Using influencers, activations and esports to get consumers’ attention
Technology changes faster every year. New developments in the last decade or two have gone from smartphones and rich text to artificial intelligence and augmented reality. While the digital world hasn’t done away with physical events or traditional media the way some writers predicted, it has become intertwined with them in a number of areas: online tickets, digital displays, programmatic ads and live online reactions, to name a few.
Since before the days when Blue Coal brought The Shadow’s adventures to radio listeners and Little Orphan Annie reminded kids to drink their Ovaltine, the sponsorship industry has been quick to spot and use the opportunities new tech provides. Now the internet has given brands and partners more platforms for customer engagement and more forms that promotions can take.
One-on-one with UGC
User-generated content, like Twitch streams, podcasts and influencer videos, lets sponsorship go up close and personal by making deals with individual people rather than networks or leagues. Creators may run ads adjacent to their content, feature the brand’s products or services in the material they produce, or both. It’s an increasingly popular form of marketing – experts say influencer spending will reach $4.6 billion before the year ends – and one suited to the long-term relationship model of sponsorships.
Strategies for the sector vary widely by both brand and creator. Some brands gravitate toward content directly related to their products, for example, but others are more abstract: among YouTube’s top 5 food channel sponsors, HelloFresh’s connection is obvious, while ExpressVPN taps into The Food Ranger’s need for security while traveling. Sponsors also need to feel out whether a given audience is more accepting of sponsored creator content or ads, with the latter more disruptive but the former potentially damaging an influencer’s perceived authenticity.
As with everything online, it’s also important to be alert for potential controversy. Influencers partnered with Shein and L’Oréal have recently faced backlash over alleged bias in their material, and popular video game streaming platform Twitch has made some decisions this year that angered many streamers and could make brand sponsorships more complicated. Because new platforms move so quickly, brands using them for sponsorship must invest time and effort into keeping up with the latest developments on and about those sites.
Living in a virtual world
Whether or not the metaverse takes off the way some tech companies have envisioned, the growth of expansive, interactive online environments has made games like Fortnite, Minecraft and Roblox into potentially lucrative venues for brands. People of all ages are using these virtual worlds to connect – sometimes permanently, as with the couple who got legally married in an online ceremony that Taco Bell sponsored.
Companies are creating events far larger than weddings, too. Burberry has introduced a line of clothes for Minecraft avatars. Home Depot brought its Kids’ Workshops program to a Roblox city, letting kids work on digital versions of their own home improvement projects. The music industry seems particularly engaged, with online concerts and festival tie-ins popping up on multiple platforms.
Virtual audiences are far from naive, and brands have to take care that their efforts don’t seem intrusive or obvious. Home Depot executives say that its activation, which reached more than 7 million people, occurred naturally as they considered how to mark Kids’ Workshops’ 25th anniversary. Roblox Director of Brand Partnerships Winnie Burke also suggests approaching from the other side by working with developer communities to figure out what experiences platform members will enjoy and how best to implement them. The key, either way, is putting in the effort to ensure a good fit.
A sporting chance
The line between geeks and jocks continues to blur with the rise of professional video game teams – some sticking to digital versions of sports like NASCAR and football while others specialize in League of Legends, SoulCalibur and online chess. Brands like AT&T, Crunchyroll and Pepsi signed esports sponsorship deals in July 2023 alone, and Newzoo expects the audience to grow at an 8% combined annual rate between 2020 and 2025, with $1.86 billion in revenue that year.
For brands sponsoring esports teams, it’s important to remember that there’s no single type of “esports consumer.” The types of video games vary as much as or more than the types of traditional sports, and audience preferences do as well. For example, while battle royale games – where multiple players fight each other at once – and first-person shooters are popular worldwide, real-time strategy games are much more popular in the Middle East than in North America.
Like traditional sports, esports offer a variety of sponsorship opportunities: team jerseys, tie-ins for fashion and TV shows, live events and so on. The difference is that esports appeal to potentially untapped audiences and since esports are native to the digital world, they provide excellent material for both user-generated content and online events. With strategic vision, brands can tap into three trending sponsorship phenomena at once.
An increasingly connected world is full of opportunities for brands seeking sponsorship deals. Audiences are more niche, with more points of contact. Content creators, from foodies to competitive video game teams, can range from individuals with a few hundred followers to major sports franchises. Event venues can now be digital, attracting people from across the world without the need for travel.
And technology continues to advance. To paraphrase a classic sponsored property, who knows what developments lurk in the future?
If you liked this article, sign up for SmartBrief’s free email newsletter on Marketing Innovation. It’s among SmartBrief’s more than 250 industry-focused newsletters.