SB Nation: Turning fan bases into media brands
SBNation's philosophy is based on providing locally focused, fan-centric sports content. Jim Bankoff, chairman and CEO of the sports blogging network, describes the level of interaction as similar to an Internet version of sports talk radio.
Since launching in 2003, the network has grown to include 280 sports communities, where sports-enthusiast bloggers produce content and converse with fans. Under its own branding and staff, each site focuses on a team (e.g. Blogging the Boys for the Dallas Cowboys) or a specific sport (e.g. Daily Soccer Fix). Earlier this summer the company also launched 20 regional sites.
Before joining SB Nation in 2008, Bankoff was an executive at AOL, where he helped launch sites such as AOL.com and developed successful blogs including TMZ and Engadget.
In a phone interview, Bankoff discussed about SBNation's “non-traditional” business model and the local media landscape in general. Here is an edited version of our conversation.
eMediaVitals: How is SB Nation different from 'traditional media?'
We think our formula is one that's well-suited to how consumers and advertisers are connecting with content brands today. We see a few trends happening in media today. First is fragmentation: People are able to go to the content that they care about directly. Specifically in sports, people don't Google 'sports;' they Google the team that they care about. We don't identify ourselves as 'sports fans,' we identify ourselves as fans of a team or a sport or a player. And so we're building media brands around those entities.
The second trend is socialization. Media is becoming more social. Media brands are not just smart people talking to their audiences, but they're smart people talking with their audiences, and it's more of a two-way dialogue. Sports is a perfect category to do that with because spectator sports is all about conversation; it's all about, 'Hey did you see that play? Who do you think will win the game?' So it's a perfect topic area to create a conversation around.
The third trend is 'real-time.' Since sports is also a news category, there are events happening all the time; there are players being traded all of the time. It's important to us to deliver that information to the consumer within seconds of us being aware of it. Sometimes we'll come up with the information about it or the analysis; sometimes other people will. We kind of go by that old saying by Jeff Jarvis: Do what you do best and link to the rest. We create mostly original content but we're always pleased to link to someone who gets there before we do or has a different or better take on it than we do.
eMediaVitals: Could you talk more about how you leverage user-generated content and curation in your strategy?
Sports is an interesting category because the content itself is really accessible to everyone who has a ticket to the game or everyone who has a television set. You can get the information about the game, so the content that's being created is often analysis of the games or analysis of the moves that the team is making. There's a lot of opinion and analysis as part of the sports landscape and that enables us to create original content without always needing access — sometimes we have access, sometimes we choose not to take it.
We're always reporting or analyzing things from the fan perspective, and we're proud of that perspective.
eMediaVitals: How do your content producers get paid, or is this more of a community journalism effort? Do you also have full-time staffers in charge of any editorial functions?
Each brand is managed by a blogger/writer whose job is to manage the site, manage the brand and set the editorial agenda. They have full editorial control over the sites, they build up these communities, and we pay them for their work. We also have part-time contractors. We pay them not to just write articles but to really manage brands, and in our case what that means is to create content and to guide and moderate the conversations on the websites.
Generally we recruit them from the Web or from our own communities. A lot of them are freelancers or they're people who are strong fans and they have other careers.
eMediaVitals: Is the payment based on a revenue share, page views, or some other model?
It corresponds a lot of with traffic, but also quality as well. There's quantitative and qualitative factors that we use to determine how much someone can get paid. If you just compensate people on page views, you wind up encouraging bad behavior sometimes.
eMediaVitals: How are you able to make a business out of this model?
What I described to you is really a different form of media. There are two benefits as far as advertising goes. One is that we have relationships with our audience — our writers, our bloggers — it's a two-way dialogue. In the sports world there's really nothing like this since the talk radio. Now it's like having hundreds of call-ins, if not thousands, per hour. We're creating this very interactive environment.
We are authentically two-way, and because of that it gives us the opportunity, much like a radio announcer, to introduce brands that are relevant. We recently partnered with Electronic Arts — they were launching a new video game that centers on college football [NCAA 2011]. We partnered with them to introduce that into our community. But we didn't just slap up an advertisement. [They created a campaign called "Where I Come From," asking users about how they became interested in college football.] We thought that we would start a conversation around those topics. [Advertisers] are looking to engage fans in that conversational environment.
We activate the base of the hardcore sports fans and once we do that they help to influence the more casual sports fans, and those tend to be a very valuable demographic who make purchasing decisions — predominantly a young, male demographic with a lot of disposable income — and advertisers are seeking to be in front of an influential audience.
It comes down to two things: one is an influential audience and then the second thing is being part of that conversational environment.
eMediaVitals: There are plenty of critics about new business models that are more hyperlocal and community-blogging focused, in part because they threaten other local news coverage. Do you think what you're doing exists well alongside other local news outlets?
I absolutely think so. We're partners with local news outlets and we also partner with national news outlets.
We don't want to just be another beat reporter; that's not a differentiated editorial position. For us, we want to cover things in a way that a fan would cover. For us that would mean not being in the locker room and not being at the press conference. But I think the newspapers do that very well and so I think we have a nice relationship where we do things from one perspective; they do things from another perspective.
I think there's a lot of disruption happening. People get nervous about that, people chatter about that and debate whether it's good or bad. But the way I see it, it's nothing but good. There are more options, selections, breadth of coverage today for a consumer of media than there ever has been. There's more of it, so it requires more filtering; it requires more of an ability to separate what's good and what's bad, but I think people should and can be trusted to do that on their own.
It doesn't mean that there isn't heartburn that comes along with changes; it doesn't mean that it's all going to be perfect, but by and large, it's a vast improvement for people than what we had seen previously.