United States: Millennial Engagement: Marketing's New Trick Shot

Sports and marketing have come a long way since a young Pittsburgh Steelers fan offered Mean Joe Green a Coke in the classic 1979 television commercial. For one thing, the audience has changed. The oldest millennials were just being born in the late 70s, but now comprise one quarter of the U.S. population. Highly coveted by advertisers, millennials are often painted as fickle beasts. New data, however, challenges that notion. In fact, according to a pair of new studies, millennials are the most brand-loyal generation of all. This makes it all the more important for brands to get an early foothold with these prized consumers.

One entity helping brands pull off that difficult trick is Whistle Sports. This booming digital network was built on the insight that while some things have changed since 1979—like the way kids consume media—our love of sports hasn't. Since launching in 2014, Whistle Sports has brought together a network of more than 400 creators of sports-related content, from the NBA's Jeremy Lin, to the trick shot artists collectively known as Dude Perfect. The network reaches 213 million people across its various social media platforms, where its content has gained 9 billion views. Last year it raised $20 million in C-round funding, and if any deal truly signaled its arrival, it was last fall's partnership with the National Football League.

How I See It

  • There is a lot of conventional wisdom about the millennial generation, but it should all be taken with a grain of salt—if not viewed skeptically. The recent surveys indicating that millennials are more loyal to brands than other generations is just one example of how the millennial generation doesn't always fit the mold we have created for it.
  • Whistle was ahead of the curve in understanding that the way we consume sports-related media is changing. And by growing its huge presence on social media platforms where many millennials spend time, it is forging highly valuable connections with an elusive audience.

How the Industry Sees It

I sat down with Jeff Urban, President at Whistle Sports, to hear more about this marketing juggernaut.

How do you select content creators to add to your network? Is it simply a matter of how large their social media following is, or something more than that?

While we certainly look at reach and viewership, it goes far beyond just the overall size of a creator's social media following. We're very selective in whom we work with, first and foremost vetting for overall brand safety. Being safe for all ages is a foundational component of our company and a mandatory qualification. From there we look at a creator's viability to integrate brands within their content, the size and scope of their overall library for distribution, then their potential for original production.

How have your creators been effective at incorporating brand messages into their videos without compromising their "authenticity," which is thought to be important to millennials?

The first key to being authentic in branded content is to be upfront with the consumer about the fact that a brand sponsor is behind the message. Whistle Sports, our creators, and the FTC are all on the same page on this issue, as millennial consumers hate to feel "duped" into viewing branded content.

A second key is to be thoughtful about which platforms and channels the branded content is being distributed on – what works to integrate a brand on Instagram might not work on YouTube, for instance.

A third key is to produce the creative in a style that fits with the other content that's on the creator's channel if that's where we're distributing it. That doesn't mean the content should appear low-fi or unprofessional, just that we recognize that consumers are following that particular channel because they like that specific type of content, and to deviate from it significantly is to risk alienating them. Our creators have very high levels of engagement on their social channels and it is incumbent on Whistle Sports to help them keep it that way when we partner with them to produce content for brands.

Have your partnerships with major sports leagues given you more credibility with advertisers?

These partnerships have undoubtedly increased our credibility with advertisers. The sports leagues are known and trusted entities with brands, and to have their co-sign is a powerful vote of confidence for Whistle Sports, particularly as a media brand that many marketing executives might not follow themselves because they've aged out of our demographic.

Our brand and agency partners are also used to seeing all manner of pitches from media partners that attempt to skirt around the leagues in order to leverage consumer passion for professional sports. For Whistle Sports to be able to walk in and talk about our ability to actually partner with the leagues to produce content without those same limitations that tend to hamper authenticity is enormously powerful.

What's one thing that brands don't understand about the millennial generation?

The most common misconception we see is brands that believe millennial is a synonym for "young." Whistle Sports' primary audience consists of both the millennial and centennial generations, spanning roughly from age 13-34. Older millennials are in their mid-thirties and have substantially different sports content consumption preferences than younger millennials or centennials. They didn't grow up with smartphones and social media like those in their teens and twenties – they learned how to use these devices and platforms in adulthood.

Younger millennials have more in common with centennials than older millennials for this reason; they are likelier to go to social media for game highlights and watch the game with a second screen in their hand, for instance.

Your company has grown very rapidly. Where do you see it going in the next five years?

In the social/digital space, the ecosystem is changing, morphing and adapting so rapidly that the winners will be those that can adjust to platform demands, pivot with and to the new platforms and maintain a fresh brand voice as the ecosystem evolves. Our aim is to be that brand and that voice.

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