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For ESPN, it Takes a Army of Producers to Engage Online Fans

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It's not enough to simply create great content these days. Platforms also need to attract attention and engage online viewers. At the Hashtag Sports conference in New York City, ESPN pulled back the curtain on how it uses social media platforms to drive views and hook viewers. Hint: It takes an army.

Before dispensing any social platform advice, Kaitee Daley, senior director for social at ESPN, cautioned that producers need to be agile. What works in social media changes quickly, and companies need to be ready to change up their game. Currently, ESPN is focusing on platform engagement, meaning driving retweets, shares, and time-spent-viewing. Doing so helps it expand its reach and get in front of more people.

"When we're able to reach more people, we're able to build a deeper fan connection," Daley said. "That helps us to bring relevance, but that also unlocks the ability to do other things like refer our social platform audiences to the great things we have going on on our owned-and-operated platforms."

It's important to take a broader view on social media and not just use it for self-promotion. Don't be "the person at the cocktail party who's just talking about themselves constantly," Daley cautioned. Focus on creating socially optimized engaging content, and, occasionally, use those platforms to drive viewers to the company's own highlights.

ESPN's strategy for social coverage of major events, like the NBA finals, has evolved. In 2012, the network had one person in the studio—Daley—firing off text-only tweets. But this year it had a team of people on location creating content for a variety of platforms, including Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter, plus a team in the home office distributing content. Engaging fans today takes a lot more production, and everyone on the social team needs to be a writer, photo editor, and videographer all rolled into one. The stakes are raised, she noted.

ESPN doesn't have platform-specific teams, such as a separate Facebook team or a Twitter team focused on creating content solely for their platforms. Rather, the social team works across platforms. When content bubbles up, social producers tailor in into content for each platform. The team is full of social metrics nerds, Daley says, constantly examining how posted material did and using that to guide the week ahead.

ESPN has had big success with SportsCenter on Snapchat, its daily show just for that platform. What makes it work is the hyper-nimble approach producers take. No shot lasts over over three-seconds, for example. The show keeps its young audience paying attention by engaging eyeballs. When fun events come up, the show plays with that while still delivering the scores and stats viewers expect. For example, when the Cubs held a Stranger Things night, SportsCenter on Snapchat used that as a frame and tossed around silly demogorgon jokes, Daley said. That approach is paying off: Viewers are loyal and average over three views per week.

The riskiest thing for social producers is simply maintaining the status quo, Daley said, so she's always looking for new ways to leverage social. She's looking forward to how 5G coverage will change her job. Right now, producing and streaming from a crowded stadium is a dicey move, but 5G should make it much easier to deliver live content.

Above: Shawn Green of Greenfly and Kaitee Daley of ESPN at the 2019 Hashtag Sports conference. 

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