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‘Mobile-first’ Asian consumers driving Twitter’s sport partnerships strategy

Aneesh Madani, head of sports partnerships, Asia-Pacific, at Twitter, tells SportBusiness how the social network is cooperating with rights-holders and broadcasters to capitalise on its continued growth across the continent, and using fan engagement to drive revenues for itself and its partners.

In 2018, for the second consecutive year, Twitter used the All That Matters conference in Singapore to announce a raft of partnerships with content providers across Asia. Fifty new deals were confirmed, up from 30 in 2017, with almost half of these relating to sport content.

Asia-Pacific has become an increasingly important region for the social network. While its global user base is stagnant – users actually fell in the third quarter of 2018 for the first time in three years as the service deactivated thousands of fake accounts – Asia-Pacific remains a source of growth. The 155 million users in the region now represent 40 per cent of Twitter’s global base, with 20 million new accounts registered in 2018 alone.

Much of Asia is what Aneesh Madani, Twitter’s head of sports partnerships in the region, describes as a “mobile-first part of the world”, where linear broadcast is on the decline and populations have been quick to adopt digital media. But internet connections remain poor in parts of Asia, making Twitter an increasingly popular way to follow sporting events because short-form highlights and analysis are more easily consumed than an entire live stream.

The bulk of Twitter’s new deals in the region are with broadcasters who post content to the platform, though rights-holders such as Australia’s National Rugby League and the mixed martial arts promotion ONE Championship have also signed up as partners.

Australia’s NRL has signed a content partnership with Twitter to show highlights across Asia, as the league attempts to engage more with fans outside its home market.

“We’re seeing two important things with these partnerships,” says Madani. “The first is that a lot of the partners we announced in 2017 are back in 2018, which we take as a sign that what we did for them was successful the first time around. They have extended reach; they see incremental revenue growth.” Twenty20 cricket competition the Caribbean Premier League, cricket streaming and news service CricBuzz and Australian television network Channel 7 are among the biggest names returning to partner with Twitter Asia for a further year, offering a combination of short-form and live-streaming content.

“Even more important is the number of new partners we’ve added. Fox Sports Australia, for instance, has come in on the back of seeing work we have done with other broadcasters, and they believe in the platform and that we can help them drive engagement and revenues,” Madani adds.

Engaged user base drives revenues

Twitter drives revenues to its content partners via its In-Stream Video Sponsorship and In-Stream Video Ads platforms, which allow partners to package videos with either mapped, one-to-one sponsorship – a brand deliberately sponsoring a particular piece of content – or generic ads, which come from a range of Twitter’s advertising partners. A revenue-sharing agreement with Twitter offers a straightforward way of turning engagement into profits – something which had long presented a stumbling block to broadcasters and rights-holders using Twitter as a content platform. Having a way to monetise those videos mean they are no longer simply being “given away” for engagement and marketing purposes, but now represent a revenue stream in their own right.

“We don’t want them to see Twitter as something they just have to do for engagement or that they are sacrificing their expensive rights fees to give content away for free,” says Madani. “We want to be clear that we are very much a partner, not a competitor to these federations and broadcasters that we work with.”

The benefit of sharing content through Twitter, he explains, is the level of engagement you get from viewers: “Twitter is a platform where fans are not just watching videos but also talking about them, sharing them. If people are just passively consuming content, you can monetise that in a certain way, but when people are actively engaged with it, and when you integrate into people’s existing behaviour, it gives sponsors a deeper reason to become involved.

“Because the tweets are being promoted by the sponsors, the sponsors in turn get to be in front of really high-value premium video content that sports fans, in their leaned-in, engaged mode on Twitter, are happy to see.”

Sport drives this kind of engagement more than any other form of content, Madani says, in large part because of how well-suited Twitter is as a medium to the way Asian fans in particular consume sport. “If you think about the nature of the platform, it’s mobile-first, it’s short, it’s quick, it’s live, it’s public,” he says. “These things are very well-matched for sport, and that’s increasingly true as people move toward following sport on their devices while doing other things.”

Data helps boost low-value content

While he acknowledges the regional differences that exist, Madani believes it is crucial to the success of the strategy that the models employed by Twitter are consistent globally, and that the only local allowances made are for “the types of content and the interests of the people in those geographies”.

What this facilitates, he adds, is “the ability to scale the model around the world and deliver a great experience for our partners. The process is very hands-off for them. As a partner or a publisher, all you’re doing is publishing those videos to Twitter and then the models work in a way that a lot of the sponsorship or the promotion of those videos is automatic in the way it maximises their reach”.

The Caribbean Premier League has attempted to exploit the huge popularity of cricket in Asia by signing a content partnership with Twitter Asia to livestream matches on the platform.

With access to the vast amounts of data on what kinds of content users are consuming and how they’re consuming it, Twitter is able to tailor the way ads are promoted in different parts of the world. This is particularly relevant for the In-Stream Video Ads service. Instead of sponsoring a specific piece of content, this model allows brands to sign up to have their adverts play ahead of a category of video, such as news, sport or entertainment.

Based on data from different territories, Twitter can then match adverts to the most appropriate content – and the content to the most appropriate users. A user who follows multiple cricket-related accounts, for instance, is likely to see CricBuzz content as a promoted tweet from a sponsor who has signed up to have its adverts play alongside cricket videos.

This model, says Madani, has proved especially useful in helping broadcasters to monetise what he calls “lower-value” pieces of content, such as repackaged clips from a studio show for which there may be no dedicated sponsor. Twitter collects data on the kind of content that gets traction with particular audiences and matches it with relevant sponsors.

Modani explains that “a lot of these partnerships have arisen from the data that we see about conversations on the platform and where the avid fandom is, what the appetite is for a particular type of content, and then we try and go out and focus to get that kind of content for fans. Our decisions are all based on the data that we have”.

Though the acquisition of broadcast rights for long-form coverage remains something Twitter will pursue “under the right circumstances”, it is also something Madani admits will require a shift in the way people use the platform. An experiment with NFL Thursday Night Football in 2016 was deemed a relative success, but Twitter was subsequently outbid by Amazon for those rights in 2017 and is currently focused on maximising revenues by leveraging its relationships with content providers and sponsors.

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