What Marketers Can Learn from the NFL

At long last, the leaves have changed colors and the loud cheers of football fans fill the air. I love fall, because fall means football, tailgating, and the occasional frosty beverage.

Football also means Sunday afternoons, Monday nights, and even a few Thursday nights will be spent in stadiums and on couches for much of the American public. But football is more than just a beloved sport—it's actually one of the most important "brands" in America, with loyal fans all across the country.

How Digital Media Will Impact the NFL in 2013

Smartphones, social media, and instantly shared photos and videos could make this year's football season particularly special for the NFL. Let's take a look at a few key ways that digital media will bolster the league this season:

  1. The NFL owns its content. The NFL is the most valuable media franchise in the U.S., and it knows it. It owns the rights to its own broadcasts, and can provide fans with exclusive content on its own platforms, which is something many leagues and franchises have sacrificed to save a few dollars. This season, expect the NFL to leverage its proprietary content more than ever.
  2. Watch for the dual screen. The dual screen, aka the second screen, or the companion device (usually a smartphone) that a viewer keeps on hand while watching television, has been a sexy topic for anybody interested in TV viewership over the last few years. The NFL understands the dual screen, and the league is wisely taking a different approach than most other media brands. While the mobile device is traditionally considered the dual screen, the NFL is placing a larger focus on its mobile app to fuel the football conversation among all NFL fans who have a smartphone. For the first year ever, the NFL Mobile app will be available to cross-carrier smartphone users (not just Verizon customers), increasing the league's ability to collect user data and deliver highly targeted ads. The NFL is the greatest show on turf, and now, the greatest show in the palm of everyone's hands.
  3. The NFL now has an X-factor. With a freshly inked deal with Microsoft's Xbox, you'll start to see Xbox software more immersed in the game. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell says, "From the use of instant replay to the yellow first-down line that has become an important element of the at-home television viewing experience, the NFL is committed to leveraging technology to improve our game for coaches, players, and fans." And naturally, the NFL is already talking about big technology plays in 2014.
  4. The league rewards the in-stadium audience. An average NFL game lasts about three hours. However, only about 60 minutes of that time is actually spent playing football. Guess what fans who bought tickets to the game are doing during those other 120 minutes? Checking Twitter, fantasy football, stats, and what other fans are saying from their phones. Or at least they're trying.

With the huge demands on data networks at NFL stadiums, it has become increasingly difficult for fans attending games to actually access the mobile channels they prefer. With the league pushing for better in-stadium Wi-Fi, expect more fans to share their game day experiences. More tweets, Facebook posts, and Instagram photos and videos will be posted from stadiums than ever before.

Tips for Marketers from the NFL

There's a lot that marketers can learn from football about building energy, engaging a crowd, and creating lifetime fans. Consider these inspirations from football that marketers can tackle:

Manage the Xs and Os. A head coach has 53 players on his roster, but must choose only the top 11 skilled offensive and defensive athletes for each play. Players are to coaches as social, email, mobile, and Web messages are to marketers. To score a touchdown, the correct combination of targeted messages has to be used.

Entertain the crowd. Whether it's at kickoff, during the halftime show, or tied with two seconds left in the game, football keeps the crowd constantly entertained. In order to become an engaging brand, creating personalized, interactive content is key. Even if your brand doesn't provide products or services that are as innately entertaining as a football game, you can still discover ways to entertain your customer base with every email, tweet, and touch point.

Integrate fans into the experience. Almost 30 million people play fantasy football. In other words, there are more fantasy football players than there are people in Texas! Integrating fans into the NFL experience makes enthusiasts that much more excited to watch games throughout the season. To develop meaningful one-to-one relationships with your brand, give customers the ability to create and curate their own content, contribute to ideas for new and improved products, and connect with your brand on the channels that they use most.

Go where the fans are. The NFL understood that fans were going mobile, whether they were Verizon customers or not, so the league changed its mobile app strategy. Similarly, once you learn more about your customers' preferences, your brand should follow suit and go where the audience is.

The NFL has transformed a simple 11 versus 11 game into a multibillion-dollar media and entertainment industry. With more fans than ever before and technology growing as fast as the game, expect the NFL to continue to maximize the enormous digital opportunities ahead and win big during the 2013 season. Now, who's ready for some football?

Kyle Lacy is the senior manager of content marketing and research at ExactTarget.

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