Jeff Werkheiser

How Sports Authority shares authentic stories with user-generated content

If you followed Sports Authority's social media channels about a year ago, you'd find a lot of marketing material.

But since he joined the brand in early August 2014, Manager of Digital Marketing Jeff Werkheiser has worked to change the game with a new content strategy. Now, instead of coupons and deals, you'll find photos taken by their fans: little league games, family hiking trips, kids on bikes, and couples stretching before a run, for example. Their Facebook page looks more like a sports-themed family album than a brand's marketing channel.

Sports Authority Facebook album     Sports Authority Facebook album

Jeff says this new focus on user-generated content is based on their strategy to develop a relationship with their consumers by telling stories that relate to both the brand and their consumers' interests, on an emotional level.

“As the data proved, our consumers didn't want to use these social platforms just to be sold to — they wanted to be inspired, entertained, and engaged.”

But Jeff says every user's photo they share has to meet a set of qualifications.

Our consumers didn't want to use these social platforms just to be sold to — they wanted to be inspired, entertained, and engaged.

First, it has to tie back to the business objective. “We're trying to show an emotional side from a relevant moment but in a cohesive way that fits with our larger marketing strategy,” Jeff says.

They also have to feel “raw and real,” but still be visually pleasing and engaging. That means sometimes skipping the very professional photos and shooting for a broader middle ground — something most people can aspire to.

They also do the work to understand the user before they ask for permission to use their photo. Does their history fit with the Sports Authority brand? Could linking back to their profile send them any unwanted attention?

And for Jeff's team, getting permission and linking back to the user's post is non-negotiable.

They always ask users for permission in public view.

“Four or five years ago, a brand approaching you on social channels was awkward. Now, it's become somewhat of a norm. On some level, people now expect it,” Jeff explains.

Plus, he says, everyone loves their five minutes of fame. Interacting with a brand and connecting on a human level actually becomes fun. In fact, many fans now proactively reach out to Sports Authority by tagging them or sharing photos with them — something Jeff says doesn't happen overnight.

“There are times when the perfect image we have in mind just doesn't exist out there.”

Sometimes they can't get permission in time, the photo's not readily available, or the shot they're looking for just isn't out there. “It's just the nature of how it goes when you're using real people's photos and stories,” Jeff says.

If that's the case, they'll pull the concept. Jeff's adamant about quality over quantity, and they won't beg their users for content.

“We don't want it to become a contest. We try to keep it natural, organic, and authentic. We want to say, ‘Hey, be a part of this conversation with us,' as opposed to, ‘We desperately need your photos.'”

But it's also OK to ask. For example, one of their “gold standard” posts came from a Father's Day campaign encouraging users to share stories about their dads using #ThankYouDad.

Sports Authority Facebook album

“The photo came from a family telling their dad who was deployed overseas ‘Thank you,' and they all got involved when we shared it. We wanted people to feel good about this touching story with us. The emotional connection is so important.”

Jeff also shared some tips for making it happen for your brand.

  • Make sure you know what story you're trying to tell: Jeff recommends something like a storyboard to help you avoid grabbing random images.
  • Always tie everything back to the business: He says, “Social is a channel. It's an arm of a marketing strategy. It shouldn't be its own rogue entity.”
  • Quality should always be over quantity: “Consumers can tell immediately if you're posting something just to post something, and honestly, nobody has time for that kind of content.”
  • Use the lens of the community: “If you're using someone else's real, authentic photo, don't slap your logo on it. It takes so much away, and you're kind of missing the point.”
  • Each social channel should have its own plan and behavior to react against: Jeff says that if you're posting the same photo across all of your channels on the same day, you're missing a big opportunity to cater to specific channels, users, and behaviors. You'll quickly saturate the user's content consumption with your brand — you're going to turn people away.

Since adopting this strategy, Jeff says the past year in social has been a huge success.

Consumers can tell immediately if you're posting something just to post something.

“We've seen a huge improvement in engagement, awareness, sentiment, and our community's participation. These were things we didn't have consistently a year ago on our social channels. It's hard to get there by way of only heavy promotional sales content — there needs to be a balance, and you always need to consider, ‘why are these people here, and what do they want on these specific channels?' Strong data and analytics will help answer that question for you,” Jeff says.

“Our social presence is now in a place that we feel really good about, and we can see that our community is responding very positively to the shift in content, the authenticity of the consumers' stories as they relate to our brand, and the overall meaning behind all of it.”

Follow Jeff on Twitter and ask about his latest adventure with a GoPro. Jeff's been a member of since 2014.