Wednesday, October 22, 2014

espnW: A Marketing Message Gone Wrong

December 13th, 2010 | 2 comments »

Last week, I told you about the initial reactions from consumers when espnW was unveiled.  In short, it was a sea of negativity. 

Females who were already frequenters of ESPN.com and viewers of ESPN television were outraged.  They wondered why they needed a site of their own when they were perfectly happy with ESPN.  Then they fumed when they read quotes from a USA Today article they felt portrayed women as unable to understand or appreciate sports in the same way as men. 

Rest assured, ladies, I have found the problem, and I think I can change your mind about espnW.com. 

The biggest issue with espnW.com isn’t the colors, or the format, or the all-female writing staff.  It’s the message.  So, let me try and present you with the message I wish I’d seen last week.

Let’s start with why espnW was created.  Half the women I’ve talked to who are angry are upset because they feel as though they’re being told ESPN is not for them.  The other half thought espnW was only going to cover female sports and are disappointed to find men’s sports being covered.  The truth is that neither of these were espnW’s intent. 

Straight from their press release announcing espnW last Monday, here is a quote from Laura Gentile, VP of espnW and ESPN RISE digital and publishing, about the mission of espnW:

espnW.com represents our commitment to serving female fans and athletes on a dedicated platform. After more than two years of research and preparation, we are excited to create a specific community for women to talk sports and be inspired both as a fan and as a participant.

espnW is not about segregating women, either in terms of readership or coverage, it’s about creating a platform that caters to women.  In a call I had on Friday with Ms. Gentile she said espnW, “is meant to be additive to ESPN,” and to serve needs that ESPN does not currently serve for female consumers.

It may seem like semantics, but I think there is a big difference between a separate website and a “dedicated platform.”  And I’m not the only one. 

Quite unexpectedly on Friday, I received a phone call from a woman within the sports industry who is a supporter of espnW, who spoke with me on condition of anonymity.  She hopes that once the misconceptions are cleared, women will celebrate espnW.  She pointed out that ESPN chose to dedicate funds to creating a place just for female consumers.  They’re dedicating manpower, resources and cold hard cash to reaching women in ways they haven’t before, from discussing more women’s sports to covering fitness and wellness topics not normally tackled by ESPN.

If you’re like me and you’re a female who goes to ESPN for the latest hot stove report or this week’s power rankings, you probably wondering why ESPN needs to cover these other topics.  What they’ve found through their research is that this is how many women currently engage with sports. They are the road warriors, the triathletes, the skiers and cyclists who may have come to sports later in life. I hadn’t considered before that there is an entire generation of women out there who grew up pre-Title IX who may not have had the same opportunities to participate as I had, but they are athletes and sports fans (albeit of a different sort), too. 

Through my conversations with both Ms. Gentile and the woman who called me in support of espnW, I have come to realize that espnW is not meant to be the go-to source for sports news for women.  Sports savvy females, like myself, who frequent ESPN will continue to do so.  espnW is not meant to supplant the news I would go to ESPN to receive.  Instead, it is meant to cover topics that interest women, much in the same way ESPNNewYork.com targets fans of New York teams with additional coverage of topics pertinent to their area and teams. 

When I spoke with Laura Gentile today, I asked about the quote in the USA Today article that many of us took offense with:

…women see us as an admirable brand that has authority. But they see us as their father’s brand, or husband’s brand, or boyfriend’s brand. They recognize it’s not theirs.

The confusion and hurt feelings seem to be all a matter of taking that quote out of context.  When asked to explain, Ms. Gentile said that when speaking with a representative group of 2,000 women in their target audience the message they received was that, “women recognize ESPN is credible, and is fantastic at covering the entire sports landscape.”  However, she went on to repeat parts of the above quote about women not feeling ESPN targeted their interests.  Further discussion with her revealed the meaning behind saying “it’s not theirs,” wasn’t meant to imply that women somehow don’t belong on ESPN.com or that women can’t understand the content presented by ESPN, but that ESPN is not making a concerted effort to cover the topics women are telling them they’d like to hear.  Thus espnW was born.

Although my conversation with Ms. Gentile certainly helped put things in perspective, it was the surprise phone call I received from an anonymous espnW supporter that really had an effect on my view of the situation.  This person pointed out that they’d heard from women who watched their child’s little league game from the car because they were afraid they would clap at the wrong time or who wanted to coach their kid’s team but had no idea how to run a practice.  As a woman who grew up after Title IX, and who has spent my entire life playing and coaching sports, I was honestly oblivious to such issues.  These women—the ones who aren’t part of ESPN’s existing 26% female audience—deserve to be engaged.  They want to be fans, but are a little shy about it.  They don’t want to look stupid.  They are lost in the world of sports and no one is catering to their needs.   

Add to that the efforts to educate women over on ESPN RISE, a site targeted at high school athletes, and the picture is becoming clearer.*  In my interview of Ms. Gentile, she emphasized the connection between espnW and ESPN RISE.  The latter features invaluable resources for female athletes (and their male counterparts) to learn about training and recruiting; things I know I was never taught as a young female athlete. 

espnW is not about creating a separate ESPN targeted only at females.  It’s about serving the needs of female consumers not currently served by ESPN.  Although it is accessible through its own URL, it is also a part of the ESPN site under the More Sports heading.  Do I think they could do a better job of promoting it through ESPN’s site?  Yes.  I would have never found it there if I hadn’t been told where to look.  Perhaps in the future they could feature a post from espnW on the main site from time to time. 

Another change I’d like to see, which I discussed with Ms. Gentile, is the absence of male writers on espnW.  She assured me that there would be male writers in the future, saying, “We’re not under any misconception that females only want to hear from females.” 

After my conversation with the person who called me anonymously, I understand that there are some women who need a “safe place” of sorts to learn and discuss sports.  I wonder if they would be intimidated by the presence of male writers on the site.  With that in mind, I think it might be nice to have perhaps a regularly scheduled column to be written exclusively by male writers.  Something like “From Inside the Male Mind: [name of piece].”  Instead of having a littany of male writers, there could be one column, easily identified as male written, where the males could come discuss the topics that aren’t covered on ESPN and might be of interest to the female community on espnW.  Just a thought. 

The bottom line is that there is certainly work to be done over at espnW.  I think the majority of that work needs to be in how the site is marketed.  There needs to be a unified message coming out about what espnW wants to accomplish and how they plan to do it.  I know they’ve done the research behind this, and I’m now convinced they’re serving both an untapped area and underserved consumers.  The issue is the message. 

That message has been skewed for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the USA Today article I quoted in my first piece about espnW.  After my conversation with Ms. Gentile, it appears that her quotes were used out of context.  I’ve already addressed the first one above, but the other one was the pedicure quote.  Ms. Gentile explained to me that the reporter was given a copy of the agenda for the espnW retreat and spa time was one of the activites.  What she said was merely to describe the range of activities being engaged in at the retreat.  You can see a full schedule and list of participants here.  Interesting that one of the other activities was Navy Seal Boot Camp.  Wonder why the reporter didn’t mention that one.

Because of the vast amount of both misinformation and criticism out there, I would love to see Ms. Gentile write a guest post on espnW (which they could leave a link to right on the front page for new visitors) introducing the site and explaining it the way she explained it to me.  Not everyone will have the access to her that I had, but I would love for them to get the same message I received. 

I now have a much better appreciation for espnW and the spirit in which it was conceived.  If everything I heard from Ms. Gentile about the goals and the plans for espnW come to fruition, then I applaud ESPN for dedicating the time, money and resources to develop this unique site and only hope that the marketing begins to do it justice. 

*As a side note, if you have a high school athlete, I encourage them to visit ESPN RISE. I think it’s unfortunate that I had not heard of it before now, and I hope it’s only because I’m not a high school athlete and do not have children that age, because it seems like a good resource.

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2 Responses to “espnW: A Marketing Message Gone Wrong”

  1. Erika

    I’ve always been the type to give things a second- or third- look before passing judgment on them. I could tell from the presentation of espnW what their intent was and that they were trying to find a balance between promoting female sports, promoting sports for females, and entertaining female sports fans. It’s a hard balance to achieve.

    The problem I saw, however, was essentially what you mention–that no one took the time, at least it seems to me, to research a way to explain to all three groups what the purpose was. The bloggish, brightly colored design did not help. While they thankfully stayed away from pink, what the site said to me initially was that I was a ‘girl’ and that as a ‘girl’ who liked sports, I ‘go here’.

    Trying to appeal to 1/2 of the country is a daunting task, especially when that 1/2 is as diverse as you point out. None of the mainstream sports sites attempt to teach a young man how to read sports stats. The ‘soccer’ section, for example, doesn’t assume American’s don’t get it, though many Americans have no idea how the game is truly played. It lists the stats & stories the same as football and if you don’t know, you go and figure it out.

    I appreciate ESPNW’s attempting to approach women. But I think they need to figure out a targeted way to do it, otherwise they’re going to end up with, for lack of a better term, a powder puff site.

  2. BigBen0724

    I took the time to read your update above on espnW. I went back and re-read your previous article on the new site. I even went back and took another look at the site itself. What I see is a very focused web site. EspnW isn’t intended for ALL female sports fans, just the ones who may be “intimidated” by the main site. I liken this to some of the Community College classes, “Football 101 for Women”. There are some women who want to be sports fans but might not know the difference between the 3-4 defense and the 4-3. Hey! For the life of me, I still can’t figure out how to calculate a pitcher’s ERA! You initially bristled at the idea of “needing” a sports site of your own because of your gender. That’s understandable. As an avid hockey fan, my sensibilities were offended by Fox Sports attempt at making the game easier to follow for the casual fan by giving the world a glowing puck and incorporating a cgi vapor trail. So I get it. With all that said, I wasn’t completely wrong with my comment on your previous post on this subject. I was involved in marketing a number of different fringe sports. It’s never a bad idea to try and incorporate as many new fans as you can while not alienating your core base. We certainly should give ESPN the credit they deserve for knowing how to market sports.


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