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Data insights allow ICC partners to maximise digital activations

  • The International Cricket Council formulated a data-driven response to the rising demand that rights-holders demonstrate measurable impact against brand objectives.
  • This took the form of an audit of digital performance at the 2016 World Twenty20, which then informed the development of similar sponsorship activations around the 2017 ICC Champions Trophy and Women’s World Cup.
  • This helped the tournaments’ partners achieve an average 12% return on sponsorship rights fees through digital activation.

The global sponsorship market is more valuable than ever, with ESP Properties’ 33rd annual review of the sector forecasting a fifth successive year of growth above the four per cent mark in 2018, and recording increases approaching double that figure in the major sports leagues of the MLB and NBA during 2017.

But it is also more competitive than ever, with sports properties pitted not just against each other but also a widening range of alternative destinations for marketing spend. ESP’s Sponsorship Decision Makers’ Survey also found that 58 per cent of companies surveyed in 2017 were seeking an early exit from at least one current sponsorship – up from 45 per cent the previous year and well above a long-term average of under 50 per cent.

Digital media is widely seen as one of the primary sources of this disruption, through its reach and ability to generate new depths of audience data and insight. Writing in SportBusiness International, former Synergy chief executive Tim Crow explained the decision of the chief marketing officer of a major UK business to place his budget with Facebook rather than the sports properties to which he would previously have been drawn: “Facebook gave him much better, more detailed data and insights into the audience. They gave him bigger, more targeted reach, and case studies of previous campaigns with hard results. They suggested what creative and distribution routes to take, and offered to execute them. And they could deliver multiple campaigns within his ideal timeline: one year.”

This level of external competition is one of the key push factors behind sports properties’ expansion into digital media production and simultaneous embrace of data acquisition and analysis techniques. With ESP finding that a presence in a rights-holder’s digital, social and mobile media was the second most valuable benefit of sponsorship for brands in 2017 [up from sixth in 2016], clubs, leagues, governing bodies and international federations all have significant new obligations to meet.

This challenge – and its flipside of opportunity – has been a focus of the International Cricket Council since 2016, when it began working with WPP-owned data-driven sports marketing agency Two Circles to create its first fan engagement strategy and set up a data warehouse to draw new audience insights that could guide commercial strategy for the organisation and its partners.

Aarti Dabas, the ICC’s head of media rights, broadcast and digital, says of the motivations behind that decision: “The sports sponsorship landscape is changing – blue-chip brands are more demanding of rights-holders to demonstrate positive, measurable impact against objectives. At the same time, more and more sports fans consume their favourite sports events through digital channels, and spend more time on them than in the past. This means a rights-holder’s ability to create engaging content that can be branded and distributed through owned and third-party digital channels is becoming a more important piece of sponsorship inventory.”

The ICC’s objective was to put that inventory to work in two particular ways – using it to ensure its properties continued to meet the requirements of existing partners in line with their rising digital expectations, and to produce the measured, valued and attributable outcomes needed to attract new sponsors.

Dabas says of the retention aspect of that goal: “We have been working with Two Circles to grow reach and engagement across our digital channels by creating more engaging content that satisfies ICC and brand objectives; to understand how campaigns can be improved over the course of a tournament through the creation of performance-monitoring processes that assess and feed back information to the team in real-time; and to demonstrate more accurately the value that branded content campaigns deliver for partners to ensure value objectives are being hit.”

And she says of the acquisition side: “Additionally, the ICC is looking to attract new partners and an ability to demonstrate it is able to directly engage with particular audiences and deliver real, measurable impact – and put a value against it – has become a prerequisite in sponsorship negotiations.”

Data acquisition

To be able to create a real-time digital evaluation model that would help its partners maximise the impact of their sponsorship activations across its major events of 2017, the Champions Trophy and Women’s World Cup, the ICC and Two Circles began with a detailed audit of the governing body’s principal media channels, comprising:

  • Owned: ICC website and app
  • Social: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube accounts
  • Direct: Leading Edge e-mail newsletter.

The results of the audit were based on website and social channel analytics, and comparisons with previous post-tournament reviews.

The audit placed a particular focus on the 2016 World Twenty20 as a benchmark for the value of major tournament digital sponsorship inventory and a test bed for identifying areas for development during the major events of 2017. Dabas explains: “An important part of the planning for 2017 was generating insight around previous metrics used to assess the impact of digital activations on ICC channels during the World Twenty20, how greater engagement could have been achieved, and what the most effective content series were. That insight could then inform the new inventory we would look to create for existing sponsors and to attract new sponsors by demonstrating which channels worked best for which content and accurately putting a cash value against the impact delivered by digital campaigns.

“Based on our digital audience traffic and annual growth metrics across our web, social, app and direct marketing platforms, the ICC has the potential to deliver up to 15 per cent of total revenue through digital sponsorship rights inventory, with much of the value being delivered through the ICC website and app.”

The three key metrics of impressions, engagement and brand value were assessed using a variety of data analysis tools and models, primarily Google Analytics supplemented by a range of specialist measurement platforms tracking engagement of online video, social media and digital advertising.

Engagement was the primary focus of the data gathering and analysis process as a consequence of the bulk of the ICC’s in-tournament content being delivered via social media and the fact that these channels typically drive higher levels of organic reach – and therefore higher levels of campaign value – for its commercial partners. The ICC’s measure of this is the total number of times with which a piece of brand-featured content has been engaged, with these engagements comprising

  • clicked video plays,
  • social reactions (e.g. Facebook likes),
  • comments,
  • shares, and
  • tracked link clicks.

Impression and engagement data across all ICC-owned channels (web, social and direct) was combined with audience insight to feed a digital sponsorship valuation model that used intelligence from within Two Circles’ parent company Group M, the world’s largest media buying agency, to determine a fair market value of content and campaigns for the organisation’s partner brands. Dabas explains: “We are not only measuring the total reach (i.e. the number of people who have seen or interacted with a piece of branded content or an advert via impressions and engagements) but are also taking into consideration uplift factors of, one, a brand being associated with a sports property and, two, the level of understanding the ICC has of its own fans.”

For the 2017 Champions Trophy and Women’s World Cup, the ICC used the same data acquisition and valuation methodologies but on a real-time basis that allowed the production and delivery of regular in-tournament brand value reports for sponsors that could inform content and activation strategies and improve their responsiveness to fan interest and preferences.

Analysis and insight

Analysis of the data generated across all ICC digital channels during the two tournaments was focused not just on overall campaign performance but also paid particular attention to elements that were of specific importance to partner brands, many of whom have clearly-defined priorities in terms of the territories and demographics that are most valuable to them.

Dabas says: “We communicated ROI to the ICC’s partners based on digital brand valuation of their campaigns, but, as you can imagine, the partners were also eager to know how successful their tournament campaigns were in terms of impressions and engagements delivered and especially keen to understand which countries and territories they were being viewed in. Nissan’s Play of the Day activation, for example, demonstrated particularly high engagement in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Only India performed better but we are all aware of the extraordinary reach and engagement here. Part of the attraction of partnering with the ICC is reaching its significant international audience and our partners are always looking to align our key demographic with their target audience.”

Insights were generated by measuring the performance of each campaign, both overall and on specific platforms, against targets and benchmarks established during the original audit phase of the project and based on results from previous tournaments. This enabled the ICC to ensure the campaigns were hitting the engagement and value targets agreed with sponsors ahead of the event, or to make changes to the strategy where they were not. Dabas says: “Measuring effectiveness against benchmarks and targets in real-time meant we were able to give our digital content team recommendations of how to improve and optimise performance – for example, where to place new videos on the ICC website homepage to ensure maximum plays on a mobile device, how to edit video to increase performance overall or shifting the focus of certain types of content from one platform to another on which it worked better in certain territories – from Twitter to Facebook, for example.

“There are always challenges when compiling information from several different sources, for example website versus social impressions, image versus video impressions et cetera, but we built a pretty robust model which factored in all of these considerations. Monitoring the success of partner campaigns during the tournament and iterating ad placements on the website, as well as types and timing of social posts, ensured we were learning from the data we were seeing. At times that meant giving a particular campaign an extra shot in the arm and added exposure but we’d absolutely admit that we didn’t get it all right first time and that there were some challenges.

“For example, Our ‘Fan Mosaic’ activation initially wasn’t performing as well as we’d hoped due to a web structure which meant that the majority of homepage visitors were missed. We picked up on this pretty quickly, however, and saw impressions and engagements significantly improve in the final two weeks of the Champions Trophy thanks to changes to our MPU [Mid-Page Unit banner] and email focus. We also took wider learnings from the tournament and leveraged Instagram much more effectively for the Women’s World Cup.”

Actions and outcomes

The project enabled the ICC to take action to maximise and, where possible, improve digital sponsorship performance at three key points:

  • Before the 2017 Champions Trophy and Women’s World Cup,
  • While the tournaments were in play, and
  • After their conclusion

In the first instance, the original digital audit and examination of campaign performance at previous ICC events allowed cricket’s governing body to identify content and features that already worked well and focus on evolving these as a basis for further growth in 2017. Dabas explains: “Off the back of the success of the World Twenty20 in 2016, our focus was more on refining the content that worked there, rather than making any drastic changes. The Nissan ‘Play of the Day’ is a good example of this – we kept the format of the activation similar, but added to the voting process by creating the opportunity for fans to cast their vote across ICC Facebook and Twitter accounts through the polling mechanism, as well as on the ICC website as was available before.

“Another good example was the way in which we used Instagram in each tournament. Instagram was the perfect platform for Oppo’s Photo of the Day activation and we used it to much greater effect during WWC17. This led to almost six million unique impressions for Oppo as a result of the activation.”

The most immediate actions were taken during the tournaments themselves, because the real-time data capture and analysis processes gave the ICC an adaptive capability that was previously beyond its reach. Dabas says: “Prior to 2017, we were able to assess the impact and value our digital content delivered for partners only after the tournament had finished, meaning we were unable to action any insights that could have helped deliver greater value to partners in tournament time.

“So one of the major benefits of this project has been its impact on our ability to show sponsors the impact and value of their digital sponsorship activations, suggest content series for partners to activate their sponsorships, and suggest tweaks to content and distribution during the course of the tournaments to achieve greater impact. Given the two 2017 tournaments were played in close succession and over a short period, having the ability to adapt plans based on insights delivered in-tournament was crucial to the successful delivery of partner campaigns.”

The project has also delivered legacy benefits for the ICC and its properties in enabling it to make a more compelling offer to potential sponsors of future events, supported by measured outcomes and demonstrating the flexibility with which campaigns can operate during event periods. At a headline level, the valuation model allowed the governing body to show that the two tournaments generated 10-12 per cent returns on the total sponsorship rights fee for ICC partners, with the data analysis and insight element enabling it to drill down into the measures – both proactive and reactive – it was able to take to achieve those results.

Dabas says: “Following the two tournaments, we created case studies around the impact, and associated value, of digital sponsorship activations that we have built into both sponsorship renewal and sponsorship pitch documents; now the ICC has a far clearer picture of how much our digital assets are worth to sponsors, which is vital as more brands realise the growing value of digital in the overall sponsorship mix.”

And she adds: “The effectiveness of digital sponsorship activations, and the value they produce, has also allowed us to go to market with digital-only partnerships – attracting brands that may otherwise not be interested in a top-tier partnership but which want direct engagement with cricket audience groups – creating a potential new source of commercial revenue for the ICC.”

The final important legacy outcome was for the ICC itself in building a new framework to enable a more fluid digital strategy around future events. The project has moved from retrospective analysis in 2016 and in-tournament reporting during 2017 to live performance tracking from the middle of 2018 as Two Circles’ monitoring becomes available to the ICC in a real-time, digital sponsorship dashboard.

Dabas says: “The real-time digital sponsorship dashboard will continue to report on a number of existing metrics such as impressions, engagements and brand value, but will be fully accessible to the ICC commercial team and allow them to drill down into a greater level of detail of which assets are driving value for partners.”

Key lessons

The ICC learned a number of valuable lessons from its adoption of a data-driven approach to monitoring and measuring the impact of its digital sponsorship activations around the 2017 Champions Trophy and Women’s World Cup. The sell-out at Lords on July 23rd for the Women’s World Cup final was heralded as a landmark moment for the sport, and behind the scenes there has also been quiet progression in the sponsorship space. The lessons learned are now continuing to inform the ICC’s ongoing strategy around this type of rights inventory and can help other properties improve their own offer in a similar way. In particular:

  • Being able to quantify and attribute the impact of digital sponsorship activations is now a ‘must-do’ for rights-holders in a market that expects the same level of granular performance detail and audience insight it receives from other media platforms now competing for advertising spend.
  • Real-time monitoring of campaign performance can create important new opportunities to adjust content strategy in-play to ensure commercial targets are met.
  • The detailed insights that can be yielded by segmenting analysis of digital content across platforms, territories and demographics can create new and more niche sponsorship assets that appeal to brands to whom the broader approach of traditional top-tier partnerships has never appealed.

Ultimately, though, each of these opportunities depends on the property’s ability to understand who is exposed to its content, how they are engaging with it and what value those impressions are returning to the featured brand – all of which require the raw materials of reliable data to extract relevant insight from.

Dabas says of that necessity: “When it comes to measuring the success of content on digital platforms, the data-driven approach is the only way to get the most accurate measure of success – it gives both rights-holders and brands the ability and confidence to benchmark success, judge which platforms work better than others in real-time, and place a sophisticated and credible value on engagement.”

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