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The Business of Wimbledon: Social media and marketing

Alexandra Willis

  • AELTC produces branded and unbranded content for its sponsors digital activations
  • Club increasingly using animations and illustrations in its social media activity
  • Creation of personalised digital experience will help brands to target messages more effectively

Wimbledon’s more permissive approach to its sponsors on digital media stands in contrast to its aversion to the overt commercialisation of Centre Court and the grounds of the All England Club (AELTC).

“If Centre Court is one end of the spectrum, the way we activate through content is at the other end of the spectrum,” says Alexandra Willis, head of communications, content & digital, AELTC. “It’s almost like we’re giving up some of our own IP and saying [to sponsors] please throw this as far and wide as you possibly can, we want you to shout about it.”

The tournament produces two types of content for its partners which it encourages them to distribute through their own channels to activate their sponsorship rights and build on their association with the event.

The first type is unbranded marketing content that celebrates the traditions of the tournament. The best example of this is the ‘In Pursuit of Greatness‘ series of marketing videos produced by the McCann agency. In the latest iteration of the campaign, the agency has created the #TakeOnHistory video which celebrates the 150th anniversary of the tournament and the evolution of Wimbledon from its beginnings in 1877 to the present day. The agency overcame the lack of archive video footage for the early years of the event by employing animation to create the content campaign.

The AELTC outsourced the production of the animated video to directors Smith & Foulkes and Nexus Studios but the creation of its in-house production capability has allowed it to generate its own behind-the-scenes features, insights into the food and drink, and footage from around the grounds which it also shares with partners.

Willis stresses that the tournament isn’t fussy about the provenance of its unbranded content, provided it is faithful to the Wimbledon identity.

“We really hope ideally that you’ve got this tool kit of stuff at your disposal,” she says. “Whether Facebook have created it, or McCann have created it, or the BBC have created it is almost immaterial.”

Secondly, the tournament produces more targeted branded content that tries to marry the need to give partners greater visibility with the need to protect the Wimbledon identity and deliver something meaningful and useful to its audience. A case in point is the ‘Play of the day’ video series that features subtle branding from the tournament’s official bank, HSBC, and which, this year, will be differentiated by the use of unusual camera angles.

Willis says the #TakeOnHistory campaign is an example of how the tournament is beginning to experiment with new media treatments such as animation and photo galleries and this also applies to the branded content it produces. For the 2018 tournament it plans to create a series of stop-motion shorts for Pimm’s and image-based content for Stella Artois that will both be optimised for Instagram.

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The AELTC’s decision to behave like a global brand means it sees digital activations as a two-way street and that the responsibility to amplify its messaging doesn’t just rest at its door. Willis says it is increasingly looking to work with sponsors with ‘global reach and resonance, that are prepared to activate globally’, and references the way Ralph Lauren is using influencer marketing to activate its sponsorship rights in China as an example.

“They have realised that they’ve got a series of ambassadors in China who are not tennis players, they are fashion people, they are TV presenters, they are pianists, models, who’ve got amazing followers and if they can bring them to Wimbledon, we can collectively capture them being here, we can put it out on our Chinese channels, Ralph Lauren can put it out on their Chinese channels and then it’s hopefully this amazing win-win.”

In a further departure, the AELTC is working to develop a ‘personalised digital experience’ for its fans that will allow it to serve up content that appeals to specific audience segments and target partner messages more effectively. Presently it is able to personalise content through a combination of apps, emails and push messaging but it plans to introduce a login function to the Wimbledon.com website which will allow it to build a more nuanced understanding of its fanbase.

“All of a sudden you’ve got this canvas to play with in terms of you recognise somebody only ever clicks on Roger Federer content,” says Willis. “It then gives us more ammunition to say to someone like Rolex, [a Federer sponsor] let’s do a sit-down interview with Roger and serve that up to that audience because we know that players fundamentally drive engagement.”

The addition of this functionality will create an immediate branding opportunity for Wimbledon’s Official Technology partner, IBM, whose technology, Willis reveals, will underpin the content personalisation and delivery of the login function. The firm has already won plaudits for the way its Wimbledon activations perform a useful function for audiences, the best example being the way data insights from its Watson AI technology are purported to make the AELTC’s digital output more relevant and timely. The brand’s utility to the Championships is reinforced by James Ralley, head of marketing, commercial and hospitality for the AELTC, who says it is one of the easier partnerships to activate and refers to the company as ‘an extension of our IT and digital team’.

But Willis believes personalisation will provide additional marketing opportunities in other categories and references how the tournament’s logistics and payment partners could align themselves with messaging that tells fans how to get to the tournament and apply for tickets.

The overhaul of the website and introduction of personalised messaging is consistent with an ambition to remain salient on digital media throughout the year. Mick Desmond, commercial and media director for the AELTC says the digital team does this by commenting on other sports events, particularly fellow ATP tennis tournaments, and Wimbledon sees an uptick in engagement when it pushes out content during the other tennis grand slams.

“Rather than just being a two-week spike, it’s now a four- or five-week spike where we’ve got the grass-court season and we spike out for the week after the event and then we start building towards the US Open, so we’ve kind of lifted the base,” he says.

The creation of the new production unit, which takes over the host broadcast feed from the BBC this summer, will help support this ‘always-on’ approach. While the tournament’s sponsors currently only tend to activate around the Championship fortnight, the hope is that they will begin to align themselves with other assets throughout the year – an early example of this is the way Rolex is sponsoring Road to Wimbledon tournaments in India and China, and the content associated with them.

Desmond says the tournament’s position in a ‘sweet spot’ in the sport’s calendar means it rarely has to compete for attention with other major sports events, particularly the US major leagues, during the two weeks it is on. This year, however, will be the first time the men’s final will clash with the Fifa World Cup final, so its digital team has come up with a joint-content plan with their Fifa equivalents to identify clashes and cross-promote each other’s events.

As part of the plan, Fifa created a video in which its technical director Steven Martens, a former Fed Cup and Davis Cup Captain for Belgium explains the appeal of the tournament. In another post from the Fifa World Cup Twitter account, former international footballers Peter Schmeichel and Sol Campbell were captured playing Teqball – a fusion of tennis and football.

Wimbledon responded by posting a video in which British player Andy Murray bemoaned the fact that he was missing a World Cup match to give a press conference. A collaboration with the BBC which promotes the two tournaments is also planned.

“We’re hoping to create this glorious crescendo together towards these two finals,” says Willis. “Why wouldn’t you celebrate the fact that you’ve got these two amazing sporting occasions happening on the same day?”

She says the partnership wouldn’t extend to showing Fifa matches on the big screens around the AELTC, but could include co-producing branded content if the two properties shared any sponsors, (they currently don’t). The event is also examining the possibility of content partnerships with The Open and Formula 1, where it shares Rolex as a common partner.

When SportBusiness Group spoke to Willis two years ago about Wimbledon’s social media strategy, she said the priority was to grow the Wimbledon brand rather than generate an immediate return an on its investment. That it now has a social media following of almost 12 million – the largest in tennis – shows how successful it has been in this strategy. Video views across its platforms last year were over 200m, more than double the previous year, and significant growth from the 30m mark a few years earlier.

But she says the evolution of the social media platforms means it is finding it easier to monetise its content now. She says the addition of a function which allows brands to integrate five-second photo and fifteen-second video adverts into Instagram stories has been a helpful development. In addition, existing partners like Rolex are increasingly looking to supplement their sponsorship spend by taking out ‘roadblock’ partnerships in which the brand ringfences all of the paid media assets around Wimbledon’s YouTube content.

“It used to be the case that all of their activations would go on stuff that was above the line and not necessarily placed against our content, and now increasingly most of our partners will find an opportunity to place spend in social media alongside Wimbledon content.”

To read the first part in this series about Wimbledon’s brand and media strategy, click here

To read the second part in this series about Wimbledon’s sponsorship strategy, click here

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