How can a small start-up compete with a much larger sports media powerhouse? Is it the look and feel of the sites? The user experience? The quality of the articles? Not from my perspective. In fact, on the surface the sites look similar. Yet the self proclaimed open source sports network BleacherReport.com is clearly growing faster than their much better known competitor.
As you can see, BleacherReport (BR) is steadily making headway and may soon match espn.com’s traffic.
BleacherReport seems to have embraced the idea of providing a social experience around sports. Because sports are inherently a social experience, BR is leveraging social media, social networks and social recognition to compete on a shoe string budget. Think LA Clippers versus LA Lakers but with the former starting to win.
BR can compete because it’s effectively leveraging a fanatic fan base. More, it’s built some major and subtle social elements built into the BR site that are attractive to authors and readers. Let’s start with an obvious comparison:
First Comparison Example: Articles at ESPN.GO.COM
Notice the sparse analytical feedback to readers and the author of the article. You can see there are 5 article comments , 24 shares on Facebook and 6 Tweets. But beyond that the article isn’t very social.
First Comparison Example: Articles at BleacherReport.com
You’ll notice right away that the article is much more of a social construct designed to convince the reader to take another action. More often than not, that action will help drive additional traffic to the site. Intelligently, the site is smart enough to know that since you’re reading a Steelers article, you may want to like the Steelers on Facebook (which adds a link back to BleacherReport in your activity stream). Pure social genius.
Another difference is the article viewing stats. I can instantly see that the article is popular (and if your friends like it) thus giving the reader an extra nudge to read it. The polling feature gives the reader a voice on the subject – and thus more engagement. Lastly, the article links to author Nick Signorelli and his author page (ESPN’s did not) which gives me an option to follow him, see his latest activities, and get to know him better (more on this below).
Second Comparison Example: User Profiles at ESPN.GO.COM
Tim has written a lot of articles for ESPN. Yet his user profile says nothing about him. It’s boring, sparse, and non-engaging. You’d find it difficult to follow Tim if he happened to be a writer that you enjoyed.
Second Comparison Example: User Profiles at BleacherReport.com
In magnificent contrast, the BleacherReport’s author profile page is completely different. It’s a social dashboard of activity about Signorelli. It accomplishes two major goals. First, it encourages Signorelli to maintain and increase his stats, earn badges, and respond to comments on all of his articles. It’s a dream page for the die hard sports writer wishing to show the world how good they really are.
The second benefit is for BR readers. Here they can quickly learn about Signorelli, read his other articles, communicate directly with him (no sign up form like on ESPN’s site), and follow communities and writers that Signorelli recommends. It’s built to engage readers to explore other areas of the BR site that the reader may have missed but should enjoy.
Third Comparison Example: Comments at ESPN
ESPN comment system is rudimentary. No reply feature (used for social conversations), no way to sort and filter the comments, and the lack of a comment rating system make for a substandard experience. That may explain why ESPN comments tend to be shorter than the comments on BR. The lack of options here makes having a conversation much more difficult.
Third Comparison Example: Comments at BleacherReport.com
In contrast, while not best in class, BR does have the ability to create a threaded discussion, rate comments (unfortunately does not percolate the best comments to the top), and link to end user profiles. All social features are superior to ESPN’s. As a result, the comments are longer and more engaging.
What do BleacherReport writers think?
According to Featured BR Columnist Tim Lewis; “In my opinion, Bleacher Report has actually surpassed espn.com because BR encourages their writers to be very opinionated with their content. Which is very easy because the writers are actually fans of the teams they write about. This creates social communities around the content and often sparks lively debates in the comments section. “
Lewis continues; “For example, one of my latest articles that compared Kobe Bryant to Michael Jordan produced 120 comments and became a 3 or 4 day long debate amongst Lakers fans like myself and legions of Bulls fans. This would NEVER happen on espn.com because their articles generally fall into that middle territory, rarely assertive enough in one direction to incite an opposing fan base.”
BleacherReport is a sports destination site written by the fans for the fans. Their columnists write out of passion. It’s not the paycheck. Their payback is in the form of social recognition, fan engagement and reputation building. For them, it’s a social business destination for sports that facilitates social interactions with other fans. And it’s really intelligent.
BR is winning because they have embraced the fans. They’re winning because crowd sourced content is king. Their winning because their long tail content is appearing on Google. Their winning because they understand the concept of social recognition.
They’re also proving that leveraging social media within a community pays huge dividends.
In the corporate world, Social Business companies like MindTouch, Jive Software and Lithium are providing similar software for building communities around a brand’s product and solutions. They make it much easier to build these types of destination sites – no need to build them from scratch.
That’s good news for ESPN who may want to check out the vendor playbooks in order to compete head to head with the BleacherReport. It’s also good news for your company if you want to try and replicate the success of BR.