Colin Freeman has a deep understanding of the Olympic movement, having held roles at the Vancouver 2010 Games, London 2012 Games, and now with the Canadian Olympic Committee.
In his current role as the Director of Digital, he uses content as a foundation of Team Canada's strategy to build fandom and maintain engagement between and during Olympic cycles.
In a chat with Hashtag Sports, Colin shares how the Canadian Olympic Committee uses media attachés to collect and distribute content, what resources kept Team Canada's content strategy organized with two Olympic Games in a span of six months, and how time zones impact (or don't impact) Olympic social success.
Tell us about your digital content goals at Team Canada.
Like most sports properties and brands, content is vital to our business. For Team Canada, it’s particularly important as it serves as a primary expression of our brand in the absence of some other traditional touchpoints such as a stadium where you can interact with fans on a regular basis.
Our content goals can be best summarized as providing Team Canada fans a constant flow of engaging and entertaining content that culminates with the Olympic Games every other year. That is powered by a few main strategies - we aim to provide best-in-class editorial coverage of Canadian athletes year-round while also producing original content grounded in storytelling.
You’ve just come off a period that saw Team Canada head to 2 Olympic Games (Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022) in a span of 6 months with highlights including Gold medals in Women’s Soccer and Ice Hockey respectively. How has the breadth of activity on a shortened timeline shaped your content and marketing strategies over the past 12 months?
It has been a whirlwind, to say the least! Our business and marketing cycle has operated on the ‘standard’ Olympic cycle for so long, so it was quite the challenge to adapt to having 2 Games occur just 6 months apart. Perhaps as impactful as the close proximity of the Games was the fact that content capture opportunities were few and far between in the lead up to both Games. Athlete training and competition schedules were so disrupted that it made it challenging to think about content in the same way we had in previous years. This ultimately led to a focus on being more efficient and really zeroing in on the content that fans are interested in.
For us, that meant embracing the use of more archival content and athlete and fan-generated content in the lead-up to the Games, and then utilizing a templated approach wherever possible to highlight the major moments during the Games. Having fewer content resources on-site during the Games meant relying on more partners and tools to help get the assets we needed to engage our fans. Ultimately we’re very pleased with where we netted out - we found some great efficiencies we’ll carry forward to future Games.
Describe the Team Canada fan base, and why is forming fan relationships and broadening Canadian sports coverage across social media important to you?
I really can’t stress how important it is for us to connect with Canadians via social media throughout the Olympic cycle. While we will always see our high-water mark of fan engagement come during the Games, by ‘extending the window’ outside of the Games we are able to raise the profile of Canadian athletes on their Olympic journey, which in turn results in Canadians being more invested in their journey once the Games do come around. This results in a larger engaged fan based both at our ‘baseline’ outside of Games and during Games. Ultimately we believe there remains an opportunity for increased storytelling of Canadian athletes year-round and our social media results prove that out.
How do your media attachés fit into your content plans around live events?
Media attachés play a crucial role in our content plans—particularly during the Olympic Games. With the Games' footprint being so large, it is not realistic for us to have coverage across every venue or sport to get the depth and quality of content fans are most interested in. Not only that, but the Media attachés get to know the athletes on a level that often we aren’t able to and can help us identify storylines that we would otherwise miss out on.
This is where a tool like Greenfly comes in and plays a crucial role in our workflows by allowing us to push and pull assets to our team members who are in direct contact with the athletes. Sometimes it is very intentional and sometimes the attachés just are in the right place at the right time and capture a genuine and authentic moment. Using a tool like Greenfly allows us to collect those assets in a timely and organized manner and in turn we’re able to share them with fans either as stand-alone content or as part of a bigger play. We really couldn’t function the way we do at Games without Greenfly - particularly in Tokyo and Beijing.
What do those content workflows look like for live events, and how do you and your team get media for your brand channels?
Well, our workflows certainly looked differently in Tokyo and Beijing than they had in recent history, but fundamentally the approach isn’t all that different. We try to give ourselves as many options as possible when it comes to accessing media but wherever possible we are looking for something unique and exclusive to our channels. That means tapping into our own resources wherever possible but in recent Games that wasn’t always possible, so we looked to use tools such as Greenfly that make the flow of assets even easier. We then complement our owned sources with the necessary subscriptions and licenses to make sure we don’t miss a beat.
Do you reach out to your fans to collect media at live events as well, and if so, what has been the response?
This is something we have started to do more of and look forward to leaning into even further in the months and years ahead. The response is always great from our fans whenever we ask them to participate in such an active way. I think this has been particularly engaging for us due to the ‘national pride’ component that goes along with being a Team Canada fan.
Our most successful executions in this space have been when we’ve been able to connect Canadian pride with celebrating local communities. In its simplest form, allowing Canadians to let us know where they are cheering from and allowing them to connect with a fellow fan from across the country is a powerful thing. We’re always looking for more engaging ways to tell that story.
Any notable surprises or things you didn’t expect with your social program?
I would say the most surprising thing we saw was the impact - or lack thereof - of timezones on how fans engaged with us on social media through both Tokyo and Beijing. Of course, we saw some patterns develop as far as when engagement was highest, but while we originally contemplated holding back some content for ‘prime time’ at home, in the end, we found that more often than not, timeliness won out - even if that meant posting a ton of content in the middle of the night. Team Canada fans proved to be night owls - particularly for the major moments of the Games.
How are you measuring success with the social program against your goals?
We measure the success of social—and content more broadly—by how much engagement it generates. From there, we analyze what types of content drove activity to better understand our fans and then ultimately craft future content plans. For us, it is about more than sheer volume of engagement or audience growth as we look to utilize social as a tool to better understand fans and ultimately connect with them on behalf of Team Canada and our partners.
What have been the biggest impacts your organization has seen with social media in the last year?
I would have to say the biggest impact that we have seen holistically is that social media—maybe more than ever—played such a vital role in connecting with Olympic fans in the absence of some other more traditional channels. We weren’t able to connect with fans by way of some of our tentpole events, or at Games via Canada Olympic House, so to see Canadians follow and engage on social the way they did was fantastic to see. More specifically, I can share that we set a new record for our single highest-performing piece of social content of all time when the Women’s Soccer Team won gold in Tokyo.
What other types of content or initiatives are you focusing on to expand the Team Canada brand and connect to your fans?
A major focus for us over the past few years has been adding more interactive content to the mix across all of our channels—particularly in our new app that was launched pre Tokyo. Whether it be arcade-style games, A/R activations, quizzes and trivia, or custom rewards and redemption programming, we saw great success with this type of content that drives deep engagement with our fans. It’s not only great for Team Canada but a great way for our partners to authentically connect with fans. I suspect we’ll see a lot more of this style of content mixed in as we look ahead to Paris 2024 and beyond.
What are you most looking forward to next for Team Canada?
It may sound cliche but I really think we’re just scratching the surface as it relates to content across all of our channels. I am looking forward to us continuing to serve as an authority on Team Canada athletes and sports news while also crafting more original content focusing on stories and themes that are interesting to our fans in a different way. I can’t wait to continue to explore new mediums and technologies and use the runway that we have ahead of the next Games to really blow it out of the water. And lastly, I am looking forward to the location of the upcoming Games—between Paris, Milan/Cortina, and LA we’ve got quite the run of host cities coming up!
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