“Data-Driven Thinking" is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.
Today’s column is written by Aaron Dodez, vice president of digital marketing at RPA.
These days, sports commentary juggernaut Bill Simmons has found himself on the other side of the interview table, with his media moves and decisions being dissected unlike ever before.
And while most outlets and sports fans are focused on the performance of his budding media empire’s crown jewel, the premium HBO television show “Any Given Wednesday with Bill Simmons,” we should really be taking a second to examine how he has undoubtedly nailed the setup and rollout of his new digitally focused business.
Simmons offers a road map for digital success that marketers and publishers should look to for guidance and forward-thinking strategies. As a content creator, Simmons was an early social influencer, growing his audience on the backs of social platforms while building a direct relationship with fans. “The Ringer” and its associated properties were promoted primarily through his personal Twitter account and relied on sharing, word of mouth and amplification through the press – a successful approach we’ve seen replicated by a certain Republican presidential candidate.
Simmons is also an early adopter of new technologies, such as podcasts, using authenticity both in his unscripted discussions and live advertising reads, while testing and scaling a variety of podcasts around specific topical niches. Each cross-promotes the other, allowing Simmons to leverage his owned properties as a megaphone to launch the next.
Finally, and perhaps most crucially, his content strategy is focused on immediacy, be it emails delivering in a timely manner around topics currently being discussed in culture, or utilizing new live streaming technologies in a shareable environment. He is constantly in dialogue with his audience – learning about, listening to and leveraging their needs and interests to become the topic of conversation himself.
The Early Seeds Of An Empire
The sports personality who has improbably risen from the ESPN ashes may not be a household name, but for a subset of sports fans, Simmons has been a constant presence in their digital lives for almost two decades.
When ESPN hired Simmons in the early 2000s, he stayed ahead of the digital media curve as the key writer for ESPN.com’s “Page 2” and the host of the “B.S. Report” podcast during the medium’s infancy. From there, he launched the critically acclaimed and ESPN-funded digital publication “Grantland,” which brought together dozens of writers covering sports, pop culture and everything in between.
In 2015, ESPN fired the outspoken Simmons and unceremoniously shuttered “Grantland.”
After signing a deal with HBO to star in a new TV show called “Any Given Wednesday” and giving HBO first refusal rights to any of Simmons’ other creative endeavors, he began rolling out his own new media company. Two of the main pillars of that company are worth diving into: his podcast network and the digital publication “The Ringer.”
As a first salvo, Simmons launched “The Bill Simmons Podcast” across iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. He promoted it primarily through his social handles and mimicked the style and content of his prior ESPN endeavor, while going even broader with new types of guests and commentary.
Notably, Simmons also moved quickly to monetize using the “on-air read” format integrated throughout his show that is both common and effective for podcasts, particularly when the company is a direct marketer pushing a trackable coupon code with a clear call to action.
This strategic difference in marketing revealed a new brand narrative for Simmons, characterized by a subtle yet strategic shift in voice. Not only was he the name and byline that sports fans had trusted for years, he was now able to position fully himself as the new-media maverick that simply outgrew his previous employer – the old sports guard, if you will. This was not a departure but an extension or evolution of his already strong story, and a smart move for Simmons.
From there, he began to roll out additional podcasts, including “Channel 33,” which acts as a podcast incubator. The podcast network, dubbed “BSPN” (Bill Simmons Podcast Network) but more properly called “The Ringer Podcast Network,” now numbers close to a dozen. It has the topical diversity favored by “The Ringer,” ranging from sports to pop culture with “The Watch” and even “Keepin’ It 1600,” which is hosted by former Obama advisors.
The podcasts are cross-promoted within each other, and the approach has been highly effective – most made it to the Top 25 most popular podcasts.
Timely, Relevant Emails
“The Ringer email,” which distributes the type of varied content now synonymous with Simmons’ new brand, launched around the same time. The email strategy was inspired – sent a few times a week, bite-sized, with two to four content pieces on timely pop culture topics. For example, the latest “Game of Thrones” twist may be analyzed, the newest broad-based music and movie release debated or the latest NBA playoff game dissected.
The delivery schedule is quick-reacting, within a day or even hours after many of the topics occur. That’s a format “The Ringer” website seems to be following –within hours of the news breaking, there were multiple articles, many longer-form, relating to Muhammad Ali’s death.
That type of relevancy drives higher open rates and engagement, and it increases sharing, all of which extends the email’s reach and grows the subscriber list.
Simmons has always been one to experiment with media platforms and delivery, and his particular brand of curiosity has once again coincided with his readers’ own thirst for new content in a simple yet powerful way. This speed, technological awareness and focus on contributing to existing conversations are Bill Simmons trademarks. He is someone who will hold impromptu Reddit AMAs, has been experimenting heavily with live streaming content through Facebook and Periscope and has an entire show that was initially available only over-the-top on HBOGo and HBONow.
The podcasts, email and website have been marketed primarily through cross-promotion within each owned property, word of mouth and social media. Simmons has 5 million Twitter followers and is not afraid to use them. Moreover, when he talks about “The Ringer” or the podcasts, his tweets are both retweeted by his followers as well as written about and amplified by the press.
So, even though Bill Simmons’ more traditional content efforts have yet to prove themselves out, his digital marketing approach is one to study. Much like Chris Hardwick and his Nerdist Industries, Simmons’ efforts are quickly leading to a new digital media empire.