Barstool Sports CEO Erika Nardini on Community & Content
Erika Nardini, CEO at Barstool Sports, joins Rob Cressy and Brian Cristiano on The Sports Marketing Huddle to talk about Barstool’s thriving community, creating engaging content, and paths for monetization.
Here is the transcription of the podcast with Erika Nardini (if you’d prefer to read it):
Rob Cressy: So Erika, Barstool does a great job of integrated content sponsorships. The Natty Tailgate Tour is a good example, and for March Madness you guys teamed up with Bud Light for the Bud Light Busters, a contest centered around Barstool bloggers getting to draft a lower-seeded team with a trip to Vegas on the line, if their team advances to the Sweet Sixteen. So, when creating sponsorships like these, what is the biggest driver of value that Barstool can offer these brands?
Erika Nardini: We work with a strong and growing number of brands, and what we really care about is that the brand partners who choose to work with Barstool get our voice, that they get our tone and what we are all about; and they want to connect with our audience, and in particular “Stoolies” in a way that is authentic, in a way that’s fun, and a way they can play along and participate. One of the biggest things that we do is we give brands the chance to be next to the storyline: and that’s more traditional digital media; they can do pre-rolls, display banners, they can have more controlled advertising. Or brands who want to be in the storyline: we get most excited about brands who want to be in the storyline, because those are the brands who we can have fun with, they can have fun with us, and you guys have seen the results of when a Natty Light comes to town with us to be at a NASCAR race, at a college game, like the MAC Championship, or to do something like Bud Light is doing around March Madness, or what we did when we opened the office with Bacardi Oakheart. When you’re in the storyline, the storyline carries and travels, and one of the best things about “Stoolies” is that they are able to take a brand’s marketing message and play with it in ways we couldn’t even think of. They make it their own, and it becomes a thing in itself, which, I would argue, is something that Barstool does better than anybody. And it’s something that we think about and conceive of different than anyone.
Rob Cressy: Keeping along the theme of monetization many publishers keep solely on an advertising motto, which is becoming increasingly difficult, especially with the amount of traffic on mobile. Where do you see the future of digital monetization for publishers going?
Erika Nardini: It depends what kind of publisher you are and I think it really depends on the type of publisher you are. I have been very outspoken that I don’t believe that small to mid-sized publishers can solely on an ad-model. I also don’t believe that the most interesting, strongest, most opinionated brands can live on an ad-model, because I believe being solely dependent on advertising fundamentally changes you. And I have spent a ton of years and a ton of time in the ad business and digital; long enough to see that’s happened time and time again. So, the most interesting business models are business models that are built on some combination of direct to consumer monetization and then through third party monetization, which is either through licensing or through advertising, and one of the things, I think, we’ve done a good job at Barstool is that we’ve been really upfront with the brands we work with: how we work, who we are, what our audience is like. And we’ve been able to craft programs with them that are unreplicable, and, in a lot of ways they’re pre-funded marketing for Barstool. And so, we provide a great service to a brand in that we bring their brand to a really desirable audience of 18 to 49 year old men. But we are also able to bring to life content that we’re excited to do, and that we would otherwise not be able to fund ourselves. So, very long-ended answer to your question, but I really believe that if a brand is going to grow and thrive in this day and age: 1. you have to be very experimental; 2. you have to be as diverse as possible.
Brian Cristiano: Erika, as we are talking about this, I think one of the pieces that no one really discusses; they always talk about the business model and monetization model and advertising. But everyone seems to forget the core to what really comes down to continuing to have an audience that is giving their attention, and that comes back to the content and the engagement. How have you been able to grow Barstool to the point where it’s at now, while continuing to grow the audience? What are you doing that separates you from the rest of the publishers in the sports world that’s getting the attention?
Erika Nardini: I think that at the core it’s Dave Portnoy and the bloggers that have really grown the audience. I have been at Barstool almost a year, and those guys have done the heavy-lifting for the last 14 years around Barstool, and really nurturing the tribe of “Stoolies”, growing the audience, having a really defined point of view, staying true to the content and the brand. So, I give all credit to Dave and the bloggers for growing that audience. I think what makes us really different than other sports publishers, and especially digital ones, is that we are content and brand first, not distribution and technology first. And, by being brand and content first, it means we are humans first, we are about our audience and about our fans above everything else; we are about distribution and technology second; and really as a way to be in more places, to connect with those fans in ways and places that they are spending time and attention. And to me that’s the biggest difference between us and our “competitive set”. And frankly, just how we look at content.
Brian Cristiano: I like that, because obviously if you could have all the distribution in the world, but if no one is paying attention, what does it matter? But worry about that first which takes care of the rest. I am curious how you balance the social media side, because those are obviously distribution channels, especially for your type of content and you have a lot of followers, somewhere around a million on Facebook alone. But how do you balance that? Because as a publisher, when you’re generating attention on Facebook or Instagram, and not necessarily directly driving traffic back to your site, you are giving stuff out without getting something back, or are you? How are you looking at those social channels?
Erika Nardini: I think it’s a great question, and I think most publishers by virtue of having an ad model only, or being solely dependent or predominantly dependent on an ad model have to be far more cunning about how they use different platforms on the web. They are reliant on them for monetization as much as they are for audience development, and again, I give all the credit in the world to Dave for really setting up a brand that is brand and content first, but that also while everyone else on the Internet, every other brand that was started between 2004 and now, really predominantly has focused on distribution first and content second,especially in the last 5 to 6 years. Dave really only focused on content and brand, and so, as a result, we have a ton of upside and a ton of runway in developing the kinds of relationships that people build their businesses on; we’re not building our business on Facebook. I am really interested in growing our audience on Facebook because I am seeing Facebook take over the majority of attention and time spent from TV and other places. And so, the way I look at it is Barstool is an engagement company and we are very experimental both in our content as well as in our partnerships, in our ad format, and the creative and the type of content that we make. I look at everything as an experiment: Facebook Live, what can we do in Facebook Live? How do we master the format? what can we do with the format? Which talent is best in this format? How do the “Stoolies” respond to it? Do they like it? Do they not like it? Do they like certain people better than others? Do they like certain subjects or topics better than others? And so, my job is really to help Dave by giving him eyes and say what’s resonating and what’s not; and then what we are both really committed to is to stay true to our fans, staying true to our brand and staying true to the content, and then finding places for that. For me, audience will come first and monetization will come second, and that’s okay.
Rob Cressy: Erika, I listened to the recent podcast with Mike Kerns from Chernin Digital, and one thing they talked about is with the growth of Barstool one of the keys would be hiring the right people to allow the culture to continue. What sort of qualities do you look for out of people?
Erika Nardini: We look for a lot of qualities. I think Dave and I have a lot of the same DNA; he is a phenomenon is his own right and I give him all the credit in the world just for creating and conceiving Barstool. The type of qualities we look for in people are both on the business side, which I mostly look at, and Dave on the content side, is we look for people with a strong opinion and a strong view in the world, and people who are hard-working. So the whole brick by brick anthem is really true; this is a very hard-working company. It looks like a party, it’s not a party: these guys work 24/7, and it’s their life as much as it is work. People who are risk-takers, people who buck the trend, who haven’t done things the way everyone thought they should or told them to do. We also look for people who have a lot of knowledge and who are proven and have expertise at different things, and who can bring that value to their part of the team. We have people who succeed as individual contributors and we have people who make the whole group better. And we continue to look for that DNA, and that’s a common value across Barstool.
Rob Cressy: What I love about Barstool is that you guys are the anti-traditional media company; a company that you can have a beer with, literally. You invested heavy in original video, live-streaming, podcasting, blogging, and a great example of a new channel was during the Super Bowl with Barstool rundown of live on Comedy Central showing great ratings for 18 to 35 year old male demographic. So, take us into your plans of conquer of the world. What’s the future of Barstool? What does it look like?
Erika Nardini: Barstool is definitely anti-establishment, and that’s probably, actually the best way to describe the best people at Barstool, they are anti-establishment. I really said it, what our strategy is is to continue to grow the engagement that we have with the audiences we have now, to be able to create deeper relationships with “Stoolies”, to be in more places where they spend time and to bring unique content there. So, this year it’s been an incredible run; we are having success, we are seeing results, we are having fun, we are experimenting, we are doing things that we have never done before in our own way. And, you started to see that last September, when we really invested in Facebook Live and live video. Three months later we were live on Sirius with our first time on the radio and we created Barstool Radio. A month after that we were on television, at the Super Bowl. The month after that we did our first pay-per-view. So you’re starting to see us do different types of content in different places, and also to be on other people’s air besides our own, whether that’s Facebook, whether it’s SnapChat, whether it’s Instagram, and Twitter obviously, TV, radio. So you’re starting to see us in far more places and you’ll continue to see that.
Brian Cristiano: I am curious if there is any channel or specific execution that you are looking at this year that sticks out to you more than the others.
Erika Nardini: I think Barstool has a turn of IP, and I spend a lot of time thinking about that. What are the right places and what’s the right business arrangement for that IP. We just did our first pay-per-view as I mentioned, and I found it fascinating. And I want to go way deeper on that. I am interested in television, I am interested in podcasting, where we have a huge strength, I would argue that we are the most formidable creators of podcasts out there. So, to me the medium is less the question because we know we can create audio content, we can create live content, we do a great job of creating video content. Our heritage is obviously in text and blog. We can do cartoons: Nomo is one of our most talented guys, like Barstool Shorts or some of the funniest pieces of content that come out of Barstool. So for me what’s most interesting is: where do Barstool fans want to find us? How do they want to engage with us on those media? And where do we do the best job? Where are we most interesting and compelling? And what’s cool about being a company our size, what’s cool about having a really cool partner like the Chernin Group is we are still really experimental in how we look at all those platforms.
Brian Cristiano: Erika, my last question as we wrap it up, is for the audience that creates content themselves, whether that’s solo entrepreneur, whether that’s college student in sports marketing or sports business starting to get into this world, or even a team that’s creating content for their team. What’s the number one thing that they should look at to create content that actually engages and starts to build solid IP, like barstool has done?
Erika Nardini: That’s a great question. I think a lot of the most special things about barstool is that this is a company , and one of the things I love most is just the history of Barstool and I think Dave created something so phenomenal. I tweeted last night a picture from one of the newspapers where the title was “merge from the brain of El Pres” and it had a bunch of hats on it with bad graphics that said super cool. And the fact that that’s 12 years old, it’s something really unique for us. What I would say to content creators is to have a point of view and to be unafraid in that point of view. The Barstool lesson is to be yourself and to not care what other people think, to not follow what other people say, to not be the trend, to be your own thing. And that would be my first piece of advice. My second piece of advice would be consistency and just frequency; doing something once is okay, doing something repeatedly and getting better and better at it, is really critical. I also think it takes some level of diligence and determination and discipline to create a following. You have got to commission people, but to look for one thing at a particular time and in a particular place, and then the job of the creator is to make someone want it. So, those would be my pieces of advice.
You can follow Erika Nardini on Twitter @EKANardini.
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