Turner Sports Uses Big Data to "Future Proof" its Media

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Photo Credit: Turner Sports
Photo Credit: Turner Sports

Consumers have redefined the TV viewing experience. Sixty-one percent of all cable subscribers used video on-demand last year, according to “On-Demand TV 2013: A Nationwide Study on VOD and DVRs” by Leichtman Research Group. And on-demand viewers are tuning in for longer periods of time. When showed a 30-minute program, VOD viewers watched the program for 28 minutes, compared to 23 minutes for digital video recorder (DVR) viewers and 20 minutes for live TV viewers, according to The Nielsen Company. In fact, watching what you want, when you want it has become so popular that 16% of U.S. consumers now have Internet-enabled televisions in their living rooms, Nielsen cites.

But keeping up with consumers “on-demand” desires isn't easy for media providers. So Pete Scott, VP of emerging media for Turner Sports—the televised and online sports programming division for Turner Broadcasting System Inc—is forced to “future proof” the company by using Big Data to analyze consumers' viewing habits. However, like many brands, Turner Sports isn't a Big Data aficionado. In the past Turner Sports “took data for granted,” Scott said during the 2014 Direct Marketing News Marketing&Tech Partnership Summit, and the company is just starting to educate the sales and senior management teams on Big Data's big role. But educating executives on the importance of Big Data is difficult when many marketers don't understand it themselves.

“I feel like nobody knows how to use it—including us,” Jeff Mirman, VP of marketing for Turner Sports, told the audience at the Summit. “I feel like I have a canoe full of data and there's a cruise ship right next to me full of data that I don't know how to use.”

So, instead of trying to redefine their own data model, Turner Sports decided to emulate the leader in the video-on-demand (VOD) Big Data space: Netflix.

More than 44 million users in more than 41 countries watch the Internet television network for more than one billion hours a month, according to Netflix's website. And the company knows what it's customers like to watch. About 75 to 80% of the videos that users watch on Netflix are due to its recommendations, Scott told attendees. Once Netflix hooks its viewers, it locks them in. According to an online survey conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of Netflix, 61% of U.S. adults who stream TV shows at least once a week binge watch (i.e. watch between two to six episodes of the same TV show at one time).

“Netflix is kind of like a drug,” Mirman said. “How do you create the new drug? How do we create that same type of model so we capture more of the viewing experience?”

To model the VOD king's use of data to drive personalization, Turner Sports acquired digital publishing platform Bleacher Report in August 2012. Bleacher Report is a “one-stop shop” for sports news that curates content from across the Web. Before the acquisition, Bleacher Report launched its app Team Stream in February 2011. Then in March 2012 Bleacher Report went on to personalize its homepage with Team Stream; the company was acquired five months later.

Here's how it works: Consumers can download the Team Stream app and select which sports teams they want to follow. By enabling push notifications, the app can then send users real-time alerts, scores, stories, and streams about their select teams. Users can also share news about their teams with friends via social, email, or text. Seeing what teams fans follow and what content they click on gives Turner Sports the data it needs to provide more tailored experiences. Scott said that the company also uses A/B testing to help shape its content. For example, it might run a story about the L.A. Lakers with two different images, then track which image drives more clicks and adjust its imagery and content accordingly.

“Bleacher Report has been a great way to leverage your thinking,” Scott said.

So far, the acquisition has proven to be a success. According to Turner Sports, more than 26.3 million unique users visited Bleacher Report's online and mobile platforms this past October—a 28% boost since March 2013. Mobile unique users accounted for 44% of the site's content consumption October 2013, according to Turner Sports.BleacherReport.com had about 331 million page views and 128 million visits in 2013.

In addition to learning more about its users through Bleacher Report, Turner Sports has also been able to learn more about them through Facebook Login. Facebook Login allows consumers to sign in to websites through their Facebook account and allows marketers to access a “treasure trove” of data, such as their likes, interests, and profile information, Scott said. “All that data associated with that user is yours to keep,” he explained.

However, Mirman warned that social networks are still in their early days. So, marketers need to “read between the lines” and understand that social networks might not be disclosing all of their updates clearly, he said.

And while Scott admitted that Turner Sports isn't at Netflix's level in terms of personalization, he conveyed how following the greats can be an instrumental learning experience. “Find the company in your space that's showing their sales [and] marketing prowess in how they're being more effective in the marketplace.”

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