Originally published by sportspromedia.com, Ed Dixon (Source)

For Christoph Heimes, the chasm between storytelling and data-driven content needs to be bridged to keep audiences coming back for more.

With sports fans clamouring for more tailored, accessible content, the challenge is on for broadcasters and sponsors to offer immersive digital experiences as they look to maximise audience reach and monetisation.

Storytelling is still rightly regarded as a key ingredient for effective engagement, but now it seems clearer than ever that something else needs to be added for truly fresh content; data.

As a major player in sports marketing, Infront has worked with some of the biggest organisations across the industry, helping them stay at the forefront of an ever-changing market. Now with its launch of IX.co, bringing together Omnigon and Infront’s digital expertise, it aims to close the gap between storytelling and technology to help global brands get to the heart of what makes every single one of their audience members tick.

Calling on its tech-driven, pragmatic approach to providing data insight, IX.co is setting its stall out to show what sticks for consumers. Its message is clear; to get your audience talking and growing, you have to make them the focus of the conversation by finding out exactly what they want. SportsPro spoke to Heimes (pictured below, left) to find out more.

So where does iX.co fit into the sports industry landscape?

If you look at sports rights holders, sponsors and media entertainment companies, they all want to talk to fans and consumers. They want to build relationships with those fans and engage with them. There’s a lot of data that can be generated.

Obviously, they want to monetise those relationships over time and when we looked at the sports media market we saw great content and storytelling on one side and on the other side a lot of untapped potential. It was untapped in the sense of being adrift in a personal and targetable fashion from content they love and care deeply about as an individual, not just as demographics. Those audiences, from a brand perspective, are being served with a lot of spray and pray advertising and non-personalised messaging. We definitely saw a gap there between the storytelling side and the actual audience.

What is the brand's main purpose?

We help them to master their so-called fan funnel, where the actual funnel is from reaching and building that audience through to engaging with them and finally having commercial impact. I see that happening from a couple of stages, from building engaging immersive digital experiences that help those brands to build direct engagement to helping them foster and track those relationships with fans.

We also do all this through fan engagement products, insights and our marketing and targeting tools that allow for personalisation and generating commercial impact.

 I think living up to our reach, engage and inspire claim is definitely the focus of the organisation. That’s where we invest, where we look to bring in more talent. It’s where we’re making product and technology investment.

Why is this the right time to launch?

We have our roots and DNA in sports technology and feel that it’s a good time to unify that and bring to the market.

There is a definitely a shift to direct-to-consumer models and I feel that we’re perfectly equipped for that. We’ve been developing immersive fan experiences with visual platforms and content for many years. Now there’s literally an over-the-top (OTT) platform and direct-to-consumer offering being introduced to the market every single day. We felt the need to unify our competences under a single roof, under a single brand and to invest even further to build on the years of success that we’ve had. To build on our experiences and brining in new capabilities and investing in new technologies to help customers on their direct-to-consumer journey.

We definitely wanted to make sure that we were ready when we launched. We had the idea of iX.co and the proposition that comes with it probably 12 to 15 months ago. Things take time, talent acquisition takes time, building the necessary tools, the engine room that will power the offering, all took time. We’re glad that we took that time. Now is the right time to launch and go to market.

Can you tell me about how you're working with different partners? 

It depends. We’re not doing the same for every client. For building audience reach, our engagement falls into several categories. We’re investing in digital experiences be it web, mobile, video platforms, content publishing platforms, working with social influencers, content alteration, things that are meaningful for fans.

When it comes to actually building engagement and relationships, I think the way the outcome of engagement typically looks like is very much driven by things like fan engagement platforms and data capturing opportunities, data analytics and audience insight. If you really want to engage with someone you need to know who they are, what they like, their passions, their affinities so you can engage with them on their terms. That requires a different set of capabilities, tools and deliverables on our end.

Last but not least, if the main aim or KPI for a brand we’re working with is driven by commercial impact then our toolset becomes very different. We use things like targeting tools, media buying, selling digital sponsorships, digital activation for brands, building membership and OTT propositions, merchandising etc. It really matters where the engagement funnel is brought in.

What are some of the problems iX.co is aiming to solve?

Many of the clients we work with have certainly built and amassed huge social media followings and big audiences. But the actual conversion, the direct-to-consumer play, doesn’t really happen there. It happens on their own operator platforms.

Some of those experiences when we started working with brands were definitely not designed with the fan in mind. They were actually designed with their own brand and communications needs in mind, not the actual user. Many of those experiences have been overhauled and replaced over the past couple of years but when we actually came in they had incredibly low bounce rates, low paid offerings and very weak personalisation. It’s very important to underpin the importance of owner operated platforms and designing with the audience in mind. That’s one of the key elements that we’ve been committing to for the success of our clients over the years.

And for brands?

There are tons of sponsors who want to relate to fans directly. They want to be relevant and targeted but for them it’s a highly emotional canvas where they can tell their stories and build their brand. But unfortunately, most of the traditional advertising all follows that ‘spray and pray’ logic. It’s a putting logo somewhere and not really telling story and from a brand perspective. The rights holders and the publishers that brands engage with and buy sponsorship rights to, we help them understand what their fan base actually is. We help them build their audiences and help them build insights. We’re offering data sciences and analytics capabilities to really help them target their digital experiences and content to try and engage them on the terms that matter to the consumer.

We try to help brands identify who their most relevant audience really is and what the most likely thing to convert that audience is and how they take action. Not only that, we bring objectivity to the table to make it less about opinion because you can actually measure what works and you can take data and data driven insights to inform your decision.

Why do you think the fusion of storytelling and technology is so important for brand and audience growth?

To grow and engage audiences over time definitely requires good storytelling. But being able to do that in a highly personalised, contextualised and timely fashion requires technology.

Take the NBA for instance. They offer locally relevant highlights for each of their target market. There are certainly a few people behind this but it’s mostly machine learning, artificial intelligence, automated data feeds and content optimisation at work here. That’s how they are able to create relatable content every time to every single target market, for every single syndication and publishing partner. They can pull a Dirk Nowitzki highlight out of their AI content machine and publish it for the German website because they know that German basketball fans can relate to him as he ends his career, he had his last game in April.

Why is data so important for audience growth?

I was at a YouTube sports event in London and a former colleague of mine opened it with a quote from James Barksdale, the former chief executive of Netscape Communications, in which he said “If we have data let’s look at data and if we all have our opinions let’s go with mine.” I really like that statement because my first take on it was ‘data matters and my second take on it, after thinking about it more thoroughly, was ‘data is really good but generating data driven insights that actually allow you to make decisions is better’.

An example I can give is from advertising. I spent a bit of time in advertising at YouTube and everyone might lend an opinion on what the best creative is – what’s the best ad. But instead of fighting it out and debating over it because it’s ultimately about opinions, I think the Barksdale quote tells you to test the data you have to determine what sticks with an audience. That’s a way more effective way of doing marketing. That concept is a lot more objective and successful in the long run.

What are the biggest challenges for growing and monetising audiences?

The biggest challenge going forward will be to stand out, to be different and unique. We need to give people a reason to care. The biggest thing in monetisation is you have to build your audience first. You have to have a relationship, you have to engage with them.

If you master that challenge with everything described before then monetisation, even in a digital world, is possible. There have been many examples but it’s certainly not easy and we believe technology will be the main accelerator for that.