What the Hell is the WWE’s Digital Marketing Strategy- and do they even need one?

I took the first break from posting that I’ve taken since starting the blog this past weekend, I have a lot of stuff to juggle and between stress at my day job, trying to get 2 independent ventures of my own off the ground, and battling endlessly with my 4-year-old about taking an afternoon nap, something had to give. It felt good to take a break- I figured, I can crap out a 500 word no-value post or take a breather and come back with something good- and I actually came up with a number of ideas for digital marketing posts, including this one about the WWE’s use of social media. Lucky for you, eh?

I’ve always wondered why the WWE’s site was so badly optimized for engines (this may have changed, I haven’t visited there in a while) and came to the conclusion years ago that a company with 20 hours plus of TV a week to promote their web properties doesn’t really need to care about site architecture or being search engine friendly. They also have weird, Flash-heavy microsites for pay per views that I know don’t rank well for non-branded keyword terms (does that even matter when every guy on the roster has 3 nicknames and 4 moves with names and tag team names and just all sorts of unique content?).

What got me thinking about the WWE’s digital marketing/social media strategy this time specifically is that in their programming for a number of weeks or months now, they have been making it a special point to mention when WWE-related topics are trending on Twitter, or referencing past weeks when topics trended on Twitter. They also have been promoting use of the #RAW and #WWE hashtags, as well as pay per views, by giving away free PPVs to randomly selected Tweeps who Tweet and use those tags. WWE programming also includes a lot of bumpers as we enter and exit the show from commercial, pointing out that they have more FaceBook fans than Nascar or more website visits in a month than the NFL or MLB. I suspect that these bumpers are there largely for ad managers who see them while their kids have RAW on and say “we need to be advertising there!” Unfortunately, the lowest common denominator, lowbrow nature of the product scares away a lot of big advertisers, so WWE broadcasts are full of ads for B-rate movies, Slim Jims and Castrol motor oil.

They seem to do a good job differentiating the language they use to describe their product- as much as it irritates long time wrestling fans, calling their talent “Superstars” sets them apart from every other pro wrestling promotion that calls their talent “wrestlers”. That’s a semantic clue that there’s something different about the WWE. They also do this same thing with the actual name of the product they sell- everyone else calls it “wrestling” while Vince and Co. prefer the term “sports entertainment”. Much gnashing of teeth happens on the message boards I follow over why the WWE insists on this different nomenclature for their product but I really do get it and think it’s a smart move. The only problem is, does it translate to search and driving traffic? Is the most recent generation of WWE fans searching Google for “sports entertainment?” My instinct says they aren’t, in spite of everyone at the WWE’s slavish devotion to these terms. (I wonder, does it piss them off that they still get over 90k visits a month and almost 3% of their traffic from people searching for “wrestling?”) It’s just too unnatural, and hearing the guys call each other “sports entertainers” isn’t helping.

Here’s some of the statistics as they relate to the WWE’s web presence (from http://adsales.wwe.com/research/– these are 2009 numbers but probably still accurate and if anything, the numbers are probably higher now):

  • U.S. Unique Visitors
    • Average Month Unique Visitors = 6.3 mil.
    • Average Daily Unique Visitors =  399 K.
  • U.S. Page Views
    • Average Month Page Views = 199.7 mil.
    • Average Daily Page Views =     6.7 mil.
  • U.S. Video Streams
    • Average Month Video Streams = 8.9 mil.
    • Average Daily Video Streams =   297 K.

That’s a lot of traffic. But what are they doing with it besides driving people to the merchandise shop, which is really the only “conversion point” on the site (outside of following one of dozens of Twitter streams or Liking one of dozens of Facebook pages)? Twitter is a pain in the ass! Facebook is a pain in the ass! ENGAGING YOUR AUDIENCE ON SOCIAL MEDIA IS NOT EASY! Why the hell do they bother, when there’s nothing as compelling as Television for pushing Users to sites?

The WWE is not a sport. It’s not even close. I’ve heard it described as many things, from “a soap opera for men” (my wife) to “sports entertainment”- that one is straight from chairman Vince McMahon. They ostensibly use the malleable-when-convenient “rules” of their “sport” to tell various stories. So, by using Web properties, the WWE is able to effectively engage Users in between weekly TV shows or monthly pay-per-views. TV drives traffic to the site, web properties drive traffic to TV, and hopefully, somewhere in there the story told is compelling enough to get you to buy the PPV, as that’s the primary product the WWE sells. (As a side note, stop complaining that the TV they give away sucks. It does- but it’s just an ad for the monthly pay-per-views, which ARE the product. TV is always going to be second banana to PPV and the RAW era ain’t coming back. DVR RAW and Smackdown!, skip the commercials and crap you don’t like. It’s much more enjoyable than watching the product live, with its interminable sponsorship messages and commercial breaks.) All of this engagement outside of television and the actual matches helps keep kayfabe- the idea that wrestling is real and these guys are true tough guys- alive.

One of the most visible guys in the WWE today is self-proclaimed Internet Champion, Zack Ryder. Ryder came into the WWE as one of two Edge Heads of the Majors Brothers (thanks Sugar Blaster) in a disposable storyline and didn’t really HAVE a gimmick after the Edge Heads Majors Brothers went away. So Ryder took to the Internet, Tweeting like crazy, making videos almost daily for YouTube (he even brings his smartphone to the ring to take video of fans for inclusion on the show) and just generally getting himself out there. The WWE has a long standing tradition of having talent “get themselves over”- meaning, the WWE can give them a little push but it’s up to the individual hand to make a connection with the crowd. Ryder put social media to incredibly good use for that effect, and that’s what I argue the WWE is doing with their social media presence. They aren’t looking to drive business, with social media channels, they are using it to create intimacy. Social media has even figured into recent storylines.

Judging by the # of Twitter followers on some accounts- (over a million Tweeps follow John Cena alone) and the number of Likes on the WWE’s Facebook page- nearly 7 million- the WWE is leveraging social media both in a unique way and to great effect. In a world of increasingly fractured entertainment markets that connection is more important than ever.

I would like to point out that I’m not the first one to write about the WWE, digital marketing and social media. In researching this article I came across a great piece from Erica Swallow at mashable.com, who was invited to Stanford to talk with the WWE’s marketing team about their use of Social Media. For a real straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth take on things, please check out her awesome article from earlier this year.

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