How Hulu Attracts Sports Fans to Build a Loyal Audience

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Viewers know Hulu as a place to catch (or catch up on) their favorite TV shows, and many know its original programs. Few, however, turn to the service for sports, but that's something Hulu is trying to change. At the Hashtag Sports conference in New York City, attendees heard about Hulu's long-term, evolving strategy to become a home for streaming sports fans.

When it started marketing to sports fans, Hulu paid attention to the major events that drove people to sign up and stay with the service, such as the Super Bowl, explained Michael Schneider, head of live TV and sports marketing for Hulu. Then it focused on leagues and teams, making sure viewers could get a satisfying experience following their favorites. This year, it turned its attention to the athletes that represented those teams, such as by partnering with NBA stars.

Aligning with "the most digitally savvy up-and-coming athletes" has been key for Hulu and its "Hulu has live sports message." Besides hiring NBA athletes for its commercials, it also sent its influencers swag and let that do the talking.

"We literally sent Joel Embiid this 'Hulu has live sports' sweatshirt and he's not a guy who's, like, going to do things on your schedule," Schneider said. "We keep sending him gear and we're like, 'Just wear it, just wear it, just wear it.' He wouldn't respond. Then he shows up…at this press conference with a 'Hulu has live sports' sweatshirt, it got picked up by SportsCenter. He said typically in a Joel Embiid fashion some things that get picked up, but for us it was, like, the first time something that was super-reactive really helped our brand from a sports perspective."

These efforts will fall on deaf ears if fans don't believe they can get the sports they want from Hulu. The company's research says that the average consumer still doesn't think they can get all the sports they're used to from online services. Rather than talking about cord-cutting, which can be a scary proposition for some pay TV customers, Hulu has shifted its message to trust. Trust us that we'll have the live local sports you want, it says.

"This year for us was less about 'cut cable' and being super aggressive about  it, but just hand-holding people and getting them over it. What we've been seeing with a lot of our athletes is that has been helpful," Schneider said. "I think that over the next 6, 9, 12 months we'll start seeing more of an evolution of people coming over as they start to get what it is."

Above: Elizabeth O'Brien of IBM and Michael Schneider of Hulu at the Hashtag Sports conference.

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