Marketing

For ESPN, fans are the biggest competitive advantage [Q&A with ESPN’s Dan Hom]

For ESPN, fans are the biggest competitive advantage [Q&A with ESPN’s Dan Hom]

If you’re passionate about sports, you likely subscribe to ESPN. As the global leader in sports broadcasting, ESPN reaches millions of homes and is the go-to channel for many fans to watch all things sports.

But sports entertainment, just like the rest of the media industry, is facing significant challenges. The media landscape is crowded, especially in markets such as Latin America. Demanding more ROI for their investments, advertisers are harder to court. Companies like ESPN need to find distinct ways to attract both audiences and advertisers.

In a recent customer video, ESPN shares how it harnesses the insight of passionate sports fans to navigate this competitive space. Featured in the video is Dan Hom, manager of research and analytics at ESPN. In our Q&A below, we asked Dan about his role at ESPN, how the company engages thousands of sports fans, and his thoughts on the future of the media business.

What is your day like at ESPN? What do you love about what you do?

I’ve been at ESPN for over 5 years now, and I’m starting to feel like a veteran. My focus here in our New York office is working in international research. The research team in New York acts as a hub of information for our entire global business. I do a lot of work to support other groups, including our Marketing team in New York and Programming, Production and Promotions groups in our headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut.

Versatility is the best part of my role. I could be working on a project for our Latin American markets in the morning, doing some analysis for Australia in the afternoon, and thinking about new ventures for our India market later on. Thinking strategically about different departments and doing projects for different locations globally—and considering how different groups come together to create a unified product—is a rewarding part of my role.

ESPN has an insight community called the Fan Forum, which allows your company to engage with thousands of ESPN fans. What is your favorite thing about working with the Fan Forum?

A huge part of my role is ensuring that we’re engaging with our fans on a personal level—ensuring that we’re asking them the right questions. As a co-manager of our insight community, I help make sure that activities in our calendar help enhance fan engagement. I help prioritize the experience of our fans in the community.

My favorite part is reading the responses of our fans. Many of them are very passionate about the ESPN brand and sports in general. Sometimes they write paragraphs of answers when we don’t even ask them to. Fans in our insight community go above and beyond when sharing their opinions. Being able to hear their feedback directly—and being able to share that insight with the rest of the team—is gratifying.

The Fan Forum is five years old now. Can you name a few surprising things you’ve learned about ESPN’s audience through your insight community?

We do a lot of work with the promotions team, who is responsible for on-air promotions across different countries. We get a lot of interesting insight from our community, but one recent example that comes to mind was when we tested adding an information bar at the bottom of the screen. The purpose was to test whether a bar with additional material could increase recall of information about the games. At the same time, we were concerned that fans might find the bar too distracting. We wondered if fans just wanted to see the game highlights without additional information obscuring key moments in the games.

I was surprised to see that the information bar drastically increased recall of what happened in the game. The most surprising thing is that the bar didn’t result in any negative response from fans. In fact, fans told us that they appreciated the extra information. That insight gave our promo team confidence to experiment with similar initiatives in the future.

What has been the impact of your insight community on your business?

One of the biggest impacts is increasing sales for our Latin American teams in Miami and local offices. The Fan Forum has become a unique asset at sales pitches and deals. With our insight community, we’re able to give advertisers concrete numbers on the ROI of their investment. For instance, we’re able to show advertisers that brand association has increased by X times as a direct result of their ads. That’s a great story to tell for that particular campaign but also for future sales purposes.

Our Fan Forum also helps increase the size of our sales deals. We let advertisers know that, given a level of investment, they’ll have the option to launch studies in our dedicated Fan Forum to get to know their target audience better and increase the effectiveness of their campaigns.


“With our insight community, we’re able to give advertisers concrete numbers on the ROI of their investment…Our Fan Forum also helps increase the size of our sales deals.”


Of course, our fans are also instrumental in shaping our programming and production. We often use our insight community to get consumer feedback on ESPN’s coverage of major sports events as well as our competitor’s coverage. What did fans appreciate about our coverage versus our competitors’? Where could we get better? We’re able to answer these questions thanks to our insight community.

For the upcoming summer Olympics in Rio, for instance, we’re currently doing multiple studies to better understand the cultural aspects of this event. Which local athletes do our fans support? Who are the athletes fans want to see? From a sales and marketing perspective, answering these questions is very important.

You’re doing so well at ESPN. How has managing the Fan Forum influenced your personal career development?

I’ve been co-managing the Fan Forum for about a year now. Prior that, I worked on a lot of studies and did a lot of analysis. In the past year, it has been beneficial for my career to take ownership of our insight community. My role helped expose me to different departments in the company and has expanded my network within the organization.

Our Fan Forum is in high demand at ESPN, and we have different offices and departments looking for a space in the calendar for an opportunity to engage with our fans. Being the manager of the Fan Forum helps forge relationships with my colleagues.

The Fan Forum is unique to ESPN. Very few people in the customer intelligence space have experience managing an insight community with this size and with this high level of engagement. My role is giving me a very unique experience, which I’m confident will be beneficial to my career.

The media industry has undergone tremendous changes in the past decade. What are some of your predictions about your industry, and how do you see audience engagement playing a role?

Contrary to what some might say, I think TV will continue to become a huge part of the media business. Don’t get me wrong—digital platforms (particularly the growth of mobile) are essential, but the predicted death of TV is widely exaggerated.

In the sports entertainment business, live sports still bring the highest ratings. It brings people together, and people want to watch it using the best available screen. If they’re on the go, the best screen may be mobile and laptop. But outside of those situations, for big sports events, TV is still the best screen. TV provides the audience with a communal experience with their friends and family, and I predict that it will continue to be so for the next five to 10 years, especially in Latin America.

The key for my industry is to better understand how to supplement the television experience with digital products, so fans are given access to the best experience possible. We have to be aware of changing second-screen behavior, especially in younger age groups like Millennials and Gen Z. These young consumers expect information at their fingertips. They don’t remember a time when they had to wait for scores and watch highlights on TV. That expectation has enormous consequences for the media landscape. Fan engagement is crucial to meeting that expectation.

Final thought

Our thanks to Dan for sharing his time with us. To learn more about the Fan Forum, ESPN’s branded insight community of passionate fans, check out The 10 Smartest Brands: How They Use Customer Intelligence as a Competitive Advantage

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