LiveWire Sport spoke with Six Nations digital communications manager Shane Whelan to review the 2018 season and assess where 'Rugby's Greatest Championship' goes next in what will be a massive year for the sport.
What were your digital and social goals for the 2018 Championship?
The challenge for us was to break records, particularly in engagement but also in growing the size of the audience. The best indicator that we’ve done a good job is seeing that people are actually engaging with and sharing our content.
Fantasy was another key area for us and we know it brings in a younger audience. As an illustration, in 2016 – our first year of doing fantasy – we had about 17,000 players. This year we had more than 81,000 which is very solid growth, however you look at it.
In terms of content, we wanted a real breadth and depth across the channels but we know that there’s a lot of interest in what you might call the fundamentals – fixtures, TV times, results, tables and so on - and we really try to make that information easy to find on our social channels and the website.
For us that’s part of supporting our partners, whether that’s sponsors, broadcasters or unions. The website is still important to us, but you can’t rely on people visiting of their own accord – you have to signpost it on social. That’s one of the main changes since I started at the Six Nations in 2012.
And video is, of course, a key target for us. We want to grow views year-on-year. Obviously match footage is the priority but we also find good results from press conferences and other non-action video.
What are the main challenges for the Six Nations in terms of digital and social?
Like a lot of sports organisations, one of the big issues is around rights. When Johnny Sexton kicked the last-second drop-goal to beat France, that was a huge moment and we want to capitalise on that – but in the right way.
We’ve put a lot of work in to build good relationships with the broadcasters and unions and respect the rights arrangement that’s in place. Similarly, we have a good relationship with YouTube and they help a great deal in terms of taking down unauthorised clips.
Working in multiple languages – English, French and Italian – also raises some challenges. We obviously have big audiences in all the six countries that compete in the Championship, but also in other territories where there are large ex-pat communities and interest in rugby – the USA, Canada, Argentina, New Zealand, South Africa and so on.
The constant challenge across digital in sport is to keep attracting a younger audience, to maintain that relevance to the next generation, and that’s one we have to keep our eye on all the time.
What are commercial partners looking for from you in the digital space? Is it the same for broadcasters?
The main thing is that they want to ensure that their brand is properly represented, and we should never lose sight of that. We want to support them in their goals and amplify their content and messaging.
For instance, with NatWest’s activity around the 2018 Championship, we can get it out to a social audience of well over 1.5m and that is a real benefit to them. With a partner like Tissot, they can reach new audiences through our database and social channels and again, that is something tangible that we can offer.
We find that competitions are a great way of driving interest for commercial partners – people still love the chance to win something and that’s an area we’ve had some great results in. But generally speaking, it’s a case of being able to come up with new ideas that deliver the results the partners are looking for, and ultimately being able to go back to them at the end of the Championship with some really strong results.
It is pretty much the same with the broadcasters – we can showcase what they have to offer and it’s a mutually beneficial relationship. If you look at one of our newer partners like NBC, we’ve discussed with them how we can really get them out there and produced some really fun content with (former England star turned pundit) Alex Corbisiero that highlighted their involvement and coverage in a really engaging way.
What trends are you seeing that you'd like Six Nations to explore?
If you look at what the Premier League have done with Fantasy, you have to take your hat off to them. With so much competition for people’s attention, you need something that gives people a reason to engage with a match that they might not have a huge emotional connection with.
I might take a real interest in, say, Leicester v Stoke even though I don’t support either of the teams, just because I’ve got Jamie Vardy in my Fantasy team and that is a big win for the Premier League. I’d love to find a way to have video embedded in to the Fantasy product and have that spin off for the website, the app and social.
With written content, that is definitely still a big part of our plans but I think you have to be much more clever with it nowadays – there’s just so much of it out there! I’d like to have analysts from each of the six nations who act as digital ambassadors for the Championship and possibly the live element might take a different form in the future.
It’s not a trend as such but GDPR is obviously a big issue for the industry at the moment but I actually view it as a positive – the ramifications of it should be to have a really solid and engaged database that actively wants to hear about and get involved with your content and messaging. I think there will be a move towards offering ‘money can’t buy’ experiences that really get those people interested.
With the app, I look at something very simple – but hugely popular – like LiveScore and think that having a really clear and unambiguous offer that gives fans a reason to open it up and use it is the way things are going: basically finding out what the customer wants and giving it them!
And another trend I’d like to explore is the drive towards real personality on the channels. Digital can be a bit of a faceless but a platform like ArsenalFanTV has made a whole business out of really having a strong personality – it’s phenomenal really. Sporting officialdom generally does have a challenge with attracting and retaining a younger audience and using vloggers that aren’t necessarily part of the rugby establishment is one way of countering that.
Do you see different roles and audiences for your owned digital platforms and third-party social channels?
One of the challenges is the website – it feels like the overall landscape is moving away from the website as a destination in the way it always has been but at the same time, we can’t overlook how important it is for us to have a 100% owned and controlled space.
Another thing I would say is that gone are the days of replicating content across platforms – you’ve got to treat each one on its merits, whether that’s doing short social teasers on social for longer YouTube edits or adding something special which makes a classic clip from the '70s catch the eye of the younger audience on Instagram. With Fantasy, we run different types of content on different platforms and I’m keen that we mix things up.
In terms of the strategy for the next few years, that’s a key point for us – to treat each platform as a publishing destination in its own right.
Which other sports organisations/brands do you admire for their digital execution?
I have absolutely no problem with looking to other sports for inspiration and examples – you can always learn from what other brands and sports are doing. For me, the Champions League is one brand that I admire – it’s just a really smart offering, the way they tease people in to become fans of the tournament itself rather than just individual clubs or players.
It’s positioning itself as the pinnacle of club football and the social and digital output feels exactly that in terms of the look and the quality of the content. There’s lots of clever ways to add to their database, like signing in to watch video and the integration with merchandising is strong too.
Another one from the football world is Liverpool. They do simple things that really work and it’s all done to a high standard. Their graphics and social-focused video is a real good example of how to do it.
Wimbledon win a lot of praise for what they do on social and rightly so. They have done a brilliant job of bringing an event with such a sporting heritage and history to life for a whole new audience, without losing that tradition and what makes them special. The imagery and branding is great and they always come up with something fresh without being gimmicky.
I’m glued to the digital of Off The Ball in Ireland. They were basically a radio show who have adapted brilliantly to the changing landscape and their social is fantastic – and full of personality.
And the unions, pretty much across the board all do a fantastic job of growing the sport, bringing it to life and – especially on match days and during tournament time – capturing that passion and connection between fans and players.
Who is your target audience? Is it mainly the fans of the six competing nations or are you looking to grow fans in other markets?
Ultimately we want to appeal to as big an audience as possible. We want to be mass market and gain a global audience and across as broad an age range as we can. With things like the NBC broadcast deal we’re breaking into the USA market and that’s something we want to continue.
Traditionally we’ve had a more mature audience but we’ve lowered the average significantly and digital is the key driver behind that. The video of a brilliant try can be enjoyed by anyone with any interest in rugby, no matter how old they are.
We also want to grow our female audience – it’s roughly a 70/30 male/female split at the moment but you only have to look around at Twickenham or the Aviva on a Six Nations match day and see that there really is a large female audience there for the sport and the Championship.
Of course we have our standalone channels across the board for the Women’s Six Nations and they have experienced phenomenal growth since we set them up. The numbers are strong but what really stands out is the engagement rate – the audience for the channels is really engaged with the content.
Looking ahead to 2019 and beyond, what are your ambitions? If you had no restrictions what would you love to do in digital?
You definitely can’t ignore eSports and it’s an area that we’re really looking at what other sports and brands are doing. At the moment though, there’s not really a rugby title that has gained that traction and importance of, say, FIFA, which is what you need to get it off the ground in a meaningful way. I could see it happening in the not-too-distant future and then it’s a case of how you make it work for the Six Nations.
As for the website, I’d like to think outside the box in terms of what content should be there in the first place and one thing that appeals is to go down the route of studio-type programmes featuring, for example, ex-players and maybe some faces that really appeal to the younger audience.
The Six Nations will be seeking a new title sponsor, so what do you think the Championship can offer its commercial partners - particularly in terms of digital and social?
We’ve demonstrated that we’re creating new records year-on-year in terms of followers, views and engagement and that we’re very proactive in working alongside our partners to amplify their messaging, content and activations through our channels.
With the SMG report placing us second in the list in terms of positive conversations in sport… who wouldn’t want to be associated and involved in that? It is rugby’s greatest Championship and it’s an exciting prospect to work in that space.