Thursday, December 24, 2009

Will the 2010s Spell the End of Soccer Viral Marketing?

This week has been a dire one for finding stories compelling enough to care about. Most sites have been content to do end of year roundups (few can match Jonathan Wilson's Tactics of the Future post on the Guardian, featuring a sub-header labeled "The Hegelian Model"), others are providing dribs and drabs on the on-going crap coming out of Seattle on MLS CBA talks, and the story on the English sites seems to be the Manchester City mess, of which I shook most of my sillies out on Monday.

So yesterday I came across a post on Fake Sigi on ESPN's decision to market their upcoming World Cup coverage with something called the Group of Death, a heavy-metal band concept that no one really quite understands. ESPN has gone the blogger route to drum up interest in "the concept," getting various writers to fall in line and talk about "the concept" so that it will catch on and "go viral."

At first I thought, what the fuck does this have to do with football? Or the World Cup, the most important tournament in the world's most popular sport?

Then I had a visit from the Ghost of Soccer's Present, who showed me an army of sport bloggers attending conferences about in-post product placements, meme marketing, and getting things to "go viral," spreading the disease of product awareness through the "trusted voices of the blogosphere." I can't tell you how often I've come across insider blogger sites that have declared the era of ad impressions "dead," and the best way to succeed is through building and maintaining "corporate partnerships" by way of writing about worthy soccer-related products in your posts which leads to me "not wanting to read your blog." I realize bills need to be paid, but there must be better ways to do it than being an ESPN wank-job, or pretending to have a strong opinion about a product only after a company has offered you free shit.

It was only after a subsequent visit from the Ghost of Soccer's Future that I started to think "viral marketing concepts" are going to die off in the 2010s. The Group of Death is a lousy concept because it's stupid to use heavy metal music to promote Africa's first World Cup and perhaps the most important soccer tournament in US history. ESPN has decided to be stupid, and in the 2010s, stupid will lose. Stupid will not get people with money to spend to watch soccer on TV. Nor will stupid get people to buy your soccer-related product on the internet. On-line readers are now savvy enough to know when a corporation is shoveling them shit specifically designed to "go viral" and therefore destined never to do so.

What if instead ESPN had decided that 2010 would be a banner tournament for American soccer, a cultural turning point on the game's future in America regardless of the outcome of the group stage, and found a way to sell it that way? What if ESPN had solicited features from respected independent soccer writers on lesser-known facts from American soccer history, in exchange in mentioning ESPN's upcoming coverage of the 2010 tournament? Or produced a series of short, well-made doc-ads on domestic American soccer stories for YouTube, something bloggers might just go and embed on their own, with little or no prompting? Why not just market the tournament as if it already was the most important in American soccer history, and a turning point for the sport in the USA?

"Oh, but using an intelligent approach mans we won't reach the lowest common denominator," says the marketing man. But perhaps you don't want the LCD, because you can't market high-end products to the LCD, and the LCD is unlikely to like soccer no matter how Heavy Metal your "marketing concept" is. Just a thought, really.


The Gaffer said...

Richard, I disagree with you on this one. 2010 will certainly not spell the end of soccer viral marketing. If anything, it'll be the biggest year ever for soccer viral marketing.

Think back to the last World Cup and the whole Joga Bonito campaign from Nike. The campaign was for a social networking site, but it had a huge viral aspect to it. Adidas did something similar too with their well-crafted World Cup commercials.

Love it or hate it, The Group Of Death campaign is better suited for television and the web. A series of articles by respected independent soccer writers is not going to translate well on to television.

Plus the reality is that while all of us here live in a thriving soccer community online, there are millions of soccer fans in the United States who play and follow the game but don't go online. The best way to reach that audience is through TV.

Personally I think it's too early to call The Group Of Death a success or failure. The nature of viral marketing sometimes takes weeks or months to determine whether it's a success or not. But that's the thing about viral. It's often a crapshoot. If it doesn't work, the brains at ESPN's ad agency have plenty of time to come up with another campaign that will promote its coverage.

The Gaffer

Anonymous said...

I'm with The Gaffer there. Part of the problem with the people writing for soccer blogs is this insistence that everything to do with soccer is about them. I doubt seriously the ad campaign behind the Group of Death was thinking of you or anyone else already committed. What they were looking at was Steel Panther and the Anvil documentary.

Look, I don't think it's the best idea either. At the same time, I don't think I'm the intended audience. They had me already.

Colin said...

Excellent post.

A key point in viral marketing is that you can't so actively try to *make it go viral*. Efforts that do just that end up as case studies in how not to market in Ad Age or Public Relations Society of America.

You make a fantastic point, Richard, in talking about pandering to the lowest common denominator. Focusing on the archetypal Group of Death with a so narrowly targeted and exclusionary concept as a heavy metal band comes at the cost of shirking actual value that is seeping out of every orifice of this World Cup.

charles said...
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davidbaer said...
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El Gaffney said...

Hey Richard, saw you linked to my post (Group of Death) so wanted to stop by and say hello. Just commented on Fake Sigi's blog with the intention behind this idea (like it or dislike it) so won't repeat myself. And definitely don't want to try and convince you it's great. I do want to point out that this is only one piece of what ESPN (with our help at W+K) will be doing to promote the World Cup. The idea was to do something fun around the draw that wasn't about us (ESPN) or trying to over-hype the draw (on ESPN2). It was merely trying to acknowledge its significance to true fans (who don't start thinking about the WC a month before the first game but have been following qualifying since '06) by bringing a specific World Cup (and Euro) term (The Group of Death) to a broader audience. Think you'll like the main campaign we've got come in a few months more. We certainly believe it will be "the banner tourney for American soccer" and will treat it that way. I promise it's not "stupid." Until then, feel free to drop me a note. Best, Seth

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