For ESPN, New Platforms Lead to New Audiences

Company execs share insights on online opportunities at Hashtag Sports conference

ESPN’s online strategy is “more is more.” Reaching more people on more social platforms grows the base overall. Appealing to new viewers creates lifelong fans. Every platform needs its own tailored approach, but a success on one helps build the overall ESPN brand.

A panel of ESPN insiders put a spotlight on that philosophy at last week’s Hashtag Sports conference in New York City.

From left: ESPN’s Connor Schell, Mina Kimes, and Laura Gentile at last week’s Hashtag Sports conference.

“This company has always been founded on the notion [that] we are reaching audiences wherever they are and wherever they’re interacting with sports,” said Connor Schell, EVP, content, ESPN. “That has meant for us, over the past several years, thinking about how our brand exists and what we can create on our social platforms, launching our new service ESPN+ so that we can have a complementary sports service in the over-the-top environment, thinking about how we’re presenting our programming and our content and our storytelling across platforms to reach and engage new audiences.”

That approach means being everywhere the brand can be, seconded Laura Gentile, SVP, marketing, ESPN, noting that the company has a massive linear audience and is now focused on driving its digital and social platforms as well.

For Mina Kimes, senior writer, podcast host, and commentator, ESPN, it’s the social connections that make a multiplatform approach really fun. Fans watch ESPN but live on their social networks, and they want to be reached in both those places.

Different platforms have different strengths. Streaming live on Twitter lets hosts talk to hardcore fans and even display their own fandom: “If you’re an insane football fan, then you’re on Twitter during the Drafts. You are looking for reactions,” Kimes said. “On Twitter, we have the freedom to not only be analytical and go deep because we have the time but also to show our passion and authenticity. I love the Draft; I geek out on it. If I’m on Twitter talking about it, I feel comfortable doing that. … It’s 45 minutes of analysis and five minutes of freak out, and that’s what people on Twitter want.”

ESPN has learned that appealing to people via new media is additive. Focusing on the recent NFL Draft, Gentile pointed out that different media were able to deliver the story in different ways — the ABC telecast looked at backstory while ESPN was analytical — and 46% of the network’s total audience was female.

When ESPN reaches out through multiple channels, Schell added, it isn’t simply speaking to the same fans in new ways. Each channel grows year-over-year, and the Twitter stream brings new fans under the ESPN umbrella.

“That’s an exciting outcome for us,” he observed, “because it proved a thesis that, by thinking about how you present this in different places, you actually lift the whole thing. It’s not dividing it among the same group of people. Wherever people become sports fans is good for the business we’re in every single day.”

ESPN’s new channels include podcasting and the ESPN+ direct-to-consumer OTT service. Podcasting enables deeper rather than broader content, connecting closely with a specific audience. It also encourages the launch of niche shows featuring a particular point of view or subject area. In addition, podcasts let on-air personalities expand and display a new side of themselves.

ESPN+ gives the media giant a way to surface additional properties it has the rights to and allows a more experimental approach to live programming.

Live podcast events are another growing area, letting fans connect with their favorite on-air hosts and other passionate listeners. If that sounds like a strange topic for this conference, the speakers thought so, too.

“It’s funny [that], at a digitally focused conference, we’re talking about something that feels very old school, which is people buying tickets and showing up,” Kimes said. “But it’s something we and, I think, a lot of other places have been doing more and more, and it’s gaining traction.” She notes that several recent events sold out quickly: “There’s clearly a strong desire for those.”

For a specific and passionate audience, live events built around podcasts let like-minded fans come together and find community. It’s a blend of old and new, and it’s a way to connect.

“I think it’s really valuable to actually see my audience face-to-face,” Kimes joked. “The thing about social media is, we actually know them more than we ever did before. Maybe a little bit too much.”