Score a Touchdown With Football Fans: What You Need to Know This NFL Season

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THE RUNDOWN

As the NFL season starts, brands from insurance companies to fast food chains are kicking off campaigns to reach football fans. It’s a huge marketing opportunity, and it’s bigger than ever. Worldwide, the NFL’s popularity is at an all-time high. New audiences are tuning in, especially women and Hispanics, and fans are getting their fix across screens and platforms. Here, we tackle the trends that marketers should know to score with fans all season—and all year—long.

Searches for HDTVstailgating and buffalo wings are up. That can only mean one thing: America is ready for some football. This year, the NFL is more popular than ever. It’s now the most popular sports league worldwide—bigger than the NBA, MLB and any other international leagues.

  • U.S. interest in the NFL is 65% higher than in the NBA and 152% higher than in the MLB, and it’s on the rise (Chart 1).
  • Even preseason events drew massive interest. The NFL Draft had 3x as many searches as the Emmy Awards at their respective peaks.
  • In 2012, the NFL overtook the NBA in global popularity, becoming the top American league in the world.
  • It’s also the top sports league globally, surpassing F1, Premier League and the India Premier League in searches on Google.

Chart 1: U.S. Searches for Top 3 American Sports Leagues

Source: Google Data, July 2011–September 2014, Indexed Search Query Volume, United States.

Football is winning over new audiences

The most watched TV event among women this year was the Super Bowl, according to AdWeek. It’s a sign of the NFL’s increasingly diverse fanbase, now made up of more women and Hispanics than ever.

  • During the 2013 season, searches for women’s NFL apparel were 35% higher than the year before (Chart 2).
  • Women make up nearly half of all NFL fans, and 63% of women 12 and older classify themselves as fans, per AdWeek.
  • In August, searches for “futbol americano” were 39% higher than they were the year before, outpacing the growth of overall football searches by 5x.
  • Nearly half of Hispanics said they were interested or very interested in football (Google Consumer Survey, August 2014).

Chart 2: Google Searches for Women’s NFL Apparel

Source: Google Data, January 2012–August 2014, Indexed Search Query Volume, United States.

Despite this, most marketing campaigns still cater to the (stereo)typical football fan. But there’s massive opportunity to reach these new audiences. For its part, the NFL has answered and fueled demand among both of these demographics. Its Hispanic Heritage campaign celebrates Hispanic players in the league. Among efforts to reach female fans are a line of women’s appareland a campaign to raise breast cancer awareness. The needle is moving:

  • In August, searches for women’s NFL apparel grew 20% over the same period last year (Chart 2).
  • At their respective highs, “NFL breast cancer” was searched more than “NFL concussions,” a massively popular and controversial topic.
  • People searched for the NFL and breast cancer twice as much as for any other major American sports league (Google Data).

Fans are glued to the second screen

On any given Sunday, fans all over the country are glued to their screen—the screen in their hand, that is. Smartphone use surges during the games as fans share the rush, talk trash and gather facts in the moment. Throughout the season, more people than ever are using mobile devices to find scores and schedules, even to stream games.

  • Mobile queries related to football were up 33% in this year’s preseason as compared with last year (Google Data).
  • Top mobile searches include players, teams, schedules and scores, and they are all growing annually (Google Data).
  • During games, there’s a big surge in mobile searches. During last Thursday’s Seahawks versus Packers game, for example, 74% of game-related searches came from smartphones (Chart 3).
  • Searches are spiking for “NFL Now,” the league’s new mobile app that features highlights, clips and original programming.
  • One in three searches about streaming the games comes from a mobile device (Google Data).

Chart 3: Game-Related Searches During NFL Kickoff Game (Seahawks vs. Packers, 9/4/14)

Source: Google Data, September 4, 2014, Indexed Search Query Volume, United States.

The implications are obvious: To reach fans, brands need to make mobile a key part of their playbook. Those that don’t are putting themselves on the sidelines.

Searching for highlights, smack talking with GIFs

To catch up on “did you see that?!” moments, fans hop on YouTube immediately after the games end. For example, right after the Seahawks won this year’s kickoff game, searches for “highlights” spiked (Chart 4). In addition to video clips, people look for memes to share in the form of annotated GIFs. Just look at the sharp rise in searches for “NFL GIF” in the past few years.

Chart 4: YouTube Searches Related to “Highlights” After the NFL Kickoff Game (Seahawks vs. Packers, 9/4/14)

Source: Google Data, September 4, 2014, Indexed Search Query Volume, United States.

Video game content is also hugely popular on YouTube, and when it comes to sports games, EA Sports’ Madden NFL 15 is the reigning champ. The official ad for Madden NFL 15 topped the August YouTube Ads Leaderboard—it currently has over 10M views—beating out a new spot for FIFA 15.

To promote the game this season, EA Sports is reaching second-screening, meme-loving fans with the Madden GIFERATOR. For every NFL game, the Madden GIFERATOR’s live stream of animated GIF’s, which uses Madden NFL 15 imagery, updates in real-time based on actual NFL game action. With each big play, the GIFERATOR will generate a tailor-made set of GIFs to be customized and shared with friends. The GIFs will also appear in ads on sites and apps across the Google Display Network. Fans can even make and share their own.

More reasons for fans (and marketers) to cheer

The football season is longer than ever. While it peaks during the regular season, interest in football doesn’t stop after the Super Bowl. There’s now fan engagement (and marketer opportunity) in the off-season with the rise of “tentpole” events. The NFL Draft, Pro Bowl, NFL Preseason and NFL Combine all had their biggest year yet in searches on Google (Chart 5). Marketers can ride this rising tide of interest through year-round campaigns aimed at fans.

Chart 5: Google Searches for NFL Events During the Off Season

Source: Google Data, January 2012–August 2014, Indexed Search Query Volume, United States.

Meanwhile, CBS is doing a big push around Thursday Night Football, looking to make the game a primetime event. “I don’t think the CBS Corporation has ever mounted a larger promotional campaign,” says Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports, in the New York Times. “We’re determined to work with the NFL to make sure this is a success.” It certainly seems to be driving interest online; Google searches for “Thursday Night Football” were up 116% year-over-year in August.

Then there’s fantasy football, which creates a whole new layer of engagement during the season itself. The once-niche pastime has become mainstream—searches for “fantasy football” are at an all-time high, and one in three people say they play, according to an August Google Consumer Survey. The typical fantasy player is a marketer’s dream: a middle-aged, college-educated professional with an average household income over $90,000, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association.

Fantasy players don’t just care about local teams; they’re obsessively tracking players across the league. This has essentially expanded players’ popularity beyond their home turf. For example, while the most-searched-for team around Kansas City is the Chiefs, searches for their star player, Jamaal Charles, are happening across the country.

In business terms, fantasy football attracts new audiences for many NFL “products” (players). No wonder it’s changed the NFL’s marketing. The league runs fantasy ads that appeal to non-experts with a proposition that “it’s fast and easy, and you can do it on a mobile phone”—a winning play in today’s constantly connected world.

More from David Shing, AOL

David Shing at ADMERICA! 2014

Monica Helms (a resident blogger here at the American Advertising Federation) sat down with AOL’s Digital Prophet, David Shing, to dive deeper into his thoughts on where things are headed with online advertising and how we can get the most out of it. The interview touches on image production and sharing, cutting through  media overload, and creating an experience for those who engage with your brand.

David Shing

David Shing, AOL’s Digital Prophet

Monica: There is new content on social media every day. Now more than ever, the users have the ability to create and customize images quickly, easily, and fairly professionally. What is your favorite image you have seen on social and why?

Shing: Greg Olsen, actually, from my presentation – Jesus talking to the young kid, that’s my all-time favorite. And it’s a painting, actually. It wasn’t meant as crude – he’s actually a Christian artist. But I just thought it was absolutely appropriate to tag, it’s one of my all-time favorites.

Monica: Understanding that users now have the ability to create art from an app and share it quite globally, what type of impact do you see this having on brands?

 Shing: I do think the impact is massive, because it reduces what it costs to commission. We’ve already seen that; and I know that as a real designer, there’s always a revolution that happens. But what does happen, once you go through the cycle of it being inexpensive and easy to produce – what sticks out are people who have become craftsmen, who have done all these crafts with digital pixel design, and have become (in my mind) artists, with an incredibly powerful new craft. And so there’ll be a new genre. Let me be very frank. Back in the day when I came through design school, desktop publishing was just starting. Color printers were just starting. Everyone designed in their head, ‘cause you’ve got 40 fonts, but don’t know what the hell you can make them do, so everything looks like crap. And so once you cycle through that, you really need to design as a particular art, so arts, craftsmanship becomes very important. So it’ll have a new genre as a craft.

Monica: You’ve spoken on media overload in the past as a contributor to stress. In the attention-economy, brands struggle to consider their utility and capitalize on how they can be useful to someone’s day-to-day habits in the midst of this overload. These things considered, what advice would you offer a brand on where to start when building a strategy?

Shing: The first thing is insight – you’ve got to use enough insights to understand what you’re doing. Then the insight asks the question: Why? Why are you doing that thing? Most brands that I know jump into the water, with the attitude “Well, we need social. We need… just do it.” I’m like, are you out of your mind? What you really want to do is make sure you have the insight that says this is why people want to engage with you, so you can go this way. It’s all about authenticity; it’s not about creating a motion because everybody seems to be doing that. What’ll happen is that, over time, we will move away from distractions. It’s already happening. People are sort of fragmenting their marketing. They’re not focusing their time on the ones that really matter.

Monica: Many brands understand that they have to engage their audience with something unexpected. Often times, you will hear a request to “create something that will go viral.” What do you say to these leaders requesting a “viral” content piece?

Shing: First of all, “viral” needs to go away. The way that people, I believe, have to think about marketing, is a portfolio. Because if you’re going to do one beautiful craft or experience and say, “That’s it. We’re going to put it all out. We’re going to put our muscle behind this. This is the thing that’s going to get us the awards,” then it’s probably not going to happen. But if you do 20 of them, you have a chance that one might work, ‘cause at the end of the day, somebody who’s looking at that experience is a human. They’re the ones who are going to determine what it can do, not you, not you as a brand. You may have an instinct, but the best ideas, I think, come from making mistakes. Coke is really good at that. It divides the budget by 70/20/10. Seventy percent of it goes to ROI-driven tactics, so nobody gets fired – amen. Then they spend 20 percent of their budget on stuff that’s perceived has having risk, and then ten percent goes to stuff that they have no idea if it’s going to work.

David Shing and the AAF

(Left to Right) Monica Helms (AAF Blogger), David Shing (AOL Digital Prophet), Ciara Ungar (AAF Manager of Digital Marketing and Content Strategy)

Monica: Similarly, leaders of brands are often looking at the number of “likes” as a success measure and are developing content with this objective in mind. Can you speak to this a bit and offer guidance to brands who may be working to achieve “likes.”

Shing: Yeah: “likes” are rubbish. And they’re rubbish because it’s passive. There’s no skin in the game. If you and I want to be friends, you have to accept my friend request. That used to happen. So we went from a brand having several hundred committed friends to several thousand “likes” because we thought it was a better concept than what it was. The “like” button came out of a hack, and it feels like it. It’s just a soft metric. You need metrics that are verbs; you need something that allows people to pass it on. That’s why I like “share,” because it’s physically something you commit to.

Monica: With advertising being the backbone of digital, it’s important to build experiences for the user that can be passed on, with “experience” being key to success. Creating sharable experiences may be easier for larger brands that have more budget to afford, leaving smaller brands in a more difficult place in the competition. Can you offer any advice to smaller brands that may be unable to afford a celebrity or more attractive experience?

Shing: That’s a multi-threaded question you’re asking. It’s no longer about digital marketing, it is marketing in a digital world. You need to balance paid advertising marketing, which gives you scale with marketing which is you are prepared to experiment with channels, where you know your prospects are spending time. For example, Trulia. Earlier today, when I showed you the example of Barbie’s house being sold for $25 million, by Mattel, and they supplemented some paid ads around it. It’s a really smart way of saying, “Who buys our product? Where are they shopping? How can I grab their attention?” Barbie’s house? Genius. It’s a genius idea. And in the place of Trulia, it would be really inexpensive to do that as a listing. If you put it as a listing? It would be tiny. But they were just trying to pitch this new way of thinking. So brands just need to do that. It’s not about budget. Budget will get you scale, but it’s not going to get you attention. So you need to have really good ideas. Niche ideas can be really good, as long as they actually have a use. I’ll give you another example – I can’t remember the brand that did it, but the concept, it was called a Band in a Banner. They took a standard, 720×90 banner, and they built an actual stage, with the same particular scale, and they had a band crawl into it and play their instruments, and so if you come across it, you see this band playing, and you think, “What’s that about? Is this a band or just a banner ad?” It was just lovely. Different. Unusual. And contextual to the banner, because they did the 720×90 scale; it was pretty cool.

Monica: Then it comes to storytelling in your content strategy, creativity has to be redefined with each product launch. Brands don’t have to originate the story but rather just have to own it by placing it in smart places. This can present brands the opportunity to use their audience for curating content by having them blog for them, create home videos for testimonials, etc. You’re familiar with the suggested hoax by Apple, wherein a band held a jam session on a train by playing music from their iPhones. Considering the pressure that brands are experiencing to stay ahead in the game, can you speak to the importance of transparency when developing content?

Shing: I don’t think transparency is necessarily that important. The reason for that is, if it’s just good content, people will pass it around. A good example of that is Pepsi. I don’t know who the driver is now, because I’m not really a sports fan, but there’s a NASCAR driver who took a guy on a whiz round in a car. And the only thing you saw is that Pepsi MAX was on the dashboard. So if you did look close, you’d see the Pepsi MAX was there. But the thing about it was, the idea, was that it was a hoax. And they all transparently said it was a hoax, but people could care less, they still shared it a hundred million times. It’s just the idea. Where it becomes really important is if you’re able to balance that with doing something authentic and interesting, then it can happen. It doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. Dog driving is a classic example. But it’s been viewed a hundred million times.

Monica: Shifting to the topic of search, search is always changing, and although the intent is to better serve the consumer, it can actually be more difficult to find what you’re looking for now. Do you have any predictions for how search might continue to evolve and what challenges brands might consequently face?

Shing: It’s really going to change from the model of search today. Search is important, because it’s what we do. A referral code goes up because people tend to want to learn by what’s recommended. So if you go to a recommendation, that’s a search thing, it’s just going to evolve into something completely different. In addition to that though, if we’ve gotten all the gadgets that actually have push, meaning I don’t have to search because it’s actually pushing me information as I want it and need it, in location-based services, it’s going to evolve into something completely different. So search today is just a very passive environment. However, if you think about it, search is the number one way they’re able to afford to do all the things that they do – “they” being Google.  They took an organic search results page on Google, and the majority of it is not organic, it’s paid. So search is already an evolving environment. But if we have wearables, and the penetration of wearables goes up, it has no screen to take with you. So yeah, it’s coming back to how you change or morph. As somebody who is selling a physical brand, you’re going to have to become really, really interesting, and different when thinking when thinking about your physical brand connected to a physical device that has no screen. It’s easy on phones today; you have an iPhone. That iPhone is your brand particularly. And if that brand is of use, than I promise that’s something I’m going to remember and travel with it. If there’s no screen, there’s no icon. So either brands are going to have to get into wearables, or they’re going to have to figure out ways to connect their physical product to the wearable that connects to the phone to give them a reason to actually use their phone.