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5 Ways to Move the Needle: What I Learned During the World Cup

  |  July 22, 2014   |  Comments

The World Cup had much to teach marketers about how to accelerate growth and popularity - aka how to move the needle. Read on to see what the world's biggest sporting event can teach you.

I'm a soccer fan, always have been. I love to play and watch. I love the MLS, the Timbers, the 2013 Champion Thorns, and I'll watch the Premier League even though I don't follow any specific teams or players. I'm also an MLS LIVE subscriber, which means I pay to be able to watch games on my computer and mobile devices, which I do regularly, even when I'm standing in line at the supermarket.

While many of us enjoyed the World Cup for the competition, players, rivalries, stories, and the pure global feel of the event, I enjoyed it for another reason as well. I learned a ton about marketing and about how soccer in America - and the MLS - might apply a few key lessons in our effort to accelerate growth and popularity - in our effort to move the needle.

1. Get Local

I was in New York City during the World Cup and I found myself in a cab listening to one of those dumb sports talk radio shows. Oddly, the conversation was insightful and interesting.

The hosts were what you'd expect - loud and opinioned American sports fans, not very knowledgeable of soccer. Luckily, one of their producers was British, so he filled in the gaps. They revealed two interesting insights marketers should heed:

  1. They knew very little about their local teams or the MLS. These are top sports guys in a city with good teams (Red Bulls and soon NYCFC) and they knew nothing - it was surprising.
  2. They agreed that Americans need hometown teams and heroes, that having great American players on European/International teams doesn't have the same impact as having local teams and players to root for and become passionate about. 

Living in Portland, I totally agree. Even when the Timbers struggle, the community is strong and unwavering. I also grew up in Boston, where local fandom can be insane.

The World Cup, even more so than the Olympics and other international competitions, embodies the "local." For many of the countries that qualify, there is no greater prize than the World Cup, and as we saw with Brazil, disappointing results can have massive implications for the entire country. In the U.S., our fandom is usually deeply rooted in our hometown and community, and while the MLS and local teams have done a good job in some regions, a deep focus on local team success will raise all boats.

For marketers, this is about understanding your key customer's affinities to their state, city, town, or community. Country pride is essential to World Cup success - what passions and loyalties do your customers have that you can authentically attach to or supplement? Regional affiliations are the obvious "get local" technique, so what about lifestyle affiliations like cycling or hip-hop. Are there common passions your audiences share? Can you give them something to love?

2. Make It Matter

While the MLS All-Star Game is in three weeks, I think the biggest opportunity is to use the playoffs and World Cup to capitalize on fans' hunger for "games that matter." While many U.S. fans won't admit it, they tend to be primarily playoff fans. Sure, they might check in on their team during the regular season, but it's not until the playoffs that fandom is really ignited.

While they don't begin until the end of October, it would be smart for the MLS to begin to promote them through the summer. We all want a team to root for and if we're excited about the playoffs, we may be more likely to check out our local teams or the teams of top players now so we're ready in the fall.

For marketers, "making it matter" can manifest itself in many ways. The core question is, "How do you create or participate in high-stakes contexts?" Can you host or attach yourself to an event that matters to your key audiences? Can you infuse your marketing efforts with rewards, fame, or pride? Competitions are obvious - what else can you do to make it matter?

3. Guide Your Audience

During the World Cup I discovered and then followed Men in Blazers. While they are particularly funny and entertaining, they are also helpful and insightful and as each game approached, I found myself looking to them for help in understanding the players, stakes, and history. Being guided was hugely helpful and made the games more enjoyable.

Soccer in America, while far more mature than it's been, still has a way to go. This means that education and guidance are essential to growth.

  • Which teams should I start watching?
  • Which games are the best match-ups and why?
  • What's the best way to watch games?
  • When do the playoffs begin? How do they work (format)?

Soccer 101 content like rules and basic strategy can be condescending to all but the greenest audiences. Focus on the middle of your audience, those that know the basics and are open to learning more. Provide them with real tools to help them better understand and enjoy your products. I would love to get an MLS post in my Facebook Newsfeed every week with a "March to the Playoffs" update that included info on the best teams, upcoming match-ups, and even "goal of the week" videos. A very simple idea that would fuel my passion and encourage me to share with friends. Guide and they will follow.

4. Lengthen the Burst

While the World Cup is a long event by most standards - just more than a month - it does a remarkable job of packing a lot of excitement in early and then stretching out slowly over time. I found that having two, three, or four games a day for a few weeks to be unusually engaging and exciting.

This is true of basketball and baseball playoffs as well, but there was something special about the World Cup. Maybe it was the summer or that the time zones mostly aligned, but having a dense offering every day for an extended amount of time was amazing.

For most marketers, we're lucky if we can sustain a campaign for more than a week with any level of intensity. We tend to spike our spend and effort at the beginning and then maybe again during a "refresh" period. In digital, this model feels antiquated (it is) and out of place. If you have a moment, I highly recommend you watch this video by McKinsey Principal David Edelman. He presents a new model for mastering digital marketing where we sustain messaging and effort over longer periods of time and test and learn as we go, an iterative approach. While few of us have the amount of content in a World Cup or playoff series, there are definitely lessons to be learned around creating longer sustained bursts of content and engagement for a wide range of key audiences.

5. Make Access Free and Easy

Lastly, a big idea. The MLS should make the live broadcasts of every playoff and cup game free through their MLS LIVE platform. I'm sure it's not negotiated with their partners, but I believe this single idea would do more for U.S. soccer than all other tactics combined. I'm not suggesting MLS LIVE become a free service, and I love the free weekly stream they already offer, but during the playoffs, when it matters, providing free and easy access would expose the most compelling part of their product to the largest possible audience.

Having easy access to every game through ESPN and Univision apps was remarkable. The mobile apps both saw staggering growth in visits and livestreams and for good reason. As shared in the above article, even wide and free access to digital streams didn't impact TV broadcast numbers. There's little risk and a lot of upside for everyone involved.

For marketers, the disruptive nature of digital across much of our lives has major implications for how people discover, explore, and even buy our products. What would happen if you took the most compelling part of your offering - not all of it, just a key selection - and made it massively accessible and free? Unheard of? Break through the fear and think about it. You don't need to share it with your boss yet but think about it.

Univision drove 3.4 million downloads of their app and many, many Super Bowls worth of livestreams during the one-month period. According to Mehul Nagrani, digital senior vice president and general manager, they have now shifted their digital strategy primarily to soccer.

How are you moving the needle?

Image via Shutterstock.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Marko Muellner

Marko Z Muellner has been a digital marketer for more than 18 years with deep experience in cross-channel, integrated, and multi-touch marketing and communications strategy, creative development, and account management. He has spent his time learning how digital and social media marketing is applied in nonprofits, international digital and PR agencies, start-ups, global sportswear and beer brands, and at a leading Web analytics and optimization company. This experience has brought him to the stage as a featured speaker and to the pages of top-tier publications as a columnist. His social media and digital marketing expertise have been featured in ClickZ, Luxury Daily, the SmartBlog on Social Media, Mobile Marketer, Social Fresh, and InsideFacebook to name a few. He is currently the digital vice president and group director at Edelman in the Portland, Oregon, office and he can be reached on Twitter at @markozm.

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