The National Football League has doubled down on its Snapchat strategy this season, in turn doubling the audience for highlights of its Sunday games as it commits more resources to the app even as some media partners pull back.
This year, the NFL's updated strategy on Snapchat includes posting a rolling highlights reel every Sunday instead of the single highlight video it used to post after game day. That change helped take the highlights from about 1 million viewers on average last year to about 2 million on average this year, according Juan Borrero, Snapchat's head of sports partnerships.
"We know fans care about NFL content," Borrero says. "But [we asked ourselves] how can we make them come back and actually engage with the content throughout the day?"
It was Borrero's idea to run highlights during the games on Sunday, updating the story as the day goes on and giving viewers a reason to click into the videos more than once. Snapchat's overriding goal with its media offerings is to get viewers to come back multiple times a day, keeping fans focused and opening more opportunities for advertisers. The 2 million unique viewers generate about 4 million total views on any given Sunday, meaning the average person comes back twice, according to Borrero.
Snapchat has been working with the NFL since 2015, and this year the platform was asking for a greater commitment. Borrero says he approached the NFL about the new strategy of posting multiple times on Sundays, creating a Snapchat version of NFL Red Zone, the league's TV channel that cuts between games whenever a team is about to score a touchdown.
The NFL was hesitant at first, saying, "It's going to be a lot of work, why do we want to do this," accroding to Borrero. Then the results showed that real-time highlights commanded a larger audience than the older format.
On Snapchat, people can either message and share videos with friends, or can dip into the media from partners like the NFL, Viacom, Condé Nast, Hearst and NBC Universal. The NFL is the quintessential media partner, and its success could be seen as a bell weather for the strength of Snapchat, a platform that still has to prove itself with advertisers and professional publishers.
Just this year, some of Snapchat's closest partners have retreated, with Hearst shutting down a daily publishing channel called Sweet, which it created just for the platform. Condé Nast shut down channels for Vogue, GQ and Wired. Both publishers have struggled to make their digital bets pay off across the board, and they faced layoffs and reorganizations this year. However, they are still experimenting with Snapchat, just with more of a focus on shows rather than stories.
The NFL is not a downsizing publisher—it's the most valuable sports league in the U.S. But its 12-person social media staff still has to allocate its digital resources wisely.
The league's social media staff covers all the platforms including Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, and four people are devoted wholly to Snapchat. The social team consists of animators, illustrators, graphic designers and editors, and they even have some people on the field during games to capture video.
The workload has gotten more intense because the highlights story is updated at least every hour on Sundays. That will continue throughout the playoffs and during the Super Bowl, according to AJ Curry, NFL's social media content producer. "It allows us to do a bit more storytelling," Curry says.
The NFL uses Snapchat's other programming formats, too. There are the Publisher Stories, which is what the highlights fall under, which are glossy, highly produced packages that include videos, GIFs and articles managed by major media brands. The NFL also creates Our Stories, which are comprised of videos taken by Snapchat users at the games, showing footage from around the stadiums. The NFL also has created shows for Snapchat, which are longer-form episodic programs similar to TV.
Snapchat splits ad revenue with the media partners, generated by commercials that run in the middle of stories and shows.
In 2017, Snapchat shared close to $100 million in ad revenue with content partners, according to the company's public filings. This year, Snapchat's ad revenue growth has slowed, reaching $300 million in the third quarter, a 43 percent increase from the prior year. (In the third quarter of 2017, ad revenue grew more than 60 percent.) Also, daily users dropped this year from 191 million at the start of 2018 to 186 million at the end of the third quarter.
Snapchat and NFL executives would not say how much ad money their partnership drives, but there has been more than a dozen sponsors, including Procter & Gamble, Gatorade, Visa, Bose and Anheuser Busch InBev, according to Borrero.
The NFL is not as concerned about ad revenue as it is with the promotional value of Snapchat, according to Dave Feldman, NFL's senior director of social media.
"There's a misconception in the industry that Snapchat isn't as essential as other platforms," Feldman says. "We're finding that to be very not the case. Snapchat is one of the most important partnerships we have."
The NFL is going after a target audience that's harder to reach these days, 13- to 24-year-olds who spend an increasing amount of time watching video on mobile devices, not TV. Magna Global, an analytics firm, has reported that 12- to 34-year-olds watched almost half as much live TV in 2017 as they did in 2012.
"Snapchat is the future for the NFL," Feldman says. "It's essential to put real resources behind that."