Inside the NFL’s youth-focused social strategy
The National Football League wants to be the most youth-focused, community-driven league in the world. To reach that goal, it’s counting on its social media marketing strategy.
From splashy announcements about the Super Bowl halftime show (the NFL cheekily temporarily rebranded its Twitter bio to “National Fenty League” as a nod to Rihanna’s anticipated performance this year) to working with influencers, the sports league is doing the most to stay trendy.
To engage with fans in constantly innovative ways, the league is turning to creators as part of its so-called NFL Content Creator Network which it launched in 2017.
The program is wide-ranging and is intended to reach a broad audience: creators are targeted in strategic verticals such as fashion, gaming, wellness and music, and by platform including TikTok, Snapchat, Twitter, and Instagram with channels focusing on humor, food, art, animals or football-related content.
The league’s strategy comes as more brands have focused on investing in its influencer strategy — oftentimes turning to creators with long-term contracts to speak authentically to their audiences.
For its part, the NFL wanted a “helmets off” strategy, said Ian Trombetta, NFL svp of social influence and influencer marketing, so fans would get a better understanding of the personal interests of players off the field, whether it be video games, fashion, or other hobbies. It’s all designed to connect fans with their favorite players beyond the weekly games.
“It’s not just football highlights all the time, it’s a diversification of content that we’re pushing across the board, which is really important to our strategy as a whole,” said Trombetta.
Of course, nothing gives a boost to a marketing strategy quite like an Instagram account with 136 million followers.
To announce her Super Bowl LVII Halftime Show performance, Rihanna posted a photo on her Instagram account on Sept. 25 showing her hand holding an NFL football with her signature wrist tattoo.
“The now iconic image from Rihanna truly went viral across nearly every major platform and trended globally,” said Trombetta as he reacted to the memes. “Needless to say, fans around the world are incredibly excited to see her perform on the biggest stage in Super Bowl LVII.”
And nearly as quickly as the post was published, brands like Popeyes, Beatbox, and Dairy Queen created memes based on the picture.
The NFL’s social strategy was revamped during the pandemic as it forced the team to innovate, according to Trombetta. The NFL explored and experimented with new formats, Instagram live sessions, Snapchat, Twitter spaces and TikTok. Experimenting with these channels, fans were able to gain access to the players, despite not being able to be in the stadiums, and get inside information on what the players were doing.
The strategy seems to be working so far. The NFL reached 91% more Instagram unique users on this year’s kickoff compared to Kickoff Sunday last year, Trombetta said, citing internal figures without providing specifics.
The NFL’s Twitter account is also setting a regular season weekly record for video views, up 47% according to Trombetta, Snapchat’s Sunday Highlight Edition drove 38% more unique viewers than last year’s week one edition with 70% of the audience for these highlights being 24 and under. Its TikTok account setting a regular season weekly record for video views, up 258%. The NFL declined to share other, previous stats from 2021.
Trombetta also said that TikTok is the NFL’s fastest growing platform as the the league centers its programing strategy with hype videos featuring TikTok influencers such as entrepreneur Josh Richards and its own players. “It’s all about building community,” said Trombetta. “Not only are you getting the news that you need, we are the 24/7 hour newsroom where you’re getting real time updates as to what’s going on with your favorite team and your favorite players.”
It is unclear how much of the NFL’s advertising budget is allocated to social media marketing, as Trombetta would not share overall budget specifics. According to Pathmatics data, the NFL spent a little over $31 million so far this year on advertising efforts which includes social media. Trombetta also declined to comment on how the advertising budget was split between the platforms and social media influencers.
The league’s marketing machine works to engage its large fan base, which the NFL cultivates carefully and collects data on extensively. Brands are doing their best to capitalize on the hype surrounding the NFL season which started earlier this month by finding creative ways to keep football fans engaged. Recent initiatives to engage fans include Shimmy’s partnership with Gillette Stadium, PepsiCo’s Instacart campaign, Dr. Squatch, and ESPN’s fantasy football campaign.
“If you look at [the] current NFL focus, it’s primarily around TV/broadcast. This has been the model since the beginning and it’s stayed relatively stable,” said Dan Goman, CEO of Ateliere creative technologies, a cloud-native digital media supply chain and distribution platform. “However, the NFL is not immune to the changes happening with the content industry as a whole as their fans are migrating to online viewing.”
As the current NFL season progresses, the football brand is also preparing for Super Bowl week, which includes a TikTok tailgate party that they started in 2021. With the holiday season just around the corner, the NFL plans to make use of TikTok’s shoppable ads, though Trombetta was mum on details.
“We’re working through that now with our friends at TikTok, and we’re hopeful that we’ll have some news here very soon as it relates to our partnership going forward across all 32 teams,” said Trombetta. “I think everything else starts to fall in place as it relates to how we build community with our fan base and in each team of the 32 cities.”
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