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Tradition meets innovation in Wimbledon’s social media strategy

Frank Dunne looks at how Wimbledon’s social media strategy broadens the reach and value of the Championships while respecting the venerable tournament’s disdain for signs of overt commercialisation.

It is perhaps superfluous to point out that the world’s oldest tennis tournament is steeped in tradition. Or that Wimbledon has become one of sport’s most instantly recognisable brands and a potent signifier of Englishness. The Championships, first played in 1877, evoke images of well-tended lawns, the all-white dress for players, strawberries and cream, and patronage by the Royal Family. ‘Tennis in an English Garden’ is how the event projects itself to the world.

Of the phrases that come to mind when thinking of Wimbledon, ‘cutting edge’ is probably not close to the top. Yet when it comes to the exploitation of digital and social media, the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (AELTC) is up there with the most innovative sports bodies. Where it differs from many others is that the mechanics of monetisation around the content – like the 110 miles of television cable running around the London SW19 grounds – are largely invisible.

Over the last four to five years, Wimbledon has been putting out content on most major social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, Vine, Weibo and WeChat. It was one of the earliest adopters in sport of Snapchat’s Live Stories and this summer became the first sports competition to be streamed live on Twitter.

Between the end of the 2015 tournament and the close of the 2016 event, Wimbledon’s audience across all social media platforms grew by about 30 per cent – from eight million followers to 10.5 million. Earlier this year, the AELTC won Best Digital Platform and Best Use of Social Media at the BT Sport Industry Awards.

The social media strategy is overseen by Alexandra Willis, the AELTC’s head of communications, content and digital. Willis explains how that strategy helps to “grow reach, exposure and value through quality communication, storytelling and engagement” without appearing to engage in overt commercialisation.

Platform specific

When SportBusiness International spoke to companies involved in the production of shortform content in March, the mantra of many content creators was ‘mobile first, channel optimised’ – shoot everything knowing it will probably be watched on a mobile device and then tweak for the characteristics of each platform. One risk of this thinking is an obsession with form over story-telling.

“We think video first, rather than just mobile first,” Willis explains. “Mobile is a really important channel, but if you concentrate too much on mobile first, you will limit the way you think about the content you are creating. We have always had, and continue to have, a creation-per-channel strategy. The evolution of video on these platforms has exacerbated the need for us to do that.”

The key to creating platform-specific content is not so much about targeting the slightly different demographic of each, but thinking about how the content will be consumed. “We create a piece of content and then ask how do we adapt this for Facebook? When you are going through Facebook, a piece of video plays and you need to get people to stop and watch it. If you have content that does not engage the person quickly, you will not get that person to stop and watch it. If you put a bit of content on YouTube, it is more likely people have actively searched for it and clicked on it. Are people just scrolling through a news feed? Have they been sent a link? The way people engage with content varies across the platforms,” Willis adds.

Close to the edit

A good example of this approach is the video that the AELTC produced this summer with US technology company GoPro featuring Bob and Mike Bryan, the doubles partners from the US. The idea was to showcase tennis as you’venever seen it before, with multiple angles, players wearing cameras, cameras in the net and so on, while telling the human story of the brothers and their ambitions. It was distributed on both YouTube and Facebook. Willis takes up the story.

“The YouTube edit was a classic edit with introductory slate, with slow start to the content, a build in the middle and then peaking at the end. It was designed to keep people watching and engaged over a period of time. It was about four minutes long,” she says.

“For Facebook, we re-edited it. We cut it in half, removed the intro slate and the journey to the piece of content, and started with a very visual piece of action. The way people scroll through their news feeds on Facebook means that you need something in your video that is going to make them stop. If there is an intro slate or anything that is not very emotional or engaging, they will keep scrolling past it.

“We also put subtitles and captions on Facebook, acknowledging the fact that people will not necessarily have the sound on when they are browsing for stuff on mobile. On Facebook, people very rarely watch till the end. So we wanted to make the content peak at the beginning, as opposed to the middle or end.”

YouTube:

Facebook:

In with the new

The AELTC first began to explore the possibilities of Snapchat in 2015 and this year the relationshipwas cemented. Snapchat signed a three-year partnership with the AELTC, from 2016 to 2018, under which the tournament is showcased in Snapchat Live in the UK. ‘Takeover’ days follow tennis stars at the tournament. In 2016 the most successful takeover day was when US legend Serena Williams took over the platform. On the opening and closing days of Wimbledon 2016, Snapchat provided exposure for the event as a Live Story on a global basis.

This kind of content creation is opening up new possibilities for the AELTC, as Willis explains: “[The Williams takeover] not only helped create exposure for a new platform we were using, but helped create a nice relationship between us and the player. Unlike football teams or leagues, we have absolutely no hold over the players. We have to ask them if we want to do things with them.”

In another new development this summer, Twitter began a live-streaming service during Wimbledon as part of its preparation for coverage of the NFL American football league. Being selected to be the first event to do that was “a coup” for Wimbledon, Willis says. In what Twitter described as “an extremely early and incomplete test experience”, Wimbledon’s official Twitter account tweeted the live feed with the ‘Live @ Wimbledon’ page offering a video stream pinned to the top of the page, with a rolling list of tournament-related tweets running alongside.

Striking the balance

Twitter did not show live match footage, as it has been doing with the NFL and plans to do with multiple other sports. One of the fine lines that the AELTC has to tread with social media is reaching new audiences and finding deeper levels of engagement without undermining the main revenue source of the Championships: the sale of linear broadcast rights.

The BBC pays about £40m (€45.8m/$51.4m) per season for the UK media rights in the current three-season deal, from 2015 to 2017. The AELTC also earns at least double thatamount from the sale of media rights in the rest of the world. Broadcasters pay a premium to acquire exclusivity in their territory and are alert to any form of content exploitation that might weaken that.

There is another brake on the AELTC’s direct monetisation of social media content, but one that is self-imposed: protecting the Wimbledon brand. As Willis points out: “It is absolutely critical that social is authentic to Wimbledon. We are trying to stretch the boundaries of this event, to innovate, take it beyond what people might think of it, but also keep it true to what it is. It would be inauthentic for us to be filling our digital and social content with a huge amount of advertising.

“If you gave our case to any business school, they would say that we could be making a lot more money off it. But that is not really the point. The point is to grow the presence of the brand, the understanding and appreciation of it. And to do so without desperately needing to commercialise every single piece of content.”

Wimbledon’s social media output is not entirely without advertising. Two of Wimbledon’s sponsors – Stella Artois and Häagen-Dazs – had their branding integrated into the Snapchat Live stories.

Stella also had visibility around a campaign that Wimbledon ran on Twitter’s Amplify platform. And there is a strip of Rolex-branded content on Wimbledon’s YouTube page. But thevideo content on YouTube carries none of the usual pre-rolls adverts, embedded banners or sponsorship used by other content creators.

As such, the revenue from sharing advertising around this content does not cover the cost of creating it. Of the video content distributed via social media, between 60 and 70 per cent is bespoke, created by the AELTC’s in-house team. Only 30 to 40 per cent is adapted from the host feed, which is produced by the BBC and distributed by Wimbledon’s long-term commercial partner, the IMG agency.

The AELTC has six staff on the ground in London working on producing content for social media and one person overseas creating content during the UK night. Other costs include a month-long licence during the Championships with digital video platform Grabyo, which plays a key role in adapting and distributing live content, and an annual licence with online video provider Brightcove, which functions as the central repository from which all Wimbledon content is distributed.

Hidden value

The real value of social media for Wimbledon – albeit one which is harder to quantify – is leveraging the increased reach and engagement into improved sponsorship and broadcast deals.

“The incremental value generated by social media has made Wimbledon a more valuable commercial product, both for our official suppliers (sponsors) and broadcast partners,” Willis says. “It absolutely makes a difference if you can say you have an audience of 10 million on social media as opposed to one million when you are trying to sell your brand to a sponsor. It can push the needle in those commercial discussions.”

The Championships have 13 official sponsors and suppliers, but only four of whom – IBM, Rolex, Robinsons and Slazenger – have an on-court presence.

The deals have different values according to the level of visibility and inventory available. Stella Artois and water brand Evian each pays $4m per season, while carmaker Jaguar pays about $2.6m per season.

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