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How Bleacher Report is Winning Readers With Its Social-First Game Plan

In its race for readers, Bleacher Report wants to compete with everyone from BuzzFeed and Fox to Facebook and Instagram.

How Bleacher Report is Winning Readers With Its Social-First Game Plan

A couple of years ago, Bleacher Report still thought of its competition as ESPN and other sports media. But no more.

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As Rory Brown, Bleacher Report’s chief digital officer, shared at this morning’s Innovation Festival offsite, the competition has broadened to include everyone from BuzzFeed and Fox to Facebook and Instagram—the very sites that Bleacher Report relies on to reach its growing audience. That’s the complex nature of digital content now.

And Bleacher Report is clearly winning. Brown cited CrowdTangle’s recent September tally ranking the brand No. 1 in total social interactions. Ahead of ESPN. Ahead of Fox and even BuzzFeed.

“Our strength is as a social first publisher,” Brown told his couple of dozen visitors on a tour of Bleacher Report’s New York offices in Midtown Manhattan. The office was humming well before 9 a.m. following an especially newsy sports weekend. Alabama shut down LSU’s previously unstoppable freshman running back Leonard Fournette. The Packers suffered a rarity, a second consecutive loss. The Steelers (and countless fantasy football fans) lost star QB Ben Roethlisberger.

But the focus at Bleacher Report and its popular Team Stream app (13 million-plus downloads) wasn’t on the usual Monday morning quarterbacking, a staple of sports media. Rather, Brown and company were looking ahead, looking for the week’s next angle, the next conversation starter, to engage their ravenous audience—and to reach them almost immediately.

We stopped by the set of Team Stream Now, one of two video studios they’ve wedged into their cozy offices. Hosts Adam Lefkoe and former NFL quarterback-turned-sports analyst Chris Simms wrapped a two-minute, one-take video analysis of the NFL’s NFC East. It would be on the app within minutes. Then they were onto the next piece, one of a dozen or so they’ll film today.

Over the last couple of years, says Joe Yanarella, Bleacher Report’s editor in chief, the strategy has shifted away from volume to focusing on content that triggers social interaction. When producers identify a nugget, such as a recent interview with former NFL star Terry Holt in which he anointed Raiders rookie Amari Cooper the league’s top receiver, they broadcast it to every social platform. In the case of video, that means tailoring clips for each one, a painstaking process.

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More and more, Bleacher Report is distinguishing itself with original content. “We look for the white space between the traditional content out there,” Brown said. In the corner office of the Bleacher Report Lab, he shared a few examples of that white space:

  • The Commitment – This video series, shot with cinematic flair, features top high school football recruits revealing their top college picks, and eventually their final decisions.
  • NFL x NBA Jersey Mashups – Tapping their audience’s interest in uniforms, Bleacher Report creates an eye-popping hybrid: NFL stars drawn in football uniforms that feature NBA logos. New England’s Rob Gronkowski in Celtics’ green. Aaron Rodgers sporting a Milwaukee Bucks logo on his uniform.
  • Game of Zones – In this animated video spoof of HBO’s Game of Thrones, NBA teams and players battle for supremacy in a Westeros-style setting, with a touch of irreverence.
Game of Zones: An animated video spoof of HBO’s Game of Thrones.

If a recent study he read is right, said Brown, and mobile users really do spend 90 percent of their time on five apps, the question for any mobile content company is making itself one of those. “It’s about attention,” he told the group. “We’re competing for time.”

Related: What the Chief Creative Officer at Bleacher Report Looks For When Hiring

About the author

Chuck Salter is a senior editor at Fast Company and a longtime award-winning feature writer for the magazine. In addition to his print, online and video stories, he performs live reported narratives at various conferences, and he edited the Fast Company anthologies Breakthrough Leadership, Hacking Hollywood, and #Unplug.

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