As the Premier League gears up to restart, brands must adjust to a new sports viewing experience, writes Karl Knights, VP Revenue, EMEA, at 4C Insights.

Marketing in the COVID-19 crisis

This article is part of a special WARC Snapshot focused on enabling brand marketers to re-strategise amid the unprecedented disruption caused by the novel coronavirus outbreak.

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Online content consumption during the pandemic is, understandably, on the rise both at weekends and during the week as consumers seek entertainment and relief under restricted circumstances. And while for the foreseeable future the days of packed stadia and weekend matches are off the table, loyal sports fans still want live and on demand content that isn’t just restricted to weekends. In fact, with so little change and distinction between the work week and down time, sports could provide an opportunity to build more positive sentiment and community during the week.

While it may be tempting for brands to hit pause on their marketing, now is not the time to go dark. The sports industry is starting to adapt and redefine its approach, including more action during the week. The German Bundesliga football league restarted behind closed doors on 16 May, while the Premier League is set to follow on Wednesday 17 June. Viewers can even enjoy professional darts being contested from players’ homes.

Those looking to capitalise on the return of sports must to keep in mind the goals they have to now achieve. Immediate sales simply aren’t as realistic as before. It’s all about engagement, emotion, and loyalty and it’s those who are most agile who will win the tournament rather than the game.

However, with action set to take place behind closed doors for some time, the key to success for brands and marketers will be thoughtful content and a digital-first approach, with a focus on second-screen experiences to ensure maximum return on investment.

Using social media to take centre stage

Social media platforms will play a key role in revitalising the sports experience. From TikTok and Snapchat to Facebook and Twitter, digital platforms provide a cost-effective way to target audiences which always have a phone or tablet in hand and aren’t restricted to single screens or companion apps. Brands gain a slice of the social media action to build a deeper connection with audiences.

Recent statistics show that consumers across the world are spending 21% more time on social media as a result of coronavirus. In the absence of face-to-face contact, it’s clear that consumers are switching up the way they interact with each other, express their emotions and entertain themselves in our new closed ecosystem.

The opportunity is there and sports organisations across the world are investing in social media to diversify their audiences and amplify engagement and so too must sports marketers. TikTok, for example, has seen huge investment, including from the likes of including the NFL and Wimbledon. This relative newcomer is engaging younger audiences that spend more time on their phones than watching TV, allowing them to share reactions to everything from ads and songs to fouls and goals.

Marketers must ensure they leverage social media to enhance the second-screen experience for audiences, maximising fan engagement for days after the event. While there is a onus on brands to ensure ads are both authentic and safe for consumption, it also offers a fantastic opportunity to have a bigger impact on audiences at home beyond just the weekend.

Ultimately marketers can potentially gain greater brand loyalty, engagement and sales, with a fraction of the effort, time and ad dollars, which during these times is, of course, beneficial.

Drive consistent real-time conversations through content beyond weekends

In addition to looking at what platforms to utilise during this time, as consumers continue to adjust to the first stages of “new normality”, brands can help provide some consistency through thoughtful and different content. After all, fans can still enjoy the game and share that enjoyment with others, albeit from a completely different perspective.

When the Premier League – with 92 matches still to play – kicks off with a midweek match on 17 June, there will be a notable increase in weekday and free-to-view matches for fans to enjoy. In total, 33 matches will be available to watch for free on BBC or subscription channels including Sky and Amazon Prime.

Though empty stadium stands and lack of reactions from a packed crowd will require some adjustment, the season restart is sure to be welcomed by fans across the UK. After all, they’ve had to forego football fixtures for a full three months and now won’t have to wait until the weekends to watch their favourite teams battle it out on the on-screen pitch. 

With so much available for free and fans chomping at the bit for action, we’re sure to see record audiences tune in – well beyond the increased viewership the Premier League reported for 2019. And with social distancing measures still in place, though relaxed, we’ll see increased interactions and opportunities to engage on social media as fans share the thrills and spills of the game.

Live sport creates moments that captivate large audiences and drive real-time conversations – with most viewers simultaneously on second screens. For brands, the ability to sync creative with real-time moments during the sporting event will foster a surround-sound experience by providing connected context to search, social and display advertising. With more games being played during the week, it’s key that brands use this to build lasting and meaningful relationships which aren’t solely focused on weekends. 

One thing brands do need to be mindful of is how they assess campaign performance. By engaging in a different way of planning for a completely changed landscape, brands must reassess what success looks like and what the end-goals are. This means video engagement rates, visits to brand websites, and social media engagement, rather than strictly sales.

Ultimately, it's clear that audiences are in an unusual setting, with no pubs, no stadium visits and no fan parks. This means fierce competition for all official and non-official sports brands and sponsors to ensure impactful engagement with audiences on multiple devices, particularly second screens. Brands ready to take the plunge can successfully engage with fans and gain potential customers along the way.