Welcome to Brand Story Inc., I’m your host Jay Sharman. Every week we sit down with smart folks to talk about innovative ways they are creating content to connect with their audiences. I’d like to say every company can be a media company, and this conversation hopefully helps you understand why.
Brand Story Inc. with Facebook’s Kevin Cote
Jay Sharman: Joining me today on Brand Story Inc., is Kevin Cote, the director of sports partnerships for teams and athletes at Facebook. Kevin, welcome to the show.
Kevin Cote: Thank you very much. Excited to be here and excited to chat.
Jay Sharman: Awesome, well let’s start with the basics. I threw out your title but would love for you to explain what a director of sports partnerships does and your role is at Facebook?
Kevin Cote: Sure thing. So yeah, I sit within the Sports Partnerships Department at Facebook, which means not just Facebook, the app that two point something billion people are using every day, but also Instagram and WhatsApp and Messenger and Oculus and that entire family of apps within the Facebook umbrella. We essentially serve as free consultants for the entire sports industry. That being teams, athletes, media companies, leagues, to maximize the potential of utilizing our platforms both for content purposes, for brand building, for audience development, but also to drive business outcomes. And most of us on our team actually came from the sports’ industry, so we have that lens of knowing what it’s like to work for these organizations. And so, that therefore makes us even more passionate about helping our partners achieve maximum efficiency and maximum relevancy, and also maximizing the business potential.
Jay Sharman: Yeah, and for point of context, for our listeners, prior to Facebook, I think you started there in 2015, Kevin was the Senior Director of Digital Marketing for the Golden State Warriors for over a decade, and before that worked in media relations for the San Francisco Giants. So you’ve got quite the cross-section of big brands and then have worked from the inside, which I’m sure has provided a pretty unique perspective for you in your current gig.
Kevin Cote: Yeah, for sure. I’m very fortunate to have worked in the sport’s industry my entire life, which means I’ve never had a real job, and I’m very thankful for that. I’ve always been very passionate about the work that I’ve been able to do and I’ve gotten to see everything from, in working in baseball, the grind of 162 games, but living and dying by every win and loss. That was a very great experience to begin my career and then worked for the Warriors. So the warriors weren’t always the warriors that they are in the last five years, I always try to remember to remind people of that. It was a lot of dark days, a lot of being on the losing end of a lot of games, and two different ownership groups.
So that was almost two different jobs being that it was two different phases of that organization’s tenure. So I’m very fortunate to come from this side but also learned a lot along the way about the entire industry and luckily being at Facebook has then exposed me to even more, not just on the team side but the entire sport’s ecosystem and how the sports and business world itself has grown and matured. But also the global nature of sport on a very global platform. And so we have the opportunity to see it through that lens of not just here in the U.S. but globally. I’ve gotten to learn a lot about sports, like rugby and cricket, things I never would have imagined having knowledge of. And I don’t pretend to have a lot of knowledge of those things, but being in this job has allowed me to see things through that lens as well and then try to take those learnings and bring them to the partners we work with close to here in the U.S. as well.
Jay Sharman: Well obviously as we’re taping this, it’s late March and we’re smack dab in the middle of pretty much the country going on shelter in place. And so there’s a moment going on here right now for Facebook and Instagram in the sports world as teams and players at leagues are grappling to try to figure out what to do. So I’d love to do this in maybe two buckets and we’ll start first with turn the clock back, whatever 30 days ago pre-Coronavirus and would like to start there in terms of things that were exciting you, whether it was on the athlete level, on the team level or even the league level things that you’re involved in, things that you were seeing at Facebook and Instagram that were exciting you that you feel are representative of ways you wish all of your partners could be using your platforms. And we’ll start there and then we’ll flip over into the new world order that we’re in.
Kevin Cote: Sounds good yeah, 30 days seems so long ago…
Jay Sharman: Right, it’s like years at this point.
Kevin Cote: Yeah, so hard to even remember, but honestly this time of year, January, February, March, is really some of our busiest times a year purely due to all the activity within the sports world from, the Super Bowl, NBA All-Star Weekend to preparing for Major League Baseball and March Madness and NBA playoffs. So here in the U.S. it’s a very busy time of year for us. So a lot. And not to mention this being an Olympic year or was an Olympic year 2020. Those were all things we had a very big presence at the Super Bowl and at NBA All-Star Weekend. We were activating in a number of ways with teams and athletes and the league and media companies and brands at those events. We were really focused on some of the really exciting projects. And they were kind to continue to work through, but obviously things are on a back burner right now.
Things like commerce, so Instagram shopping. We’ve been working really closely with directly with athletes for Julian Edelman for example, on how he’s taken his own JE11 brand, and taken that to Instagram and been selling direct to consumer and using his own platform, his own voice, his own method of storytelling and using content to create commerce opportunities. So things like that were essential focus for us.
On the teams side, we’ve really focused on demonstrating to teams, how they can not only grow their audiences locally, nationally, and globally through our platforms, but how the people who are engaging with their content are often the best leads for driving conversions, outcomes, ticket sales, merchandise sales, sponsorships. And that’s become a very much of a core to what we work on with teams, is how to maximize the potential to drive their business through the content. And that has created a great new conversation within these teams where oftentimes there are silos to get everybody in the organization to realize that the social media team, the digital media team is a revenue-generating department because they’re driving all of these potential leads and conversions outcomes. So those are the things 30 days ago we were very focused on and will continue to be focused on, but obviously on the back burner right now.
Jay Sharman: Yeah, give us some examples in your mind of who’s doing it well. I love to use examples of that. So to your point, I think you hit on a key thing. The reason this podcast is called Brand Story Inc. is that we look at any brand and it’s easy to look at sports brands, whether you’re a team or actually an individual as their own media companies, right? And how to think and act like a media company and exactly what you were saying, bringing the different departments together and having a unified approach. What are some go-to examples that Q1 2020 you were looking at and saying, “Wow, these guys are doing it well and what was it that they were doing well?”
Kevin Cote: Yeah, so I’ll start on the team side. And to your point, that’ll be one of our elevator pitches for teams or talking to the president or owners is that, you’re effectively a digital media company that happens to play football. And that’s the way that on that side of the business you should be thinking about things with a built-in advantage of having a very passionate fan base and a schedule of a steady stream of content. And that’s all things you should be taking to your advantage because that is the future of the sports media industry. And the nice thing about our work also is that we with the biggest clubs in the world from Real Madrid and Barcelona to all the way to college programs and minor league teams and trying to scale education as best as possible to make sure everyone has the best information possible.
And we do that in a variety of ways. Here in the U.S. some of the key examples we’re sighting, and we were in Miami for the Super Bowl and anytime we’re in Miami we loved catching up with our friends with the Miami Dolphins, they are a team we site often mostly because they really embody what it means to leverage the in-house capabilities with content to drive incredible business results. So during the 2017 season, 25% of their new season ticket membership came as a direct result of leads that generated on Facebook. They are continually atop the NFL Leaderboard in terms of Facebook video views and their team that have made the playoffs I think once in the last 15 years. And so not knock on their on field performance, but on the business side that didn’t have a lot of control over that.
When we work with teams, there’s teams that are they’re playing the small market or they’re in a losing situation. But we like to remind them is in those situations there are still ways to succeed on the business side and often it’s through the investment in the content. And when the investment in the content bears out, return on investment and you can prove that, it then reinforces that that investment in content is worth it and should be taken even more seriously and that manifests itself through ticket sales, merchandise sponsorship and more.
Jay Sharman: Kevin, I like to go deeper to illustrate larger points here. So let’s stay with the Miami Dolphins, right? I’m looking at their Facebook page that’s got about 2.2 million followers on Facebook. You said something there and I think many people are getting more sophisticated about this, but I think when you talk about the investment in content and converting into business results of the stats that you just gave out, it evokes an image of almost advertorial and trying to promote ticket sales. And I’m guessing where you’re going to go is saying it’s actually the opposite. If you could maybe give some examples of it’s entertaining and engaging content that is more attractive than anything that is, I think sports consumers understand advertorial content here. But maybe an example of two that you have that illustrates the content that’s successful for them?
Kevin Cote: Most definitely. And it’s not just the Dolphins. There are a variety of teams and we’ve published public case studies that anyone can access with dozens of teams over the last couple of years. But sticking with the Miami Fame, the Miami Heat are another team that does it extremely well. And when they have a jersey unveil like their Miami Vice inspired teal and pink jerseys that were all the rage. They see that as a content opportunity as well. And so the content they put around that jersey reveal was incredible. But they invested a lot in that as well because they knew it was a big moment. But because of that, they saw incredible return on investment in not only the content they created, but how they were leveraging our advertising tools. And that’s going into the main peak to your question there, which is not content that is advertorial in nature or hit you over the head with a call to action, it’s more about inspiring and engaging people and capturing their attention, collecting those people and then retargeting them through our sophisticated ad tools.
That’s the secret sauce, the means to success that we see the most effective teams, especially executing on our platform. It is inspirational, engaging content and different content that appeals to different segments of the fan base and then leveraging the ability to collect those people and directly advertise to them potentially even about the content that they just saw with more of a call to action now that you know that they are an engaged fan. And other teams doing a super successfully recently, the New York Jets, the Buffalo Bills, Antonio Spurs. We’re seeing teams again in small markets and big markets in winning situations and situations where they’re more looking at the future. And that’s the fun part of our job too, is being able to work through all those scenarios.
Jay Sharman: Yeah, it’s interesting. I’d be curious I want to fast forward to the current day here in which it’s going to be very exciting I think for people to listen to. I’m going to put myself out there and you can swat me down, but I remember I had one client the Tennis Hall of Fame and I was at a board meeting and we were pitching a new brand that we created for them, which is called TennisWorthy, which is inspiring tennis stories, leveraging the greatest stories from the greatest names of the game. And I was in front of a board room that had extremely high profile folks, tended to be probably an older-skewing age, but sports team owners, CEOs of Fortune 1000 Companies.
And there’s 40 people in the room and you’re trying to explain a media property being built from scratch across digital media. And we talked about, I used Facebook and I name drop Dan Reed and how I’d met with him and you talked about this, but part of this came from Dan I think years ago, but I use this, the cable television analogy because most people in the room or over 60 plus, and I said, “Really if you think about it, the Tennis Hall of Fame is almost like NBC or what we used to think in the ’80s, or ESPN as a network, right? It’s the originator of where the content is coming from in each of the individual tennis stars, whether it’s Roger Federer or Coco Gauff or whomever it may be, are their own cable system, their own cable channel, right?
And if you think about it’s the way I understood was just that Facebook set up in a way that, if you are the originator of this content and able to connect the dots and leverage the different individual players, performers, concentric circles of celebrity fans, individual influencers, that’s really an ecosystem of what you’re creating. That was my down and dirty explanation of how a brand can leverage the ecosystem. Now you get to swat that down and tell me how off I was.
Kevin Cote: Not at all. I think I’d like to copy and paste some of that as we talk to team owners sometimes. And I’ve been in this job almost five years now and our department has existed for about five or six years and over that time we’ve seen our own narrative shift. But we’ve also seen, I think a lot more understanding of the potential and where things are heading. Technology is not going to slow down. Digital media is not going to slow down and we’re in a position to help our partners, whatever their outcomes might be. That’s the other great part about our job is that the business outcome you’re trying to drive is audience development, driving OTT subscriptions, driving ticket sales, driving march, creating new sponsorship opportunities, whatever that might be we have a solution for that and can work backwards.
And that’s how we approach it would be the entities and it can be scary to think through disrupting old business models, but what we like to show that we can be complimentary to that and in our host of products can help solve for all of those different solutions, which is also what makes it really exciting and as it relates to athletes, that’s increasingly becoming understood, especially by the athletes who are coming into the professional ranks as digital natives. That’s the thing is when we started this five, six years ago, some of it was in the Major League Baseball locker room. It might be taboo for some guy to be on social media. Now it’s the expectation and it’s competitive among the players, who has more followers, who has the most engagement, who’s doing the sponsored deals. And that’s where again, it’s not slowing down and Facebook and Instagram have the potential to break down that barrier between athlete and fan and really make these guys less.
A decade or two ago, athletes were untouchable, we saw them on TV commercials, you saw them playing on the court in person or on TV. And that was, well maybe it, unless you’d have to be up close and personal getting autographed. Now you have the opportunity to get a peek into these athletes lives day in and day out to connect with them, to interact with them. And that has also made the connection all the more real, not individually, but for these athletes to be able to understand, oh, I can go direct to consumer to sell my apparel. Whether that’s to leverage the tennis example you just mentioned, Serena Williams who has her own merchandise line and is selling direct to consumer on Instagram or someone like Raphael Nadal who is working with Nike to sell Nike apparel direct to consumer through his own channel. And that’s where things are shifting, and we’re really excited about is seeing we’re living within this age of athlete empowerment, and part of the reason is because athletes are their own media company to a large extent and they’re also their own direct to consumer brands.
Jay Sharman: It’s interesting-
Kevin Cote: …and the more sophisticated they understand, yeah, go ahead.
Jay Sharman: Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to cut you off. I find to hear and now of Coronavirus, I was on Twitter yesterday and I’ve been really frustrated with most of the leagues in sports, especially the bigger ones. It just seems everyone… I get it when you’re trying to deal with shuttering a season during unprecedented times with the Coronavirus. But man is this a moment and an opportunity to engage fans, unprecedented amount of people at home, sitting there waiting to be entertained and you used the word athlete empowerment. I’ve been very impressed at individual athletes stepping up and leveraging the platform while the leagues are on their heels.
I mean we have a brand called La Vida Baseball, it’s a Latino baseball lifestyle company and just yesterday Nelson Cruz, we had him on our site and we had him on for like 30, 45 minutes wasn’t even talking, just doing a workout just real-time. Players are just experimenting, right? And they’re not afraid to fail and try stuff and they tend to know the platforms obviously because they’re using them and they know what their fans want. But I’m curious for you, this could be a tipping point for athlete empowerment, to use your word in terms of them really almost, I don’t want to say it, but get a leg up on the leagues that are trying to grapple with how to leverage this moment it seems like the players are doing so. I’m curious what you’re seeing that’s catching your eye.
Kevin Cote: Yeah, for us first foremost we see this, number one just reaching out to all of our partners to see how we can be supportive, knowing everyone’s going to be at home, well hopefully everybody has connectivity and this is the opportunity to use that audience number one first and foremost is to spread helpful information and mitigate misinformation. And athletes are really stepping up to this and help me we’re working closely with the CDC and the WHO and we have all the guidance and the propaganda that they want to share. And there’s no better way to do that than through, public figures and athletes who have massive followings on social media. And so that’s been an exciting piece of this too is something, it’s probably didn’t think they’d be doing it 30 days ago is using their platforms to help spread positive health information.
That’s number one. And then closely behind that, the other way we’ve been able to work with athletes is through our native fundraising tools we have on both Facebook and Instagram, you can create fundraisers to raise funds. And we’ve seen athletes like Steph Curry created a fundraiser just a few days ago and has raised over $140,000. And that’s the really inspirational stuff. But not only is he raising awareness and raising money for an incredible cause, but probably having everyday users of Facebook create their own fundraisers as well and that halo effect. And so again, the inspiration is a huge key part of that. So those have been our main point areas of focus with athletes and seeing how tech savvy and digital savvy they really are and able to do this stuff on their own from their home has been great. Another positive indication that everything is heading into their… They have so much control, so much influence and they can use it for good.
Jay Sharman: That’s awesome.
Kevin Cote: And then on top of that is ability to entertain, which I think they’ve been more than willing to do whether it was Instagram, Lebron went on Instagram live for 45 minutes the other day and was just interacting with fans, answering questions, giving people a peek into his life with his kids and his wife as they’re having dinner and playing cards at the same exact time, his son Bronny who’s become a social media sensation is on live, and he’s only a freshman in high school. He was upstairs in the same house also on Instagram live talking to an entire different collection of fans.
And this is the access that in some ways we almost take for granted now that when you really step back and say, “This is what we have to do sometimes,” you just step back and realize, Oh my gosh, can you imagine if I was 12-year-old LeBron fan and I’m just getting to sit there and play cards with him and then also see what his son is up to, I can probably relate to more. And he’s talking about a video game. Sometimes I have to do that to myself. It’s just like step back and realize, wow, this is an amazing time we’re living in. And this specific strange time that we’re living in we’re saying all creativity but also this inspiration. And that’s hopefully work that we can be proud of.
Jay Sharman: Well, so two final questions for you, Kevin is, as you just referenced it, the world’s changing, you’re looking for inspiration. How has your perspective on your job changing? I know only a couple of weeks into this, but I would love to get a sense of… It’s clear that e-commerce, whether it’s transactional for, you mentioned that right in terms of helping athletes figure that last mile along with the greater good of donations and you just gave it a great example of Steph Curry. So that’s clearly still in play, maybe in a different form, raising money and doing good right now, but maybe at a 30,000 foot level, how are you thinking about Facebook and how should teams leagues, individual athletes be thinking about it right now?
Kevin Cote: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think I’ve used the word already a bunch, but I’ve been inspired not only by the partners we work with and how quick to action they’ve been to use their platforms for good. But even just what Facebook is doing, matching up to $20 million in donation for relief efforts, offering $150 in cash grants for small businesses, donating gloves and medical masks and creating a Coronavirus information center on the Facebook app. It’s been amazing to watch this pivot happen in such a quick fashion and for every different entity and different colleagues in groups in Facebook that we work with to see everyone mobilized toward a common effort that’s been really just inspirational. Makes me proud to work for a company like that. And then within the industry, having empathy as well.
The closest thing I’ve experienced to this is going through the NBA lockout in 2011 nowhere near close in terms of the impact in the world, but just from the impact of when I had a job and not knowing if I was going to have a job in a month, not knowing how long that lockout was going to be. And so having empathy for the entire ecosystem in terms of just real world impact to their daily lives. People are homeschooling kids like me, my kids are in the next room over here being homeschooled, I’m the PE teacher, I got the 3:00 PM shift. And so having that empathy for everyone we work with that everyone is going through a different scenario. That’s another big piece of what I’m focused on. But also were I’m proud that our platforms can help play a role in creating some of that positive momentum and hopefully we can all get through this together.
Jay Sharman: Awesome, well last question for you Kevin, and that would be, virtual town halls are already becoming a thing and if this were a virtual town hall where we had I’ll use NBA since you came from the Warriors before working at Facebook, if we had a bunch of NBA players, league execs, digital media, exact from the teams, what would be the couple of things you’d be having them focus on? Obviously there’s a Coronavirus, but from a tactical perspective of things to be thinking about to leverage the platforms, what are things on Facebook or Instagram that should be top of mind for them?
Kevin Cote: Sure yeah so I mean, number one, just making sure in terms of spreading that information that’s first and foremost. We continue to make sure teams have the opportunity within the local communities where there’re different effects to spread local information leaves at more of a national and global level and athletes very influential voice with all different ages and demographics. So that’s the number one focus. But in terms of using this time a productively from a content perspective, a lot of the conversations we’re having is, digging into those longterm projects that a lot of times people just don’t have time or bandwidth for because then there’s always another game the next night and there’s always more tickets to tell the next day. Things like archival content and looking into the power of live broadcasting and doing lot of town halls and connecting with fans around the world in that truly interacted way.
There’s all sorts of opportunities out there that most of the time is easily gets push back. Now’s the time to really dive into that and that even means on the business side really getting more disciplined around how are you valuing your sponsorship assets? How are you selling and packaging digital assets with respect to more traditional assets? Are the digital and social being created as a thrilling to deals or is it leading the deal? Those are the types of things hopefully in the next few weeks we’ll be focusing on even more once you get this through the priorities we’ve already laid out. But one of the things I would encourage, because right now is a very unique time to be able to dedicate the mind space to that while also being completely empathetic toward the juggling of the current state and working from all of it and all that.
Jay Sharman: Yeah, well Kevin, I mean I think checking in with you 60, 90 days from now, it’ll be interesting to see. I do think to your point, the entire country and much of the world is getting thrust into becoming a newbie digital’s if they weren’t already, right? I mean I think most of us that work in this line of business are like where is the rest of the world? You just said two point something billion are on Facebook. It’s not like this is a new thing, but there’s still is in the sports world. It’s still not middle of the bell curve and I think it will be coming out of this. So great opportunity for everyone here to rethink the way they’re doing business using Facebook and Instagram and I really appreciate you coming on during what I know is a crazy time Kevin, and sharing some of your thoughts with us.
Kevin Cote: Yeah, I appreciate the opportunity and the chat and yeah, I look forward to getting past this, but it’s going to be a collective effort and we’re all in it together, which is something we want to make sure we remind each other every day. And yes, I thank you for the opportunity and really enjoyed chatting.
Jay Sharman: Thanks Kevin. Thanks for listening to Brand Story Inc., we’ll be back next week with another conversation digging into the ways companies are becoming like media companies. Be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and give me a follow on Twitter @_JaySharman and on LinkedIn.