Communications: content versus clickbait
Wimbledon’s approach to the shift in its audience is distinctive and somewhat at odds with the direction of travel of most sports. “Clickbait isn’t consistent with the Wimbledon way,” says Willis. “Often, the first point of contact people have is with a piece of content. This is the foundation of our commercial model: it’s based on our audience. We need to nurture and grow that audience year after year.”
Growing, for the AELTC, can mean targeting particular territories, such as Korea. Chung Hyeon, who made history as the first South Korean to reach a tennis Grand Slam semi-final at the 2018 Australian Open, has a following, for example, worthy of translating Wimbledon content for a Korean audience.
This is a communications strategy referred to as “content marketing”, usually defined as the generation and distribution of material in which interest is prioritised over brand promotion. This is a rather unsatisfactory definition, given that most brands would claim that most of their communications is designed for engagement, but the distinction is made when comparing Wimbledon with other sports events.
Consider these two pictures of post-match interview settings, one at Wimbledon, one in football’s Premier League, and it becomes clear that one strategy is a controlled communication of one brand, while the other, the football, is a platform for maximising the exposure of as many brands as possible. This latter strategy is known as ‘clickbait’, and is measured simply by the size of the audience – the more people who click on an ad, the better. Most sports are committed to this maximum-eyeballs approach, and extend their platform to the kit, the stadium, and more.
By contrast, Wimbledon strictly controls exposure of other brands, partly because a non-commercial environment is a large part of its brand appeal, but also because it believes in the primacy of its own content, The Championships. Of its 13 sponsors, only four are visible on court, in a rather subdued manner. For example, the kit for officials, ball boys and ball girls, is provided by Ralph Lauren, but is branded as Wimbledon. Ralph Lauren has the opportunity to produce and sell ‘Crafted for Wimbledon’ apparel and promote Wimbledon-generated material.
Critics of the clickbait approach argue that the huge audiences generated are meaningless because of a lack of engagement – it is merely background noise that consumers filter out. Supporters of this approach point to the substantial revenues it generates for the sports brands in question. Content marketing advocates, however, not only point to the higher levels of consumer engagement with their material, but argue that this communications strategy is far better suited to the digital age, in which attention is a scarce resource. Interestingly, there are early signs that prices for sponsorship of major sports has peaked – the 2018 deals on TV rights for the Premier League, for example, showed no increase after eight previous rounds of ever-climbing prices.
The challenge of revenue generation from digital audiences
Under Willis’ leadership, the AELTC has adapted to new audience trends and become a widely recognised leader in its field, scooping a series of industry honours such as the Sport Industry, Sports Technology and Webby Awards. It claimed the Best Digital Development in the 2018 Yahoo Sports Technology Awards for being innovative in an unmistakably Wimbledon way, according to the judges. “The element of surprise carries weight,” notes Willis.
There is a tension that lives between delighting audiences by doing what is unexpected and grounding activity in what is expected from the Wimbledon brand. For instance, who would have guessed that it would be the first European sports property to launch on Snapchat, known for its younger target audience. And few would have predicted that when The Championships clashed with the Euros in 2016, Wimbledon would take advantage of the excitement by tying with UEFA in a bid to introduce more football fans to tennis. “Digital is our gateway to ensuring we offer the millions of people around the world who can’t be at Wimbledon a Wimbledon experience,” says Willis.
Since 2015, Wimbledon’s audience has more than doubled from around 10 million unique views to its peak of 21 million uniques in 2016. Its formerly non-existent social media following has today reached the 11 million mark.
The biggest single challenge of the content marketing approach, however, is one that faces almost all organisations: how to monetise online traffic. The economics of digital channels are fundamentally different from traditional media. The TV audiences generated in traditional rights contracts would be measured in millions and all charged to advertisers as consumers of their commercials in the breaks in programming. The dominant (but not the only) model in the digital world is that advertisers only pay when a consumer responds to a commercial by, most commonly, clicking on the content. Click-through rates in most markets are about 0.5–2.0%, and even though these consumers are of higher quality, by virtue of the fact that they actively respond, they do not generate the same level of revenues as the 100% of the massive audiences commanded by traditional appointment viewing. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that digital channels tend not to pay large sums up-front for the right to broadcast material, but, more usually, enter into revenue-sharing arrangements with content providers based on various measures of active response, such as click-through behaviour.
Wimbledon reaches its segments through a blend of digital, social media and broadcast, all part of one emerging “ecosystem.” Willis says: “I don’t think the notion of traditional TV channels and online platforms battling it out will materialise. They are part of the ecosystem.” In addition, new entrants such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube are pushing the boundaries as to how people want to consume content. As audience measurement moves from passive to active viewers, “Only great content will command attention”, she says.
Willis acknowledges the challenge of measuring a return on the investment in digital content, but is guardedly optimistic about the future for Wimbledon.
“What’s critical for us is consistent measurement.” Tracing audience growth can be woolly, she admits. Eurosport, which Discovery acquired in 2015, announced a first-of-its-kind comprehensive measurement offering for advertisers at the 2018 Winter Olympics. It pledged to reach more people, across more screens and capture total video – a mix of free-to-air, pay-TV, online and social engagement. This, Willis welcomes. “There is no consistent metric for engagement. If they can solve it, great.”
Which way for sports brands?
Circle back to those powerful sports brands and it becomes clear that most are not adapting to the digital content-led world, but serve as a platform for the generation of massive audiences for whom commercials interrupt their sport viewing. There is a distinct contrast here between what might be termed the North American and the European models. The strong commercialism of American sports stops at the edge of the playing field or arena, and the players remain unbranded, except for carrying the crest or name of the team. Consider the two photos of the New York Yankees in 1923 and 2018: focus, familiarity, and consistency – elements shared by the world’s strongest brands. Contrast this with top European sports figures, who advertise an assortment of brands on their uniforms. Sponsor brands change periodically, footballers, for instance, wear up to six different colour shirts every season, and collections change in order to stimulate increased merchandise sales from their fans.
Of course, these different sports have different governance structures and economic models, and it is arguable how attentive their fans are to the sports uniforms. But what is clear is the different philosophy: one prioritises the brand integrity of the core product, while another views this product as a platform for audience generation. In the new world of digital audiences, with their different viewing patterns and emerging content demands, it is hard to imagine that the old model will prove sustainable. It is also curious that these brands, probably more powerful than any of their sponsors, should view themselves as a serving platter for other brands, rather than rigorously managing their own. In their content-led communications of Wimbledon, the AELTC is demonstrating that, despite its strongly traditional brand appeal, it is at the leading edge of far-reaching changes in marketing communications.