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  • Writer's pictureLewis Wiltshire

Has the sports industry stopped innovating on social?

There’s a really simple way to think about how to build a great social media presence.

I call it Building to Brilliance, and often use it when talking to Seven League clients to review the health of their social accounts. You start with the basics, move up to best practice, and finally on to brilliance.

It’s best thought of as a pyramid, because (unglamorous though it may be), a good social media team will spend more time maintaining the basic hygiene of the account, and publishing best-practice content, than coming up with award-winning, brilliant innovations.

Additionally, when your social media team does hit on those new, brilliant ideas, they will not fulfil their full potential if the channel has not built a highly engaged audience, which comes from the basics and best-practice sections of the pyramid.

Let’s take a fan of your club, who opens an account on Instagram, and searches for the team they love. The club’s account must be discoverable, verified, and clearly and attractively presented, so they find and follow it. Those are some of the basics (FC Barcelona, a Seven League client, is a good example).

Then, when they view the club’s content, it must be of a quality that keeps the fan coming back for more, which means Instagram’s algorithm keeps pushing the club’s Stories to the user each time they open the app, and our videos and photos into their timeline. The more the fan watches, engages with and comments on our content, the more Instagram’s algorithm pushes it to them.

This is the steady drum-beat of best-practice content which builds reach, and retains a highly-engaged audience.

The NFL's use of Instagram Stories is a wonderful example (interestingly often used for social referrals, with many posts within the NFL's stories asking the user to swipe up to Tottenham Hotspur, a 7L client, is a good example across all of its social channels, including their Instagram.)

At this point in the pyramid, we can surprise and delight our audience with a world-class, brilliant content play, when the brightest spark in our organisation comes up with *that* idea. The idea that starts with “what if we …” and ends with a Best Use of Social Media award.

Now let’s pause to ask ourselves: when was the last time your breath was caught by a piece of content like that? Something you had never seen before, and made you wish *your* club/league had done that? These split-screen videos (here and here) from NBA UK (disclaimer - these came about through Seven League's work with the NBA) feel fresh and innovative and definitely an example of social media brilliance.

So, those moments still happen, and often they are video examples as it's a content format that came later to social media platforms and is favoured by their algorithms.

But is it possible that, overall, there are less of those moments when you see something in your timeline that feels totally new? Is it possible that, with some outstanding exceptions, the volume of new content ideas on social media from the global sports industry is plateauing?

If so, I have a theory for why it’s happening.

Between 2009 and 2010, we saw a rush of major sports teams launching official channels on Facebook and Twitter. Fast forward a couple of years, and clubs started to appear on Instagram - at that time not yet acquired by Facebook. Another two-to-three years after that, and most teams were on Snapchat.

So, for the last eight years, clubs have seen a new social platform come along every couple of years or so, to offer a new way of connecting with fans, and that’s without adding in other platforms around the world like Sina Weibo, WeChat, and many others.

The simple act of just being on these networks, and using their features and products to take fans behind the scenes, felt like innovation in itself.

For many, a buzz of excitement could be gained from live-tweeting games for the first time, starting to post live behind-the-scenes photos on Instagram, using Periscope in a manager’s press conference, or showing “the lads coming out for training” in a Snapchat story.

Now we see those things happen at every club, every day, so what’s next? How do clubs create content that feels fresh for their fans when, for the first time in almost a decade, there isn’t a new platform coming along to provide an easy way of doing something new?

The best sports teams, leagues and governing bodies can still achieve it, but everyone is going to have to work that bit harder now to surprise and delight fans. Welcome to a new era in digital sports, when only the most creative will stand out from the crowd.

There is one exception - Instagram Stories is launching new features at a faster pace than most other platforms, and even than the rest of the Instagram app, which means much of the most interesting content by sports teams is happening on that specific part of one platform.

Almost all of the recent product innovations Instagram has released have been in Stories - go live with a friend, polls, superzoom and more - and it's clear why - this is the part of Instagram that is going head-to-head for a key demographic with Snapchat, a battle that this month saw Snapchat appear to blink first.

Elsewhere, the challenge is on to stand out in a crowded market, and whether or not social media teams have realised it, this time there isn’t a new platform coming to make it easy for them.

That's why at Seven League we spend a lot of time helping clients with the Building to Brilliance framework: the basics are never fixed, and must be constantly tweaked to reflect the club’s branding, and organisational priorities (for example promotions of latest ticket sales or merchandise in the header image), and the best-practice content must also evolve by monitoring analytics of how our fans are consuming what we publish (or not) and giving them more of the content they want.

Above that, there is always that next great idea waiting to be had. We have seen it come in our work with clients so many times - that one comment in a creative workshop when everyone stops and says: “That’s brilliant!”

By definition those award-winning moments happen less than the rest of the content any account publishes, but the best social media teams are always working up to them. What’s the next one for your team - and how can we help get you there?

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