Politics & Governance, Rugby, Global, Asia, Video

From design to delivery: Going inside the 2019 Rugby World Cup digital strategy

With Asian audience engagement a key metric during the ongoing Rugby World Cup, chief marketing officer Marissa Pace oversaw a pre-tournament overhaul of World Rugby's digital approach with the aim to convert a new fan base.

by Steven Impey
From design to delivery: Going inside the 2019 Rugby World Cup digital strategy

There is a saying in Japan which, translated into English, simply means: ten people, ten colours. The phrase represents an expression of individuality; that each and every person subscribes to unique interests and savours their own personal taste.

In the Far East, Japan is in the midst of hosting the Rugby World Cup, and has lit up the land with colours of national teams from all corners of the globe.  

Though traditionally a Western occasion, Japan is breaking the mould that international rugby union has followed in previous editions, and is doing so in more ways than one, with World Rugby also breaking new ground around its digital coverage by embracing local culture.

While the host nation’s victory over Ireland will be remembered as one of the tournament’s iconic nights, it was on social media where the rugby community celebrated the feat in its droves. A flurry of memes and wannabe viral video clips illustrated the magnitude of the result for a country that is carrying the hopes of, not just its people, but also World Rugby as the governing body bids to establish a true Asian force.

In a technology-driven region, World Rugby has adopted a fresh social strategy to attract Asian audiences to the tournament and extend the governing body’s reach to fans who - as the Japanese saying implies - have different relationships with the sport.

“It’s the old adage: you have to fish where the fish are,” explains Marissa Pace, World Rugby’s chief marketing officer. “You have to present the content that people want to consume, and that is ever-changing. We can’t just stick with the traditional platforms anymore.

“We have to adopt what people’s schedules are, where they are consuming content, how they are consuming content, and I think every international sports federation’s objective is to seed the next generation of viewers and we are taking that very seriously.”

Since taking on leadership of the tournament’s digital team at the beginning of 2019, Pace has gone back and forth between Tokyo and World Rugby headquarters in Dublin.

Speaking to SportsPro from the Irish capital, she says she was able to see first-hand the tournament’s influence as colleagues in Tokyo, some wearing colours of Japan and the others the green of Ireland, sent her videos of the celebrations on the ground.  

Japan's Kenki Fukuoka scores his side's first try against Ireland at Shizuoka Stadium

“Two years ago, our website goals were to grow our Japanese audience by 50 per cent and we’ve reached that goal many times over since then,” Pace continues. “Our Japan audience has been the second highest in terms of traffic to our website, and that is something our team should be proud of.

“I joined World Rugby is January and, at that point, they were nine years into the process of working to host this tournament. But one of my big points was to make sure that our content is aligned to our audience and bringing that together.

“Our broadcast, digital, and social teams all work hand in hand, and they spent the summer working with our agencies to make sure that they captured that Japanese spirit and those cultural elements we are trying to push through our platforms, and to make sure that it’s socially sensitive.”

Around Japan’s victory over Ireland, World Rugby’s output included more than its highlights and interview content it previously relied upon. On Instagram, the official tournament channels included a meme featuring the Japanese animated series Dragon Ball Z, whilst that sounds like a minor detail it demonstrates a light-hearted engagement strategy perhaps not always associated with a sport as traditional as rugby.

In addition to this approach, the tournament has implemented more data and alternative camera angles to its delayed coverage on social media. Meanwhile, a new partnership with the global social video platform TikTok, which encourages fans to create their own Rugby World Cup content, has attracted more than 40 million impressions on its Rugby World Cup channel during the tournament so far, and continues to grow.

“TikTok is also a very strong platform in Asia, as you will know, and has a very young demographic – I think ages 13 to 17 are their primary fan base,” Pace says when asked on the reasoning behind the collaboration. “So, for us to get on there is a complete departure from what we have done traditionally, and I think that is the approach we decided on coming into the Rugby World Cup.

“We decided to take a risk and to offer much edgier content than we ever have done. We don’t want to be a highlights reel, and it has clearly paid off on our TikTok platform, on SnapChat, and with our Rugby World Cup Daily show.

“Our objective is to show just how fun rugby is and, as a traditional sport, we might be the victims of our own success sometimes, and our own image, but that is where these new platforms come through for us, and they have been delivering us results.”

One of the tournament’s touching and inspirational stories has been the role rugby played in the recovery of Kamaishi, a city in Japan’s northern prefecture of Iwate, where the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011 took the lives of thousands and left the port settlement, like so many along the Pacific coastline, in ruins.  

In helping to rebuild the community, World Rugby, which announced the host cities for Japan 2019 ahead of the last World Cup in 2015, made a point of including the rural region, and subsequently built the 16,000-capacity Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium on the grounds of a former elementary school wiped out by the tsunami.

Set against a stunning backdrop of lush mountain ranges, Brett Gosper, World Rugby’s chief executive, was among the visitors to the stadium’s first of two Rugby World Cup fixtures on 25th September as Uruguay pulled off a shock victory over Fiji in the tournament’s pool stages.

“This is a place that has never hosted an event of this scale, so we had to work hard to make it happen,” Gosper said. “It’s a great moment for the sport, the region, and the country.

“Kamaishi has a very strong rugby origin – the Kamaishi Seawaves were seven times national champions between 1979 and 1985 – so rugby in this community is very important and they were identified as being a very good fit for a World Cup event like this.

“We didn’t question that. What we could feel was the very strong desire to send a message of support to Japan around Kamaishi, and we did everything that we could [to bring the Rugby World Cup to the region] leading up to the tournament.”

Fans at the Kamaishi Recovery Memorial Stadium watch the pre-match ceremony before Uruguay take on Fiji

While World Rugby’s objective is not to cater to only the sport’s most popular markets and biggest stadia, Pace believe Japan’s time in the sun “is case and point” for the when trying to demonstrate the inclusivity of a tournament now into its ninth edition.

“We will continue to look for new and interesting markets that will help to grow the sport in these next-gen countries,” she says, “That is from the grassroots right up to the World Cup, and is where places like Kamaishi and so many others come into play in the tournaments that we host.

“From a social and content perspective, there were just some very beautiful moments [in Kamaishi] that exposed our core values, and I think our broadcast and digital team did a phenomenal job showing what rugby meant to that city and how much it contributed to lifting the spirits after that terrible event in 2011.

“There is a strong rugby culture that we can build on in that region, and that goes for our future marketing and communications, and digital and social approach in Japan, and in Asia as a whole. We will continue that on long after [the tournament] and that is really important to us.”

While BeIN Sports’ rights deal covers several of the Asia’s territories outside Japan, as part of its push in the continent, World Rugby announced prior to the tournament that it would give free access in regions without broadcast partnerships in place to live Rugby World Cup matches via its over-the-top (OTT) service.

“My philosophy on everything that we do on a marketing and communications level is to get rugby into as many homes, as many phones, as many platforms and in front of as eyeballs as we possibly can,” Pace continues. “This time, I think we were a bit of a victim of our own success in that, just as we were about to launch the tournament, we signed a few new broadcast deals.

“Of course, our broadcast partners are very important to us because they help us to promote the sport, but it meant we weren’t able to get [our OTT service] into as many territories as we would have liked to, but that doesn’t mean we won’t be able to do that in future tournaments.”

During the tournament, World Rugby’s YouTube channel has also surpassed 1 million views, with an offering of match highlights and also the Rugby World Cup Daily show, which takes the audience under the skin of the Japanese way of life, and gives presenter Elma Smit free rein to exhibit the tournament from the perspective of local and international fans.

“We are just trying to move the ball in every direction and hopefully, by the end of the tournament, we are going to have some amazing numbers for you,” Pace explains.

“What’s most important to me is what that does for our audience and how is it getting them to come back to our platforms including our website and our app. That’s what we’re working towards.”