things. You know us as TV, but we have a huge audio business. The other one is digital. We are on air 24 hours a day and then some with the number of events and shows we cover. We have had real success over the years. I think we were really early into podcasting at significant scale.

An example of where these things all meet in the middle is we are the leader in fantasy sports—fantasy football obviously being the largest. Fantasy has a podcast that does massive numbers and it’s a 60-minute podcast. It gets listened to for 60 minutes. These are huge numbers, and its published five times a week. The beautiful part about it is that there is a rhythm to it. On Monday, did your team win or lose? On Tuesday, who should you be preparing for a waiver wire? On Wednesday, injuries. On Thursday, a game. On Friday, predictions.

Every show has its own thing and we’re now, this year, going to turn that into a live Twitter show. If you want to interact and take part in the podcast or the show, you can do that via Twitter and then if you want the produced version to go in your back pocket or while you drive into work, you can listen on the podcast.

Let’s talk about the future of ESPN. What’s your job in the next few years?

For us right now on a lot of things we’ve tested our way. I think we know where we want to be, but there’s a lot that now we have to polish and figure out. We’ve got a big year ahead of us.

The real focus for me is how do we drive interactivity? It is truly something that stands out and is not just another version of an on-demand take on video, and that has to come from each platform and each creation that we are crafting for that platform.

Ryan Spoon spoke at Hashtag Sports 2018, an annual conference designed for digital decision makers in sports. Learn more here.