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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

ESPN takes a wide view of digital video, including its new SportsCenter shorts

March 1, 2017 | By Ron Miller—Independent Technology Journalist @ron_miller

ESPN is a network with a rich history of delivering sports news in a variety of entertaining and fun ways, but the network is not content to rest on that reputation. Recognizing the need to continuously evolve, ESPN recently made substantive changes to the way it delivers video and other content across its various properties.

They recently broke new ground by creating a dedicated team that produces digital video shorts, which can appear anywhere in the ESPN content ecosystem. Users of the popular ESPN app will notice this video content at the top of their Favorites page, and elsewhere throughout the app, but this same content could be used on TV on the SportsCenter at 6 p.m. slot with Jemele Hill and Michael Smith.

Ryan Spoon, SVP of digital product and design at ESPN, says whatever the network’s approach, it’s about delivering the right content to the right screen at the right time. Regardless of the delivery platform, Spoon says, they are focusing on accessibility and portability as you move from a 50-inch screen in your living room to the 5-inch screen in your pocket.

Unique Content, Uniquely Suited

The goal of the new video strategy is two-fold. First of all, they want to deliver content that is unique and place it front and center on all relevant platforms. Secondly, they want to present content that is highly customized to each individual’s preferences. That means placing headlines and video at the top of your Favorites page that are relevant to both the breaking news of the moment and what’s most relevant to you, based on what they know about your favorite sports/teams/athletes.

In practice, that means that if you’re watching on the ESPN app, you’ll notice that by design a new (and frequently changing) video at the top of the page. The volume is off by default, but it uses text to let you know the gist of the story, even before you turn up the volume.

Perfecting Presentation

That video might appear in other properties or it might not, but each bit of content can be repurposed based on the platform, and that includes not only customizing it for the various ESPN venues, but also for the particular social platforms. Each platform has its own personality whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or SnapChat, Spoon explained, and they will present the content in a way that’s appropriate for each one.

“It’s a challenge across content creation, against programming content, against the presentation layer and the system on technology side that drives it all. All of that has to be balanced with a mixture of what do you need to know and what do you want to know as a fan [of a particular team] and the sports news of the day,” Spoon explained.

As for monetization, they mix in ads with the video content they show across their various properties and across the various presentation platforms, whether TV or digital.

Overall, the strategy is about keeping the network fresh. A key component is understanding that what works at this moment may not always work, Spoon says. They are constantly experimenting with new ways of working and how to best serve their core audience of sports fans, including producing these short video pieces.

“I don’t claim to have the answers or suggest everything we are doing is perfect, but I will say we all believe the right way is to constantly iterate, watch, learn and test.” ESPN’s latest video initiative is less than two weeks old and, according to Spoon, it has already resulted in “great content and continues to improve and find structure and liveliness.”

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