ESPN Is Scoring Big With Their Multiple Screen Additions – Without Killing The Parent Platform – Mr. Magazine’s™ Conversation With Rob King – Senior Vice President, SportsCenter and News at ESPN… A Mr. Magazine™ Blog for the Weekend.April 25, 2014
While some leading media companies are going digital first and in some cases, digital only – ESPN has proven that you don’t have to annihilate your parent platform when you bring digital into the picture. With ESPN’s multiple screens, audiences have never been more catered to and pampered, as they should be. Whether on television, in print or on the tablets and mobile ESPN is there. (Photo by Mallory Bailey)
Rob King is Senior Vice President, SportsCenter and News at ESPN and is very strong-willed when it comes to the media company’s fans and the ESPN brand itself. Serving the audience in the most interactive and compelling way possible, while keeping the brand moving forward is a simultaneous strategy that King firmly believes in. And he knows his business when it comes to content and advertising too.
So summon up your team spirit and get ready to enjoy the Mr. Magazine™ conversation with Rob King, that took place during his visit to The University of Mississippi last month. Mr. King was the keynote speaker at the first Ole Miss New Media conference at the Meek School of Journalism and New Media. The conversation took place in front of a standing-room only session with Mr. King at the School of Journalism.
But first the sound-bites…
On the fans and focusing on audience first: A lot of it also is just paying attention to what the numbers tell us. We get ratings every fifteen minutes and we know how and when people are engaged and when they’re not.
On how they handle the competition: We just set out to do things very differently. And we often say that the core business is not TV or dot.com or is not just the magazine; the core business is the ESPN promise to fans, the brand promise, to serve fans anywhere and anytime.
On ESPN’s second and third screen additions: And it’s just natural. We don’t really talk about second screen honestly. We talk about best available screen. And for many people the best available screen may be the smallest screen, the one in your pocket.
On the most pleasant surprise during ESPN’s journey: Clearly WatchESPN has changed everything. WatchESPN has enabled me to at all times have one eye on what I’m supposed to be responsible for.
On his expectations for ESPN three years from now: We’re redesigning the website and I think the thing that’s going to be most impactful in the next three years is our ability to create a channel of content that is not only personalized, but is very much about now.
On the audience keeping up with all the changes: All I know is our audiences are very accustomed when they start Twitter not for it to be something that they have to get around curation. They’ve already done the curation.
On mixing advertising and editorial in the digital realms: So I see a lot of articles from people in content groups who do not have anything to do with the business wringing their hands over the scary, infiltrating native ads, but that’s not how we do it at ESPN.
On methods to grow ESPN business: (a): a great experience for our fans, (b): not intrusive when we’re trying to drive great content and (c): be a great experience for advertisers.
On what keeps him up at night: The one o’clock SportsCenter.
And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ conversation with Rob King, Senior Vice President, SportsCenter and News at ESPN…
Rob King: First of all, we are fans. There’s generally a lot of excitement everyday about what we’re covering. Probably the unfair advantage at ESPN or that any sports network has is most of our stuff sits on a schedule. So we generate excitement about things weeks out. And our fans do too. At the start of baseball season, if you’re a Red Sox fan, you know the series against the Yankees is coming.
So we have an opportunity to get out in front and think about things and think about how we can get our fans fired up. We know when the pro days are scheduled, so we know things like today was Johnny Manziel’s day to throw.
But a lot of it also is just paying attention to what the numbers tell us. We get ratings every fifteen minutes and we know how and when people are engaged and when they’re not. We know the average minute audience on our digital platforms.
So we can tell when there’s a lot of engagement with our stuff, like tonight at 7:15 when the tournament games start, the average minute audience will just take off.
We know that people are downloading our apps and how much time they’re spending with them. So there’s a lot of data that’s helping us understand what excites our fans. We know enough about our fans to know they’re early adopters of technology. That gives us permission to plan the app space.
From its very beginning ESPN started as a fan site, Bill Rasmussen was a Connecticut sports fan. So he bought some land and got some satellite time and he got some trucks and started this network that he was most interested in watching.
So it’s kind of in our core to be our fans and behave like our fans. When we got into the magazine business, we knew that we had fans who enjoyed longer stories and a different way of looking at things, maybe not a magazine that was a weekly that was off the news, but a magazine that could anticipate the news and tell different kinds of stories, which is why ESPN the magazine publishes biweekly instead of weekly. It doesn’t seek to be right off the headlines; it seeks to get out in front. So even now our magazine strategy is reflective of our audience. Our audience really wants to know what’s going to happen. It’s not just what happened or how did it happen; but what’s next?
We have this whole strategy around the magazine that’s built on looking at the sports calendar and saying, OK, people will be thinking about baseball this week, so we’ll have a baseball preview and people will also be thinking about the World Cup, maybe about analytics because there’s a big MIT sports analytics conference coming up, so we should think about that issue.
We’re getting ready to do an amazing issue called “One Day, One Game,” which really is about, not just about the magazine publishing cool pictures and stories, it’s also about people liking this notion of touching live games, so we actually publish a live photo gallery the night of the game. And then we create a magazine a few weeks later that is based on all the other things that happened around that live photo gallery, because photos are a real communication device.
People like the human form so we do the body issue, but we do it in a very different and very specific way, which is designed to celebrate shapes and sizes of all kinds and men and women. By the way, seven women primarily put that issue together. So that’s one of the reasons it doesn’t feel or read like our competitor who has an issue built around the human form.
Our approach has really always been to reflect as broad an audience as possible and do it with the sense of urgency that the audience expects.
Samir Husni: How did you manage to capture that audience today? Was there a systematic approach that you used to beat the competition or simply forget about it or did you just decide to do something different and let the audience decide? (photo by Mallory Bailey)
Rob King: We set out to do something very specific and very different, which is we started out as a television network and we were getting as many sports rights as possible and letting you see these sports and athletes as much as possible for longer stretches of the day. And as we got into digital publishing, we launched our website 19 years ago, when we started getting into mobile publishing and even when we started the magazine almost 16 years ago, our point of view was really about how do we take this volume of stuff that we’re doing and find places to go deeper with it? And when we do that; how is that really reflective of how audiences are actually spending time thinking about sports?
Because there is a community of sports fans that very few people will talk about but who are driving a ton of activity and that’s gamblers. And there’s another community, fantasy, that’s driving a new language around sports consumption. And we wanted that to be part of what we were doing in a way that was really and truly integrated and not just hanging off the edges.
So we just set out to do things very differently. And we often say that the core business is not TV or dot.com or is not just the magazine; the core business is the ESPN promise to fans, the brand promise, to serve fans anywhere and anytime. That’s our core business. So we’re not in the magazine business or the ESPN business and I think our competitors start off in different places, some are TV networks, and some are magazines.
For almost 13 years, we’ve been very clear we are a multimedia company and we create an ESPN experience for people no matter where they are. So it’s really a kind of apples to oranges comparison.
Samir Husni: Can you talk about how you created a second, third and even a fourth screen? Someone at ESPN told me that 19 out of 20 sports programs that are not aired on ESPN are being interacted with an ESPN second or third screen. Can you explain a little about that?
Rob King: Yes, I will, but first here’s the thing; you have to think about it a little differently. The way we look at it: the first social media was fantasy football. You chose your own community, looked at things in very different ways; you looked at the news of the day through a very different prism; so fantasy was our first social network.
To be in the fantasy space it was very important for us to learn about community and learn about how folks interacted with each other when they have to create their own communities.
We actually had a whole community group where we had our own ESPN social place where you could log in, rearrange the site to make it look like yours and connect with other folks. It’s just from paying attention to what people are doing. And then it comes from being a sports fan. And in some cases being a sports fan is apparent or it’s a sports fan who has another life and can be at so many events, other events outside of a sporting event, a concert and you want to know the score, or be in a library and want to know who’s winning or you want to catch a highlight and that drove us to want to make stuff to solve that problem. It’s just really thinking about the problems that sports fans have.
And then by being aggressive, getting out with our distribution partners like cable companies and saying, listen we think we can make something that people haven’t seen before and will actually pay money for. Or people just want to see live games and there are a whole lot of live games out there that aren’t getting broadcast because there are only so many hours. How do we make that available to people?
And then we wanted to figure out if there were games and events of a global nature that we couldn’t even appreciate what kind of audience they could generate. Last football season there was an LSU/Kentucky game exclusive to ESPN 3 that we put on a Saturday afternoon and their were more people watching a Cricket match directly opposite that LSU/Kentucky game because they had access from a lot of points around the globe that out rated the football game. And then that’s when you start saying; you know we might be onto something.
So then this is just really about meeting a need. If you’re watching a game we can give you a little score panel in the upper left-hand corner that we’re running a bottom line on down here, but you might want to know what the overall box score looks like, stats on innings pitched are. We’ve created these experiences like GameCast that are really rich and have all this data, that can sit right next to your television screen and make you feel as though you’re getting a much richer experience.
We’re doing things like instant polling and asking people to participate with our shows. We did this thing on the Super Bowl where we asked who’s going to win the Super Bowl and people voted and whichever team got the most votes we changed the color of the Empire State Building. So the Empire State Building on that Saturday night for the Super Bowl, the lights were green and blue. We didn’t do that, the audience did that. The audience could have made it any color scheme. (Photo by Margaret Collins)
We covered this Duke/North Carolina game recently and we asked people to send in any of their camera video from the game and we integrated that into the highlights, so some of the key moments from the game, we had our beautiful HD shots and then suddenly these shaky camera shots, but that’s because we invited people to participate and how we actually appreciated their highlights.
And it’s just natural. We don’t really talk about second screen honestly. We talk about best available screen. And for many people the best available screen may be the smallest screen, the one in your pocket. It could be your tablet. And people may take this new screen here and get in front of the other screen and they don’t turn it off, they may sit it over here or there. Maybe they’re looking for texts or some other communication, but the screens stay on. And we want to be really good about that and we want to be mindful of the advances that are going to happen. More and more people are going to care about airplay and spend more time taking content they’re getting from E3 and flipping onto a big screen and then having it resolve to Game Cast so they have multiple experiences.
And this goes beyond just ESPN. I mean, think about it, they put screens in your cars, there are people who walk around with screens clipped to their eyeglasses; it’s all happening. Imagine a world in which the walls in your home don’t have big TV’s sticking out the side with wires, but they actually have screens that are attached to Wi-Fi and you have instant access to information. We’re just trying to make sure that we’re in that conversation.
And we have an audience right now that is very comfortable with technology, so we’re taking full advantage of that. And by exception, we’re teaching others how they can do it.
Samir Husni: So what has been the major stumbling block in all this?
Rob King: So we launched a phone, Mobile ESPN in 2014, and we spent a lot of money on the marketing. Basically the ad campaign was a guy walking along looking at his phone and as he crossed the street an Indy car would zoom by and then he’d open the door and a bunch of mascots would run out of the door and the whole time he’s just looking down at his phone. This incredible and elaborate Mobile ESPN. And then we created a character who was talking about sneaking onto the ESPN campus because he’s just discovered Mobile ESPN. We spent a ton of money.
And then we put all these phones out there, $399 dollars for the phone, plus the data plan and people who had phones were saying I can’t get out of this one, so why would I spend $400 over here? And they just decided not to.
Meanwhile, we had people furiously trying to figure out really cool content to get into the phones and people who had the phones were using the content because the data plans were really going. But people weren’t buying the phones enough to justify the whole thing.
So this told us that we’re not a phone hardware company, we are a content company. So let’s look at the appropriate connection between content and product and what our end is in actually building the product versus our end in figuring out the content piece.
It was one of the most significant learnings that we’ve had because then it freed us up to start thinking about if we’re just focusing on content we don’t care if it’s an android tablet or whether it’s an iPad; we don’t care if it’s this brand of phone and yes, Microsoft’s IOS is different from others and we have to be smarter about that, but we don’t have to go out to people who are making a specific kind of box and tailor everything to them. We’ve got a content solution that actually goes in those places. And that’s one thing that’s changed.
Samir Husni: What was the most pleasant surprise in your journey?
Rob King: Clearly WatchESPN has changed everything. I have three kids and they dominate the television when it’s on and I really don’t want them watching the television all the time. So for me to have Sports ESPN on would make me a hypocrite. So I have a lot of surreptitious viewing.
WatchESPN has enabled me to at all times have one eye on what I’m supposed to be responsible for, but not in a way that says let’s sit on the couch and just watch TV.
Recently we were having this meeting in Burbank and a bunch of us ESPN executives were talking about how WatchESPN had changed everything for us and that it’s the best thing ever.
But the idea that we can make sure that folks can see Sports Center, regardless of where they are is great and we’ve changed and added highlight clips, side by side viewing and we’ve expanded the notion of what Watch is. Watch has also helped, through the Disney Company, and ABC and Disney understand how to connect with people through these devices.
When we first started looking at it, we didn’t know about tablet adoption. We said: what’s tablet adoption going to look like? And now there’s hundreds of millions of tablets in the marketplace and they’re just pre-cursing the screens, they’re going to show up in malls and store kiosks and on phones. And that is just everything.
Samir Husni: If you and I are sitting here three years from now, will you tell me a different story? Such as there’s no need for the printed magazine anymore or no one is watching the TV channel at home. What’s your expectation as an executive for ESPN three years from now? (Photo by Alex Edwards)
Rob King: I don’t think I’ll be saying any of those things. I think people will be watching television and people will be reading magazines, especially our magazine.
I do think over the next three years the ubiquity of screens is going to change the way people publish, so they’re not trying to publish magazines in a digital space that are built exactly like their magazines, but are built more native.
Certainly from our perspective the magazine is a great brand, but what’s also a great brand is storytelling in general. And over the next three years certainly at ESPN we’re going to look at all of our long-form storytelling as experience.
So maybe it carries a great deal of branding, maybe it carries magazine branding or maybe it just carries read ESPN branding, where if you like that kind of experience you can immerse yourself , dip in and out, like WatchESPN.
And we’re redesigning the website and I think the thing that’s going to be most impactful in the next three years is our ability to create a channel of content that is not only personalized, but is very much about now. I think “now” is the concept that eludes media companies more than anything else. The ability to create a place where you just go in and you’re getting nothing but alerts and personalized stuff and social is a niche, an expectation. You’re expectation is to always have an experience that is personalized and relevant to you.
And mainstream media publishing starts not just with what’s always relevant to you, but here’s what we have planned for you today. And I think that’s the biggest media paradigm publishing shift, that you’re not waiting for me to tell you what’s important. I have the advantage in that sports generally galvanizes communities so we don’t miss that often.
And we have to maintain a balance. There’s nothing wrong with us telling you stories you haven’t heard before, breaking news and coming up with things that are really important stories so long as we provide an equal balance of you having an easy access to the things you care about first and foremost.
That’s one of the things we’re learning about right now with the Sports InterApp. We created all this personalization within this Sports InterApp and we’re learning every day. We didn’t use to have an inbox in the Sports InterApp when it was ScoreCenter. There wasn’t one place you could go and find all the alerts you missed. That thing is getting like 18 percent of the traffic, a huge percentage of video starts that are starting not from the main news channel of the app, but from the team specific pages, so people are saying no, I’m going to go to my Jets page and that’s where I’ll start most of the video, not from the main section.
So we have a sense of urgency about making that easier for you and I think you’re going to see that in the redesigned website. You’ll see a very clear channel of the top stories, but a very targeted section of here’s what’s happening right now and when you personalize with us, here are the things that you care about the most front and center.
Samir Husni: Do you think the audience is keeping up with all of these changes or are the changes moving way too fast for them?
Rob King: All I know is our audiences are very accustomed when they start Twitter not for it to be something that they have to get around curation. They’ve already done the curation. Your Twitter experience is something you made. Your Facebook experience is something you made. The interruptions of advertising and all these other cutesy things that Facebook is trying to introduce in a race to monetize; that’s interfering with what you’ve already built on Facebook, which is why some folks are leaving. This is why people are spending time on Instagram and other places because this is an experience that they made.
And when we say media companies are getting that; we don’t get that, we’re behind the curve on that, because an entire generation of folks have been raised to believe that the first experience is their own. Nobody goes to Netflix without any idea what to watch and just starts to search it. You go to Netflix for a purpose. And Netflix knows you. If you’ve watched something already, then they know what you’re interested in. And that’s just a core experience.
Samir Husni: You rose to your current position from the editorial ranks; do you have any fear with this mixing of advertising and editorial that’s creeping into the digital world and if you do, how are you avoiding it at ESPN?
Rob King: I’m not going to answer this question the way you expect me to. I’m going to tell you that I don’t have fear of it and I’m going to spin it.
I was in newspapers for 20 years. I was at the Philadelphia Enquirer for my most recent job. So I’ve been in five newsrooms. And in all those newsrooms, we were very careful to separate church and state from the perspective of thinking about the business. I’m not talking about in terms of the way we covered the news, but thinking about the holistic business.
And I was in newsrooms where the business writers were writing stories about Craig’s List. They were writing these long stories about Craig’s List and the business around Craig’s List and none of them went into a classified sales office and said we have a problem. And now you open up a newspaper and no classified. Because the folks who are actually driving content, who knew what was happening on the street had no association with the folks who were trying to drive the classified business and therefore they weren’t aligned in moving the business forward. We had separate conversations.
So we literally at ESPN Media last year made ad innovation one of our five priorities along with growing video and redesign. Ad innovation: we had two hackathons. One was designed around new cool products and experiences, so folks were creating things like the ultimate Breathalyzer and it measured your pulse and it had access to a social network. It was like a party machine where you watched games and your blood alcohol content would show up on the screen next to your pulse. And they built this in 48 hours.
We had this hackathon where all these ideas showed up around content experiences, but then we had an advertising hackathon. And the way we do the hackathons is we get designers and programmers and content people working in teams on projects and we do the same thing with the ad hackathon. We had people in sales and marketing, programmers, designers and content folks go off and say what are some advertising experiences we could create? And you can see some of them online right now. If you go to ESPN.com on certain days, you’ll see some of the modules on the front page flip over and show an ad, then flip back over and show content.
That came out of the ad hackathon where we were coming up with ways to grow our business that is (a): a great experience for our fans, (b): not intrusive when we’re trying to drive great content and (c): be a great experience for advertisers. Because if we didn’t do that somebody would come over here with some ad execution, a content person would harrumph – oh you’re interrupting with my coverage and we wouldn’t be in it together.
Now these hackathons don’t have anything to do with what happens in content. In fact, what we also do is we sit down and look at the sports calendar and we identify 35 sports holidays. So it’s Wimbledon and U.S. Open tennis or golf or the Super Bowl. And we look at those weeks. What are the days where we have on average the most traffic and what hour of the day does this occur? And when do we want to interfere with the sports fan’s experience the least? They just want to get a score or a piece of video; let’s block out those hours and then let’s look at the other hours and figure out when do we have the scale and when do we do something from an ad perspective that is bigger and grander so that an advertiser will say I want to spend time with ESPN.
And I’ll give you a great example. We did this when Prometheus came out on DVD. We had this incredible takeover of ESPN.com. It was like Prometheus on the side and a big trailer started playing and it would resolve and then go back to ESPN.
And I would ask people what was the main story we were covering that day? And nobody remembered. But there’s a reason no one remembered, because there was nothing happening that day. It was a Tuesday and it was really important for that release to be a smash hit. And that’s why we did it.
But that’s a matter of sitting down as a complete team and thinking about the business. So I see a lot of articles from people in content groups who do not have anything to do with the business wringing their hands over the scary, infiltrating native ads, but that’s not how we do it at ESPN. And I feel that those businesses need to change. I’ve noticed where some businesses where a big part of their digital is video starts. So you start an ad, then a piece of video; so people just do video online only to start an ad basically. That’s the only reason they’re in the video business.
So in some news enterprises the video group does not reside in the content team, they reside in the business group. So you’ve got content groups that are entirely in the business, when in fact what they should be doing, which I’m proud to say we do at ESPN, is to have team building exercises. Things like here’s the state of our business, opportunities for fans, here’s content we’re doing unlike anything else; how do we get that on the calendar and deliver it in a way that builds everybody’s business.
Samir Husni: My typical last question, what keeps you up at night?
Rob King: The one o’clock SportsCenter.
Samir Husni: Thank you.
© Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni, 2014. All Rights Reserved.