Category Archives: Sports Marketing/Sponsorships

The Second Captains paywall – A smart, calculated experiment in new media models…

Full disclosure before we kick off – as you can see below, I’m a huge Second Captains fan. I’ve got the mugs and yearbooks. I know all the quotes, I’ve seen the TV show and I’ve followed the lads since they were fledglings on Newstalk.

And I’m also an avid media watcher, meaning this week’s announcement that Second Captains is moving from its cushy nest in Irish Times towers towards the wilds of a paywalled, community funded model from next Monday made me irrationally excited.

Maracana with the lads

A photo posted by Shane O Leary (@shaneoleary1) on

The Captains have decide to offer fans a ‘metered paywall’ model, in the guise of a New York Times or Irish Times, and will begin charging users €5 a month for a new ‘World Service’ edition.

The show will be kept ad free, and two free shows on Monday will remain, but in place of Thursday’s double bill, they will instead put out one daily podcast between Tuesday and Friday.

Mark, Ciaran, Ken, Simon and Eoin have shown plenty of balls in their media career. They’ve backed themselves to move from Newstalk, set up their own podcast against the backdrop of some scepticism, pitched and their own TV show, and won a new audience through their summer stand-in slot on RTE Radio 1.

In all of this, their fans have followed them.

But this is a different kettle of fish. Asking people to pay 5 quid a month is where the rubber hits the road.

Niche or enormous, there’s no middle

I’ve spoken before on this blog about how media is fragmenting and new models are emerging. Essentially, to succeed in modern media, there are two choices.

On the one hand, you can strive for enormous scale and hope that pays off. Try to make money by monetising your readers through display, print or paywall subscriptions, try to speak to everyone and cast the net as wide as possible. This requires experimentation and a reliance on distribution platforms, since most of us consume our media through social feeds now (and also leads to clickbait). Buzzfeed is probably the best example, but most daily papers play this game too.

On the other hand, you can be really, really valuable to a small cohort of people and hope that they love your work enough to provide enough income. Often, this requires a heavier paywall and ancillary revenue streams like events, merchandise etc. You can see this in effect across media, in places like The Economist, The Farmers Journal, The Information, Skift and in podcasts like ‘The Anfield Wrap’ and Marc Maron. In a similar vein, individuals like Tim Ferriss have created their own mini media empires too. It requires that you understand your fans, are very close to them and relies on you continually creating lots of value for them.

There’s very little middle ground between these two options, and media companies without serious scale or serious relevance are getting squeezed badly.

With the Second Captains paywall, the lads have chosen the latter route.

‘1000 True Fans’

They might not have heard of it,  but the way Second Captains as a brand has grown takes a lot from the ‘1000 True Fans’ approach, first coined by Kevin Kelly. According to Kelly, because of the lowering distribution costs on the internet, it’s now much easier to reach the people who really love what you do. The 1000 figure is just an arbitrary number, but the essence to his point is that if you can find a certain number of people who will buy anything that you put out, who really get huge amounts of value from what you do, and then service them directly without intermediaries,  you’re in business. It’s a theory that’s still very relevant in 2017, as the lads will attempt to prove.

If you lived in any of the 2 million small towns on Earth you might be the only one in your town to crave death metal music, or get turned on by whispering, or want a left-handed fishing reel. Before the web you’d never be able to satisfy that desire. You’d be alone in your fascination. But now satisfaction is only one click away. Whatever your interests as a creator are, your 1,000 true fans are one click from you.

The way Second Captains has grown its following has been both methodical and masterful. This move to paywall hasn’t come all of a sudden. They haven’t just started asking people for money, their growth has been staged, they’ve built slowly and smartly creating products and events, branching out into other media and even building their own brands through journalism.

With the new model, they’ll likely be ramping up these extra revenue streams, but critically fans are already used to paying. According to producer Mark Horgan, speaking in the Indo this week, “The way our audience has developed is interesting. Many are the same people who listen every week and they want more. They’ve been dedicated since the beginning. It’s also rolling the dice in some ways, but it’s perfect for this type of journalism. At our last event, in December, we sold out in hours. Part of the deal with the new membership subscription is that members will get first call on tickets.”

The benefit of radio and podcasting is that it also really lends itself to creating strong relationships with fans, since your in their ear for 4-5 hours every week. It seems the lads are now ready to monetise all the work they’ve put in to these relationships.


So what are the economics like? From the outside, this seems like a gamble. Why move from under the brand of a large media group (The Irish Times) that can offer you distribution and fame?

But Killian Woods put out this interesting set of tweets during the week, and, even with back of fag packet sums, the money part seems to make sense.

When you really analyse it, the risk here is small and calculated. The lads have a hugely valuable brand. That won’t be going away. They own their own channels too, which is crucial.

And even if this goes wrong, the worst case scenario is they go back to usual podcasts and sell advertising. I’m also pretty sure that another media company would come calling very quickly. But it won’t go wrong. They’ve done the sums, they know how much their fans love them and they’ve seen other models in media make money this way. This is never going to be an explosive growth business, but I’d be pretty bullish that it’s a smart decision.

Irish people are willing to pay small recurring amounts in subscriptions for a high value service, particularly in sport, and particularly if it’s a company with a strong value offering that you can’t get anywhere else.

Best of luck Second Captains, and congrats on a ballsy call that should show the way for the rest of Irish media.

They never go home those boys.




The power of utility marketing as showcased by Mountain Dew

Marketing statistics

It ain’t easy being a marketer these days.

The people you’re trying to talk to are increasing cynical about your profession and don’t really care about what you’re trying to say.

The prevalence of blocking advertising messages has increased steadily in the past few years, and will likely continue to go up.

And even when you do get that ad out there, attention spans have become increasingly fleeting, as the sheer volume of branded communications and channel choices have ballooned.

But dry your eyes lads and lassies.

As Mr Chris Martin once sang ‘nobody said it was easy’.

Advertising these days is becomes less and less about communication or interruption, and more about entertainment, facilitation and adding value.

Why would you piss somebody off with an ill timed message, when technology allows us to come up with novel solutions to interesting problems?

We expect things to be easy, fluid and frictionless these days, and brands that make that happen are valued. Look at some of the most valuable companies in the world like Uber (taxis & delivery), Amazon (one click shopping) and WhatsApp (communication between friends).

Each understands the power of simplicity.

Us marketers can learn from that.

Making life easier

Good marketing can be executed by simply making life easier for your customers. We need to become less arrogant and far more empathetic, more understanding of consumers rather than presumptuous around their needs, more about adding value and creating solutions than using the megaphone to interrupt.

A good examples of this new style of utility marketing comes from Mountain Dew in Colombia.

In attempting to attract notoriously cynical ‘skaters’ to their product (a cohort of over 2 million in the country), the strategic team behind the brand searched long and hard for an idea that could connect the brand with their needs and expectations. Through a week long ethnographic process with the skater audience, they uncovered an interesting truth.

They found that skaters spend 50% of their life in activities related to skateboarding, 60% of this time is spent skating. The remaining 40% is spent on fixing their boards. The damage that their boards suffer is so big that they spend a lot of time on bringing them back to action, making this a massive pain point.

But surely no brand could take on that challenge right? Surely some print and digital ads was the way to go?

Mountain Dew didn’t think that way.

If they really wanted to connect with the skater community, they couldn’t do a traditional advertising campaign. Instead they had to create something that was part of their lives.

The opportunity was staring them in the face, and for me, it’s a brilliant example of marketing as utility.

Mountain Dew created the “Dew Tool” concept – the first soda that also worked as a tool to fix their boards. The bottle had a cap with a 10mm gap so it could be used as tool on any skateboard (all skateboard’s wheels and truck screws are the same size).

The brand produced 10,000 Dew Tools and took them to point of sales where skaters usually concentrated.

And the bottle became a cult hit collector’s item.

With a low budget, the Dew Bottle Tool was sold out in less than 2 days and the skater community demanded to have more of this special edition through social media networks.

A simple truth, a little lateral thinking, a willingness to move beyond advertising and an understanding that consumers these days want more than just interruptive ads stuffed down their throat.

When are marketers going to realise that the old model is dead?

Over the weekend, I saw a revered Irish marketer bemoaning the fact that advertising is becoming irrelevant.

A more sincere, empathy driven way of acting is our opportunity to regain that credibility and relevance once again.




What Irish sports marketers can learn from Australia’s digital sports leader…

nrl marketing australia

To paraphrase two famous sayings in marketing circles, ‘great artists steal with pride’.

Creative ideas can come from anywhere, particularly in a fast moving and innovative an industry like sports marketing. They are often new combinations of old things and the marketer who keeps abreast of new innovations across the sporting landscape can synthesise and remix examples to fit for their brand.

Having just returned from 6 months travelling around the world, I witnessed first hand some of the more advanced strategies in sports marketing, particularly in Australia. A first world, highly connected and sports mad country with enormous competition for fan dollars, sporting organisations in Oz need to be at the top of their tech., social and digital game to ensure ‘bums on seats’. Each of the AFL, Super 15 Rugby and AFL are innovators in their own right. But by far the most effective digital sports entity ‘Down Under’ is the NRL.

Rugby League in Australia is incredibly different to the often boring Super League up here. Along with being a more widespread ‘game of the people’ when compared to union, particularly in Brisbane and Sydney, games are more exciting, players are better paid with better skillsets and crowds are larger. Even in Melbourne, where Aussie Rules rules the airwaves, league is growing.

This climax of the season is impending, with four teams left from the three largest Australian cities vying for a Sydney grand final set for 4th October.

So what can Irish sports marketers learn from the organisation and operating digitally in such a competitive market?

Consistency across multiple channels

Like America’s NFL, each of the NRL franchises/clubs operate independently, but design and tone reflects the NRL’s brand standards. This consistency allows one message and one brand ‘look and feel’ to be rolled out across the season, and ensures everyone is on the same page. Even the ‘Kangaroos’ international team reflect the look digitally, and one imagines there being a ‘playbook’ type bible that all activity is matched against. At the same time, competition and banter between clubs is supported, and that unique Aussie wit is never stifled. This is sport after all!

Given the quickly fragmenting nature of social media usage, the NRL has also ensured that it’s active across multiple channels. On Facebook, live in game updates are offered to fans, along with smart, attractive yet unbiased posts that are heavily image driven. Instagram is huge in Australia, reaching the 5 million users mark, (around 21 per cent of all online Australians) and NRL is clever enough to tailor its content for this platform too. Beautiful tonal in game shots of players and stadiums are interspersed with funny fan interactions.


On Twitter, the brand is more informational than visual, with the release of proprietary in-game stats, score updates, latest news and fan engagement a key part of the content plan. The NRL also realises that fans love getting closer to the game, so regular player Q and As are hosted. Expect to see live streaming apps like Periscope used in this format in the coming months.

Hashtags are kept consistent across the season (for example, the brand is currently using #NFLFinals on a daily basis). To further amplify the message, Aussie and global celeb influencers like The Rock are identified and targeted with tailored special content to amplify the messaging.

One of the NRL’s most important events is the yearly ‘State of Origin’ game between NSW and Queensland, a grudge match that’s the highest watched event on Australian T.V.
On nights like this, the brand operates a ‘real time’ ‘mission control’ where ‘content producers spot social activity from fans and influencers and escalate this to NRL ‘approvers’ who then moved it on to designers and art directors to create new posts aimed at feeding and fuelling the frenzy of the game in real time. According to reports, the average turnaround time for a piece of social creative for Origin 2015 was about five minutes from the initial catcher brief to distribution. As a result of this, there were one billion Origin-related hashtag impressions on Twitter in one night.

Understanding the importance of video

But it’s through video content that the NRL really makes its mark. As marketers, we all know the growing importance of video, and when you’ve got one of the most exciting sports products on the planet, it would be a shame not to utilise it properly.

From the outside, it looks like NRL has two deliverables for its video strategy – fan engagement and revenue.

On Facebook, the league posts high quality, almost live in game try and incident clips for fans to debate and engage with. Though it requires a certain type of rights agreement, this is possibly an area that the likes of GAA and Guinness Pro12 could improve in. Fans crave live video content and the NRL, understanding that native Facebook video performs 20-30x better than videos hosted on an owned website (or YouTube channel), facilitate that.

Screen Shot 2015-09-24 at 11.09.59

On the revenue side, the league also teams with Telstra to offer a high quality video streaming and highlights service for all games, on par with the excellent offering of MLB and NFL in America. Globally, sports federations and leading clubs and teams, use digital video platforms as an opportunity to engage with a global audience and provide direct-to-consumer content/ services across multiple platforms. Other examples include NFL Mobile and NFL Now, NBA League Pass, NHL Gamecenter, MUTV, Liverpool FC Go and Real Madrid TV.

In Ireland, GAA Go has had very strong success so far, with a reported 600,000 registered users across the world.

NRL’s ‘Digital Pass’ costs 90 AUD per year or 3 AUD per game and serves as a revenue driving extension of the league’s partnership with Telstra. For their part, Telstra offer free or heavily subsidised passes for their subscribers, thus creating their own value from a costly sponsorship.

CRM & Real Revenue

On the excellent Sports Geek podcast, NRL’s digital director Matt Henry outlined what innovative activity means for the NRL bottom line. Partnering with the Manly Sea Eagles team and using targeted Facebook advertising (including custom and ‘lookalike’ audiences), mapped over CRM ticket holder data from the previous season, the league optimised ads to engage fans and convert them into ticket purchasers. This usage of data resulted in a large increase in season ticket sales for the Eagles.

According to Henry, using similar parameters for the NRL Grand Final 2014, an 8,000 AUD spend resulted in a 130,000 AUD revenue return on ticket sales. That’s bound to impress any digital skeptics at boardroom level.

Testing innovation

With an ambitious strategic goal of doubling club memberships over the next three years, NRL also sees the value in doing new, innovative and different things. For the yearly ‘Auckland Nines’ competition, a shorter form ‘pre-season’ warmup for the main season in New Zealand, the company used iBeacon technology to geolocate and communicate with fans in stadium who had downloaded an app. This allowed them to run giveaways and relay merchandise and food/beverage deals to fans in specific areas of the ground. With stadiums like Melbourne’s Etihad Stadium and Sydney’s Allianz Stadium leading the way in fan WiFi and connectivity, expect to see more of this in coming months.


So what are the key takeaways for Irish sports marketers looking to learn or steal from this best in example?

– Consistency is key
Remain consistent in design and tone across all platforms. This certainly doesn’t mean you need to replicate content. If you know the unique benefits of each channel you can tailor content, but don’t go stray off brand. Creating a brand ‘playbook’ is certainly a worthwhile investment.

– Emphasise agility
With speed and agility increasingly important, particularly for sports brands, this a definite learning that needs to be taken into account. Sport is live, raw and unpredictable, but setting your team up an some agile, lean structure to take advantage of social moments can reap huge rewards in terms of engagement, particularly as fans start to watch more games through smartphones and tablets.

– Use influencers to amplify your message
Like the NRL’s ‘The Rock’ example, targeting and leveraging social influencers, even from outside your sport can have a positive impact. The growth in popularity of YouTube vloggers may be an area for sports marketers to look at for youth focused brand ambassadors. 

– Video is an unmissable opportunity.
We’re moving beyond the text and image driven web. Video has taken over our social feeds on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram, while online viewing is soaring and ‘over the top’ digital sports platforms like NRL’s ‘Game Pass’ are becoming the norm. Marketers must start investing in video to stay ahead of the curve, and the medium provides an obvious opportunity for better and engagement and monetisation in sports.

-Revenue can be a real social goal.
No longer is social just a ‘soft’ tool. Conversion should be a real consideration as outlined above, and particularly given the recent growth in ‘buy now’ buttons across Facebook, Twitter and Google. Excellent targeting options combined with the ability to target your email marketing audience through Facebook Adverts can have a positive result for your bottom line.

Overall, the NRL is one example of a league that’s leading the way in digital sports and sponsorship activation. While Irish activity in this space has come on dramatically in the past 5-10 years, there’s still scope for more growth. Taking learnings from the best in the game can only help this process.