First we determine the objectives, then we work backwards and define the strategy

Author: Jure Doler | read time: 7 min

Luca Massaro is the founder of WePlay, a sports digital marketing agency awarded with the prestigious Football Business Awards 2017 Agency of the Year. WePlay works with more than 30 sports brands, from La Liga and Red Bull to Yokohama Tyres, Ironman and European Tour Golf, where their focus is primarily on innovative, new technologies.

SPORTO: WePlay won the Football Business Awards 2017 Agency of the Year. Can you expand a little on your work and strategies?
LUCA MASSARO: WePlay is a new kind of sports marketing agency. We combine a blend of data, strategy, creative and digital marketing to grow brands, audiences and revenue streams. The projects relevant to us winning this award at the end of last year were: our work with Yokohama Tyres, the Chelsea partnership and work with Red Bull, activating their endorsement of Neymar Jr. through the Neymar Jr.’s Five, 5­a­side football tournament.

You are focused primarily on digital. What is your view of the role of digital when it comes to reaching your clients’ goals?
Digital is no longer an area within the greater marketing mix; digital is the marketing mix and must be integrated into each function of a business. The process we take to reach a client’s goals is to first determine their objectives and then work backwards and define the strategy. For example, if the objective is to sell tickets or e­commerce, we use data to determine how many tickets or products can be sold to a target audience, based on market research and prehistoric data. We can then develop a strategy of how we should target specific audiences with specific marketing messages and what content we need to create to engage them and what channels we can use to distribute the message.

Before starting your own company, you believed that sports relies on the broadcasting money to a much greater degree than the entertainment industry or pop-culture (such as music, film or fashion) that is, not having the same resources, required to continually innovate and adapt technologically. What is the current position of sports in terms of using the potential of technology?
The sports industry is maturing at a rapid rate. You can see how much development there is around areas of innovation like stadium experience, fan engagement, VR and AR, esports etc. It is an exciting time for growth in the industry. From our perspective as a sports marketing business, we spend two thirds of our time focusing on making a difference to our clients’ businesses today. That requires a mentality of how do we utilize everything available to us, in the form of data science, creative development and digital market­ing, to reach the objective.

Building and managing brands on social media is very different to what the stereotypical community management role is, i.e. planning content, publishing and responding to comments.

The remaining one third of our time is spent looking at the future to see what tomorrow looks like. From how media buying is developing with innovations in programmatic advertising to data protection compliant with GDPR. We are also following the new creative capabilities supported by platform development and looking for ways of capturing data for further analysis.

Looking at the major sports events, such as the forthcoming 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia [the interview was conducted prior FIFA World Cup], what are your expectations when it comes to digital?
We expect it to look a lot like the last major tournament. A large focus will be on social media, with broadcasters, brand and content creators opting for a social video­first strategy to engage audiences. We expect to see large media budgets being used to fuel the distribution of content created to ensure that it reaches audiences and cuts through the noise.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is definitely one of the more appealing aspects in sports; IBM Watson, for example, is doing interesting things in Wimbledon and using AI to create a new fan experience in tennis. What is your view of AI?
We are definitely paying attention to what the major technology companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon are doing. Once the tools become democratized for all businesses to utilize in their marketing, we will take advantage and build them into our strategies for our clients.

The Aston Villa bot shows how an organisation with millions of fans can offer a personalised experience to an individual fan without needing to hire a huge team of marketers.

Will chatbots change the way fans are con­necting with their favorite players? For example, WePlay partnered with Aston Villa to introduce their new Facebook Messenger chatbot.
We are building chatbots to solve simple prob­lems. Problems like a football club that has mil­lions of fans asking questions, but the club does not have the internal team to respond to every­one. So a bot can solve that challenge or it can send a push notification to a small group of loyal fans with an exclusive piece of content. This pro­cess can be entirely automated and does not re­quire a human to manage.

The Villa bot shows how an organisation can of­fer a personalized experience to an individual fan, but offer this experience at scale to all fans without needing to hire a huge team of market­ers (community managers). Chatbots are not so much used to connect fans with players, but to al­low fans to get closer to their club. To learn more information and to access exciting, personalized content quickly.

Sports such as boxing, golf or motorsport that do not integrate their digital strategies with the social strategies of their athletes are the ones that are struggling the most.

Let’s touch on the social media. What is your approach in community management as you manage the leading sports properties’ Facebook profiles?
Building and managing brands on social media is very different to what the stereotypical community management role is, i.e. planning content, publishing and responding to comments. The digital ecosystem has evolved tremendously since 2012 when we started our journey when it was very difficult to justify an ROI from social activity. The social media world is very different today and we have evolved organically to supply expert services to help organisations to grow their brands, audiences and commercials. While Facebook is the world’s largest social platform, it is Facebook’s Business Manager that has been the real game changer. It has developed into an industry-leading advertising and e­commerce platform, enabling anyone that has an online brand to reach and engage millions of target consumers efficiently and effectively through measured digital advertising. Features within the platform, such as Custom Audiences, Retargeting and Lookalikes, allow marketers to scope and strategize campaigns, and go­to­market with customer acquisition campaigns that connect the dots between reaching more fans and generating sales.

When organisations come to us, it is because they are looking for a sports marketing agency that can help them win in the digital age. We do not have an algorithmic approach to our work, it is more of an expert understanding of all the tools available in today’s digital marketing world and how to use them to build brands, audiences and revenues.

Instagram seems to be evolving into the leading social media for sports. What opportunities can Instagram offer to sports properties in your opinion?
When Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion back in 2012, they knew that at an average of $33 per user (Instagram had 33 million users at the time) they could scale their operation through the consumption of mobile media and mobile commerce. No one expected Instagram to grow into the beast it is today, but that is why Facebook is as valuable as they are. Because they know what the market wants. Today, Instagram provides something none of the other platforms can, a visual look into the lives of your favorite sports stars and teams. Twitter, in theory, should have become this, however, it got lost on its journey and never really expanded beyond real­time news publishing. Just like YouTube, Instagram, on the other hand, provides a platform for anyone to become a media property. It is the platform of choice for individuals because social media is really about people connecting with people.

The athlete and celebrity aspect of Instagram is what drives its rapid and continuous growth. Brands and official sports organisations have followed and built their profiles to try and emulate what individuals and influencers have done.

What advice would you offer to smaller clubs with limited funds? Which digital channel or strategy would you use if you were standing in their shoes?
It depends on the objectives. We also work with smaller organisations across brand growth and e­commerce. There is no brief that is too small.

You are also a boxing fan, and as you know, the UK is currently, along with the US, the most dominant force in the sport of boxing, especially now with their world heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua. What is your view of the way boxing is developing and adjusting to the digital world?
This goes back to what I said in the Instagram answer earlier. These sports are growing because individual stars, like Anthony Joshua (AJ) or Conor McGregor are telling their story through a social lens. People love AJ, not only because he wins, I mean he is not the first fighter to go unbeaten, but because people relate to his story.

What we know is that the sports that do not integrate their digital strategies with the social strategies of their athletes are the ones that are struggling the most, such as boxing, golf or motorsport. Take F1 for example. Lewis Hamilton is by far the most interesting to follow on social media and thus he attracts the majority of the younger audience. Of course, there is the Ferrari heritage and that will always draw a fan base, but F1 needs to build storylines around their drivers, just like the UFC or the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) have done, if it wants to engage new audiences. Boxing will need to do the same, however, it has the monumental challenge of multiple divisions, promoters, broadcasters and politics trying to stop it from realizing its potential.

The interview was first published in SPORTO Magazine No. 11 (May 2018)