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ESPN is Mobile Publisher of the Year

ESPN is Mobile Marketer?s Mobile Publisher of the Year due to its all-round excellence in mobile content and advertising, offering an experience that is worthy of emulation.

The Bristol, CT-based media giant beat out second-place winner The Weather Channel and other runners-up The New York Times, Conde Nast and CNN to win the top accolade in mobile publishing. These publishers have one thing in common, though: they know that mobile is key to their future, be it for content consumption, advertiser support, sponsorships or subscriptions.

"The five finalists all proved quite clearly that the mobile DNA is infused throughout the organization, but ESPN got the gong for winning consistent internal buy-in, advertiser cooperation and user acceptance," said Mickey Alam Khan, editor in chief of Mobile Marketer, Mobile Commerce Daily and Luxury Daily, New York.

"It's not easy being a publisher in this environment, so for ESPN to make science and art of mobile and then integrate across television, print and online is no mean feat," he said. "ESPN has set the bar for viable mobile publishing and serves as a role model for others in media and entertainment."

Credit for the broadcaster's mobile accomplishments goes to the more than 50 staff led by ESPN Mobile boss John Zehr.  

Mobile is clearly an integral part of ESPN?s distribution and monetization strategies. Few have the chutzpah to invest as heavily in mobile as ESPN has, and few have shown such level-headedness and balance in allocating time and resources behind the various mobile channels.

?Mobile isn?t just about smartphone apps, and ESPN has done a tremendous job at enhancing mobile experiences for sports fans across all phones,? said Jonathan Liew, senior planner at McCann Erickson, San Francisco. ?The majority of cell phone owners in the U.S. are still using non-smartphones ? but that doesn?t make those individuals any less fanatical about sports. 

?It is this diversification of mobile content that makes ESPN?s mobile strategy so effective,? he said. ?When you look at the effort that ESPN has put into enhancing the experience for feature phone users ? things like free access to up-to-the-minute scores and fantasy league trackers on ESPN Mobile Web to daily video clips and highlights on ESPN Video On Demand, you see that it?s an uncompromised experience despite the form factor.

?When these feature phone users trade up to smartphones, guess what app they will be downloading based on their previous experience. That?s why ESPN has a leg up in this space.?    

User experience
The reading experience that publishers provide should be clear, crisp and uncluttered. Consumers have to feel as if the process is seamless and fast.

ESPN has a cross-platform strategy, with a unique and personalized experience for each major device?s operating system.

The publisher?s mobile products are built, tested and optimized for every device across all major platforms and form factors.

ESPN?s mobile properties ? mobile Web, applications, messaging and video ? drive experiences that feel native and personalized for every fan, regardless of their mobile device.

Be it the ESPN ScoreCenter widget for Android, APNS within all of its iOS applications or allowing fans to select one of three distinct ways to experience ESPN news and video from their iPads, the company empowers fans to customize their sports experiences on mobile.

Indeed, it is obvious that ESPN is committed to sports fans, wherever they are and however they want to get their sports fix.

Additionally, ESPN encourages its fans to make their experience with SMS alerts, applications and on the mobile Web more personalized by customizing the type of content to receive and when. 

Out of the nearly 10 million consumers who have downloaded the ScoreCenter application, 95 percent have personalized their user experience, proving that fans appreciate the customization.

Content is king when it comes to mobile publishers and the experience on mobile should complement the online, print and broadcast properties.

Branding and consistency is key, but a mobile edition should add something unique to the user experience instead of just regurgitating online content onto mobile.

ESPN takes its mobile content seriously, without fear of cannibalization.

In fact, ESPN research shows that 38 percent of fans who visit the ESPN mobile Web site do not visit on a weekly basis and usage on both platforms continues to rise in spite of each other and introduction of applications. 

On any given Sunday during NFL season, the ESPN mobile Web site experiences more page views than, while usage continues to also steadily grow. 

?Mobile allows us to be present wherever, whenever sports are watched, listened to, discussed, debated, read about or played,"said Kristy Young, director of product development at ESPN.

"Although we customize the ESPN experience for each device, we know that fans expect consistency no matter where or how they engage with us," she said.

"That?s why editorial continuity across multiple platforms is so important.?

ESPN has a dedicated senior and junior talent running mobile operations under the larger digital umbrella.

Each year the senior team at ESPN develops the company?s top areas of focus and mobile is consistently at the top of the list. 

The company has made a serious commitment to mobile and it is most evident in the organization that is led by a 15-year ESPN veteran John Zehr who started the mobile business six years ago and was appointed general manager of mobile in 2009. 

There are more than 50 dedicated team members divided into product management, content, production, engineering and business operations. 

Additionally, ESPN Mobile has dedicated resources on the marketing, finance and ad sales teams within other areas of digital media. 

Design is important for success in mobile publishing. The mobile edition must not simply be a barebones, stripped-down version of the traditional Web site.

ESPN has a full-time staff of editors, engineers, developers and product managers specifically devoted to ESPN?s mobile platforms.

In addition to placing stories from on the mobile site, these mobile specialists choose the most relevant sports events of the moment and run them prominently through sites and applications in spots specifically reserved for items of high importance.

The site is arranged for fans to be able to customize the information that is important to them in a personalized manner. 

Fans can quickly get scores, follow a game, watch a video, read a story or update their Fantasy rosters using their mobile device. 

All the branded properties have consistent branding, making them recognizable ESPN destinations.

?It?s about a suite of mobile solutions that culminates in their big mobile idea,? McCann Erickson?s Mr. Liew said. ?ESPN has a wondrous confluence between a customer need and the brand?s unique ability to satisfy said need and push it out across multiple channels.

?And we?re not just talking mobile now,? he said. ?Through every touch point ? from watching ESPN at home, to listening to ESPN radio in the car, to staying updated on ESPN Mobile, the worldwide leader in sports is able to provide insatiable sports fans with broad and comprehensive coverage anytime and everywhere.?

In July 2010 ESPN saw a 70 percent market share in the mobile sports mobile Web category (Nielsen).

ESPN set records and posted unprecedented growth in every category, from page views to visits and daily unique visitors this year.

In addition to special areas dedicated to events such as the Winter Olympics and FIBA World Basketball Championships, ESPN Mobile also gave fans what they wanted most ? top news and events in an easy-to access format.

That approach led to nearly 1 billion home page visits alone.

Possibly the highlight of the year was the success of the FIFA World Cup on ESPN mobile platforms as:

? ESPN Mobile TV reached 1 million unique viewers during the tournament, and registered 93 million minutes of viewing. Both MobiTV and FLO TV reported that ESPN?s World Cup coverage set viewership records on their respective services.

? On the day of the Spain-Netherlands final, users spent an average of 11 minutes per visit on ESPN?s Mobile Soccernet site and FIFA World Cup App.

? ESPN's mobile offerings (ESPN Mobile Web, ESPN 2010 FIFA World Cup App, ESPN ScoreCenter App) generated 98 million visits and 520 million page views to World Cup content.

? ESPN's Mobile Web and World Cup App were accessed for 6.2 million video views of World Cup highlights, news and analysis content.

ESPN Mobile video also showed incredible growth as video stats rose from just over 1 million in February to more than 5 million in September. NBA content led the way, including more than 300,000 views alone of a clip of Shaquille O?Neal toying with the idea of joining the UFC.

Video views report
In the past two years ESPN has also developed a variety of applications including the flagship ScoreCenter for both iPhone and Android as well as numerous other applications to support special events, ESPN Radio, Fantasy Games and gaming, in general. 

In total, there have been over 18 million downloads of ESPN applications. 

ScoreCenter attracts 1.3 million daily unique fans, with 2.3 million on Sunday. These weekend warriors spend an average of 14.6 minutes engaging with ESPN.

Finally, ESPN Alerts traffic has grown over the past year from sending 117 million messages in September 2009 to a whopping 455 million in September 2010. 

The monthly message traffic grows exponentially month over month and includes both SMS and push notifications to the ScoreCenter applications. 

Growth is attributed not only to the consistent addition of new subscribers, but also to the increased amount of content fans opt to receive via messaging. 

?In what only can be described as sports' perfect storm, 2010 offered mobile fans plenty of great games, big names and marquee matchups," said Anthony Mormile, vice president of mobile content at ESPN Mobile.

"With breaking news from some of the world's most recognizable athletes to the 2010 FIFA World Cup and championship runs by legendary franchises like the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Lakers, 2010 had mobile fans glued to their handsets in record numbers,? he said.

To ensure a viable mobile operation, ESPN?s mobile edition demonstrates how ads can exist in context with content without disrupting the user experience.

With 12 million-plus monthly uniques and 70 percent share of the mobile sports category, ESPN Mobile is the clear destination of choice for sports fans. 

ESPN Mobile also prides itself as being an industry leader in terms of integrating advertisers into its popular content. 

Over the past four quarters ESPN mobile has introduced a multitude of advertiser-friendly features. 

Here are a few favorites:

Weekend Watch Hotcorner

For entertainment category partners, ESPN created the Weekend Watch Hotcorner, a dedicated editorial section promoted off of the ESPN Mobile Web homepage. 

Running Thursday evening through Sunday morning, the Weekend Watch Hotcorner prepares fans for the upcoming weekend in sports and entertainment, highlighting any big games and key matchups, special events, as well as highlights a key movie, DVD or video game release. 

All of these weekend events are tied together in a poll that includes the advertiser?s movie, DVD or game release as a choice.

Bing Decisive Moments

When Microsoft approached ESPN Mobile about promoting its Bing decision engine, ESPN came up with a Decisive Moments/Key Decisions program that includes natural extensions in NFL, Fantasy Football and Games. 

Every Tuesday, ESPN bloggers covering each NFL division highlight a decisive moment from the previous weekend?s games. 

These blog posts are collected in a special section, along with a poll and promoted in contextually relevant areas of the site. 

Bing also exclusively presents a mobile video segment hosted by ESPN fantasy expert Christopher Harris who highlights key fantasy decisions each week. 

ESPN worked with Crisp Wireless to create a Decisions/Memory game that is launched and played exclusively within a mobile rich-media banner, a first for ESPN Mobile.

Powerade Impact Performance of the Night

The 2010 FIFA World Cup received unprecedented editorial coverage and fan attention on ESPN Mobile. 

ESPN Mobile generated 98 million visits to World Cup content during the tournament, which included the ESPN mobile Web site, ScoreCenter iPhone application and World Cup iPhone application, out-delivering on six days during the tournament. 

Throughout the World Cup, ESPN asked fans to vote for the Powerade Complete Performance of the Day, the choices for which were provided by ESPN?s TV team.  

The winning highlight, as voted on by fans, was featured in the custom Powerade-branded section.

Infiniti Game of the Night

Knowing that fans come to follow games through its Gamecast feature, ESPN serves up high-impact ads during the breaks in play.

ROI on advertising
ESPN has a proven track record for advertising that works and is engaging in terms of brand awareness or lead generation.

For example, the "Knight and Day" theatrical release drove more than 155,000 movie trailer views in one day off the ESPN Mobile Web homepage.

ESPN FANography Research Programs
ESPN FANography is a proprietary digital community of 12,000 ESPN fans who have opted-in to take part in research studies. 

The demographic overview of this community mirrors the audience. 

As a member of FANography, fans will receive one to two surveys per month, on average, across a range of topics, and receive no further incentive to take part in surveys than the intrinsic value of sharing their voice and opinions with the ESPN team. 

The research studies that are fielded through FANography are completely customized and designed by ESPN's advertising analytics/multimedia sales research.

? 59 percent of college football fans using mobile reported using their device more this year ? stronger growth than any other media

? Fans who voted for the Sports Awards were more than twice as likely to be mobile users than the average college football fans

? Mobile users were far more likely to use their mobile device to vote than the overall voting population

Ad agency relations
ESPN works with various agencies that evaluate mobile on behalf of their clients. 

Ranging from large agencies to smaller, boutique mobile-specialist shops, the company works to educate the marketplace about the power of mobile as a medium, the strength of the ESPN brand in driving consumer engagement and the ROI that advertising on ESPN Mobile can provide for their brands.  

Given the growth in terms of advertiser interest and increased spending, ESPN?s agency outreach and relationship building efforts have paid off in a big way.

A key factor in ESPN?s success with agencies has been building relationships with the mobile/emerging media evangelists but also fostering senior-level relationships with personnel who oversee digital buying. 

Since mobile is still a new medium, different agencies evaluate opportunities and plan their spending in many different ways. Hence, ESPN?s focus has been a consultative approach with several key players within the agency to ensure mobile is part of digital thinking.

Revenue model
ESPN Mobile relies on three revenue streams: 

1. Affiliate: Similar to its cable business, ESPN licenses the rights to its content to carrier partners

2. Advertising: Mobile is a critical component to ESPN?s multimedia sponsorship programs

3. Direct to consumer: ESPN offers premium services through a variety of products and platforms

Integration with other channels
There are many extensions from ESPN?s on-air and Internet channels to mobile. 

The company?s popular Internet games, such as Fantasy Fooball, Streak for the Cash, College Pickem and Tournament Challenge are also available on the mobile device. 

Each team can be managed from either platform seamlessly. 

SportsNation Polling, voting and fan comments are also extended to mobile.

The ESPN mobile Web site contains hundreds of stories also used on 

Scores and Gamecast updates originate from the same source across all digital platforms to ensure consistency of information.

Mobile applications, games and campaigns are also integrated with on-air programming. 

Not only do ESPN mobile products have extensions of popular programs and events, but conversely, mobile is also used as a means to communicate with the fan using interactive experiences through text messaging. 

Mobile is the perfect companion to watching television as it allows fans to interact without disengaging.

Additionally, SMS is a powerful tool to remind or alert fans to programming they care about and to drive tune-in. 

?Brands are always looking for ways to seamlessly integrate with content in a meaningful way,? McCann's Mr. Liew said. ?When you look at a typical mobile interaction, it?s on the go.

?Consumers just want to get their content quickly in easily digestible nuggets,? he said. ?Mobile publishers can play a major role by partnering with brands to develop utilities that enable more efficient on-the-go content consumption.

?It will also be useful for multichannel publishers, like ESPN, to map the different user touch-points and see where they overlap so we can capitalize on cross-channel content and messaging opportunities.? 

R/GA's take
Mobile Marketer's Dan Butcher interviewed Richard Ting, vice president and executive creative director of mobile and emerging platforms at R/GA, New York. Here is what he had to say:

What is your take on ESPN?s mobile strategy? How does it stack up against others in the space?
ESPN?s mobile strategy is possibly one of the more sophisticated and progressive in the industry. There aren?t too many publishers or brands that approach mobile in such a comprehensive and multi-faceted way.

ESPN utilizes multiple mobile technologies and platforms to achieve different objectives to reach diverse audience segments.

What I find impressive with ESPN Mobile is the sheer volume of work that they have successfully launched over the past few years and how quickly they bring their newer mobile products to market.

Over the past few years, they have successfully launched experiences in the following areas: SMS, iPhone, Android, BlackBerry and mobile Web. In each case, they seem to be in a position of innovation when stacked up against others in the space.

They also do a great job mixing in their free ad-supported mobile offerings with their paid offerings.

What is it doing right? Is there anything that it can improve on?
I like that ESPN is not afraid to experiment?they always seem to get in early on a new trend or technology. This was even true dating back to when they first introduced their SMS baseball alerts many years ago.

Now they seem to be forging ahead with their mWeb site and their wide range of mobile applications. Both their mobile Web site and mobile apps are great case studies for how to design optimized and focused experiences for the mobile channel.

On the mobile Web site, instead of trying to completely replicate the Web site, ESPN did a great job of streamlining and optimizing the most important content for mobile.

Additionally, instead of trying to build out one single, behemoth mobile application, they have a suite of very simple, focused apps.

For instance, they had one application for the World Cup, another for fantasy sports, another for radio and another for checking in at sporting events, ESPN Passport. 

They understand the importance of keeping the user experience simple on mobile and not overwhelming the user with too much functionality. Mobile is a medium for content snacking, not excessive content browsing.

I would love to see ESPN develop more social mobile experiences. In particular, I would love for them to build on their current ?Section 140? service and redesign that into a special co-viewing social TV app.

Just imagine something that resembles ?Section 140? plus Gamecast plus Twitter but on steroids. Live sports are one of the few TV moments where users still share a collective TV watching experience. ESPN Mobile can and should own this.

What are brands and agencies looking for from their mobile publisher partners?
Brands want mobile publishing partners that can support interesting and creative mobile ad units.

Additionally, they want the publisher to have great reach and be able to target across multiple audience segments.

Please also read:

The Weather Channel takes second place: Mobile Publisher of the Year

The New York Times takes third place: Mobile Publisher of the Year

Conde Nast takes fourth place: Mobile Publisher of the Year

CNN takes fifth place: Mobile Publisher of the Year