Sunday football is typically an American ritual — but it won’t be for long if NFL Digital has anything to say about it.
The 150-person team, led by Jeff Berman, is working to establish the league and its 32 teams as a 24/7, nonstop topic of conversation, not just on Sundays but in the off season, midweek, and around the world. Sports teams are a natural fit for social media — impassioned fans have something to band together and rally around, and the NFL is no different. The NFL itself has nearly 4 million Facebook fans, and then there are individual teams that have upwards of 2.5 million fans each. There are 474% more active users on the NFL Facebook Page than there were in 2010, and NFL fans generate 144% more content than they did last year, according to NFL Digital. So, it looks like the engagement strategy is working.
Mashable spoke with Jeff Berman, GM of NFL Digital, to learn more about the league’s efforts, what he learned from his MySpace days, and the importance of empowering your engineers.
Q&A With Jeff Berman, GM of NFL Digital
You spent a few “hypergrowth” years at MySpace, and I imagine you learned a few things while on the inside. What lessons did you bring to the NFL from MySpace?
I think we could spend six hours on the lessons from that experience, but there are probably four that are the most relevant as we move forward with the NFL.
The first is, focus and execution matter just as much as strategy. You have to be able to say “no” so you can focus on the right things, and you have to make sure that you execute relentlessly.
Second, there’s a Patton quote: “The good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.” The lesson there is that for most digital products, you’re better off getting it to 80% and launching it, knowing that the users will teach you more about where it should go than you’d be able to figure out on your own — and then it’s just iterate, iterate, iterate.
Third, no one bats 1000. Google doesn’t. Facebook doesn’t. MySpace certainly didn’t. Even Reid Hoffman doesn’t. So you have to throw some bombs and know that not all will connect, and if you fail, fail fast and move on to the next thing. Lastly, it’s just amazing what happens when you empower talented engineers. I think in a lot of organizations, especially media companies, engineers are handed a spec and expected to code to it. … The engineers usually know the product best, so to get the most from them and to build the best products for your consumers, you’ve got to empower your engineers.
NFL Digital broke some records at the 2011 kickoff — what are some new initiatives for this season?
The thing about media and social media is how fast it changes. … We’re looking at what we’re doing literally on a weekly basis and tweaking it. We’re developing our own strategy, but we’re also looking at what others in the sports category and [and elsewhere] are doing, and borrowing lessons wherever we can.
In the past, we were really focused on driving traffic — the purpose of every post was just to bring people back to NFL.com. And while that’s still a priority, we’re increasingly focused on engagement, acquisition and community. How do we engage fans in a conversation, whether it’s serious or fun or controversial? And then how do we lead them to engage their friends? We’re rebuilding the fan base and the avidity of the fan base — if non-fans get engaged, casual fans get more involved and avid fans become super avid fans — then we’re doing our jobs. And social can help enormously with that.
We’ve implemented a social content management system — not just for the league, but for the clubs — and we’re using Buddy Media for that. That’s a new thing that I think is going to drive a lot of what we do in social, and it really gives us an advantage because it’s essentially a federalist model, which the clubs or states have broad latitude to experiment. So if a particular club tries something new and it sticks, we can quickly leverage that knowledge across the network. We very much follow the data — data tells an objective and compelling story and can help us get better.
It’s a broad change in terms of how we approach social — it’s not just a marketing platform but an extension of our publishing platform and a way to engage fans in much deeper and more meaningful ways.
Are any particular teams really excelling in social? In August, it was found that almost 12% of social media buzz was for the Jets — who’s else is nailing it?
The Jets are doing a terrific job and I think they’re really engaging fans in conversation in a really meaningful way, and obviously they have terrific assets, given the number of personalities on the team and the coaching staff. They’re giving fans a reason to engage with the Jets in social media and engage their friends in the conversation. The Jets are certainly a club we look at as a leader. The Patriots have done a lot of smart stuff, the Cowboys, the Redskins — we have a number of clubs that are being very aggressive about trying new things in the space and understanding that not everything is going to work, but if we can engage the fans not just on Sunday but midweek and off season, then we’re going to make the NFL bigger across the board.
Fantasy Football gets people cheering for more than just their favorite team and also gets non-fans totally engaged. How have fantasy and social grown in tandem?
Fantasy football is really the originally social media. It is an insane engagement engine, and fantasy players drive a massive amount of our engagement in season and in particular on Sundays, and that’s true on every platform. The growth curve for fantasy on mobile is off the charts, and the Red Zone channel is a fantasy player’s dream come true. You have a rooting interest in literally every single game across the course of a weekend, so you’ll see us engage fans in more “games around the games” as we go forward.
Is the digital audience skewed toward the coasts, or in major cities? What demographic is driving the digital growth?
Our demographic is the United States of America, and increasingly, outside of the U.S. When you get inside the research, it just blows your mind. The power of the NFL brand, the power of the affinity for the teams — it really knows no geographic boundaries. Our audience is young and old, it’s male and female, it’s white, black, brown — everything. And that’s one of the things about working at the NFL. There is so much passion and love — for the game, for the players, for the teams — that you just can’t help but love to work on it.
You mentioned the “federalist” model before, so I’m curious about your role. Are you more concerned with the league, or do you work with the individual teams?
On the digital media side, we’ve actually built and manage the platform on which the club sites sit, so we handle the product and technology side of it, and then we work with the clubs on content strategies. Some of the clubs have robust teams that are very involved and are looking at data on a minute-by-minute, real-time basis. For other clubs, we provide a little more support for. But really, the clubs decide how they want to program not only their sites, but also their social media, and we are in a position to support them with that. At the end of the day, if the Patriots are doing something really smart, then we’re certainly going to take it and leverage it with the NFL league assets, and we’ll share it with the other clubs so they can grow as well. It’s essentially a friendly competition among the clubs to build their media assets.
What platforms are working especially well for the NFL? Have there been any surprises?
Facebook is massive scale, Twitter is now at massive scale as well, so obviously those are the primary places we look. Google+ is very interesting and something that we’re taking a look at. I think you’ll start seeing a few more [clubs] on Tumblr. And we’re also really interested in emerging platforms and taking advantage of them. One that I think has enormous potential is Pinterest, and I see a lot of things that we could do in Pinterest that could be really fun for fans. We’re not going to limit ourselves to just one or two platforms, but we’re also not going to scatter ourselves across 50.
Tell me about your Twitter presence — you have a lot of experts and analysts and audiences that are part of the NFL brand.
We’re at an interesting moment on Twitter where we’re becoming more specialized. We have the primary NFL.com account, but if you’re a fantasy junkie, you can follow @NFLFantasy or one of the fantasy experts, like @Michael_Fabiano and get firehosed with fantasy updates while our primary account, @NFL, offers more of a blend. Giving fans more of a range of options on that platform in particular is a priority as we go forward. And of course, all of the NFL media are on these platforms, so we work very closely with NFL Network, and we’ll work them to drive tune in to Football Life or Gameday Morning. So we’ve got a nice ecosystem of Twitter accounts that are supporting each other and engaging fans in the conversation.
The Super Bowl is the Holy Grail of advertising. Now that ad campaigns are so integrated, how has NFL Digital benefited?
The power of the Super Bowl is just unmatched. We set a record for tweets per second on Twitter — at least until Beyonce announced her pregnancy — but I would expect this Super Bowl to set a new record as Twitter grows and the global scale of our game grows. We did a partnership with Twitter around the Super Bowl last year and had millions upon millions of fans engaging with us and driving the conversation on that platform. In terms of the advertisers, we do put all the Super Bowl ads on NFL.com, which drives a huge amount of engagement and conversation. A number of Super Bowl advertisers are also league sponsors, so we’re constantly looking for ways to work with companies like Pepsi to support their media efforts around the Super Bowl.
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