The digital storytelling landscape is a tricky one to navigate without finding a clear niche to exploit, and one of the companies that has spent over 15 years helping find and exploit those niches is Chicago based TeamWorks Media. Led by industry veterans Jay Sharman and Tom Smithburg, TeamWorks Media has worked with traditional institutions like the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, and Northwestern University as well as growing platforms like The Big Ten Network, to exploit great stories, especially in the digital space. Their latest large scale success story is La Vida Baseball, a site launched over a year ago. La Vida has become the go-to source for news and storytelling for Latino baseball fans who want to see, feel and read all about the best in Latino baseball past and present, but in English language. The site has really gained traction not just with fans, but with players, coaches and executives who saw a need that TeamWorks Media exploited.
We caught up with Sharman to talk even more about all the company is doing in digital storytelling.
The digital landscape is pretty crowded these days, how did TeamWorks Media identify a niche like the English language coverage of the Latino space in baseball to exploit?
We saw the National Baseball Hall of Fame had at one point tried to create content appealing to Latino baseball fan so we approached them to learn more about their intentions. When we researched the marketplace, it was clear the growth of the baseball fan was mirroring the US demographic of significant increasingly Latino population. Yet, we could only find Spanish content or, general baseball content translated to Spanish. There was no lifestyle baseball content, the stories beyond the lines, about the passion and culture of the game, dedicated specifically to the majority of Latino baseball fans who consume content in English. It seemed like a pretty obvious gap in the marketplace that needed to be filled. La Vida Baseball was the answer.
The way the brand has resonated with most of the (approximately) 230 Latino Major League Baseball players. They were so receptive to our staff approaching them, sharing their stories and being able to approach them bilingually, many of them go out of their way to make our jobs easier. Many players wear our La Vida Baseball hats with their home country’s flag on them, just for fun. The MLB teams and the league have been very receptive, supportive and have even partnered with us on projects. We didn’t expect to crack that code so quickly.
When looking at the Latino consumer in the digital space, what’s the one element you think brands are overlooking when they try to activate?
Language and nuance. The majority of brand decision makers aren’t Latino and the faulty assumption is that “Latino” equals “Spanish”. Understanding the younger generation of Latinos that consume in English, yet may be bilingual at home and their want to be met on their terms is overlooked. Like any authentically engaged community, there are lots of nuances. How you engage with a US Mexican as to a Puerto Rican or someone from the Dominican Republic, there are obviously significant cultural differences that need to be reflected in the content. I think too many people are looking to check a box on their multicultural approach and it’s a wildly valuable audience that has been ignored for way too long by marketers.
How can the work with La Vida lead to other projects along the same genre? Is there a market that is monetizable for other sports?
Certainly. I believe soccer has reached the saturation point for Latino fans. Other leagues have experimented with partnerships that are geared specifically to the Latino community and the NBA is increasing its game. I think there are significant dollars for most major sports that could benefit by Latino-specific content. The numbers don’t lie. 57 million current US Latinos with continued growth forecasted is an undeniable market force.
You work with a growing amount of legacy brands in sports to help tell their stories as well in the digital space; what’s the biggest challenge with established brands like the Baseball Hall of Fame or even a school like Northwestern?
Every client is unique and come with a given brand reputation. We’ve been fortunate that almost all the brands we’ve worked with are starting from a place of a well-respected, best in class brand status. The challenge becomes creating sub-brands that tap in to that tradition and quality while saying “hey look, we’re doing something new for a new audience”. It’s a balancing act of pushing brands to go beyond their comfort zones while respecting you never want to sacrifice the great work that has been done to date. At Northwestern, most of our work has been done within physical buildings – large scale digital storytelling installations, and the challenge there is creating a rich experience that is constantly adaptable and easily updatable. Stories change, but the storytelling vessels don’t that much.
The Big Ten Network is a great client to have; how has TeamWorks Media helped the league with its storytelling, and why was there such a need?
Mark Silverman, then BTN president, originally asked us to produce episodic TV shows to highlight the great works happening at each B1G school not involving sports as a way to market each member through the network. We collaborated with their awesome team and created a new, digital brand, called BTN Live B1G. It’s daily, year-round content that lives within live game telecasts, on BTN.com and on social (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube) highlighting students, faculty and alumni who are making game-changing, positive impact in the world. The need was around the best way to help market each B1G member’s academic side of the house. We’re entering year six of the relationship and we scour 14 campuses for stories and love this project because we have countless stories of how our stories have led to positive ripple effects ranging from significant donations to a program or project to simply bringing someone to tears with joy. It’s very fulfilling work for our team.
What is the most important element to get right with a consumer these days: is video more important than print? Does it have to be fast and loose? Is there a good mix for digital storytelling that people overlook?
There is no magic formula, but the table stakes have been raised on what great content is. It still comes down to creating emotionally engaging content that strikes a chord with fans, but the ability to clear through the noise and ensure your target audience sees the content is key. Really, the best way to get things right is to ensure you’re fulfilling a true need in the market AND creating a community. It’s clear that those trying to build business models on fly-by traffic aren’t sustainable. Video gets a lot of love because it is a great storytelling medium, but to really create a winning digital media community, I believe the mix of video, print, social and various forms of content are part of a tapestry.
The vanity and ego metrics of view counts and followers has (thankfully) finally had its day of reckoning, which will further reward those who have a mightily engaged community. You have to be very agile and adapt. We have the “fail fast” mantra we talk about daily in our shop. It takes a great degree of experimentation, planning and efficiency to grow a community. But, it also starts and ends with asking the community what they want, not doing what we think they want.
Where do you see trends now going for activation and engagement?
The era of banner ads is gone, there are questions about too much paid content, how can a balance be struck not just for brands but for consumers as well?
I see a pendulum swing. If you listen to digital media trades like Digiday, like I do, it seems you’ll never hear a digital media executive seem like they were caught off guard. It’s laughable. A couple of years ago, the buzz was about distributed content models and the fact that websites were dead. You needed to take your content to fans where they were on their terms. A major Facebook algorithm change this past January and you can see and feel the pendulum swinging the other way to owned media channels. Direct repeat website traffic, email and newsletter opt-ins and events that have fans opting in to your content shows a higher sticky factor and higher value. There is a balance that will hit where social media platforms are looked at as marketing and engagement tools to onboard folks to a brand, but the metrics of having engaged fans will continue to grow far behind a simple follow, share or like. Digital brands that will win the day are ones that have earned so much trust their fans are brand ambassadors. Beyond buying your product to show their part of the community, they’ll run through the proverbial wall for you because you provide so much value to their life.
What’s the best part of being in the digital storytelling space these days?
The breakneck speed of it. It’s fascinating to see entire businesses go down seemingly overnight because an overreliance on, say, Facebook. The degree of complexity of connecting with fans of your subject matter and adapting seem like a daily mix of art and science. It creates a team environment that has so many diverse needs, it is very exciting for those with the growth mindset. If you like constant change and challenge, there aren’t many business sectors that can offer this kind of challenge.
I like it because I feel when (if?) the dust ever settles, great storytelling, as defined by stories that your community can’t live without, will win the day. Having a scoreboard based around engagement and love of content is something we are all for, because we can see how we measure up authentically and make the subjectivity of “great content” change to a conversation about value. That is very good for our business.
What’s the worst?
The amount of players trying to game the system. Thanks to the social platforms cracking down on fake followers and pushing content creators to focus on true audiences, it is going in the right direction. However, there is still an element of the laughable metrics. Facebook considers :03 of watching “a view” and the system of content creators and advertisers abide by this, when most rationale people can agree that :03 is what it takes to get content scrolled out of your feed. You have to dig through quite a bit of B.S. to understand the stickiness and depth of a digital media community’s audience. Thankfully, it feels the cream is starting to rise to the top. But, there is a long way to go.
The company has evolved over 15 years and seems poised for the next point of growth; where do you see that growth coming from?
There are thousands of content creators out there so competition is stiff. Yet, we love where the digital content world is going, because we’ve figured out how to create a large quantity (100 video stories, dozens of articles, hundreds of social posts per month) of highly engaged content, very cost effectively. We believe many brands – whether a purpose corporation, a museum or a university, are all media companies. Many just don’t know it yet. We feel it’s our mission to help the right entities become these media companies and combine their subject matter expertise and knowledge with our storytelling prowess to create true value for their customers and win the day. We’ve seen significant growth already helping museums do this and we feel the complexity of doing it the right way has us positioned for growth in several markets.