TMR Q&A: Eric Gelfand, New York Jets

Best Practice: How Does a Team Successfully Tackle the Influencer Space?

The use of influencers to drive brand and brand awareness continues to be a key marketing focus across nearly all aspects of business. Teams have just recently started to dabble in the space, and no team has done it more uniquely than the New York Jets.

Three years ago, as the team’s rebuild began, the organization realized that they had a first class fan experience that stands on its own. This experience could appeal to a wide range of groups who may not be thinking football first.

The answer? Not simply blanketing the eyes and ears of millions blindly; it was to listen and target opportunities as they arose that could fit authentically within a Jets game day in and around MetLife Stadium.

Jets staff knew the engagement had to be real, and it also did not have to be based on celebrity status. Numbers help, of course, but enthusiasm was key.

The result has been a great best practice in how to build brand widely regardless of team performance, so long as the user, in this case, influencer, experience is best in class.

Eric Gelfand, SVP, Communications & Content, New York Jets

You name it — from YouTube stars to wine enthusiasts and food bloggers, couples, Mommy and Daddy bloggers, Asian, Latino and African American influencers, video game devotees, first responders and military members, the program brought together a rainbow of engaged communities, many for the first time. They created content on almost every platform available. From podcasts and Instagram, to Snap Stories, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube Channels and Facebook Live, the Jets set few restrictions and let influencers speak to their diverse audiences in their own authentic voice.

To date, the program has had a collective reach of over 22 million impressions, with many of those involved now recommending others to participate. In each of the three seasons the team has been doing this, it has been the “gift that keeps giving,” as the Jets have seen engagement numbers increased by double-digits each year.

How did the Jets get there? We asked Eric Gelfand, SVP, Communications & Content — whose idea it was to launch the program — to break it down.

Team Marketing Report: We know how the use of influencers has become pretty standard for brands and media companies, but for a team, in a major market like New York? What was the reason to do this?

Eric Gelfand: Today every team should be looking at every way to extend its reach and engage with consumers well beyond the traditional; it’s why you see teams looking at esports and gaming, investing more in community events and creating programs that have a much more holistic experience than just a game. We saw that there were all these areas that we touch on; kids and parenting, food and wine, technology, that had their own culture and it fit really well into all we do on a game day, so why not find people who have expertise in certain areas and bring them into the fold with what we do.

They may not start out as fans of football or even the team, but they will end up knowing about all we do and become advocates and supporters of our brand.

That was the original idea, and it has worked very well.

Influencers like @missvivianwc showcase the Jets’ off the field experience

TMR: What is the offering that has worked best?

EG: It’s pretty simple. We identify a core number of people who are experts in engaging in a particular area and offer them what is really a once in a lifetime experience; we take them through the whole game day consumer experience; from our events outside the stadium to being on the sidelines pregame to enjoying food and beverage in our suite areas and beyond.

There is a wow factor in the discovery that can’t really be equaled just by coming to a game.

Plus, we have really built new relationships that have opened doors of engagement for years to come.

TMR: What is the ask for those you brought in?

EG: It’s really straightforward, we ask them to share the experience leading up, through the game and afterwards, with their audience. It may be Facebook Live posts, or Instagram stories, on Twitter or in a blog post. Some have even done reviews. There is no money that changes hands, there is no one specific ask; we just ask them to relay what they did to their followers and let it go from there.

Most importantly though, we listen to them beforehand and get details on what would make an experience special for them.

This way we are making it both seamless and customized, and that’s an extra step that is really important.

TMR: What are some of the areas the team has covered in the three years?

JetsUncorked gets the spotlight (@cddevito2)

EG: We have done everything from food and wine experts, to Mommy and Daddy blogging groups; we have had some who have an affinity for science and gaming; others have come from areas as far away as Australia and Israel who are now living in and around New York; we have had some people from the military and who have a love for specialty areas in pop culture; as well as some whose area of focus is on Latinos and other special interests. It can vary depending on their background and what we have going on on a particular game day.

The goal is to keep the experience unique and manageable, and then everyone wins.

TMR: Have you worked to integrate brands involved with the team into the process?

EG: We have but it has been pretty seamless. We have never had one hard ask for people to share, like go out and make sure you try X brand; but we have been able to make sure that our partners who are doing interactive programs, especially pregame, be it Identogo or Budweiser or Verizon or Pepsi, are part of the experience that they can enjoy. During the game we make sure that the food and beverage experience fits well for hat they are looking for.

For example, when we did a wine tasting we made sure that those who were part of the day got to talk to our sommelier and to those who were helping sample high end spirits; when we did events with young people the food choices were obviously a little different.

The key is that nothing is forced.

We match the interests of those who are coming out to what our experience can be like for anyone coming into the game.

Daina Falk from @TheHungryFan and Jets Super Fan – a major influencer himself – Gary (@GaryVee) Vaynerchuk chat pre-game N.Y. Jets

TMR: Now the tricky part — how do you actually measure success?

EG: There is always the traditional way of measurement, which is by the numbers of engagement, and for that in three years we have seen traditional impressions in the millions and shares have been beyond what we were hoping for. Some of the folks who have come out have had their posts shared by everyone from GaryVee to LeBron James, and that’s something you can’t really predict. However what’s more important is the community we have built and will continue to build.

Everyone who has come out continues to share our content unasked, and have come back to us with ideas on how we can improve what we do while also coming up with suggestions for others who may enjoy the experience in the future; we have helped support them at charity and community events, and we keep learning and amplifying what we are doing together. It is not a check the box, get the likes and move on type of thing, which is what many do with influencer engagement. This is much more interactive with a long tail for our brand.

We want to extend the circle wide because of what we do off the field, making sure that our fans realize all that we offer.

That has been the goal and so far it has worked out well.

Sports Illustrated Tweets to check out their Instagram story for behind-the-scenes content

TMR: Does onfield performance matter with such programs?

EG: No one has come back to us and said that will not come because of team performance. They realize the power of the NFL and the Game Day experience and are intrigued to learn more. Their passions are tied to unique experiences, not wins and losses. Would we be doing this if we were undefeated? I think the answer is still yes.

The goal is to broaden the fan base and spread positive messages, and that happens regardless of what happens on the field.

It’s a great way to tell stories, and that’s what builds fan affinity.

TMR: Is it tougher to do this in New York than a less crowded market like say, Kansas City or Jacksonville?

EG: No.

The market size really doesn’t matter; what matters is the experience.

The NFL overall is looking at experiences like this in many markets, and we are proud to have helped lead the charge on this. In New York, you probably have a deeper pool of influencers, but you need to identify the right ones and help them amplify the experience.

TMR: Why haven’t more teams done this?

EG: First, we have started to work with the NFL who is seeing this path, when done right, as a way to grow engagement and fan and brand affinity, so it is coming along. I can’t speak to other teams or sports, but it takes time and effort to do it right.

You have to identify the right people, listen to them and match the experience to their interests.

It’s not cookie cutter in any way, and if it is not done right it can backfire very quickly. We are not buying influence in any way; we don’t pay anyone to do this.

We engage in a dialogue, explain the opportunity and in most cases the demand for help exceeds our needs, but we’ve been good at making schedules work for everyone who is involved.

TMR: Now that you have proven the concept, where can it go from here?

EG: We have looked at creating experiences in the offseason. For example we have invited food and wine bloggers to our Taste of the Jets experience. When we did our jersey unveils last year, we had some folks from all walks of life come out.

We’ve invited people to community events and viewing parties, and many times they have helped open doors to other people in their sphere of influence.

It has been very productive and we will keep growing the circle with them.

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