Complain All You Want About #NBArank, But it is Here to Stay
You can learn a lot about how internet media works from reddit. Every single post submitted has a count of upvotes and downvotes—a decent proxy for pageviews and a great one for popularity—and a count of comments, displaying how engaged readers are. Finally, many subreddits conduct surveys and release statistics, helping you better understand which type of people and how many of them are reading the content.
Yesterday the basketball internet was abuzz when Kobe Bryant was ranked 25th in ESPN’s now-annual #NBARank project. You’d be forgiven for thinking that was the only thing about basketball written yesterday, but it wasn’t even the only thing written about Kobe Bryant. For my money, the two best pieces of basketball writing to come out yesterday were Lee Jenkins’ fascinating interview with Kobe Bryant and Jonathan Abrams’ profile of Andre Drummond.
Like most popular basketball stories, all three of the above were submitted to the sub-reddit dedicated to basketball, r/NBA, and were done so within a couple hours of each other. How do you think each of the submissions fared?
The Kobe Truthers were all over twitter yesterday, screaming at anybody with so much as a tangential relationship to ESPN about how they were idiots for ranking Kobe so low, how the entire thing was rigged, how ranking Kobe so low was a cynical grab for pageviews.
Of course their complaints were mostly idiotic because they’re Kobe Truthers: #NBArank isn’t rigged and 25 is an acceptable (if arguable) ranking for Kobe Bryant. But they are (mostly) right about the pageview thing. Short, easily digestible content—especially controversial content—is consumed and commented upon exponentially more than long, thoughtful pieces. I would bet that espn.com/nba got more traffic yesterday than any day since either the draft or first day of free agency, back in July. ESPN knew this, and milked the ranking with a 5-on-5, a First Take hit, an Insider piece etc.
The other important thing here is the idea of “sponsorable content”. More and more the economic model of media websites is moving away from throwing up ads that capitalize on pageviews, and working with companies to sponsor content. An expertly reported profile on Andre Drummond isn’t really sponsorable: you can’t go to American Express and convince them that attaching their name to it will help their brand.
But #NBArank is eminently sponsorable. It engages with fans across social media platforms, something brands are desperate for but struggle to do. It rolls out over the course of a month and takes place both online and on ESPN’s television properties. In a week or so you’re going to see “#NBArank, presented by Chevy” or a segment on SportsCenter that goes “The number one player on #NBArank is presented by the Ford F-150, the number one truck on #Truckrank. Go to ford.com/truckrank to see the rest of the rankings.”
That’s the challenge all practitioners of “smart” or “longform” or “in-depth” writing are facing. The current economic model just doesn’t support that kind of content.
Why Don’t Sports Websites Micro-Target like BuzzFeed?
For the last fifteen years, broad-based content has been the name of the game in online media. When imprecise search engines were the primary drivers of traffic, content was designed to appeal to as wide of an audience as possible.
It has been said so many times already it is practically a cliché, but Facebook, Twitter and the like are upending this model. Every day more and more visitors find their way about the web via links shared on social networking websites, and fewer through typing into Google.
As Will Oremus at Slate notes, BuzzFeed has taken this shifting reality to the extreme by “micro-targeting” its articles. Oremus uses the article “40 Signs You Went to Berkeley” as an example of micro-targeting. Its an article that holds very little appeal to the 99.9% of people that didn’t attend UC Berkeley, but is apparently riotously funny and spot-on if you are part of the 0.1%. Because the article is apt and a bit insider, it raced through Facebook and Twitter being liked and retweeted thousands of times by Berkeley graduates.
While micro-targeting certainly seems like something that will gain an ever prominent foothold in standard content strategies, it has yet to gain much traction in the sports media world.
For the most part, sports websites have done very little precise targeting of content. That’s because it almost happens by default: most sports websites are either broken down by sport (Monday Morning Quarterback) or by team (Cavs: The Blog). It’s hard to break down the audience of sports websites more specifically than by team or sport. How do you design content that doesn’t appeal to all Cavaliers fans, but specifically female Cavilers fans, or Cavaliers fans living outside of Cleveland, or Cavaliers fans that are also into lacrosse?
In years past this was enough to sell to advertisers. Cavs: The Blog could sell the eyeballs of mostly males, ages 18—49 that live in the Cleveland metro area and some advertiser that wanted to reach that demographic would buy ads. Advertisers accepted a certain amount of mis-targeting because there was no better way.
But now there is. In an open letter to employees, BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti revealed that the company was profitable. That’s notable enough in the media world, and especially impressive given that BuzzFeed is only seven years old. Much of this success has to do with how successfully it has been able to court advertisers. While other websites can only vaguely sell the eyeballs of a target demographic, BuzzFeed can do much better because of its micro-targeting.
While BuzzFeed covers such a wide berth of topics that it is visited by a relatively diverse array of people, the individual articles are very narrow. BuzzFeed can tell advertisers, “Hey, if you want to target college-educated readers of both genders who are heavily Asian-American and live in the Bay Area, we have just the article for you to put your ads alongside!” BuzzFeed can sell sponsorable properties unlike any other website.
So can sports media properties graduate from targeting to micro-targeting?
It’s not a rhetorical question: I genuinely don’t know the answer. I struggle to figure out how to break out readers much more specifically than by team or by sport, and I think the rest of the sports media world is struggling too. For evidence, look no further than the newest and most innovative sports media properties.
Some are betting on what media critic Jack Shafer calls the Marquee Brothers model: highly prominent reporters given independence and editorial control over a team of writers within a larger media organization (Grantland and MMQB). USA Today is investing heavily in “quick-twitch” and “shareable” content that is designed to be accessed on mobile devices and tablets moreso than computers (FTW and the re-worked Quickish). SBNation is sticking with the individual team blog model, albeit supplementing it with national writers and a long form site. ESPN recently hired beat writers for all 32 NFL teams—seemingly following a variation on the individual team blog model—yet is letting it is basketball’s TrueHoop Network and baseball’s SweetSpot Network atrophy.
The trend towards micro-targeting shouldn’t be overstated. While BuzzFeed is the current darling of the media world and seemingly has a great business plan, it’s just one island in the vast sea of content. The tide of the internet has always been to push content away from the broad-based into ever more specific niches.
For the time being, the lack of micro-targeting in the sports media world is a good thing for consumers. With no one advertising model dominant, consumers are treated to a variety of approaches in delivering content. The challenge will come when (if) advertisers start pulling ad dollars and funnel them towards properties that can guarantee a specific audience.
Given the massive hold sports have on our society however—and the fact that sports remain the last bastion of engaged, appointment-viewing television—I’m guessing that advertisers will be content to suffice with the current model.