Media Rights, Video, Basketball, Soccer, Europe, Global

‘We sit and we think, what are we missing?’: Inside Snapchat’s sports content strategy

Snapchat has ridden a wave from excitement to scepticism in its seven-year history but there are signs now that it has a greater sense of its own identity. Senior partnerships manager Juan David Borrero gives SportsPro an insight into this unique company’s content and partnership plans.

by Eoin Connolly
‘We sit and we think, what are we missing?’: Inside Snapchat’s sports content strategy

Through its seven-year existence, two very distinct stories have been told about Snapchat.

The first was of the social network that would change social networks forever. Between its frenzied aesthetic and the timed self-destruction of its messages, it mystified older observers and magnetised younger users in its first few years. Explosive growth prompted excited chatter about its eventual role in toppling Facebook.

After that came the apparent tailspin. Notoriously, in 2013 co-founders Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy had turned down a reported US$3 billion takeover offer from Facebook, whose response was to move aggressively into Snapchat’s space. Facebook copied the template of the popular Stories platform to revitalise the photo-sharing platform Instagram in August 2016. The latter took off, hitting a billion daily users by last year. As of June more than 400 million people were using Instagram Stories each day on average, a little over twice as many as those using Snapchat’s original version.

Snapchat’s key commercial differentiator had gone. Since then, that news that has emerged from a famously secretive company has been decidedly mixed. The 2016 release of a proprietary sunglasses camera, Snapchat Spectacles, was a flop. A much-anticipated 2017 IPO of parent company Snap failed to catch fire. A bold redesign at the start of 2018 triggered a backlash and a two per cent decline in daily active users. Spiegel’s leadership as chief executive has been the subject of scrutiny and conjecture.

Yet both of those narratives are a little too crisply trimmed, even for the social media age. For all its growing pains, Snapchat retains a core daily audience of 186 million users, who spend an average of 30 minutes a day on the platform. In the US, it is more popular with teenagers than Instagram; in the UK, where it has 12 million daily users, it was predicted by eMarketer in August that it would eclipse Facebook’s popularity among 18 to 24-year-olds by the turn of the year.

Disappointing user numbers have seen its stock value wobble but there is one thing it is beginning to deliver: revenues. Its income rose by 43 per cent year-on-year in October to take its annual income above US$1 billion over that period, and it aims to turn a profit in 2019. Snapchat is working harder to define itself publicly and commercially, and something is getting through to potential partners.

Snapchat is taking highly curated approach to sports content, working with only select partners such as Copa90

“Snapchat was just born from different circumstances,” says James Kirkham, head of business at digital soccer fan channel Copa90, which is an official publisher on Snapchat. “It was of the moment, in the moment, reactive, mad and emotive, and all of that sort of stuff. As such, they believe it: young people continue to believe it and believe what’s on there.

“Now, that’s not necessarily gone anywhere and using the platform for what that is – for being in the moment, for messaging their friends, for referring and talking and chatting and whatever they’re capturing in that way – it’s still a hugely important part of their lives. If you’ve got a business like us, of course you stay across the incline or otherwise of platforms or audiences or who’s on it as much as you can determine, and in doing so, at the same time, you make sure you leverage the platform for what they’re best at.”

For Snapchat, meanwhile, building partnerships in sport is rising as a priority.

“There are moments in time where people really come together and engage with these events and some of these athletes and teams in a way that’s unlike any other vertical,” says Snapchat senior partnerships manager Juan David Borrero, Snap’s 23rd employee, speaking to SportsPro in late December. “It’s hard to think of another one that’s so relevant and pervasive as sports.”

How is Snapchat positioning itself?

Unlike Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or even LinkedIn, Snapchat does not open to a news feed. Nor is it possible to search for individual users without knowing their exact details. The choice is deliberate: this is a messaging service for close friends, not a social network of the kind understood elsewhere.

“We want to think of Snapchat as the fastest way to share a moment: take a photo, take a video, send it to your friends,” says Borrero. “That’s the cornerstone of what the app is and the value proposition that we have, which is very unique and differentiated from a lot of different platforms.”

The purpose of that controversial redesign was to drive this point home, and build Snapchat’s identity around it.

“If you look at Snapchat, we say we’re a camera company,” suggests Borrero. “In the middle of it, there’s the camera. The importance of that is that when you open Snapchat, you open into the camera.”

On the left of that camera is “the one-to-one or maybe one-to-many communication side”. User manipulation of photo and video, through filters and augmented reality plug-ins, remains Snapchat’s unique selling point. Over three billion photo and video messages, or Snaps, are created and ten billion videos watched each day.

As a result, the first asset Snapchat pitches to prospective partners is the technology that goes into its Lenses and Filters functions, as well as the animated Bitmoji avatars used by its community. “We believe in the power of having these different creative tools at the disposal of Snapchatters so they can spread their fandom through messages,” says Borrero.

Advertisers are able to buy the right to create their own bespoke animations and adornments, an opportunity of which the likes of McDonald’s, Pepsi and Nivea have availed themselves. Snapchat also offers some rights holders the chance to have these products built for them in a value-in-kind arrangement to capture engagement around major events, something it has done for the Uefa Champions League final, the Fifa World Cup and the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics.

Snapchat's Bitmoji avatars proved popular during the 2018 Fifa World Cup​

“In the US, for instance, you can dress up your Bitmoji with the uniform of almost any of the major league sports teams,” Borrero notes.

Geo-filtered functions allow users to automatically insert their location, team information and even scores and weather in their Snaps, while linking to related public posts.

To the right of the camera is Snapchat’s curated content platform, Discover, which it launched in January 2015 as a route to partners and a means of keeping users on the platform. It began with 18 different partners and now has over 100, a carefully managed and self-consciously disparate range which includes CNN, NBC, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Culture Trip, Vice, LADBible and Refinery29.

Today, Discover comprises four different strands. These are ‘Our Stories’, where Snaps from a range of users are collated around a given event; ‘Official Stories’, which are produced by accredited accounts; ‘Publisher Stories’, the more sophisticated and multi-faceted deep-dives created by media organisations and partners; and the most recent addition, ‘Shows’, which are video series of between three and seven minutes long that try to bring broadcast into Snapchat’s unusual environment.

“Shows is a very interesting content format that we have because we really want to reimagine mobile television,” says Borrero. “That’s the goal that we’ve set out to do.”

With features like auto-advance, there are comparisons to be made between the Shows format and a service like Netflix. But the output, which is put together by selected partners and an in-house Snap Originals brand and spans scripted drama, magazine shows and documentaries, intends to offer something quite radical. Not only do these programmes offer the interactive and graphical flourishes that are Snapchat’s hallmark, and the opportunity to swipe up and access more content – from video to messaging to additional links – they will also provide other means for partners to make money.

That will increasingly mean ecommerce, something that is already possible through Publisher Stories in the US. American media brand Barstool Sports is an early adopter, selling sweaters, T-shirts and hoodies “of pop culture moments” directly to Snapchat users “through a native commerce experience”. SeatGeek, meanwhile, has experimented with integrated ticket sales.

Where does sport fit in Snapchat’s content strategy?

“We know that Snapchatters love sports and the sports content that’s available through Discover,” says Borrero. “We know that. We know we have a big audience that’s engaging with sports, not only on the creative tools side but also on the content side. I think the ability to bring in a lot of quick, hyper-visual content – mostly around highlights – is a big opportunity.”

For Snapchat – as for so many other media companies – partnerships with sports organisations and publishers is about capturing the attention of users and generating activity on its platform. Top clubs and leagues combine local differentiation with global scale.

Following its partnerships with the likes of the National Basketball Assoication (NBA) and National Football League (NFL) in the US, and with a range of major global events, Snapchat is now enlisting a selection of soccer clubs to build out its sports content portfolio. To date, those sides producing output on its Highlights Shows feature are English champions Manchester City, German champions Bayern Munich, European champions Real Madrid, and Tottenham Hotspur, Olympique de Marseille and AS Roma.

“The idea of quick content that can also be entertaining and is also relevant is really, really exciting for us,” says Borrero. “Because it’s not just a question of putting up three goals and a red card, that’s it: there’s a narrative that is associated with it.”

Snapchat has the capacity to join live streams in play, and did so last year during the UK’s Royal Wedding and the Winter Olympics, but its interest is more in big moments than full events.

On the publisher side, Snapchat is aiming to draw together the same variety of partners as it has in the news and entertainment space, stating its goal as attracting credible and authoritative contributors. That means complementing “very traditional” broadcasters like Sky Sports with the likes of Copa90, which prioritises cultural output over live coverage.

How do the partner relationships operate?

“We are not an open-for-all platform, and not everybody gets access to our content management system,” explained Rami Saad, Snapchat’s international head of content partnerships, at the UK launch of Shows in October. “To be able to get access to that, the path towards that is a partnership and it’s a programming decision around the right partner and the right format.”

Snapchat, in other words, is “highly curated” in terms of who it works with and that selectiveness allows for deeper editorial partnerships, with guidance on “best practices” and testing.

“A big part of it is obviously that it’s mobile-first,” says Borrero. “It’s also vertical. That’s a big thing for a lot of our partners: they know mobile, they know vertical, but the fact that for us the content has to be fully vertical and fully mobile is a bit daunting sometimes.”

Copa90, Kirkham says, is better tailored than most for Snapchat, given its audience and the make-up of its production team. Still, he insists the platform is “better than ever” at responding to the needs of its partners, “saying what they’re seeing on the data, giving nods and tactics and bits of feedback on how to make it more engaging”.

“Obviously, they’re trying to hone and refine to make their platform great and make the stuff super-sticky, so that works really well,” he adds.

James Kirkham, Copa90's head of business, has seen his company's content flourish on Snapchat

Copa90’s journey on Snapchat began with a Story series called Saturdays Are Lit, a first point of contact and experimentation. It produced daily content from the ground during the Fifa World Cup in Russia before being invited to create its new Show, World of Football, when the format came to the UK earlier this year.

Snapchat structures individual financial arrangements for partners, with different revenue shares for each one. It paid US$100 million to publishers in 2017, a figure that is likely to rise for 2018.

Some of this advertising is from programmatic pre and mid-roll clips, but the options are increasingly diversifying for partners – particularly on Shows. Kirkham notes that brands are getting savvier about whether and why they want to be title sponsors of this kind of content, to sponsor a small segment, or to be integrated into the programme. 

From a creative perspective, the appeal of Snapchat is that it provides the opportunity to do something quite different from the long-form, “super-finessed” programming that has become the focus on outlets like YouTube and Facebook Watch. Immediacy and graphical ingenuity come to the fore.

“They both have equal importance, funnily enough,” he adds. “People would be surprised by it. Because it’s different need states or behavioural states for a fan or an audience. You’re not always in that same mode.”

Even more significant is the breakdown of the audience. Copa90 will have expected to reach “a 16-year-old on the back of the bus” but it was a pleasant surprise for the company – which appointed Rebecca Smith as its first global executive director of the women's game at the start of this Fifa Women’s World Cup year – to discover that 45 per cent of its Snapchat viewers were female.

“We’re doing a lot in the women’s game right now; we’re pushing hard on helping transform women’s football and for us that became very interesting,” Kirkham says.

The “collaborative process” on content development, Borrero says, works both ways, with publishers expected to come back to Snapchat on ways in which to “potentially maximise this content format”. That, he says, was the experience of Publisher Stories.

Copa90, which enjoyed close to three million unique viewers for the first series of its World of Football Show, is already exploring different ways to make use of the new concept.

“We got them in with the zany, crazy madness, but once there they could swipe up and get mini-docs – five or ten-minute films – out of the back of it,” Kirkham explains. “And I hadn’t seen much done like that previously and I actually think there’s a real future there. You can kind of do both. We can still be visually arresting: fun and alarming or crazy or irreverent or whatever that might be. But underneath you can actually go deeper and take longer if you so want.”


What’s next for Snapchat in sport and beyond?

Borrero is “excited” by the prospect of greater expansion across Europe, the Middle East and Asia in 2019. While he suggests Snapchat will not “open the floodgates”, there is scope to build out its content partnership portfolio and satisfy the tastes of its user base. 

“Now we sit here and we think, what are we missing?” he adds. “We should probably be doing more cricket, more rugby. And I think it will always be evolving. I don’t think it will get to a point where we sit back and say, ‘OK, we’re done with content.’”

After turmoil, controversy and continued development in 2018, the year ahead promises to be a pivotal one for social networks, their relationships with users, with partners, with individual creators and with other media companies. And as the sector approaches commercial maturity, it will be up to each company to flesh out its use case.

“I think the different social platforms serve different purposes,” says Borrero (pictured, right). “I don’t think it’s necessarily a black and white sort of world where it’s one or none. The place that we’re making for ourselves is a platform where you can communicate with your closest friends and then you can consume content that is relevant to you and the tastes that you have.”

Kirkham, for his part, is excited to see a partner “come out fighting” in a bid to reassert its identity.

“This platform came out with such a bang,” he recalls. “Half the people over the age of 30 could barely understand what it was. A phone that was pointed in your own face, a visual language that was so alien: there’s something about that that gave such an allure and captured the attention of young people. And I love that. And I love the idea that as much as they appease big brands and need commercials and partnerships, and have to continue to evolve the likes of the Discover part, it’s that core DNA.

“I think if they can keep pushing on that and keep innovating, that’s a terrific place to play in.”