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NHL expanding social media communication

Plan to work across fan engagement, analytics, technology groups in development

by Dave McCarthy / Correspondent

TORONTO -- Heidi Browning, the NHL's Chief Marketing Officer, believes the future of sports consumption is all about personalization so she is focused on making sure the NHL is ready to communicate in the ways fans will want to communicate.

"It's all through social, it's all about messaging, that's our future, and if we can't communicate in those channels we're going to have a big problem ahead of us," said Browning, speaking at the PrimeTime Sport Management Conference. "Now is the time to harness these insights so that when that shift happens in scale, we're ready for it."

As the League continues its digital transformation of its 100-year-old brand, from a business operations standpoint, it is developing a system called Blade, which will work across the fan engagement group, the analytics group and the technology group. Together, the three groups will bring a host of capabilities to the League and its teams to help personalize the fan experience.

"First is aggregate. Second is analyze. And third is activate," Browning said. "We have up to 30 different data sources coming into the League alone and they're all disparate data sources. They come from real-world experiences, digital experiences and social experiences. Our job is to bring in these sources and unify them into a single fan ID, first at the League level and then to bring in the 31 clubs to understand what's the true scale and engagement of our fans."

Though the implementation of the system and the results it will yield is still over a year away, Browning said the information will be invaluable to enhancing the experience the NHL provides its fans. The League recently crossed over its 150 millionth follower mark across all League, team and player social platforms and its fans are among the most actively engaged of all the major sports leagues on social media.

"Our fans tend to be some of the youngest, most tech savvy and highest household income of all the major leagues," Browning said. "It's also a major point of pride for us (that our fans) are some of the most passionate and engaged fans. When you look at the engagement rates on a per fan basis, we have the highest engagement rate across all the leagues."

Browning spends her time thinking about how to get even more fans engaged. The key to success though is not only getting fans engaged but keeping them engaged. That's where personalization is critical.

"I don't really care as much about what people are saying as I do what they're doing within the social media channels," Browning said. "Especially in hockey if someone says, 'That's a filthy goal', sentiment analysis would say that's a negative quote, but it's not, it's positive. We're really talking about engagement throughout our social channels. The millennial generation, they know very well that they are giving up their data. We call it 'show me you know me'. I'm giving you all this attention in exchange for making sure you reward me with something that's relevant to me."

Another priority for Browning is engaging the League's female fans, who she feels represent a massive area of growth opportunity for the NHL. 

"I think that's a huge opportunity for us," Browning said. "Everyone knows in the digital world women are the most active socially. [We want to] start to look at how we can grow our sport from casual to avid fans, how can we activate these highly engaged women to pull in their friends to grow both viewership and attendance."

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