My colleague and I first noticed the pattern a year and a half ago. Every day, almost without fail, an article from WWE, with its sweat-soaked professional wrestlers in various poses, would hit the trending chart created from our BuzzSumo data.
To appear on the trending content chart, the content must have been shared very quickly. It’s prime real estate for viral content.
Neither of us is a professional wrestling fan, so we noted the phenomenon and moved on. But, WWE.com content continued to trend, and I decided to dig into the share data for sports and entertainment content.
I discovered that WWE is the legit boss of the sports entertainment content marketing arena, no matter who is in the ring. WWE.com has:
- More average and median shares than the NFL, MLB, UFC, and other sports leagues
- More pins on Pinterest than the NFL
- More average shares than sports broadcast network ESPN.com
- More average shares than content about Game of Thrones
As famed wrestler (and Hefty trash bag spokesman) John Cena might say, WWE content marketing has earned respect.
To determine the tactic types contributing to the WWE’s success, I analyzed 482,000 sports and entertainment headlines, and compared the top sports league sites to WWE. (As WWE is a scripted sport, it made sense to evaluate both the sports and entertainment industries. WWE’s corporate site identifies it as an “integrated media organization,” while its Facebook page refers to it as a “sports league.”
Key differentiators WWE uses to encourage phenomenal audience engagement include:
- Social share button placement
- Masterful storytelling
- Female characters
- Importance of images
- Emotional attachment with fans
- Less-is-more content strategy
- Content length that works best for WWE
- Headline words and phrases that drive shares for WWE
Let’s go deeper into the research.
WWE dominates shares
WWE’s content has more shares than huge sports leagues with significant fan bases, more shares than content about HBO powerhouse Game of Thrones, and more shares than ESPN.com, which houses content that appeals to fans of a variety of sports.
During 2016, WWE dominated NFL.com and MLB.com in both average and median shares per post:
In 2017, WWE not only dominated the NFL and MLB, but UFC and ESPN as well.
Compared to a purely entertainment segment, WWE also performed incredibly well. During 2016, WWE’s average and median shares were 6,447 and 68 respectively – 17 times and 11 times greater than content about Game of Thrones, which had an average of 380 shares and a median of six.
WWE commands Pinterest
One thing that intrigued me was the level of engagement with WWE content on Pinterest.
During 2016, WWE.com racked up 57,749 pins, an average of 3.4 per article; NFL.com had 4,604 total pins. The average number of pins for content about Game of Thrones in 2016 was 2.88, and during the first six months of 2017, ESPN.com had an average of 0.18 pins per article.
I asked Alisa Meredith, content marketing manager for Tailwind and a Pinterest marketing specialist, to compare the Pinterest presence of both WWE and the NFL.
The NFL feed is dominated by product photos, Alisa points out. But when you look at the NFL content that fans have pinned, the top pins are game recap videos and an article about New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and supermodel Gisele Bündchen.
So, there’s a disconnect between what people are pinning from NFL and what the NFL shares. Pinners are interested in human-interest stories, news, and the individuals involved in the game. But that isn’t what the NFL pins on its boards.
In what could be described as the missed Pinterest opportunity of the century, the NFL has the rights to use the term “Super Bowl,” but it doesn’t have Pinterest boards for things like Super Bowl party planning, decor, snacks, desserts, drinks, etc., a natural fit for the Pinterest audience. This deficit is a huge missed opportunity for traffic from Pinterest, and from Google, which indexes pins and boards, Alisa says.
The top WWE pins were for women wrestlers in bikinis, but those pics don’t fully account for the shares of content from wwe.com. Instead, Alisa says, a lot of boards are created by women and named for WWE characters, both male and female.
“It appears the emotional attachment to the sport and its athletes is strong,” Alisa concludes.
I would argue that the WWE actively courts emotional attachment, giving their fans articles that not only describe what happened in a wrestling matchup, but also how the wrestlers felt about it, what motivated them, and how they reacted to the situation.
Transparency is a powerful tool for connection, not only on Pinterest but across the web as well.
Transparency is a powerful tool for connection, says @alisammeredith via @SusanCMoeller. #contentmarketing
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The top shares to Pinterest from WWE almost invariably include the word “photo” in the title, which is not the case with the content most shared to Facebook. “People on Pinterest are absolutely in the mood for browsing lots of photos,” Alisa says. “They’re happy to click through to your site to see more – if they know they’ll be good.”
WWE lesson: Craft headlines that draw shares
When I realized how well WWE’s content performed, I dug a little deeper looking for clues to the content formula. The most-shared headlines from WWE have three key themes:
- Driven by personality
- Keep fans informed about events and storylines
- Promise exclusive access to information
Superstars like John Cena, the Undertaker, Seth Rollins, Alexa Bliss, and the Bella Twins dominate the most-shared content for the WWE.
The site is also the go-to source for content about the WWE. To keep track of a favorite wrestler’s activities online, fans must follow WWE. The site provides updates on league events, as evidenced by terminology like “moments,” “highlights,” and “clips,” as well as in content that summarizes what happened on a day, month, or year.
WWE also promises exclusive content. The word “exclusive” occurs frequently in the most-shared headlines. The images on the site also position WWE.com as a unique media outlet. Even fans who attend a WWE event are unlikely to get the up-close-and-personal look at wrestlers that WWE.com provides in its content.
You can apply the successful WWE themes to your own content marketing program:
- Develop a network of influencers who can amplify your content.
- Pay attention to the personalities (and topics) your audience is interested in. Look for ways to feature them in your content.
- Be the first, the best, and the most reliable source for news about your subject area.
- Promise your audience something valuable by using enticing headlines, and deliver on those promises.
Promise your audience something valuable by using enticing headlines that deliver, says @SusanCMoeller.
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WWE lesson: Make sharing appealing and easy
Like the other networks I reviewed, WWE’s front page is an index of its newest content. What makes WWE stand out is the share button beside the index listing, and the consistent use of images – at least one per article.
In other words, WWE encourages site visitors to share based on headline and image alone – before they even see the article.
MLB.com and NFL.com don’t include share buttons for their content on the index page. ESPN.com includes share buttons under some of the video content on its home page but not for all articles. These networks also include text-only listings for content on their home pages.
WWE’s share-button placement is unique even outside the world of sports and entertainment. Content marketing industry sites such as Content Marketing Institute and Social Media Examiner, Neil Patel, and Top Rank Blog don’t include share buttons on their index pages.
Placing share buttons on the index page is a savvy tactic, as it takes advantage of the tendency to share content based on headline alone.
Placing share buttons on index page is a savvy tactic for sharing based on headline alone. @SusanCMoeller
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Share buttons on the WWE home page are mobile friendly. If I am logged on to WWE.com on my phone, I don’t have to click through to the article to share it. I can appreciate the title and image, and share the content with a minimum number of clicks.
WWE’s mobile version also includes an image for each piece of content on its home page, making the site and articles much more visually appealing. MLB, NFL, and ESPN don’t do this. Mobile readers would need to click on a text-only link and wait for the page to load to share content or view the image of a piece of content.
See a comparison of each site’s news section as displayed on the mobile home page:
WWE lesson: Write long-form content
Earlier research has consistently shown that long-form content is more heavily shared than short content. I confess to a biased preconception that WWE and other sports sites would be an exception.
#Research has shown that long-form content is more heavily shared than short content via @BuzzSumo @Moz.
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They aren’t. Across the board, content longer than 1,000 words got more shares than shorter content. This chart displays average shares by article length in 2016 for WWE, NFL, and MLB.
The preference for sharing longer-form content continues in 2017. ESPN and UFC’s 2017 content followed the same pattern. Long-form posts also got markedly more median shares. Interestingly, all the sites that I looked at produce much more short-form content than long-form.
It’s not clear if a steady diet of long-form content would lead to reduced shares of longer posts. It’s possible that scarcity makes longer posts more valuable.
But, based on this look at WWE and other research, long-form content should be a regular part of content marketers’ tool kits.
WWE lesson: Experiment before committing to video content
I was surprised video content did not, with the exception of ESPN, perform better than non-video content on the sports sites.
The content marketing world seems especially enamored with video content. In June 2017, HubSpot reported that demand for video content is “growing at an impressively rapid pace,” and that “51.9% of marketing professionals worldwide name video as the type of content with the best ROI.”
Of course, there are many types of ROI, but in evaluating number of shares, the sports sites do not generate as many shares for their video content as they do for other content.
#Sports sites do not generate as many shares for #video content as for other content @BuzzSumo #research.
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More research is needed to see whether video preference is more context-specific before a generalization can be made.
WWE lesson: Think less is more
WWE publishes far less content than the sites I compared it to. The data does not tell if the fact that it has less content produces more shares, but it is worth noting that, for some audiences, less-frequent but higher-quality content can produce as many or more shares than more prolific sites in the same industry.
WWE lesson: Tell a good story
WWE has theater and storylines built into their events. The content published at WWE.com takes full advantage of this. The site not only tells the story of the competitions by reporting on winners and losers, it also tells the backstory.
Theater aside, the site has a more consistently personal feel than the other sports sites I looked at. It invites the audience to connect with WWE wrestlers on a deeper level.
.@WWE site invites their audience to connect on a deeper level, says @SusanCMoeller. #contentmarketing
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For example, on a recent visit to WWE.com, the top headline was “Jeff Hardy reveals the meaning behind his most personal tattoo.” Another read, “Hideo Itami reveals why he attacked Kassius Ohno.” And, “Nakamura reacts to the announcement of his dream match with Cena.”
WWE.com is full of reactions and revelations, meaning, and aspiration. It has all the feels.
By telling its audience how the participants in its events felt and how they think, WWE invites the audience to share the emotional experience.
People like to feel connected to the stars who entertain them. They like being “in the know” about actors, actresses, and sports figures. WWE makes this easy.
The content marketing lessons are clear: Tell people stories, humanize your brand, give them opportunities to connect with you emotionally.
Tell people stories, humanize your brand, give them opportunities to connect with you, says @SusanCMoeller.
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WWE lesson: Broaden your character base
WWE.com has male and female superstars. This gender mix allows the network to tell different, more complex stories. MLB and NFL are male-participant sports, which limits their ability to broaden the leagues’ narrative range.
With ESPN.com the situation is a little less clear. Female professional athletes aren’t heavily featured on the ESPN site. This could be simply because women’s professional sports aren’t as popular as men’s. It could be a missed opportunity to increase social shares.
Content marketers need to keep an eye on the characters and points of view they use to tell brand stories. My guess is that variety will help to attract a larger audience.
My interest in WWE’s content marketing began with curiosity as I realized how consistently the site’s content trends. But, my interest has grown into admiration for all the components the network consistently applies:
- High-quality, engaging images
- Emotional connection with fans
- Superb storytelling
- Wide range of characters
- Ingenious social share-button placement
Pro wrestling fan or not, WWE delivers smackdown content lessons for marketers.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute