Six Content Marketing Lessons from ESPN

With the Super Bowl coming up, many people’s eyes are bound to be on ESPN.

If you watch it or read ESPN's work, perhaps spend a minute or two considering the marketing associated with it. It’s an underrated part of why the network is so successful.

Sure, it helps to have an almost limitless marketing budget, but being creative and smart also plays a key role. And while ESPN is B2C, all marketers, including those in B2B, can learn something from the cable empire, which earns one out of every four dollars earned by cable stations in America. Here are six ways you can market like ESPN, and improve the results of your content marketing:

1. Diversify
As ESPN President John Skipper told Bloomberg Businessweek, ESPN has a culture of “build, build, build.” Just a small sampling: Its channels include ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNews. ESPN Classic and ESPN America. It’s huge in sports radio, with ESPN Radio and a network of podcasts. There’s the ESPN website and ESPN The Magazine. Not only has ESPN built all of this stuff, but it also cross-promotes its properties to maximize their success (e.g. ESPN2 shows are mentioned on ESPN), plus it uses its strong social media presence for outreach.

Lesson for Marketers: When you have a major piece of content, repackage it in a variety of forms (e.g. article placements, blogs, webinars, podcasts, YouTube) and cross-promote it. Put a link to your major content piece in your related blog posts, for example, and post your content on your website and social media sites. For a fun look at ways to do this, see our infographic “Content Marketing: The Game.”

2. Mix “free” content with “pay” content
ESPN offers large amounts of free content on its website, but also charges for exclusive “Insider” online content. Using all free content would reduce ESPN’s revenues, while charging for everything would reduce its readership.

Lesson for Marketers: You probably don’t ask people to pay for content, but there is a cost for people filling out registration forms to access your content: the expectation that a salesperson will contact them. So offer some registration-free content; it will increase the number of people reading about what you have to say, and if they like it, they’ll be more likely to register for your content in the future.

3. Vary the ambitiousness of your content
ESPN features cheap-to-produce shows like “First Take” and “Around the Horn” that are popular but do little to advance thought leadership; at the same time, it produces more expensive projects, such as its “30 for 30” film series and its “Outside the Lines” investigative series, that enhance the reputation of the brand.

Lesson for Marketers: It’s not all about sales leads. Generating readership is important, but readers’ reaction to your content is also important. Producing a piece of extremely strong, ambitious content can do wonders for your brand’s reputation.

4. Make stars out of your talent
ESPN has made a conscious decision over the years to make stars out of its reporters and anchors, and it has been an effective way of differentiating the brand. One well-known example is its popular and humorous “This is SportsCenter” commercials (check out an outstanding recent one of football expert John Clayton below), plus much of the network’s on-camera talent is extremely active on social media.

Lesson for Marketers: Consider making stars out of your executives, including through speaking at conferences and encouraging them to become prominent on social media networks. Doing so puts a face on your brand and enhances thought leadership, increasing the chances that when potential customers come to you before they come to your competitors. Plus, if your executives have strong Twitter followings, having them tweet your content can significantly increase readership.

5. Consider being controversial at times (but be smart about it)
“First Take” is one of ESPN’s most popular shows, and one of the keys to its success is that its stars, bombastic cast members Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith, ruffle feathers on a regular basis with provocative statements.

Lesson for Marketers: Consider being provocative and controversial to get more attention, but be smart about it and have evidence for your arguments. ESPN has enough of a reputation built up that it can afford to get burned (and it has), but you may not.

6. Create urgency
On a number of its shows, including “Around the Horn” and “Pardon the Interruption,” ESPN uses a running clock for each subject that is covered in an effort to add drama — and viewers.

Lesson for Marketers: Think of ways that make it more urgent that your potential readers and customers consume your content. One way: add a time element to your content, e.g., 10 things you need to do in the next three months.

So, in conclusion, while it’s doubtful that your B2B company will reach the heights of ESPN in revenue, with some thought and some creativity, you can market like ESPN, and have more success with your content marketing.

We hope this post was helpful to you. If you would like more help with your content marketing, contact Fisher Vista Marketing at 831-685-9700 or

Post written by HRmarketer / SocialEars HR team member Eric Anderson.

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