8 ways ESPN wows its audience with superlative content

Embrace chaos. Make your mantra ‘Best screen available.’ And pursue perfection. The lessons apply to communicators who don’t deliver scores, insights, and catch phrases.

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You thought it was tough in your league. Consider the brawlers ESPN trades punches with every day.

Fox Sports. USA Today. Sports Illustrated. Along with Web and blog newcomers like the Gleacher Report and SB Nation.

“They’re out there writing about every team that matters,” says Patrick Stiegman, vice president and editor-in-chief of ESPN.com.

So how does the network and Web colossus maintain its position as the top player in a hockey-style free-for-all?

Stiegman—who oversees daily news, analysis, multimedia, editorial quality, and digital design—offers a rink-side view of his game:

1. Embrace chaos.

ESPN.com used to be the sun around which all the digital properties rotated, Stiegman says. Nowadays, it’s chaos theory.

ESPN produces ESPNW (for women’s sports), Grantland,ESPN Radio, Watch ESPN, and ESPN Fantasy. It creates 800 original pieces of content every day (excluding wire stories). There are far more niches and subcategories, because there are sufficient communities of fans for each site.

2. Make your mantra ‘Best screen available’

The newspaper industry fought a losing battle to try to keep people buying dead-tree subscriptions, says Stiegman, himself a former newspaper man. Make it easy for your fans, wherever they wish to find you.

“Our approach is to say: ‘Best screen available,'” he says. “That is a mantra that we talk about all the time at ESPN. That may be a 60-inch flat screen watching ESPN, it may be your iPhone 5, it may a tablet or something in between, but it’s the best screen available.”

The goal of the sports giant isn’t to drive fans to its ESPN.com. The goal is to offer them stats, stories, scores, and video on whatever device or in whatever form they want it.

Fans are making their own decisions about how and where they want their sports fix. It’s out of ESPN’s control. ESPN.com’s numbers on a computer are flat, even as its mobile numbers are skyrocketing.

“We’re not worried that people are not coming to ESPN proper as often,” Stiegman says. “We still get upward of 50 million users a month on that platform. But we’re happy to see a trend that people are using it in a more efficient way for them, and that mobile is certainly filling that gap.”

3. Study the landscape.

Some 85 million Americans use the Internet and TV simultaneously each day, he says. More than a quarter of the time spent on the Internet each day is spent directly with TV.

For 55 percent of all tablet owners, the primary room to use a tablet is the living room. They’re not out checking their team’s scores at a bar; they’re on smartphones and tablets. (If we may speculate wildly, ESPN, they’re probably doing a lot of this during those commercials that every once in a while appear on sports networks.)

Knowing this allows ESPN to cultivate such fans, engaging them on multiple channels.

4. Serve your fans.

ESPN’s primary purpose is to serve the sports fan. “It’s not make as much money as you can,” he says. “It’s not serve the stockholder. It’s not intrinsically save the world.”

It’s that guy on the couch in front of the TV, sipping a beer, and tweeting about that damned blackout during the game.

5. Be like a bowling reporter.

Stiegman has covered Rose Bowls and Super Bowls, but his most important bowl was the place where folks roll a heavy ball that knocks down a cluster of pins (or doesn’t).

He started out in journalism working as a sports writer for a Wisconsin paper. Every day when he arrived, he fielded phone calls and typed in 142 bowling scores from the league play the night before.

It wasn’t the NBA, but lessons apply: Be diligent. Get the basics right. And give your customers what they’re looking for.

“We were putting bowling stories in because that’s what the fans wanted,” Stiegman says.

6. Outwork the competition.

In today’s world, ESPN never sleeps. Stories evolve hour by hour. Fans are constantly looking for more information. This requires energy, as well as outworking the competition.

“What are you going to do for me throughout the course of the day every single day to keep making us better in serving fans in an important way?” Stiegman says.

7. Deliver quality.

Is a blizzard wreaking havoc with your employees’ commute? The harsh truth is that fans don’t care. They want your content now. Deliver it.

They’re your fans, yes. But if you’re like ESPN, they have no appetite for glitches.

8. Be ye excellent.

As a man of Wisconsin, Stiegman offers a quote from the great Green Bay Packers coach, Vince Lombardi: “Gentlemen, we are going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full well we will not catch it, because nothing is perfect. But we are going to relentlessly chase it, because in the process we will catch excellence. I am not remotely interested in just being good.”

But hey, since we’re a Chicago-based website, forget Green Bay. Let us end with inspiration from former Bears head coach Mike Ditka: “If God had wanted man to play soccer, he wouldn’t have given us arms.”

@r_working

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