A sports team’s image is a complex mosaic created with team successes and failures, individual player personalities, public perception and social issues. Building a team’s public ‘identity’ goes far beyond creating a brand – a team is a complex organism that evolves and reacts as it moves through the world. As the Director of Digital Content Strategy for the Houston Rockets, Steven Goldfried wrangles with this problem every day – how to stay authentic and tell stories that are meaningful and represent the goals and personality of the team. We caught up with Steven to chat about the similarities (and differences) between sports and mainstream media, the key to telling powerful stories, and the challenges involved in trying to get to know each individual fan.
Steven Goldfried | Interview
Steven began his career in film and TV. After an initial stint working for Tollin/Robbins Productions & Management, he moved over to One Tree Hill— starting out as a production assistant and eventually becoming the show’s Digital Content Manager as well as Co-Producer and Director. After 9 years there, he joined Awesomeness TV in 2012 to work as their Director/Producer/Digital Content Manager. A year as Consultant/Producer for Arsenic, Inc. followed before Steven became Digital Content Strategy Manager for the Houston Rockets in 2016. Three years later, he was promoted to Director of Digital Content Strategy.
Thanks for speaking with us, Steven. Can you tell us a little about your career and how you came to your current role?
So my background was in film, TV, and social media (though this was way back when MySpace was the number 1 social media platform!). I have an unusual path when compared to other people in the industry. Most people start in the sales or ticketing departments and then work their way up. However, the NBA (and sports in general) are an entertainment product—so that’s where my experience really comes in handy.
There are lots of similarities between film/TV and sports. You have long days and it’s a bit of a grind. You try to pack a year’s worth of work into 9 months. You also need to be highly detailed and methodical in your work for both industries—so this is definitely something that I brought with me from my time in film and TV.
Currently, I wear quite a few different hats—but I technically sit within the digital marketing department and report to our Senior Director of Digital Paul Suarez and the VP of marketing Ken Sheirr. I oversee the production, distribution, tracking, and analytics of the Rockets’ digital content (whether it’s on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube, Sina-Weibo, or TikTok). My primary goal is to increase our fan engagement, but I have a number of peripheral goals as well. For instance, I’m working hard on how to monetise our content. I also take a front seat when it comes to testing out new software to help increase engagement, and I focus a lot of time working out how we can leverage partnerships to increase brand awareness.
All in all, I’d say my job is 50% creative and 50% analytics, which for me, is a perfect mix.
How does working for a sports organisation compare to the film and TV industries?
There’s certainly a lot of crossover, specifically when it comes to producing watchable content, but I think that there are a lot more dimensions to producing content for a sports team than for producing something for TV or film. For example, we regularly engage with other teams—the Sacramento Kings, for example, post a lot of memes on social media and we often respond with our own tongue-in-cheek content.
Our social presence is essentially the living, breathing embodiment of our organisation (and, more specifically, our team). When you work in film and TV, you produce one standalone piece of work and you don’t have as much of the back-and-forth. With sport, however, there’s always an opponent you can engage with—whether that’s on or off the court. Competition is part of the appeal.
The NBA is a great league to work in—they’re really open to teams putting out content and furthering the rivalry off the court as well as on it. It’s pretty good-natured and the teams are all business partners, so we all benefit from increased fan engagement.
I also feel far more involved in wider societal issues than I did when working in film and TV. For example, the Rockets is really involved in the local community—we’ve been doing food drives during COVID-19, we were one of the first teams to open up our arena for voting, and we’ve been very active in encouraging people to vote. Our players are really vocal about social justice so it’s been a real privilege helping to amplify the various voices of our team.
What similarities did you find between the content you were producing in the film/TV industries and the work that you’re doing now?
I think they’re both guided by one main principle: the story. The story is everything. Whether you’re putting out a three-hour-long film or a 10-second video, you need to be telling a story. We’re pretty lucky in the NBA because there are so many different storylines already built-in: previous encounters between teams, changing personnel, the story of each game, each player, each season – There’s always something for us to focus on. Plus, there’s also the Rockets’ overall story: who we are as an organisation and what it means to be part of the team.
Engagement is always a reflection of the stories that you tell. So while you might chase engagement itself, the right approach is to chase producing great stories. If you do, engagement will follow.
So what’s your storytelling process?
Hmm, this is quite difficult to answer… It’s pretty much second nature to me right now rather than being a set formula. However, I’d generally say it follows this rough process:
- Have your basic story structure in place
All good stories need a beginning, a middle, and an end. I feel like this is so simple but you simply can’t ignore the fundamentals of storytelling. You might have a thrilling intro, but if it leads nowhere, it won’t make an impression on the end viewer.
- Be authentic in every story you tell
It’s a bit harder to tell stories for companies. People recognise that ultimately you’re trying to sell them something —tickets for a game, merchandise, or the idea that they should support your team. The only way you can hope to earn people’s respect is by being authentic in everything you do. Have an identity, have a vision, and lead people along your journey with you. Don’t try to be everything all at once to everybody. Pick what your organisation stands for and embody this in every story you tell.
- Maintain consistency
This ties into being authentic. We have 4 or 5 people who are posting on our channels at any given time but we can’t have a different tone and style of language and voice across different channels or at different times of the day. So we put a lot of emphasis on ensuring that the voice is consistent across all these different channels. If you’re going to build a strong brand identity then you need to make sure that it’s just the one identity.
- Blend quality with quantity
There’s so much content out there that it can be hard to get noticed. You’re not going to grab people’s attention if you produce low-value content—but you’re also not going to get noticed if you barely produce anything at all.
You need to have a solid plan in place to distribute lots of high-quality content on a regular basis. Fans have come to expect this ongoing relationship with their franchise—it’s no longer enough for the team to simply turn up 3-4 times a week and play. Fans have a much deeper relationship with their team than they used to have, so you need to nurture this through meaningful, ongoing storytelling.
- Use data to inform but not define the story.
It’s so important to understand your data and be able to take action based on that data but the story should always come from an organic place. Being able to tie identity or buyer personas to engagement is also so important and we have more data than ever to help us do this.
You’ve clearly got a strong creative vision. How do you use technology and analytics to enable sharing that vision?
I’m always looking for any kind of edge that I can get. This might involve:
- Tracking organic posts to give our content creators internal feedback on how the content is doing.
- Crunching all available data to see how we compare to our competitors—where we’re doing well, what could be improved, and what other strategies are the competition successfully using.
- Identifying how we can use emerging platforms to increase fan engagement. For example, gamification. I think that predictive gaming (where fans bet on how many points someone will score in a match, for example) is about to really take off. However, this space is super crowded—I’ve taken hundreds of demos but in the end, there are only a select few vendors that are doing the really cool stuff.
- Picking the right kind of software. For instance, we recently found a piece of software that uses AI to find logos in videos and help us put a monetary value on social posts. As a result, this then allows us to go back to our partners and show the tangible mutual value of our partnerships.
And how important is mobile to your overall strategy?
Mobile has been massive for us, especially during the hiatus from the regular season due to COVID. We actually worked with our regional sports network to organise an auction for COVID relief—the entire organisation and auction process itself was all done through our app. We’ve generally seen web usage go down and app usage go up, so our app has recently become front and centre of everything that we do. It gives us great insights into the users.
How do you tackle the struggle of proving the ROI for social content?
I agree, it can be pretty difficult trying to measure the ROI of social efforts. All engagements are not equal—for example, a comment is more valuable than a like. And the more we know about each fan, the more valuable the engagement. So the big numbers (e.g. how many people viewed a post) are interesting, but the long-term value comes from knowing who the fans are and working out what they like – and most importantly, what they might spend money on.
We generally keep in mind that our primary agenda is to sell more tickets and build profitable corporate partnerships. If our content is performing really well on social media and this corresponds to high ticket sales and profitable partnerships, then that’s essentially the ROI right there. When it comes to the content itself, we’ve also been able to point to quite a few specific numbers during my tenure. For example:
- We’re in the top four of all NBA teams when it comes to social engagement.
- We’ve generated over 250 million interactions and over five billion impressions.
- We’ve achieved over 200% worldwide follower growth (across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube, Sina-Weibo, and TikTok).
- We’ve gone from selling roughly 10% of our regular digital features to selling over 50%, providing tons of value to our partners along the way.
So sure, it’s hard to work out the precise ROI of a specific video or post—but when you take a step back and look at macro-level changes over a number of years, the ROI becomes a lot clearer.
What are some of your biggest challenges at the moment?
Our biggest challenge is trying to get to know each individual fan (rather than viewing them all as one large homogeneous group). We have 31 million followers across all our platforms—so breaking that down and understanding who cares about what is always going to take a lot of work.
Winning is obviously another challenge—fans want their team to win all the time, that’s just the nature of sports in general. We obviously can’t do much about how the team performs on the court. What we can do, however, is work out how best to deal with a loss. There’s usually a lot of negative sentiment on social media after a loss, so we need to empathise with our fans while also still sticking up for our team. There’s a very fine line there.
Marketing at scale also requires scheduling, though this can be tricky to say the least. We can’t schedule posts congratulating the team if they end up losing the game, for example, so we really have to stay in the moment and be ready to respond to things as they happen.
Our whole digital content strategy relies on blending authenticity with spontaneity – at the end of the day it’s certainly challenging, but most of all, we’re basketball fans too, so the challenge is lots of fun.
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