Digital Storytelling In 162 Games: How Major League Baseball Keeps Its Story Fresh

April 6, 2017 Jonathan Crowl

Baseball teams face a daunting storytelling task every year.

Opening Day is its own holiday for Major League Baseball fans. With most home openers taking place during the middle of the workday, stadiums fill up with fans cutting out on an afternoon in the office.

Among that group is a brand executive overseeing digital storytelling strategies for an enterprise organization. For as much fun as he has at that first game, he can’t help leaving the stadium later that afternoon and wondering what comes next. After the fanfare of Opening Day, MLB teams still have 161 more games left in their regular season. That’s a long slog, taking place over the course of six months, and it’s a long arc to ask fans to pay attention to.

Yet many do—the league’s most popular teams sell more than 98 percent of their available tickets for a season. Despite the slow progression of the baseball season, fans remain invested all the way through to the end. It’s a bit of an anomaly in entertainment: A 20-hour movie would never find success with fans; music albums can get old after so many replays; long books can intimidate readers. Yet fans of major sports teams never throw up their hands and say “enough.”

This obsessive consumption has plenty to do with the sports product itself, but there’s more going on behind the scenes to keep fan interest afloat. You can see this most clearly in the marketing strategies used by teams to keep fans plugged in.

Marketing Beyond the Game

The on-field product baseball offers has plenty of appeal on its own, especially since it has earned a reputation as America’s pastime. But today’s sports landscape is much more competitive than what teams wrestled with 100 years ago, and there are other non-sports entertainments to contend with, too.

Storytelling has emerged as a way to deepen fan interest, and this narrative focus goes well beyond the on-field activity of a team. Today, MLB teams—and teams in other leagues, for that matter—make an effort to highlight the personalities of their most visible players. From individual walk-up music to candid in-game Q&As played on video boards, players are leveraged by teams to connect the game with real-life people and to forge a deeper relationship with fans. It also strengthens connections with fans who have an emotional investment into a team, even if their interest or understanding of the on-field play isn’t as in-depth as what other fans may experience.

This form of digital storytelling is wildly successful on social media, and the most successful MLB marketing departments take advantage of these varied channels to tell unique stories. Facebook and Twitter have long been mainstays of digital fan engagement, but newer forms like Snapchat are helping tell behind-the-scenes stories, covering everything from the locker room to the facilities management and even featuring the people who take care of the grass.

As AdWeek pointed out, this social engagement can even extend itself into the physical game experience: the San Francisco Giants have a social media cafe at their home ballpark that streams social content during the game. One marketing professional for the Giants pointed out that in the event the team’s on-field performance declines, the team is hopeful social media can keep fans engaged even through a rough patch of play.

Wrigley Field

Image attribution: Sam Howzit

Too Much Content? No Such Thing

In the past, digital storytelling has sparked one key concern among teams and content publishers: that the consumption of digital channels will cannibalize consumption on other platforms. Teams have worried, in other words, that increased social media content and alternative media might make fans less inclined to attend a game in person or watch the game on TV.

Research is proving that this isn’t something to worry about—and that instead of saturating the market with competition for limited attentions, digital content strategy has a mostly additive effect. The more content you create, the more fan engagement you will receive. A study from Think With Google highlighted the effects of digital content on an NBA television program, NBA on TNT. This TV broadcast content is positioned around NBA games airing in primetime, and consumption of related content is critical: TNT’s success depends on its ability to sell pre- and post-game coverage and commentary in addition to the game, which gives the broadcaster better advertising revenues and increased visibility.

With Google, TNT began leveraging programmatic ad buying to generate revenue off of digital content published as a supplement to the on-air broadcasts. This, too, had an additive effect, increasing brand recognition and overall video consumption without hurting TV ratings.

The use of programmatic ad buying resulted in a 17 percent lift in ad recall and a 7 percent increase in brand awareness. By creating digital storytelling packages and original digital content, NBA on TNT was able to make all of its advertising more effective and valuable, while expanding revenue streams at the same time.

Baseball fans

Image attribution: chrismetcalfTV

This should encourage MLB and other sports teams when it comes to publishing original content through digital channels. Small details like uniform preparation, ball storage, and postgame buffet spreads might not seem significant compared to the action of the game, but sports fans have demonstrated an unquenchable appetite for content. There is little risk in developing a wide range of stories and narratives to support your content strategy through the long season.

No matter who wins the game, fans won’t turn their backs on compelling stories. This should embolden all marketers to lean in to the challenges of storytelling.

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