Social Networking With Citizen Sports

In “Seven Ways to Advertise on Facebook,” I broke down advertising opportunities on the social network. I actually got a lot of flack from a few readers for omitting application sponsorships. I had left them out because one doesn’t actually buy application sponsorships directly form Facebook. Among those weighing in were two of the larger players in the Facebook application advertising space: Citizen Sports Network and Appssavvy. So I decided to interview their CEOs to learn more about application advertising on social networks.

This week features my interview with Mike Kerns, CEO of Citizens Sports Network. The company has developed applications for social networks, including one initiative that makes it possible for sports fans to participate in fantasy football games with friends.

Harry Gold: Can you tell me about you and your company?

Mike Kerns: I began my career with the leading angel investment level firm in Silicon Valley during the late ’90s, early 2000s. I was one of two associates with Ron Conway’s Angel Investors. We were early in companies such as Google, Ask, PayPal, and Napster. We did over 200 investments in tech, broadly distributed across different areas of focus. I then went on to get a foot in the door in the sports industry as the chief of staff at Steinberg & Moorad sports agency. We were the leading football and baseball representatives in the country. My eyes opened to the lack of innovation in the digital sports media business in 2003 [or] 2004. So I set out to develop a new way to interact with commoditized sports information. Our first product/effort was Protrade.com, a virtual sports stock market, which is a next-generation fantasy sports game and community. It grew to what is most likely the largest standalone (not owned by major media conglomerate) fantasy product. However, it appeals to a very passionate niche audience, so when Facebook and other platforms started opening up a year ago, we decided to shift the business direction to become the leading social sports media provider…hence the rebrand to Citizen Sports Network. We are building a diversified set of sports experiences within social networks that are based on fostering social interactions around sports information and games.

HG: Who are some of your clients?

MK: Our clients are sports fans and brands. We look to integrate brands within our experiences. We have over 6.5 million fans within our products on Facebook, hi5, and MySpace. Some brands we have worked with include GMC, AT&T, Washington Mutual, Lenovo, and Finish Line.

HG: What are social media applications and how did they come into being?

MK: I believe that social media applications are anything that enhance social interaction. They range from message boards on traditional portals to virtual worlds. We essentially build Web applications (sites) and launch them within social networks. We don’t build widgets. We build wholly functioning standalone experiences that — if we wanted to — could launch as standalone URL destination sites. For example, when we set out to build an Olympics experience, we designed it from scratch and launched 130 different nation-based sites with features such as news aggregation, cheers (Twitter-like messages that can be sent to friends), received Olympic athlete blogs via RSS feed and incorporated into all sites, allowed fans to create virtual relays and share them with friends on the networks…and we launched these sites on Facebook, MySpace, and hi5. Lenovo and Intel were our exclusive sponsors and were integrated in with banner ads, “brought to you by” placements, specific feature sponsorship of the athlete bloggers, and a tab that was essentially a Lenovo microsite that we integrated into all 130 applications on the various networks. The effort attracted well over 250,000 global Olympics fans with next-to-no marketing spend. Now, most brands and agencies when considering a marketing effort on social networks are buying advertising from the network and/or creating fan pages/environments for brands. The missing piece is giving consumers something they actually want to do and incorporating your brand message into the experience.

HG: In a nutshell, please describe your product. What is “application advertising?”

MK: We have several different product lines. One is what we call our team communities. There are over 700 team communities we have launched on the three networks mentioned [earlier]. They range from professional U.S. sports teams to international sports teams, such as Ireland Rugby, to nation-based Olympics communities. We also have game products, such as our fantasy NFL commissioner product and an NCAA football social picks product that we will be launching later in the week. Application advertising is a broad topic that can range from a deep integrated brand sponsorship, like what we have done with Lenovo/Intel on our Olympics product, to the click-per-install advertising that networks such as SocialMedia and RockYou offer.

HG: Can you give me some other examples?

MK: Another case study is what we did with Washington Mutual. We incorporated their messaging around our cheer feature and prefilled cheer with “woohoo Red Sox” or “woohoo UCLA”…We had over 900,000 woohoo cheers completed in one and a half months. But more importantly, WAMU was trying to drive traffic to an app that they built around creating and sending woohoos, which ultimately and subtlety drove people to sign up for checking accounts at wamyu.com. Our integrated button that linked to the WAMU application had over a 4 percent CTR [define] and drove more people to join the app than did an apples-to-apples buy through Facebook directly.

HG: Do you see any danger in crossing the line when making an application to commercial or branded? Where is that line and how do you make sure you don’t cross it?

MK: Yes. This is something that all publishers face on or off social networks. We try to work with advertisers on sponsoring features/experiences that offer a net positive social sports experience. Example: AT&T is sponsoring the live scoring feature on our fantasy product. Along with banner ads and a “brought to you by” messaging, they also are offering a way to get fantasy updates/trash talking via SMS as a mobile component, [such as] “message from Mike K. in fantasy football…powered by AT&T.”

HG: How do you track and report results and ROI [define]?

MK: We have third-party tagging included in all of our campaigns and report results to clients on a regular manner.

HG: Can you integrate with traditional ad servers, like DART and MediaPlex?

MK: Yes.

HG: Do you think MySpace, Bebo, and Friendster will be able to compete with Facebook in the long run?

MK: Not sure…Clearly from a platform standpoint, they are way behind.

HG: What does the future hold for this space? Where is it going?

MK: We are in the infancy stage and I believe that the networks will evolve into utilities and the app developers that build targeted, deep, enriching experiences stand to become the content layer.

A brand needs to think about how to incorporate their message digitally in a relevant way. The example I use is with Visa. Last year they had a really cool campaign with NFL to encourage people to think about using Visa cards instead of cash. They had bands and people dancing in New Orleans and all using Visa cards. When someone came to the counter and used cash, it killed the buzz/mojo and all happiness stopped. We think about how to create experiences for sports fans where the integration — if Visa brand and media supports that same message/experience — but does it in a way that adds value to the sports fan experience within our properties.

HG: OK, give me the elevator pitch on why I should come to you as a media planner of I want to brand in this space.

MK: We are passionate about sports. We believe in integrating your brand and message in a way that brings positive experiences to sports fans and can be shared virally within social media. Our advertising methodologies do not force the agency/brand to reinvent the wheel as we provide third-party tracking and traditional ad units as required. Our products are unique and innovative in comparison with what traditional sports portals are offering as ways to reach sports fans.

HG: Thanks, Mike!

OK folks, next week we’ll talk to the CEO of Appsavvy. Unlike Citizens, which creates and owns its apps, Appssavvy is a network and represents the top utilized applications on Facebook.

Join us for ClickZ Presents: Online Marketing Summit, September 25 at the Sheraton San Diego.

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