Winning the Ashes on social media: ‘The England players are extremely aware of its value to fans’

Steven Dent, the England & Wales Cricket Board’s head of social media, lifts the lid on the strategy, challenges and lessons from an intense Ashes tour.

Winning the Ashes on social media: ‘The England players are extremely aware of its value to fans’

The Ashes needs little introduction with cricket’s fiercest and longest-running rivalry holding a special place in the hearts of fans. The drama of England and Australia’s finest battling it out for the famous urn captivates two sports-mad nations and creates headlines and intense interest around the world. But what’s it like to be at the centre of the action from a digital perspective? LiveWire Sport spoke to Steven Dent (below right), the England & Wales Cricket Board’s head of social media, to get an insight into the strategy, challenges and lessons from an intense tour.

How far out did the planning for the Ashes start?

Our budgets get signed off about a year out, so we were thinking about what we wanted to produce, what type of content, what type of roles we’d need and so on, from a fair way out. Editorially, we probably started building up our plan about four or five months out, once we knew the fixture list and also the day-to-day logistics of where the players would be, where our guys who were embedded with the team would be and all that side of things. We have great access with our guys on the team bus and being able to really make themselves part of the tour and making the most of that was a big part of our thinking.

How did you factor commercial partners into the planning?

A lot of this is all part of the negotiations at the time commercial partners and sponsors are signed up which means it can be part of the overall plan from day one. But pre-Tour, we also had some proposals that we were able to put to partners and basically ask would you like to put your name behind this content? And we were always open to coming up with or receiving great ideas that would work for our partners.

The two main sponsor content pieces we produced were the Jimmy Anderson video diary, which was done with NatWest and gave a real insight into life on Tour and a video retrospective on the 2010-11 Ashes Tour with Hardy’s, featuring legends Jonathan Trott, Chris Tremlett and Matt Prior discussing the key moments and matches of the last time England won the Ashes in Australia. 

What was your ultimate aim? What did you want to achieve?

In a nutshell, we wanted to grow the level of engagement on our social channels and boost our website traffic.  Of course it’s lovely to grow follower numbers too but in many ways that is a vanity metric and engagement was the real KPI for us. And when I talk about engagement I mean comments, likes, shares, replies as opposed to any other measure. We know our audience and a very big part of it is the real cricket diehard fans who stay up through the night following on the TV and radio and staying across every twist and turn of the series. We wanted to give those dedicated fans lots to talk about and really have their say with some pretty detailed and in-depth content around the action. We didn’t have full clip rights for live action – that’s normal practice for an England away series – but we were prepared for that and know how to create different types content which will engage our audience.

The Ashes is one of the biggest events in cricket, and to some extent transcends the sport - but for us a series Down Under is a different entity to a home series. That massive time difference creates challenges in terms of telling the story, communication and resourcing.

Obviously as ever in sport, the level of engagement depends to some extent on the success of the team but we always had some ‘set plays’ planned that we knew we’d be able to use regardless of results.

With the website traffic, we spent some time identifying when our main audience was online and therefore most likely to engage with our content and then targeted the key bits of content for those timeslots.

How much thought goes into the tone of voice?

We have developed a brand around the England team which has a strong tone of its own and visual identity, the ‘We Are England Cricket’ brand. As part of creating that brand we also created a tone of voice. That tone took time to develop and was taken on by the digital guys in Australia. Essentially, we’re inside the camp but not part of the team, because of course that’s the players themselves who make up the team.

So we were comfortable to talk in terms of “we” have done this or that, while at the same time reflecting on things slightly from the outside. It is a fine balance to strike but one that I think worked as a way of telling the story. It is definitely different to, say, the tone of voice for the social presence of a league or competition.

What kind of buy-in do you have from the players and the senior team at the ECB in terms of social?

I think as an organisation we’ve come a long way and got more and more buy-in on all front in recent years. It’s something we’ve worked really hard on and as a result we’ve got a really good reaction from both the England players and coaches and from the people at the top of the business itself, with people who are extremely aware of the value of social and digital as a means of reaching supporters.

On the business side of things, we get great support from the whole organisation with a real understanding  of the fact that the England cricket teams are a real hero asset for the organisation and that the social media profile of that asset can amplify so many other things that we want to achieve for the ECB as a whole.

It certainly hasn’t happened overnight but I really think that you see the dividends from investing time and effort in building those relationships in terms of the content produced and the engagement it drives.

How did you manage the challenges of the massive time difference?

It was an interesting one, because it effectively becomes a 24/7 operation with the two guys in Australia working their hours out there and then the UK team operating from 6am and, particularly on match days, thinking of the story we needed to tell the audience who were just waking up to it. It was very much story-led so the day when Alastair Cook hit his 244 not out was a fantastic day for us as we had virtually 24 hours to tell the story and really get everything out of one of the highlights of the Tour for England. We took full advantage of being able to schedule content too, because we obviously knew that the audience would be a lot bigger during the UK day time.

What was the relationship with Cricket Australia like?

We have a good relationship with our counterparts at Cricket Australia and had some good chats with them before the Tour started and at regular intervals during the series itself. They shared video of the warm-up games with us, but they have a very different set-up to us and it was very much a case of letting each other get on with the job in hand of serving up content to our respective audiences and sharing what we could along the way where appropriate. They were great in terms of helping our two guys who were over in Australia with access and so on.

Clearly the Tour didn’t go as England would have liked in terms of results – how did that affect your output on social media?

I think this is nothing new for people working in social media within sport – results do dictate the messages you’re putting out and the type of language you use. When you win, the fans love to get and feel involved with the story of success and when results don’t go your way then things do change: fans either retreat a little and avoid engaging so much, or they want to offer their take on things and that can take the form of criticism – and that’s fine. We have to live in the real world, understand how the fans are feeling and reflect that in what we’re posting and how we communicate on social. So clearly you don’t put out some funny behind-the-scenes video of the players enjoying themselves if you’re struggling on the field.

We still want to tell our story and amplify great content but it’s a case of being able to understand your fans and what will resonate with them in the context of results and performances.

When you look back on the Ashes series, what are you most proud of?

I think overall I’m most proud of the team as a whole and what we managed to produce as a collective. It’s not easy when you’re on the tough end of the results and we’ve come away from the series with really strong engagement and that’s a testament to the hard work and creativity that everyone put in, from the guys in Australia to the team back in the UK.

In terms of content, for me the stuff that really stands out is where we’ve really made the most of the unique access we have to the England camp. That is our USP and with things like the 360 videos of the grounds we did – for instance, the one that Stuart Broad did at the Adelaide Oval – we did that really well. We learned as the Tour went on, but with content like that and when we got to see Alastair Cook in the dressing room, having the players do the storytelling for you really adds so much. We want to take the fans inside the camp and that type of content does that so well.