What the WWE Can Teach Us About Content Marketing, Part 2

This is the second of a two part series examining content marketing and what we can learn about it from the WWE. You can read Part 1 of this series, introducing events as content and focusing on topics such as Wrestlemania and the blurring of lines between earned and content, here. Remember in the early days of social media when all the so-called experts were touting how this new form of communication could revolutionize product development? Companies could listen to their users and fans, taking their feedback into account when developing or updating products? Do you recall how many companies took advantage of that opportunity? Yeah, me neither… That’s largely because very few did, at least in a formalized way (apologies to PlayStation Share and My Starbucks Idea). Some very well may have done it in a not-so-formal way, but if any did, it was so informal that it was hard to even tell they utilized community suggestions.

Listening to the Meta Fans

For years, avid wrestling fans criticized WWE for being the same way and not listening to what they wanted. These fans are referred to as meta-fans - they readily acknowledge the matches are all pre-determined and they go beyond following the action in the ring, to understanding the real-life backstage workings. They know the writers and creatives, how matches are set, which wrestlers are friends out of the ring and which wrestlers can’t be around each other out of the ring.

Meta-fans know the developmental prospects (yes, pro wrestling has a minor league of sorts, similar to pro baseball or hockey) and they understand what makes a wrestler “good” in the ring - what’s called sound technical wrestling. Many of the mainstream “best” wrestlers of the 80s and 90s were actually not seen as very technically good in the ring, but they had a muscular look, were good talkers on the microphone or were simply huge. Hulk Hogan, for example, wasn’t a great pure wrestler, but he was big, muscular and great on the mic.

In the mid to late 2000s, these meta-fans were clamoring to see great, technical matches. They were tired of the beefcakes and muscle heads getting main event spots and all the ring time. They wanted the people who they thought had the most talent to receive the most air time and they made this very well known on the internet.

WWE ignored these people for a while, but in June 2011 that changed quite significantly.

(Photo Credit: WWE.com)
(Photo Credit: WWE.com)

Meet Phil Brooks, better known by his ring name of CM Punk. You can see that Punk isn’t the biggest, the most muscular or the best looking wrestler you’ve ever seen. Not really the prototype you’d picture when you hear professional wrestler.

The meta-fans loved Punk though. They were enamored with his wrestling ability and his blunt speaking style. In 2011 many of those fans felt like he wasn’t receiving his due shot at the WWE’s champions - and they made it very well known online and at times, in person at the live events through chants.

On June 27, 2011, after destroying company darling John Cena (WWE’s modern day Hulk Hogan, a muscular superhero looking good guy who always seems to be in the championship picture - you can actually see him in the background of the above photo), Punk delivered what later became known as his pipe bomb promo.

He grabbed a microphone and let all his feelings and complaints about the WWE come pouring out. He criticized Cena, comparing him to Hogan and calling them both corporate brown nosers. He did the same with The Rock, though he significantly referred to him as Dwayne. The Rock’s real name is Dwayne Johnson, though WWE at the time, had never used his real name in any content form. Referring to Johnson by his real name as opposed to his ring name was a big moment. After he did it, Punk even acknowledged he broke the fourth wall, something that wasn’t done in pro wrestling.

He went on to complain about not being featured on collector cups or programs, not being cast in movies or receiving guest spots on television shows aired by WWE’s broadcast partner, the USA Network, and not being invited to appear on late night talk shows.

The spot was so full of anger and seemed so real that a number of people wondered if he went rogue and started speaking off script. If that were the case, the production team wouldn’t have let him keep going for six minutes though. It most definitely was a part of the script.

Punk’s diatribe was actually the WWE listening to its fans. They listened and then worked the fan criticism and feedback into its product via Punk’s rant. This event started what is now referred to as the “Reality Era.” The WWE now regularly incorporates fan sentiment and feedback into their storylines and their product.

It was a risky gamble since they were catering to the meta-fans. Not all people watching had the intimate knowledge of the meta-fans, so the angle with CM Punk could’ve alienated other fans. Nonetheless, it worked for them.

Why aren’t more companies listening to their fans and working that feedback into their product? Or at the very least, incorporating fan feedback into their content if it’s not as easy to do so with their product. It could be very powerful. As much as current social media gurus and experts talk about the shared economy, social business and deteriorating barriers between companies and consumers, I’m not seeing companies actually follow that script yet.

Imagine if companies began actively listening to what their customers were saying. Every company will say publicly they’re listening, but I know many are not. They have listening systems set up by keywords, but many times these systems aren’t monitoring everything customers say about them. They’re only catching very negative sentiment triggered by specific keywords. And the impetus for ‘listening’ isn’t simply to listen and engage at all; it’s to take complaints offline as quickly as possible. In fact, many of the responses you would receive from a brand are automated responses, not something unique for you written by a real person. Often times an online complaint goes no further than the person who can appease you and get you to stop complaining publicly.

If companies actually listened to their customers and content consumers, that could be extremely powerful. Authentic listening and incorporation of what they’re hearing would shine through. Customers would begin to see that their voices are being heard. Much like the WWE fans began to see their wants materialize in the company’s storylines.

Their Own Content Delivery

The final content innovation I’ve noticed with WWE focuses on the delivery of content. Over the years, McMahon’s company found a number of different ways to deliver content through owned, earned and paid channels - live events, pay-per-view events, cable tv networks (USA Network being the most successful and longest running), video releases, their own print magazine, their website, social media properties and blogs and online publications.

Earlier this year they announced a new content channel that’s quite possibly their most innovative yet.

In February 2014, in the weeks leading up to the year’s Wrestlemania, WWE announced the WWE Network, a streaming video service available through the company’s website. Using the app, people can view all of the company’s weekly television broadcast shows, special live programming, all live pay-per-view events, special programming and archived matches and pay-per-views. All of that is available at a price of $9.99 per month. This is noteworthy from the content consumer’s perspective because a single pay-per-view costs more than that and WWE broadcasts nearly one of those per month.

Though it may not appear so at first glance, the WWE Network is the type of innovation that’s significantly risky, but presents enormous potential for long-term rewards and even industry reform.

When McMahon first began discussing the idea of a WWE Network years ago, most envisioned him forming a cable channel similar to the NFL Network that would broadcast WWE content 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Few saw the idea morphing into a non-cable streaming service that would entirely bypass cable providers.

Think about the implications for a minute.

McMahon offended two noteworthy entities with the new service:

  • Cable companies who made big money on the pay-per-view events and feared consumers would bypass them for the WWE Network. DIRECTV has already stopped offering WWE pay-per-views altogether. DISH Network has stopped airing all of them, only offering certain ones to customers. I have to think others such as Comcast and Verizon are none too happy either.
  • Cable networks who pay large sums of money for the rights to broadcast WWE weekly television shows. USA Network, Syfy, MTV, Spike TV, UPN, CW and ION are all networks that hold or have held WWE broadcast rights in the past.
    WWE Network and the traditional airing of WWE content on broadcast television can be done in unison, and it has been through the first five months of the Network’s life. In the future, will WWE need to continue playing ball with cable companies and networks though? Could they just try going it alone through the Network?For full disclosure purposes, WWE has not reached the financial levels it projected for the WWE Network prior to its launch. Most still believe it holds great promise though.To examine the innovation even further, consider the broader effects of what the WWE did. Can you imagine other content producers following suit? Streaming services or apps for every producer of television content? Is it more lucrative for an organization like the NFL to air all its own games, collecting 100% of the advertising fees rather than taking only a percentage of the ad money and gaining revenue from contracts with FOX, CBS and NBC?The potential is market shattering.On a more relatable note, consider how WWE went outside the box to think about ways to offer content to their audience and to monetize that content.Many wrestling matches from earlier eras were previously just not available - at all, unless you count the random grainy YouTube clip you could occasionally find. Fans now have all this content at their fingertips.Those same fans were willing to pay the price too - especially when WWE helped contextualize the price to them by setting it lower than a single pay-per-view event.Now think about your content. Do you have older content that could be made available to people? You don’t need to launch a full streaming service. You could use the tools available to you at no cost - YouTube, Vimeo or even just your website. If a custom streaming service isn’t right for your company, and it’s not for most, maybe you should think deeper about a unique, audience-driven way you could deliver that content, like WWE did.Who are your customers? Where are they? What content do you have available? What content do they want? Those questions are among the first for you to consider. You want to make it easier for people to consume your content. Keep in mind the end goal isn’t to be as creative or innovative as possible, it’s to increase the consumption of your content. So think about the delivery of content in that sense.Lessons for Us AllSometimes the best ideas don’t come from the most obvious places. Many of my clients are in the tech industry, but I get most of my ideas from reading and experiencing non-tech subjects. Creativity kicks in when you go outside your norm and think outside the box. That’s when you start thinking bigger and broader and allow yourself to think outside the parameters you, your team or an industry places on you.Even if you’re not a fan of professional wrestling, even if you think it’s fake, even if you think it’s lame, you have to respect what the WWE has done with its content marketing. From Wrestlemania to the WWE Network, they’ve done some truly innovative things. There are lessons we can all learn from in a number of the truly unique, innovative calculated risks they’ve taken.This post is syndicated from its original publishing on LinkedIn.