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Transcript: Digital and Fan Engagement Insights from Seattle Seahawks

Head of Digital at NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, Kenton Olson, was recently interviewed on PickStar’s Off-Field podcast, revealing web, social and content insights.

The interview took place at Mumbrella Sports Marketing Summit 2017, where Kenton was the keynote speaker.

Read the full transcript of the interview below (or listen here).

1.25, James Begley, Off-Field co-host: Ken welcome to our podcast, Off-Field.

1.28, Kenton Olson, Seattle Seahawks: Thank you. Glad to be here.

1.30, JB: Now I'd love for you to paint a picture of your first role within digital and sports. Where was the digital media world at when you first began?

1.42, Kenton: Yeah so I actually have an interesting story about kind of when I started my career. So went to the University of Oregon in the US and at the end of my freshman year, there was a job posting in the student newspaper for an athletic department intern, right? It was traditional marketing, I wasn't really sure if I wanted to do digital media or anything but I wanted to apply for it, wanted to put my best foot forward so I created a little portfolio website, at the time I didn't really have anything on, I don't even remember what I could put on it at that point in time, but I put all my information on there. Ended up getting the job afterwards, you know, after doing all that.

Within the first day starting there, the guy who hired me pulled me aside, he's like, "Hey we just brought our website (management) in house, we see that you do HTML so will you go ahead and manage our website for us?" I was like ‘oh yeah sure, I'll certainly take a shot’. I had no idea what I was doing but had the opportunity to do that and did that through my entire undergraduate career then when I graduated, I was hired full-time, kept me on for a couple of years.

2.40, JB: So what year were we talking here? I mean from an internet and a website point of view, where was the technology at? What were you dealing with?

2.50, Kenton: Yeah so this would have been, starting there probably would have been 2002. So social media didn't exist and MySpace may have been around, I can't quite remember. The technology then was just a traditional website. I think the only thing that was forward-thinking at the time was we did have a subscription service, the fans could actually pay to watch games online, the internet wasn't as good at that point in time so it wasn't as popular, but it was definitely forward-thinking and definitely a cool experience but social media wasn't really a piece of our everyday life.

3.23, Andrew Montesi, Off-Field co-host: So fast forward to now at the Seahawks. Can you give us some context about the size of the digital aspect of the business, so in terms of followers, how many platforms? How big is your staff?

3.37, Kenton: Yeah so in terms of our base, in terms of our follower base, I think we're just about over nine million followers right now across all of our traditional main platforms, you know, not including Snapchat and all that fun stuff. In terms of our staff, we have a staff of seven full-time folks that are with us 12 months a year, regardless of whether we're in season or off season and then once we get in season, we'll bring in a couple of other interns and contractors bump it up so probably 11 or 12 once the season actually starts to kind of help us provide some of our content during the season.

4.09, JB: Now you're here in Sydney really to give us an understanding of what you guys are doing and it seems an incredibly complex and layered, there's a lot of detail across a lot of different channels. How do you begin to describe to people I guess the big chunks of what you do?

4.29, Kenton: Yeah so when someone asks me what I do and I tell them well I'm the director of digital emerging media, the next question is always ‘well what does that mean’? And so what I tell people in general, there are three big buckets my team focuses on. One is our own and operated properties so that's our websites, seahawks.com or stadium website, we have some mobile apps, there are a couple of other minor websites. Second is management for social media, so just kind of interacting with that community on a daily basis. The last thing is production of content for all of our digital channels. Our group doesn't produce content for television, occasionally stuff went up there, but it's just all these digital channels so all of our social media channels, our website, etc.

5.09, AM: One of the points you made in your key note earlier today here at the Sports Marketing Summit made the point that you focused on outcomes and less about engagement which is quite interesting because a lot of the talk that you hear in the digital space, it's all about engagement. Can you maybe explain that a little bit further and also kind of what the outcomes, the type of outcomes that you're looking at?

5.31, Kenton: Yeah, you know, this is a plug … Anyone listening to this that want to know more, there's a gentleman named Nate Elliott, he's done a lot of great research on this and kind of has a lot of great topics to share so if you want to get really in-depth, I'd definitely look at his stuff. But the general gist is that, you know, engagement really doesn't directly tie to anything, alright? You know, a great example that Nate Elliott uses on his blog is that United Airlines when they had their situation a couple months ago now, they had a post on Facebook, it was a comment that had 82,000 likes on it, well it was a really negative comment about their brand. Well if you just look at engagement, then the post would be like the best post in the world, but that's not necessarily the case. So what we'll focus on instead are the outcomes, so we'll sit down and say ‘what are we trying to do’? Just as an example. If we're trying to drive kids club memberships well that will be our goal, how many kids club memberships can we sell? So we have to think strategically about who is the demographic, who are we sending stuff out to .. (in this example) we’re probably not interested in sending it out to 21-year-olds that don't have any kids, they're probably not in the market for a kids club membership. But someone who is older and has kids is, so we'll really focus on that and maximise the kids club registration if that's our goal.

7.07, JB: We had the fortune of seeing some great videos that you showed today. Can you paint a picture for our listeners as to some of the really cool things that you've done that have really cut through and worked?

7.21, Kenton: Yeah so showed I think four videos today and some of the ones I think we're most proud of or one is a video I showed in the US, Jimmy Fallon hosted a late night TV show that every Thursday he'll kind of make fun of some NFL players as if they were like in yearbooks, which is …

7.38, AM: In Australia you'd say take the piss.

7.40, JB: Probably doesn't mean much to you but yeah, take the piss out of the Seattle players.

7.43, Kenton: Yeah well take the piss out of the Seattle players. He would do that and so we kind of knew that, hey we're playing on Thursday coming up, we took the whole group of players and said, hey we want to put some pictures of Jimmy that aren't very flattering and have you guys do the same thing, so they all were great and for the most part, they all kind of wrote their own jokes and we produced that piece and tweeted it out and he ended up, the next night, he just kind of scrapped his segment and just ran our thing instead. So that's one piece that was really successful.

8.13, JB: Would have been a massive audience too. Just with that, what were the mechanics for those who are in similar spaces as you but in Australia, what were the mechanics of how you actually brainstormed that idea, produced it, who asked the questions? How did that flow?

8.29, Kenton: Yeah so I mean, we have a really talented team and I wish I could have all those seven people here because they're way more creative than I am, to be honest with you. You know, for us, we'll sit down and we'll look at a particular topic, and I talked a little bit about this today, and we try to focus on a YouTube content strategy, where one of those pieces is hero content. It's what's outside the box, (we say) ‘what's your Superbowl moment?’ and every time we have a meeting about a particular topic, we'll be brainstorming something, we'll always ask ourselves ‘what's that big idea? What's that moon shot?’ So that was an example of one that we kind of talked about, said hey this is really cool, let's give it a shot and-

9.06, JB: So someone just yells out ‘let's fight back at Jimmy. Let's do something to get back at him in a humorous way’.

9.10, Kenton: Yeah pretty much. For that particular point in time, we were really focused on our outcomes there, we were focused on YouTube and building an audience there and it was a natural fit that was a YouTube video first, and so we focused on that and then from there, we just went with our PR department and our players to kind of say, ‘hey look, here's what we're trying to do, find players that are interested in it’. Making sure that they know that we're there to make sure they're having fun and put them in good light and go from there.

9.36, AM: You made the point that you guys have a focus on hero content, what you describe as hero content. Can you maybe tell us a little more about that strategy and perhaps why there's opportunity for brands or clubs or organisations to have a greater focus on producing hero content?

9.58, Kenton: Yeah I think the interesting thing about sports is that at the end of the day, sports and I think any pro sports team, you have will have this to some extent … they really kind of bring the community together and it's a huge piece of the fabric of the society and at the end of the day, there's just so many walks of life and ages and demographics that follow sports and it's a challenge to create content for all of those pieces. So there are hardcore Seahawks fans which are what we want. They're going to want what coach said, want to know more about the x's and o's, but there's a lot of other people like my friends or my family that are more casual fans that are still interested in Seahawks but they don't necessarily care about the x's and the o's, right? So for us it's about how do we create content that reaches those core demographics but then also reaches new fans and kind of really resonates with them and that Jimmy Fallon was an example of a video that was different and had some humour to it and just kind of was a piece that really made a lot of sense for our fan base.

12.31, AM: What's particularly amazing about the Seahawks is the athlete buy-in, the athletes seem to be producing this amazing, unique and authentic content, I think about what it’s like here in Australia …

12.47, JB: We're very envious.

12.49, AM: … In Australia, particularly I would say the AFL is very sanitised, how do you go about getting your athletes engaged?

12.56, Kenton: Yeah I think a lot of it is we've got, at certain times of the year like right now, we've got close to 100 guys so we have a lot of different guys that are willing to do things that we can ask. Some guys are into doing that kind of stuff and some guys are not, right? I think we're lucky in a sense that our team philosophy and our coaching staff, they really embrace individuality of the players and lets them kind of show their personality and play the game the way they want to play it, as well as kind of show their personality outside of sports.

13.26, AM: So it's cultural, it starts from the top?

13.27, Kenton: Yeah so, for that we know that we can go up to a guy and ask them to be in a more comedic bit and if they're willing to do it, we're willing to kind of help them out and a lot of times we'll work with guys and it's definitely kind of a symbiotic relationship where, you know, we'll help a guy produce content for his stuff, his own channels in which case we'll help him share that or vice versa.

The 12s, Seattle Seahawks

13.54, JB: We would love for you just to unpack, really quickly, the way that you've over a long period of time engaged your fans and to the point now where they're effectively a part of the team, you guys have got a number associated now with your fans. They refer to themselves as ‘The 12s’, can you just take us through that?

14.12, Kenton: Yeah so we're lucky, kind of going way back, we started 1976, playing the building called the King Dome and the King Dome quickly became extremely loud and so very early on in our history, our fans found out that they could actually impact the game and that was such a huge part of us early on and still is today. And in 1984, the manager at the time saw how special they were in our market and wanted to honour them by retiring the number, so they retired the number 12 in honour of the fans and the reason for the number 12 if you're not familiar with football is there are 11 guys on the field, well in this case we play with 12 when we're at home because we've got a twelfth person in the stands kind of really helping us impact the game itself.

So for us that's where it started and it's kind of really spiralled from there and it's really the antithesis of who we are. 2003 we launched the 12 flag which was meant to originally be a game day tradition that we do for game day and it quickly became the visual representation identity of a lot of our fans, and something today that if you look at a fan event, you'll see usually more people waving 12 flags around than Seahawks flags, so it's a really interesting dynamic and something that we don't take for granted. Everything we do, we want to do it for those 12s.

15.28, AM: Is that something that, would you say its grown over time since it launched? Because one thing that clubs seem to struggle with is you might have a campaign and it might peak and it might be great for a year or two but then it kind of loses the fun aspect or the connection with the fans. How do you, I guess, maintain momentum?

15.48, Kenton: Again we've been around for 40 plus years and very early on now, that number 12 was retired so its been a part of us from the beginning. It wasn't something that we just took out of thin air and tomorrow told fans that they are now ‘the 12s’ and run with it. It's just been a piece of who we are. In the eighties we had a lot of success, we've had a lot of success over the past 10, 20 years but if you look at the nineties we didn't have a lot of success but the fans were still there, they were still passionate, the number 12 was still retired in our rafters and it was just a big piece of who we are.

16.23, JB: This might seem a bit granular but if you were going to just describe each of the social channels and I guess the main vehicle, like what that channel is best for, whether it's Facebook and emotion, or you talked about SnapChat is about peer-to-peer engagement. How do you summarise the main channels?

16.42, Kenton: Yeah I mean a lot of them we really just dumb it down to be honest with you. I mean, we'll look at Twitter first. We don't look at Twitter as a social network, we look at it as a real-time news platform and so for us, we focus a majority of our Twitter content on more news-focused stuff. We'll still produce other content on there as well, because it's a great platform for showcasing videos and that kind of stuff but really news is the focus of our Twitter account.

Facebook tends to be more of the cream of the crop, the best of the best and that type of content that we produce there and it tends to be more of a broad audience, it naturally has more people on there and you know, it's a platform that my mom will be on and maybe she's not going to be on Twitter.

Snapchat, when they call it a Snapchat story we take it literal that we have to have a story to tell and so for us, in order to do something on Snapchat we have to look at it and say ‘what's the story to tell here’? When we create content, we actually sit down and try to determine what's our beginning, middle and end. How do we start this? How do we tell a story in between and how do we wrap it up?

Instagram I think is an interesting one, there's been a lot of changes in the platform over the past couple of months but for us over the past couple of years, really simple, it's about great photography so for us, Instagram is not a real-time platform, at least it hasn't been in the past. It's really been about how do we tell our story with great photography and we've got some great photographers and we're able to leverage their photos on there.

18.14, AM: I'm interested in, as we begin to wind up, your thoughts on what gets you most excited when you look ahead about what's emerging in this digital space and you start thinking jeez, this is exciting?

18.30, Kenton: Yeah that's a great question and I always kind of answer that, at the end of the day, things change, when social media became a part of my world it was a big change and the rise of technology is changing, kind of AR/VR, at the end of the day it's all about content. So for us, we want to be positioned in a way that we're able to produce as much content as we possibly can. In terms of the next new thing, certainly the video technology as it progresses, it becomes really easy to do live video and VR and AR, certainly becoming interesting pieces that I don't think anyone's quite cracked that nut yet in terms of sports, but they will at some point and it will be really interesting in the future.

19.14, JB: Last industry-specific question. What do you read or news outlets that you follow or subscriptions that you've got that allow you to stay ahead of this space?

19.27, Kenton: Yeah I think Twitter is my go-to for all that. There's just curating lists that I have of people that are in the industry and curating what kind of hashtags you focus on, I think that's a great way of doing it. But at the same time too, you just kind of also have to understand what's going on in society, what is society themselves like? So sometimes you just have to take a step back and just kind of say well what is social media in general? What are they really excited about right now? And that will kind of help dictate some things that maybe you should focus on.

19.58, JB: Last question. How does it feel, you're a part of a machine over in Seattle but you come here to Australia as part of this conference as a bit of a rockstar. How does it feel to walk around as the keynote on a day like today?

20.15, Kenton: Well I hope I'm not a rockstar, I hope there's much better rockstars out there than myself. I'm like a small indie band if anything. But no it's been great. It's really interesting because I didn't know a lot about the Australian sports landscape when I came out here, it's been really interesting learning about that but at the end of the day, the structure of the leagues and the different sports are all different, but the fundamental problems that we're all trying to solve and help with, they're all the same. So it's kind of cool that we're all working on different things but the solutions are kind of coming up with all kind of apply to each other. So it's been pretty awesome, just meeting a lot of great folks.

20.54, AM: Last one from me. Who do you look at, whether it's another club or another athlete and you say, they're doing it really well?

21.03, Kenton: That's a great question. In terms of teams, there's a couple of teams that I always kind of look at as teams that just produce some really great content. I think one is the Miami Dolphins, they haven't had a lot of on field success in so long but their team down there, they produce a lot of really awesome content, the Minnesota Vikings also do a really great job. In terms of outside of the NFL, my alma mater University of Oregon does a lot of great work. There's a lot of really great work being done out there. In terms of, what was the second part of your question?

21.46, AM: Oh athletes. Yeah.

21.48, Kenton: Oh athletes! Yeah in terms of athletes I think there's an interesting scenario that an athlete has to kind of figure out for themselves, do they want to be buttoned up and polished or do they want to be more authentic? I think there are people that kind of do great at both ends. Tom Brady is great, he's much more methodical, much more planned out, but then you have some other people such as maybe Antonio Brown who are much more raw and authentic.

22.22, JB: Ken thank you for providing us the latest, I guess trends and the things that have worked for yourself in Seattle in a very fast-moving space so appreciate the opportunity to have a chat.

22.33, Kenton: Yeah same here. Thank you.

The Off-Field podcast focuses on the world of sport outside of the arena. Listen to more interviews from Mumbrella Sports Marketing Summit, along with in-depth interviews with Australian sporting legends and industry experts, here.

Off-Field is produced by PickStar, the best place to book sports stars for any event, campaign or engagement you can imagine. Choose from over 700 stars past and present, PickStar works fast with ANY budget. Find out more.

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