What the WWE Can Teach Us About Content Marketing, Part 1

This is the first of a two part series examining content marketing and what we can learn about it from the WWE.

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I know. I know what you’re saying - “you mean that fake wrestling stuff?...”

Yes, I mean the fake wrestling stuff, but just bear with me. I promise it’ll be worth your while.

Before I get into content marketing, a brief history lesson of the WWE, and I assure you it’ll be very brief, is helpful to form the context of the rest of the series.

The WWE Backstory

WWE was started in the 1960s as the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) by former pro wrestler Toots Mondt and Vincent James McMahon, also known as Vince McMahon, Sr. and father of current WWE Chairman and CEO, Vincent Kennedy McMahon. At that time there were a number of pro wrestling organizations across the United States operating as various regional territories. For the most part, each organization stuck to their territory, though there was some poaching of wrestling talent. WWWF was based in the northeastern part of the country.

In 1979, the WWWF rebranded itself, dropping the “Wide” from its name and existing simply as the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). They made this change for marketing reasons, WWF rolls off the tongue a bit easier than WWWF - doesn’t it, and it would be the first of many astute marketing moves the company would go on to make.

Three years later, Vincent Kennedy McMahon (I’ll just start referring to him as Vince McMahon) purchased all his father’s stock in the WWF, effectively taking over the company. McMahon didn’t abide by the unwritten territory rules that were honored in the 50s, 60s and 70s. He worked to get WWF matches televised across the country, intruding on the territories of other wrestling organizations. He also heavily pursued wrestling talents signed to other organizations. Hulk Hogan, for example, originally wrestled in a non-WWF territory. McMahon’s heavy expansion eventually put most of the other territorial wrestling organizations out of business.

Fast forward to 2002 and the WWF again rebranded to its current World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), largely the result of legal disputes with the World Wildlife Fund over the use of the WWF acronym. (1)

History lesson over. See, I said it would be brief.

Now let’s get back to content marketing.

What is Content?

Throughout this article I’m going to talk about earned, owned, paid and shared media in respect to WWE. If you’re not familiar with those, here’s a little refresher.

For decades, most of us in marketing or communications thought of content solely as something printed. Then technology pushed us to include audio and video in our content definitions. Most people today think of content as something written, drawn or recorded - either in print or digitally. We tend to overlook events as content, but they most certainly are content (tweet this). And perhaps they are the greatest opportunity for content development and distribution.

WWE’s product is its wrestling matches; however, those matches are also its content. That’s an important point because in other industries, we usually don’t think of the product we produce or service we offer as content. But why not? Why can’t we? In some instances it may not work, but in a number, it could. We just need to think about our approach differently. I believe that’s what Vince McMahon did and a substantial factor in how he grew his company.

I mentioned earlier that during his endeavors to expand the WWF, Vince McMahon worked to have his company’s matches televised nationally. Think about that for a minute in the terms of a WWF television show being content. That’s a significant achievement. He brought his content, wrestling matches based in the northeast, to an entirely new audience nationwide.

In conjunction with television expansion, WWF also toured nationally. They didn’t simply stay in their own territory, touring Boston, Hartford and Dover in the northeast. They went to the south, the west, the midwest. He took his content not only to new geographic audiences, but he also served it to them to consume in different ways - at live events or on television.

Thinking differently about content will be an ongoing theme throughout the rest of this article and series.

McMahon's Risky, Big Idea

Perhaps the WWF’s biggest early content innovation was an event they put on in 1985. No other wrestling promotion had done anything like it. McMahon’s company rented out Madison Square Garden in New York City for a series of wrestling matches all held during one night. Tickets were sold to people to attend the event in person and in these pre pay-per-view days, closed circuit televisions aired the event for people to watch remotely.

The event was the ultimate risk. The costs of the event were high and there was no guarantee the company would sell enough tickets to turn a profit. At the time, it didn’t have the popularity and notoriety that it does today. As WWF insiders revealed in interviews years later, the company likely would’ve gone out of business if the event flopped - much to the delight of rival territorial wrestling promotions that still existed. (2)

The event did not flop though. It was a huge success, both financially and from a marketing perspective.

In fact, you’ve probably heard of it, as the event became an annual spectacle with awareness stretching far beyond wrestling fans. The event was named Wrestlemania.

Why was this first Wrestlemania such an innovation?

This new form of delivering the WWF’s content wasn’t just about bringing it to wrestling fans across the country. It was about bringing it to entirely new fans. McMahon involved a number of mainstream celebrities, and in doing so, the company was able to pull in curious people who had rarely, if ever, seen a pro wrestling match. One of those celebrities was Mr. T, who didn’t just attend, but was involved in that first Wrestlemania’s main event at the height of his popularity.

It’s the power of partnerships - which is still a big theme in content marketing today. At times, you have to utilize a person or organization with more influence than you to be successful and gain broader awareness. That’s exactly what McMahon did.

That smart move of involving pro athletes and celebrities allowed Wrestlemania to receive press coverage it had never before received. It gave more traditional news outlets a reason to care. Think about that for a minute - the way McMahon converged the owned and earned content strategies around Wrestlemania. He knew if he gave media a reason to care about his owned content, it could generate earned content from them.

It’s difficult to manage and market an event, even an event that has some history and awareness around it. It’s even harder to start an event from scratch. That makes it even more remarkable that McMahon was able to generate media coverage for his first Wrestlemania.

Now think about professional events you know of today. Are those events giving people a reason to care? Is there unique thinking going into the event’s content and the marketing? How are partnerships being utilized to gain broader awareness for the event? I’ve seen it done. Unfortunately I’ve also seen it not done too many times. Those organizers could definitely learn a thing or two from McMahon and his first Wrestlemania.

One Event, Three Cities

WWF’s next content innovation was the very next Wrestlemania event. To build on the momentum established by the company’s first big event, McMahon held the second in three separate cities across the US - live and simultaneously. (2)

Can you imagine the coordination and logistics that would have to go into that? Not just for the TV production, but also to keep the live crowds entertained if a major match wasn’t happening in their location.

Again, the WWF succeeded with Wrestlemania II, which was hosted by New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

How are you bringing your events to people who can’t physically attend? McMahon realized there was an opportunity to bring his event closer to people who weren’t living in New York. He could physically bring part of the event closer to them. You don’t have to go Wrestlemania II and set up a multi-location conference, but think about how you’re delivering content to those more remote people who are still in your target market. Are you simply tweeting live updates or are you looking into creative ways to involve them that keeps them engaged?

There’s a big difference between keeping people informed and keeping them engaged.

The Blurring of Content

Now let’s go beyond events and focus on more traditional content. In the weeks leading up to last year’s Wrestlemania, I stumbled upon a cool feature on the Fox Sports website. It consisted of three long-form content articles on the history of Wrestlemania. The three articles came together to form a timeline recapping the annual history of the wrestling event. They also featured video throughout, a sidebar containing archived photos and a nice visually appealing parallax scrolling design (a design I really like).

This series wasn’t penned by a Fox Sports reporter though. No, the three articles were written by former WWE commentator, Jim Ross (retired as a regular commentator, but still working for the company), who was able to weave in his own memories and anecdotes. Ross’s perspective transformed the content from a basic history to something more revealing and personal for the reader.

One of the most interesting parts of the series is that I was left wondering who approached who. Did WWE pitch the idea to Fox Sports? Did Fox Sports approach WWE or Ross, himself? Did WWE pay for content, making it more of an advertorial than an editorial?

For what it’s worth, I suspect WWE pitched the idea to Fox Sports as a contributed series from Ross. He’s shown himself to be transparent, authentic and credible, not just from his work as an announcer for WWE, but through his consistent Twitter activity. People know he’s going to be a straight shooter and not a company suit. Also, given the videos and photos used throughout the series, and the personal comments and memories from so many past and present WWE employees, I have to think WWE had some hand in the placement.

What makes the series so brilliant is that they had their content featured on a site that doesn’t regularly cover them, opening it up to so many more people than had they simply published it on their own site.

Since Fox Sports, a mainstream sports site, ran that special feature, now is a good time to bring up a debate that comes up fairly often - is professional wrestling a sport?

Personally, I say no because the outcomes are predetermined. However, what those men and women do in the ring is ridiculously difficult. The falls, the bumps and many of the hits many people think are “fake” are not. The pain is very real and so is the athleticism of the wrestlers. Why do you think so many professional athletes from the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL are fans? It’s the respect they have for what the WWE athletes do every week. Want proof of that fandom among other professional athletes? If you go to a baseball game, chances are at least one player will use a pro wrestler’s entrance music as his batting music.

Though I say pro wrestling isn’t a sport, many would disagree. And those people actually have some decent evidence to point to - the sports news outlets who cover pro wrestling.

That’s right. There are a number of sports publishers that feature a distinct site, section or writer that consistently covers professional wrestling.

ESPN owned sports and entertainment site Grantland has a section devoted to professional wrestling as well as a writer who focuses on it.

Bleacher Report has its own WWE Channel.

And SB Nation has a distinct subsite called Cageside Seats that features a number of writers covering only pro wrestling.

So is it not a sport? Even if sports sites are reporting on it? The lines are blurry, aren’t they?

The answer doesn’t really matter to WWE. Either way, the fact that ESPN, Bleacher Report and SB Nation are writing about it, is a win for the McMahon company. These are new earned media avenues which spread the company further to current and new fans.

Some may say these sources of earned content weren’t due to proactive efforts by WWE though, they simply came along because of the popularity of its product.

I counter that claim with a reminder that a number of big companies have their own beat reporter, and sometimes even section, within their trade’s publications. Mashable has reporters who cover Facebook exclusively; other publications have writers who focus on Cisco or IBM. As a company, isn’t it your goal to grow to that level of influence to receive that type of focus from the media?

To build on that, could you say Facebook or Cisco receive the media attention they do simply because of the size of each company and product popularity? You could. That’s wrong though. It’s correct to say the attention is in large part due to the product and service, but it’s also because of the hard work from the communications teams of those companies. Building relationships, making themselves available, being helpful, giving ideas. The same could be said of WWE.

Now think about this - what if Cisco didn’t just have a beat reporter at Network World, but they had one at The Wall Street Journal or New York Times?

I would argue that for WWE, ESPN or Fox Sports or SB Nation is their Times. There are smaller, more niche pro wrestling insider type publications that cover them regularly, but to receive consistent focus from a mainstream sports outlet? That’s WWE’s jackpot and what I’d consider an accomplishment they earned.

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Sources:

(1) - History of the WWE summarized based on information from Wikipedia (I know Wikipedia isn’t a “proper” source, but I’ve heard the history of WWE before, just needed a refresh to write this article)

(2) - Some Wrestlemania facts discovered from Fox Sports’ Wrestlemania - Celebrating 29 Years of Blood, Sweat and Cheers, Part 1 written by Jim Ross

This post is syndicated from its original publishing on LinkedIn.