Some call it “professional wrestling.” Others call it “sports entertainment.” No matter what you call it, it’s left an indelible imprint on popular culture. Famous faces like The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Ric Flair, Roddy Piper (R.I.P.), and John Cena became household names thanks to the generation-transcending reach of professional wrestling.
While it’s certainly entertaining, there are quite a few lessons that WWE -- the company synonymous with professional wrestling -- can teach digital marketers.
Full disclosure, I have been a fan of professional wrestling since I was a kid. I grew up watching it with my father and younger brother and never quite shook the habit. In fact, when I first started dating my boyfriend in college, the only way he could get me to hang out at his apartment on Monday nights was to agree to get cable so we could watch WWE’s flagship show, Monday Night RAW, together.
As a kid, it was the appeal of larger-than-life, beefy, sweaty dudes that yelled funny, albeit intimidating threats at equally colorful opponents that had me hooked. Today, I’ve come to appreciate the business and marketing wizardry behind sports entertainment as much as the product itself.
Beneath the veneer of loud, muscular dudes bodyslamming each other in a ring, lurks an extremely smart business and marketing model that can help you carve out a solid approach for your own agency or clients. This approach involves using data to “listen” your audience, then using that data to reach them through effective written, social, and audio-visual content -- as well as a few other tricks of the trade, too. By taking a deeper dive at some of the lessons WWE and professional wrestling teach us, digital marketers can find creative inspiration in one of the unlikeliest of places: the wrestling ring.
Lesson 1: Don’t assume you know your audience: Research them. Poll them. Listen to them.
So, with unscripted displays of athleticism like MMA and boxing, what is it about WWE’s scripted form of athletic competition that keeps audiences engaged? While there is audience overlap with UFC, et al., WWE makes it a point to conduct extensive research analyses of its existing and potential audiences.
A look at a recent job posting for a Marketing Research Analyst shows that WWE looks for professionals who are capable of conducting in-depth surveys and analyzing data to gain a deeper understanding of its fans and sub-groups of fans.
They’re not just looking for “numbers people,” but critical thinkers who can take data, draw logical conclusions from it, and tell stories with that data. Numbers alone can feel one-dimensional and sterile. But when you use those numbers to construct portraits of people based on age, geographic location, household income, marital status, and even their favorite wrestlers and characters, you begin to find common ground and understand where your audience is coming from. Ultimately, understanding your audience allows you to alternately keep them happy OR surprise them.
As noted in the company’s 2014 annual report, WWE’s business is highly dependent upon retaining and growing their audience, so it’s imperative to know how to reach them. While it may be easily assumed that the brand’s demographic is overwhelmingly male, in actuality, WWE notes that 35% of its audience is female. Similarly, 24% of its fans are under 18.
To keep a bead on the interests of its diverse audience, WWE frequently polls fans via the WWE Fan Council, giving them the opportunity to answer short surveys (such as which personalities should be the subject of upcoming DVD boxed sets) in exchange for a chance to win gift cards and give them a sense of belonging to an exclusive community of fans within the larger fan-base.
By using surveys, statistics, and quantifiable means of measurement -- alongside critical thinking to put it all together -- WWE has managed to continually keep pace with its audience, as well as anticipate and/or respond to their demands.
Beyond statistics, however, WWE does have a key advantage in that, at live events, they can measure fan reaction. In an interview with Inc.com, WWE’s Chief Brand Officer Stephanie McMahon said that, "Our fans are the secret to our success. They tell us what they like by cheering, they tell us what they don't like by booing, and worse, they tell us what they don't care about by being silent.”
Okay… So, if you’re a digital marketer, you may not be able to hear cheers or boos for your client in-person… But you can look to social media to gauge sentiment. Additionally, you can use tools that are as simple or sophisticated as your needs merit. You can use a tool like SurveyMonkey to poll your audience on a regular basis, or comb through Google Analytics to create user personas that will help you better understand your audience, and then tie it all together with closed loop reporting to determine the most effective means of reaching them, as well as the return on your investment.
Lesson 2: Reach Your Audience Through Effective Use of Digital Media
Piggybacking off of WWE’s knowledge of their audience and acknowledging that their fans are their lifeblood, the company extends their reach by smart use of social media. In 2014, WWE won three Shorty Awards for their innovative use of social media, YouTube content, and mobile apps. Given the size of the organization, it’s even more impressive when you learn that this social media team is comprised of only 10 people.
WWE has its own presence on Facebook and Twitter but many of its wrestlers (known as “Superstars” and “Divas” in WWE brand-speak) are also extremely active on social media, too. They’re ranked at #6 among the Most Social Brands in the World.
- WWE boasts 26 of the Top 100 most-followed athletes on Facebook
- 26 WWE personalities have over 1 million followers on Twitter
- 47 WWE performers have over 500,000 followers
- 87 WWE personalities have over 100,000 followers
Not only does this help fans interact with or get to know the faces that comprise the WWE brand, it gives their employees (and/or independent contractors) a personal stake in furthering their own storylines, growing their own fanbase within the WWE universe, and increasing merchandising revenue to contribute to the overall bottom line.
The way WWE uses social media requires buy-in from its talent and gives them an opportunity to further themselves and the company itself. Social media also provides “free advertisement” in taking storylines and scripted feuds between wrestlers that play out on television and continuing those stories via social media. Not only does it keep fans invested and chomping at the bit for more, but every tweet or comment back to a wrestler or WWE itself helps to better gauge fan sentiment. Beyond that, it makes the fandom more unique and interactive -- which, in turn, builds trust.
By correlating social listening with merchandising revenue and other numbers, WWE may likely determine which storylines have been the most successful and which performers resonate most strongly with their audience -- or who has potential and a willingness to win over fans.
Digital marketers can adopt this strategy for their agencies and their clients. Want to get bigger clients to work with you? Want to build more relationships and partnerships with others in your community? Show them who you are! Show them your personality. Take some of the heat off of your own social media team and give your team an opportunity to share work they are proud of, events they’ll be attending or where they’ll be speaking, and more.
Before you set your employees loose on social media, however, make sure you have set guidelines so that everyone knows what (and how often!) they can and can’t post with regard to promoting your agency or clients. Client confidentiality is a must, as is keeping a tight lid on projects in the works before they’ve come to fruition.
Folks on social media may not respond to ham-fisted ramming of a product message down their throat, but they will respond to human, engaging posts that paint an agency or client as real and approachable.
Additionally, many WWE personalities -- particularly those familiar faces who have stepped away from active ring duty but are still affiliated with the brand (“Legends” and “Hall of Famers”) -- have podcasts where they interview members of the current roster or key figures within the organization. And in some cases, these podcasts target additional audience segments. For instance, Hall of Famer Stone Cold Steve Austin has one family-friendly podcast that is PG-rated and another separate podcast that contains more R-rated language for adult wrestling fans.
Although WWE offers a very different product than most clients digital marketers deal with, there’s no reason why businesses and digital marketers can’t put a face to their agency or client by encouraging use of social media or even podcasting.
For marketers and their clients, podcasting gives you an opportunity to open the gates to speak with others in your network and share knowledge. Listeners on their commute to work can just slap on the headphones and tune in.
Additionally, by taking Stone Cold Steve Austin’s approach of audience-specific podcasts, you can target different audiences. One podcast may hold appeal for seasoned professionals in the marketing sphere, another may target the next generation who is interested in breaking into the industry and learning more.
If you’re taking the steps outlined in Lesson 1 to analyze your audience and potential audience, you’ll have a greater understanding of what resonates with each audience segment. From there, make sure you’re using the right tactics to get your podcasts found by the right audience. (PPC ads, SEO optimization and even Schema markup for podcasts can come in handy here)
Lesson 3: The Power of the Promo: Video & Short-Form Content
Dating back to its earliest years, short-form content has been a big part of professional wrestling. To drive storyline feuds that translated to compelling matches, wrestlers would often grab a microphone and address the crowd and their opponent with a short speech known as a “promo.”
It’s not enough to have muscles the size of small rock formations. Many wrestlers need to be “good talkers” in order to make the in-ring drama all the more convincing. And in cases where a wrestler may be a great ring performer but not-so-hot on the mic, many wrestlers were assigned “managers” to serve as their mouthpiece and deliver these short, punchy speeches while they stood behind them and looked menacing.
You’ve only got a few minutes to keep the action flowing, tell a story, and win the crowd.
Wrestlers have promos to address their audience, but digital marketers have the opportunity to create content that caters to their audience’s queries. Again, building off of Lesson 1, knowing your audience, their wants, needs, and -- oh yeah! -- search queries will help you create content that resonates with them.
Although digital marketers associate short-form content as being something along the lines of display ads or humorous product blurbs -- professional wrestling shows that short-form content can do as much for your product as long-form informational or instructional content.
Beyond promos, WWE’s production team is highly adept at putting together short video packages. Some of the common themes behind these video packages include:
- Compiling highlights of extended feuds between wrestlers that culminate in main event matches, building tension and “hype” for specials (formerly PPVs) that air on WWE’s exclusive pay-to-stream network
- Evoking nostalgia and sentiment, either by honoring retired wrestlers with short video career retrospectives prior to a performer’s induction into the WWE Hall of Fame, or to honor a performer who recently passed away, such as the video shown here for the late, great Dusty Rhodes:
These videos are shown on YouTube, on WWE’s own exclusive streaming network, at live events, and during broadcasts.
The definition of content extends to far more than just the written word on the page. Digital marketers understand that “content” also encompasses visual assets, too -- including video. Video is an increasingly popular form of content because, rather than taking a chance on on-the-go audiences, who must read the emotion through print, video automatically puts an emotive, human face to those words.
However, video content is not going to put copywriters out of business. Instead, it pushes content writers to hone a new skill set. It encourages them to write with a visual element in mind. It nudges content writers to collaborate with other professionals to create something dynamic and emotional. Producing effective video content pools the talents of writers, on-camera talent, videographers, editors, and music coordinators to create a concise piece that hits the audience from a variety of angles.
While this may sound all fine and dandy for creating video content for B2C clients, there’s still hope for producing video to reach a B2B audience. According to HubSpot, over 80% of senior executives and decision-makers watch more online video today than just one year ago. And whether your audience is comprised of senior executives or wrestling fans, if you take the time to investigate your audience, their wants, and needs…. at the end of the day, they are all people and appreciate an entertaining message.
Lesson 4: The Paul Heyman Approach to Outreach: The Sharp, Smart, Short Way to Be Your Client’s Voice and Advocate
Whether you’re pitching editors for a guest blog spot on behalf of your client, trying to push a video you’ve created to go viral, or crafting a message to introduce a new member of your team, you need to make an impact with your first impression and ensure your message is to-the-point and loaded for bear.
This is where digital marketers can take a cue from Paul Heyman. Paul Heyman is known throughout the world of professional wrestling as perhaps THE greatest living promo guy in the industry. He’s not a wrestler, but a manager -- the aforementioned mouthpiece for another wrestler -- who “advocates” on behalf of his client.
Wow. That kind of sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
While your client may be an entity in the B2B or B2C spheres, Paul Heyman’s client is a hulking, 6’3”, 295 lb. brute of a man by the name of Brock Lesnar. It’s Heyman’s job to act as the hype man to promote Brock Lesnar and verbalize the fear he wishes to instill in his opponents’ hearts.
Okay. That probably doesn’t sound too familiar if you’re a digital marketer.
However, Heyman’s approach is unique. It hits his audience and his client’s competition hard and fast with several well-chosen, memorable words.
These promos usually start the same way, every time: “Ladies and gentlemen. My name is Paul Heyman and I am the advocate for my client, Brock Lesnar.” From there, depending on who Brock Lesnar will be obliterating and the manner of execution said obliteration may involve (steel chairs, multiple suplexes, submission maneuvers, etc.), the promo changes accordingly.
In an interview on Stone Cold Steve Austin’s podcast that aired on the WWE Network, Heyman detailed the three parts to his approach to crafting a promo. You can apply these to your own outreach messages to editors, bloggers, or influencers who will help promote and share your client’s message. You may not want to be as abrasive as Paul Heyman, but you can certainly learn from his approach as one of the best guys in the business:
- Tell them your name.
- Tell them who you represent.
- Cut to the chase as to what your client is here to do and what your client can do for the person you’re reaching out to.
In doing so, you are honoring that person’s time by being brief, yet personable. You’re not treating them in a condescending way by telling them how much you love them. Editors and influencers receive hundreds of emails every day. They know that most of the time, when someone emails them, they probably want something. By respecting them and their time, you stand a greater chance of them continuing to read your email and consider your proposition.
These are just a few of the lessons digital marketers can learn from professional wrestling and the WWE, in particular. Whether you’re a fan of sports entertainment or not, always try to keep an open mind and look to unexpected areas for creative inspiration.