Major League Soccer handles the unexpected with agile marketing strategies

How the league has brought fans and players together on social media to celebrate their 25th season

The off-season is an inevitable part of the year for sports teams and fans alike. In 2020, the meaning of "off-season" was taken to a whole new level. The freeze on in-person sporting activities globally meant everyone had to take stock of the business strategy – marketing included.

With fans unsure of how to pass the time without sports embedded in their daily lives, marketing and social media teams of clubs, leagues, and federations had to think of new ways to delight, engage, and connect. We sat down with Major League Soccer to understand what sports marketing looks like in 2020, and the lessons they are learning every step of the way. Here is their story.

Stay flexible when faced with new challenges

2020 has been a big year for Major League Soccer. To celebrate their 25th season, the marketing team was ready to roll in March, the start of their season. They kicked off the anniversary with a massive event called "Forward 25" with more than 100 influencers involved to mark the occasion. As government mandates went into effect soon after, the marketing team had to quickly pivot to create innovative ways to engage fans, all while staying apart. What did this mean for Major League Soccer? How could they continue to cover things and keep the content flow going?

First, they assessed what content they had lined up that they could still use. For its milestone 25th season, Major League Soccer had already planned to lean into their historical content. Overall, staying flexible was key to giving audiences a steady stream of great content experiences, despite the circumstances.

Melissa Marchionna, Senior Director of Social Media at Major League Soccer, shared more details on the changing content plan:

"When we did shift into off-season mode, we were able to take the historical content from the previous 24 seasons that we had planned and create some pretty fun and engaging experiences for our fans. We did do creative content remixes, for example, working closely with players who played in past games to give analysis on what was going on."

Don’t be afraid to experiment

For Major League Soccer, a content plan that can handle the unexpected means being open to trial and error. Emplifi insights are an integral part of this process. Melissa discusses how data insights are key here.

"We’re happy to try anything. That’s one of the things I really love about Major League Soccer. We’re a very experimental league, and we’re not afraid to take risks. That’s where the data – seeing how things are performing and trying new things – is really important to us. We use Emplifi to know what is working and what’s not. It’s about leaning into what works and quickly pivoting for what doesn’t." - Melissa Marchionna, Senior Director of Social, Major League Soccer

A couple of their social activations that really took off included: sharing archival footage on YouTube in an interactive experience between analysts and fans; leveraging celebrity fans on Twitter to hang out and talk about what they’re watching, starting up Fan Zoom Rooms with on-screen hosts. Anything to engage their fans and provide a different angle to consumer games was the priority.

Melissa shared how the team manages to work with a content plan constantly in flux:

"We’re always making sure that we’re as educated as possible about the platforms we use. We’re really lucky that we have a great relationship with all of our social network partners. So we get the step up on what’s coming out and can know what things we need to be planning for and trying."

Involve next-gen fans with meaningful experiences

So much of developing resonating content means understanding not only the platforms really well, but also how different audiences engage with brands’ purpose-driven content. Initiatives that amplify player and fan voices allow MLS to take a stance in meaningful ways.

"Something that we’ve continued to do is work with the Black Players For Change (@BPCMLS) and discuss how we can best amplify their voices and the things that are important to them. For example, we partnered with Black Players For Change on our campaign, MLS Unites to Vote. It was an area they felt very passionate about. This incredible group of change agents has been helping us create content that shares their voice, and they’re also behind some of these really powerful demonstrations that we have," Melissa shared.

For a new company that Major League Soccer is growing – an elite youth development league comprising 110 clubs with thousands of youth players across the country – their approach leans in on the power of user-generated content.

Melissa notes the choices to be made from both a platform and content perspective:

“We’ll really be focusing on platforms and formats like TikTok and Instagram Reels. For these platforms, we know just how important the community is. It’s not just about the content we’re putting out, but it’s also how we’re engaging that community. It’s knowing how to be flexible based on audiences.”

She further expands on an initiative that drew in these next generation fans: a hub where they could upload their own picture and in return, receive an MLS-branded, polished graphic for them to use. In the first 24 hours, more than 17,000 players had made branded graphics that they posted on their own social media.

“Our audiences want to bring the brand to life. What the data is telling me is that the next generation wants to be able to tell you their version of who we are, and they want themselves reflected in that. So that’s something we consider in our content planning.”

The takeaway: drive real results with conversation-worthy content

When looking into the metrics that matter, Major League Soccer sees engagement in terms of conversations flowing. With Emplifi’s insights, they found that when they post content that’s specifically created to drive conversation, they see compelling results. Content such as: asking questions, comparing players to each other, things that get people going in the comments results in a 61% increase in engagement.

"Things that are important have remained important, even in these times. It’s great to get this insight coming in."

Major League Soccer’s approach to marketing in this prolonged off-season provides a great example for brands looking to not only navigate unexpected challenges, but also still champion great experiences. To dive deeper into Major League Soccer’s strategy and advice, check out the panel discussion on “The New Playbook of Sports Marketing” with Socialbakers (now part of Emplifi) now.

To learn more about content performance insights with Emplifi, request a demo with one of our social media experts now.