It wasn't so long ago I received some sponsor copy that I was to copy and paste onto the team's social media channels. That was sponsored social media in the relative stone age.
I didn't like it. Fans didn't like it. And did little or nothing for the corporate partner.
There's a better way. And, as Minnesota Wild Social Media Coordinator Katlyn Gambill explains, the organization is not just fulfilling orders, they're working closely with corporate partners to design or incorporate an activation that fans will actually enjoy and will further the sponsor objectives. As sports teams have started acting more like content production companies, they've also started to put those skills to work for their corporate partners.
"Our main focus is 'What do the fans want, and are they going to enjoy it?' Gambill told me in our recent chat. "Our corporate department is fantastic on selling, and going back to a partner and saying 'We want both sides to be successful in this. So, while this may be the idea, here's this tweak that'll fit our fans better and our brand. And it'll produce better results for you. Are you cool with this?'"
Beyond serving as the informed intermediary and content producers for their sponsors, the Wild also take the time to understand the brands, figure out the fit, and evaluate the best way to activate. Because social media is active media and the beauty of it is it can and should produce actions, going beyond the longstanding payoff of 'impressions.' When there is a defined goal, campaigns can be tailored to fit those goals and to achieve results against those goals. While her title may not have 'partnership' or 'sponsorship' in it, it's clear from speaking with Gambill, and most social media and sports pros, that a deep understanding of ROI and partnership activation is not only a plus, but a requirement for these roles. Gambill gets it.
“I'm also not a fan of just plopping a logo on something; I don't think that does anything on social media," said Gambill, who has been with the Wild for over three years. "If the company doesn't have social media presence, (then) it's really difficult for me to buy into it, because what are they getting out of it, then? Are they looking for just leads? Are they trying to build their social media presence to allow fans to follow them and, in time, buy their product or whatever they're trying to do?”
It can't feel forced or out of place, because fans these days will sniff that out quickly. If it feels natively baked into the experience and the content, the sponsor doesn't feel like an advertiser, the sponsor feels like a partner. And that's a win for all sides. Sometimes, it's integrating a sponsor into a content feature or promotion already tried, true, and welcomed by fans. Other times, it's working with folks like Gambill, that understand the community and the brand, to identify something fans will like.
"So we work really closely with them on trying to tie something in that we're either already doing on social and digital media, and how we attach it to a partner," explained Gambill, who credits her time working with the New Jersey Devils as a beneficial experience to helping her understanding of effective sponsor activation. "Or – what does the partner want, what are they looking for, and how can we build something that will fit both our side and theirs?...So it's a lot of going back and forth, and trying to make sure both sides are really happy.”
There is no doubt that the nature of sponsorship and advertising has changed. For sports, this means increased opportunity, but also increased responsibility. Fans will consume content and give their hearts and minds to their favorite teams, and sponsors can benefit from this investment. But there's a wrong way and better ways.
The better, more enlightened path may not be quick and easy as a copy and paste job. But the benefit of a little work and a little collaboration can lead to tremendous partnerships and partnership activations. The era of advertising is over. The era of partnerships is just beginning.