GETTING TO A MILLION SUBSCRIBERS
In January 2015, the National Football League launched an official YouTube channel. I was responsible for overseeing content strategy, channel strategy, and content production. I worked with my former coworker and rockstar Kristian Glenn and the company ZEFR which helped us with uploads, content audits, and optimizing content for YouTube.
UNDERSTANDING HOW YOUTUBE WORKS
Our number one goal in the first year was to get to one million subscribers. We were told by our YouTube partner that if we could gain 1 million subs, we would see the benefits of the algorithm. This would include more visibility in suggested video, search, and browse features. Our content needed to be embedded within the YouTube ecosystem in order to grow.
UNDERSTANDING OUR FANS
During the NFL season I spent some time with NFL fans in their homes to understand how they follow the NFL season. From the interviews I developed a fan behaviors framework to help the my 75-person video team understand what types of content fans are looking for, what needs the content served, and their behaviors as fans.
What I learned from working at the NFL was that fandom was on a spectrum. It depended on how much time you had, the platforms available to you, and how you engaged with the sport - for example whether you played fantasy or not.
It was important to me that my team used this as a guide for content creation. In order to be fan first, we needed to understand our audience.
The NFL has a lot of owned video platforms, but not all platforms are created equal. I wanted to help the NFL define how video was consumed by platform and what needs each platform served. This framework was also helpful for video producers who needed to quickly understand what platform was best for their content.
The Video by Platform framework was another I guided teams to create content with intention. All content served a fan need and provided value.
CREATING AN ARCHIVE
The first step that we took involved uploading archival content. Notable games, performances, and noteworthy players. As NFL fans ourselves, we anticipated what players would be searching for relative to the cadence of the season. This included:
- Super Bowl Highlights
- Pro Bowl Highlights
- Combine Highlights
- Notable Performances
Since the YouTube channel started at the end of the football season we did not have as many opportunities to capitalize on timely performances or highlights. But, we needed other ways to learn about out fans’ video consumption. Luckily the biggest events of the the NFL calendar were coming up.
We also pulled keyword search terms and utilized Google Trends to anticipate search behavior around NFL content and tentpole events.
LEARNING FROM THE DATA
Next, we dug into the data to start to understand channel performance and behavior. We learned a few things that would drive our channel strategy during the season:
Athletic moments can override timeliness and keep the NFL relevant in the offseason.
Build up to big events with archival content.
Anticipate “search worthy” moments like NFL events (Draft, Combine, etc.), retirements, and free agency.
LEARNING FROM USER TESTING
Prior to the launch of the 2015 - 2016 NFL season I worked with UserTesting.com to gain qualitative insights on how fans consumed content on our channels. The purpose of this research was to understand content preferences and what content would incite sharing. We learned four things that would inform our in-season content strategy.
- Fans wanted content that did not require a lot of context to understand and enjoy (For example: game highlights and lists).
- Fans loved playlists that aggregated their favorite teams. They wanted an easy way to stay informed.
- Fans saw historic content as a big differentiator from other sports channels.
- Fans used thumbnails, titles, and descriptions to determine if a video was worth watching. They also evaluated the quality of the video - if the title matched with what happened with the video. In other words, did their expectations match the content?
Based on our early learnings from YouTube and our User Testing results, I developed guiding principles for our content creators to use for in-season content.
- Guiding Principle 1 - Simplicity: Our content connects back to fan value and our objectives. we identify the right way to tell a story that doesn’t overwhelm the fan, the creative , or us as producers.
- Guiding Principle 2 - Series and Platforms: We build audiences and affinity by delivering stories that unfold over time or have a similar theme. We give fans a reason to visit us often.
- Guiding Principle 3 - Archive and Optimize: We mine our archives for stories. We utilize our assets in ways our competitors cannot and package them uniquely for our fans.
Each week we focused on making the Channel Home Page relevant. It reflected the cadence of the NFL week, the tentpole games, and the noteworthy match-ups. It was also important to show fans - who were still discovering the channel - what to expect from us. We wanted to build consumption behaviors.
We branded our thumbnails. Made them readable on the smallest screen. And, used high-quality game photos to attract attention.
We created several new playlists to help organize all the content and increase discoverability.
- Team Playlists
- Player Playlists
- Series Playlists (Recurring series or NFL Network segments)
- Tentpole Events (Draft, Super Bowl, Combine, Pro Bowl, etc.)
- Rivalries (player or team)
- Classic/Evergreen (Hall of Fame, All Time Great Games/Players/Franchises)
- Top 2015 Season Playlists (playlists with the best highlights from the season)
- 2015 Weekly Playlists (Playlists created based on the NFL news of the week)
GROWING THE CHANNEL
At the end of the NFL Season (22 weeks) our channel had generated 313 million views and 797 minutes watched. We were gaining about 15,000 - 20,000 subscribers a month. At the end of the season (Super Bowl Week), we had 897,000 subscribers. By the NFL draft - three months later - we would reach our goal of 1 million subscribers.
WHAT I LEARNED
I learned that frameworks can guide content creation. They are not just for designers. Simple frameworks that identify needs and content can help creative teams deliver the right type of content. Second, the importance of a test and learn strategy. I focused the team on learning not failing so we uploaded all types of content to determine what resonated with our fans. Every week I would share the data we learned with the broader video team to help them optimize their content for the platform. Our channel grew because we were focused on learning and iterating. Lastly, I learned that audience building takes time. Social media makes us think that audiences will automatically show up and stay. Even though NFL is a big brand it still took us a little over a year to build a dedicated audience on a new channel. It is important to have patience. You need a defined content plan and strategy and you need to deliver on your plan consistently. Part of the work is training an audience to know what to expect from your channel and delivering it at a predictable cadence.View More Projects