Professional Conference Call: Will Yoder, Head Of U.S. Sports Partnerships, Instagram

This past Friday’s guest as part of Sports Business Chronicle’s weekly conference call was Will Yoder, Head of U.S. Sports Partnerships at Instagram.

Yoder highlighted his career journey beginning with launching an independent Washington Nationals blog, managing a 1,000-plus client portfolio at a sports agency, transitioning to Instagram two years ago, working across the sports ecosystem, how Baker Mayfield scooped his own NFL Draft selection on Instagram Live and much more.

In case you missed it, here are prior calls with Brian Killingsworth, Chief Marketing Officer for the Vegas Golden Knights, Erik Burkhardt, NFL agent and Co-Head of Select Sports Group, Ryan Williams, Vice President of Marketing at Athletes First and Jess Smith, Senior Manager of Digital and Social Strategy at the New York Yankees. View our upcoming schedule, too.


On career aspirations after he graduated college…

My aspirations in the sports world have evolved as the sports world has evolved. If you would’ve asked me when I was 16 what I wanted to be, I probably would’ve told you I wanted to be a play-by-play sports broadcaster. If you asked me when I was 18, I probably would’ve said I wanted to be a sports journalist. If you would’ve asked me when I was 20, I probably would’ve said I wanted to work in sports media behind-the-scenes in some sort of way. But really what I wanted to do was I wanted to work in sports, and I wanted to work in media. I ended up going to a really small school, Ohio Wesleyan, where there wasn’t a lot of traditional opportunities or people that wanted to work in sports media like at a Syracuse or a Maryland. I really had to develop my own opportunities and be entrepreneurial and that kind of, by default, taught me how to use the digital landscape to reach people, which evolved into a career opportunity.

On early sports journalism aspirations and if being a beat writer or columnist crossed his mind…

Yeah, definitely. That was definitely a way for me to have a creative outlet. I love writing. I have writers in my family. But also, it seemed at the time, to be the most traditional way to reach a lot of people through media around sports. But obviously, when I graduated in 2008, 2009, that was when social media started to take hold of the sports industry, and it really evolved the way I thought about the future of the media landscape to look like.

On founding The Nats Blog, an independent Washington Nationals website…

We just celebrated our 10-year anniversary this spring, which also makes me feel a little old. I was basically sitting in my dorm room in Delaware, Ohio, hundreds of miles away from D.C. where I grew up. Throughout my entire childhood, I was a huge baseball fan and there was no baseball team in D.C., so I spent a lot of my childhood working with grassroots organizations to try and bring a team to D.C. I was like a 12-year-old with a bunch of 50-year-olds trying to bring a team back to Washington.

The inaugural season was 2005, which was my senior year of high school. I ended up moving to Ohio right when the Nationals showed up, so for me to start, it was a way to connect with this team that I really had been looking forward to being a fan of for my entire life. It was also a way to have a creative outlet and flex my writing muscles and have my own simulated way of being a beat reporter around the baseball team I cared most about. To your point about (blogging) being a taboo subject, especially with traditional journalists, that was definitely something I faced when I was trying to grow the blog. Ran into a lot of dead ends. It was unclear what the traditional media networks thought of me and also unclear what the Nationals thought of me early on.

It took a lot of inspiration from people that had early success in that space. Matt Cerrone was somebody I looked up a lot to. He founded and eventually he was able to take that and build it into a news service that SNY ended up acquiring, and it turned into a full-time job. I thought maybe one, this will be a great opportunity for me to flex my muscles. Learn how to write. Learn how to cover a team. Learn how to reach people through digital and social. Learn how to reach people online, but also this could potentially lead to a job itself someday, which was definitely the initial goal.

On if he thought the blog would be acquired or lead to a full-time job…

I thought in a perfect world either A) being acquired by a local D.C. media outlet or the team itself or even B) just using it as a way to get my name out there and when they’re looking to hire the next beat writer, taking a chance on a kid who had built an organic audience. But what I quickly realized was that The Nats Blog was a tool for my future career. Just not specifically turning it into a business itself.

So, right after I graduated (Ohio Wesleyan), I got a full-time internship with the Columbus Blue Jackets working their PR department and really the main thing they focused on in my interview with them was The Nats Blog and how I built this audience of thousands and thousands of people completely organically. It was a great example that showed that I knew how to write and reach an audience, but also I was thinking in this new media space that a lot of these organizations didn’t really have a foothold in.

I realized ‘Wow, it’s great that I get to stay close to a team I care about, but it’s also this vessel to really kind of show off what I can do in the sports media landscape’. So, when I actually went home to D.C. after my year with the Blue Jackets, I briefly had a job with a small web design agency as I was trying to figure out my next step in the sports world. It was really the fact that I had built that blog and designed it so well is how I got that web design job. I really had no other background in web design whatsoever except building my own site.

Ultimately, that helped me get other part-time gigs. I was working part-time for Bloguin, which was the blog network The Nats Blog was hosted on. I was doing back-end admin stuff for them as well, which kept me in the industry. I was doing some game night PR stuff for the Washington Capitals and also running this blog full-time, at that point getting thousands and thousands visitors a day. It was really a way for me to keep my foot in the sports industry and in the tech industry as I tried to find that first full-time gig.

On maintaining relationships in the sports industry and finding a full-time job during the recession…

If you think about the time frame there, so 2009, you’re at the height of the recession, right? Media orgs are getting hit by the recession just as hard as about anyone. It was really hard for a 22-year-old to find a job in general at that time, but it was even harder to find a job in a premiere industry where everybody was competing for media and sports.

So really I thought, ‘Look, obviously, I have a need to make money. I was a college graduate. I had student loans, which is why I took the web design job, but I wanted to make sure I had as many feet still in the sports industry that I could even if it was doing stuff completely for free, for next to nothing’. I really wasn’t making much money off of The Nats Blog. Maybe like $100 a month from ads. It was really hard to monetize that kind of thing. But what I was doing was I realized, ‘Look, I’m working really, really hard.’ I remembered all through athletics growing up, we had this coach that would tell us, ‘The harder the work, the luckier you get’. So I said, ‘That’s going to be my mantra here’. I worked really, really hard and I was working 80 hours a week. I had a 40-hour per week web design job, and I was working 40 hours on top of that, working with the Capitals, building The Nats Blog and working with Bloguin.

 The next guest for our weekly professional conference call is with Paul Fichtenbaum, Chief Content Officer at The Athletic. It’ll be Friday, May 11 from 2:00-3:00 p.m. ET.

Eventually all of those things came together into one moment where I got an introduction to (current Head of Amazon Sports) Jim DeLorenzo at Octagon and got an interview and got the job in a matter of days. For me, it was really how do I keep working, working, working until this dream becomes a reality. I was just going to say there was this one specific day where it all clicked. I’ll always remember. It was the day that Stephen Strasburg made his debut for the Nationals, which at the time, was the first good thing to happen to the Nationals.

I don’t know if you remember, but they were terrible when they first got to Washington. That day, The Nats Blog got featured by ESPN on-air for the first time. It was my biggest traffic day of all time. Michelle Beadle was calling me out overhyping the fact that Strasburg was making his debut, but whatever, I’ll take it. So that happened. I managed to score a ticket last minute to that game, which was amazing and that was actually the day I got the call that Octagon wanted to interview me to join this entry-level position within their digital team, so all that happened. I ended up going to the game and I totally randomly ended up sitting right next to one of my best friends from growing up. I had no idea he would be there, and our seats were right next to each other and we got to enjoy this moment of Strasburg striking out 14 batters. It was the moment that the Nationals really turned it around and became one of the best teams in baseball. I’ll always remember that night of all of this hard work literally coming together on this one day, and my life was changed forever after that.

On if there was a sense of relief when he got his first full-time job in sports…

It was definitely relief. To be honest, even at that point going into it, I wasn’t 100 percent sure that was the exact route I wanted to take full-time in my career. I still didn’t know what the digital landscape looked like yet. That role very early on was focused on more product-management type stuff with this product Twackle that Octagon had built. I was super excited to finally make it in, and I thought maybe I’ll be here for a year or two, see what’s next and see if I get back into traditional media. But little did I know that this was definitely the direction I wanted to go, and I loved every moment I had there.

On the most important factor for getting into the sports industry for students…

Luck is also an underrated factor in that. I acknowledge the fact that I got very lucky that I happened to be working back-end on Bloguin and Ben Koo, the CEO of Bloguin, knew Jim DeLorenzo who was looking for someone in D.C., and I happened to be in D.C. That’s the most important factor for students that are thinking about getting into the sports industry. You’re going to have to get your lucky break at some point. There are so many people who are just as talented as you trying to do the same thing, but to my earlier point, I think the best opportunity for you to find that lucky break is to do as much work as possible. Work as hard as possible as you can, because eventually you’ll have a better chance of having those lucky breaks find your way.

On his day-to-day role at Octagon…

(Octagon’s Jim DeLorenzo) had built this tool called Twackle. I’ll give him the credit for the name. Essentially what Twackle was was a Twitter aggregator for sports. This was mid-2010. You think about back then, Twitter was not nearly as easy to navigate as it is now. There wasn’t a robust search functionality. It was kind of hard to find people you wanted to follow, so really what we did was really simple but at the time no one was doing it. We basically mapped the entire sports ecosystem on Twitter, and we pulled in all these Tweets through the Twitter API and basically if you’re a sports fan, you could go find all the Tweets from the Yankees ecosystem or all of the Tweets about the New York Yankees.

You could find what topics were trending on Twitter, specifically around sports, so really it was like a destination site for sports and Twitter. For the first eight months to a year working at Octagon, I was just heads down working on that product, working on partnerships that we had with teams and leagues and media outlets to distribute that product on third-party sites and really making it the most valuable entity possible. I spent a lot of time in spreadsheets. A lot of time researching Twitter handles that were changing frequently and a lot of time bug testing and QA testing.

On his role expanding at Octagon and managing a portfolio of 1,000-plus clients…

So when Jim left, they kind of gave me the keys, so I was basically leading all digital initiatives for this major sports agency that represented over 1,000 athletes at the age of 24. There were a couple of things that went into it. One, I wanted to make sure, because at that time, Twitter had changed their API stance so Twackle was becoming less and less of a valuable property. Also, Twitter was just more easily navigable, so you could find stuff on the Twitter app that you couldn’t find before. I kind of pivoted the group on how we can service the athletes and the agents. A big part of what we did was work with our agents and their recruiting process to make sure that when they were going to try and land a top-10 NFL or NBA draft pick, we had a comprehensive offering that we could go in and pitch the athlete.

When we pitched athletes, we would say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do for your contract, here’s how we’re going to market you, and here’s going to be your social media and digital plan’. A lot of my work was helping bring in the athletes. Then there was the other part of it, which was managing the athlete ecosystem. I didn’t do obviously day-to-day social media management for over 1,000 athletes. What we did try to do was make sure all agents and all athletes had access to best practices and understood what the opportunities were on all the social media platforms. We updated them in real-time when those changed. For hyper-elite athletes like Steph Curry, Michael Phelps, we would be a little more engaged in finding opportunities for them to partner, whether it was with a Facebook, Twitter, an ESPN or some outside source to really do some cool social media integrations to grow their following.

Then, the other part with which I was tasked was how do we find a way to monetize digital for Octagon? Whether that’s finding a way to get our athletes more incremental revenue on their social media outlets through the contracts they have. Because when I started a lot of what agents were doing was just throwing in social media posts in as part of that contract without actually trying to get incremental revenue for it. But also working within the sports and digital ecosystem and finding opportunities with the agency as a whole, so working with startups, potentially consulting with startups in different areas. Trying to offer value with a wide reach that Octagon had across the sports industry.

On what his next steps were after Octagon…

I wasn’t really looking to leave Octagon. I really loved my role. I woke up every day super empowered to be as entrepreneurial as possible and figure out what’s next. There was a really big blue ocean in front of me, but I had always thought in the back of my mind, since I had been the digital guy at a sports company for a long time, I had always thought what it would be like to be the sports person at a digital company and really advocate for sports as opposed to why digital and social matters. It was always something I had my eye on. I had ended up applying for the role I got hired for right after I had ACL surgery.

I was up all night because the medication made it hard to sleep. I was just rethinking my life and I was like, ‘I wonder what else is out there’. A job opening for sports community lead at Instagram had popped up, so I actually applied completely cold. I didn’t reach out to any of my connections, and I had many at Facebook and Instagram just because I wanted to see if I could do it on my own. I wasn’t 100 percent sure it was a leap I wanted to make and then eventually I got through the interview process. I got brought on campus here, and that’s when I pulled in some of my colleagues and they went to bat for me and I got hired.

On how his role with the sports community differs from the partnerships side…

At that time, Instagram had its hand on different editorial surfaces. Basically the best way to think about it was I was brought on to be the sports editor for Instagram, specifically because the Rio Olympics were coming up. They really wanted to make sure they had a lot of great content on there. My job was to oversee and curate all the content that appeared on the @Instagram account, which now has over 230 million followers. So all sports content that appeared there and all the sports content that appeared in the Explore section.

At that time, we were doing live series of events, where we would have this team of editors go through and find videos around specific moments and really bring the very best videos to the forefront on Instagram, so you could see things around certain topics or certain moments. We were building a really comprehensive strategy on how to surface the very best Olympics content of all the major competitions in Explore as well as highlighting the very best athletes on the @Instagram account. So we did that.

We also happened to launch a small tool called Instagram Stories about four days before the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics, so that meant we had to scramble quite a bit to get our strategy up and running to get people to use Instagram Stories at the Olympics. That was a really, really fun role and it let me go back to my editorial background and let me flex those chops a bit. But then after the Olympics, an opportunity popped up to join the partnerships team, which was probably more of a fit for my background from a business development and relationship management standpoint. I’ve been on this team for about a year and a half, a year and eight months now.

On the size of his team at Instagram Sports…

Instagram Sports at the moment is two people. I focus on U.S. sports and Brandon Gayle, who has made a transition to Facebook, was focusing on global sports. We really plug into the broader Facebook sports partnerships team that do a lot of relationship management work and that team is dozens and dozens of people. So really if you want to look at how I do my role. If you think of the Facebook sports team having verticals that specialize around media, teams, leagues, athletes, etc., my job is to be a horizontal across all of those and serve as the quarterback and say, ‘OK, for our media Instagram strategy, here is what we should focus on. Here is how you should talk to partners about Instagram. Here’s where our priorities are’. Really help align the Facebook Sports partnerships team on what matters to Instagram from a product standpoint, from a goal standpoint and from talking to partners.

Then, where I spend a lot of my time also is really deep-diving around major moments and priorities. So for example, this half I focused a lot on the College Football Playoff, the NBA All-Star game, March Madness, the NBA Finals and upcoming World Cup. I spend a lot of my time focusing on the priority moments and then also priority programs that we’ve established for the Instagram side. The Instagram Student Section is something I spend a lot of my time working with. Another sort of editorial service that we work back with the @Instagram account on.

On Instagram’s partnerships team and its focus…

The partnerships team, we have a bunch of different verticals on the IG side. We have some people specifically within the team that focus making sure that the part of the team that does reach partners is up to speed on those products and knows what the priorities around them are and also vice-versa, we can get feedback as the product is being developed saying, ‘Hey, here’s what’s the partners may think about this’. Once it gets to the point of here’s what the product is and here’s when we want to roll it out, then we bring it to the Facebook sports team and basically disseminate it to our relationships across the sports ecosystem.

On Baker Mayfield going live on Instagram before he was drafted No. 1 overall by the Cleveland Browns…

That’s a great example to represent how our team works cross-functionally. A couple of members of our team on the Facebook side have been working with Baker’s team. He has a Watch show that’s running about his process looking into the draft so Angel Gonzalez, Nick Marquez, Juan De Jesus, they work in the athlete and college sports space. They’ve been working really closely with Baker’s team on developing that show and developing that strategy.

One of the best ways to promote an athlete in general but around a Watch show they might have is through Instagram. When the draft was coming up, we sent over like a checklist with here’s all the things you could really do to capitalize on your moment. To Baker’s team’s credit, they really just took it and ran with it. On that list were things like ‘Hey, do a Throwback Thursday to include your family in this wonderful moment’. I don’t know if you saw the Brett Favre photo that he did. He remade the Brett Favre photo from a few decades ago. That was all his team’s idea. That was awesome, so he totally won the moment with that. One of the things we sent over was like, ‘Hey, utilize Instagram Live to share the moment with the fans’. It certainly helped that he went live before he got drafted, and it more than helped that he was the No. 1 pick and shocked a lot of people there.

That was one of the reasons that moment was so, so successful. It’s been interesting. We’ve worked with Baker for a while now. When he was a Heisman candidate two years ago, we met with all the Heisman candidates up in New York and gave them an Instagram 101, so it’s been really cool to see him and Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson use those tools over the years. But it all came together into this one really awesome moment. For us, we have an internal messenger thread. We’re always paying attention to the great things on Instagram. As he was going live and as he got drafted, we were all freaking out internally so it was just this awesome moment that really showed off the power of the tool. Instagram Live is all about bringing people into your world in real-time. It was a huge win for us and a huge win for Baker.

On Instagram as a home for organic athlete content…

That’s one of the things that makes Instagram so great. It really is the home for athletes. It’s really a home for organic athlete content. I saw that when I was at Octagon. I would work with different athletes and they would give me access to their different social channels. They would never give me access to their Instagrams. They wanted that to be 100 percent authentic. They liked using it, so for us with athletes, it’s really about educating. A lot of the content you see on there, the reason it’s great is because they use it on their own. You see Ronaldo going live after reaching 100 million followers and having 400,000 viewers when he takes his shirt off and dives into the pool; that’s all him. That’s one of the reasons it’s such a great platform. There’s a great stat that really illustrates the sports affinity for athletes on Instagram. The average Instagram sports fan follows 10 different sports accounts and eight of those are athletes, which I think really illustrates the power of the athlete content on the platform. 

On if the sports partnerships team at IG is more focused on working with athletes based on the above statistic…

It’s kind of like a chicken and egg thing. It’s a pretty self-sustaining ecosystem because the athletes love it so much. It doesn’t take a lot of work to get athletes to put great content on Instagram because they’re doing it themselves, and they feel at home there. Our team definitely does a great job working with agencies and making sure that the agents understand the value there and social media managers can communicate product updates efficiently to athletes. Angel Gonzalez and Evan Shugerman, who do a lot of work on the Facebook Sports side and have been doing this for years. They were working with me back when I was managing athletes. They do a great job working with the entire athlete ecosystem to get great content up there, but I wouldn’t say we put more time and effort into athletes specifically. It’s really a self-sustaining ecosystem that we all get to benefit from.

On helping new players build their digital brand on Instagram or launch an account…

This was a lot of what I focused on at Octagon also. For every Steph Curry, there was a player who just got drafted to a new team or who was just kind of up-and-coming. The most important thing to convey to them is athletes have a barrier where they don’t think their lives are that interesting because they aren’t necessarily content creators at heart. There are a lot of people who are popular on Instagram. They are either popular because they create music, they are actors and actresses or they are just content creators and that’s just what they’re naturally good at. Whereas athletes are famous because they’re really good at their sport and because they share their lives and open up to their fans, so really leaning in on that and leaning in on ‘Hey, you might not think that sharing what training workout you did today or sharing what you put in your gym bag is interesting, but die-hard fans really care about that’.

The first barrier is getting them to understand that their day-to-day is really fascinating, and I think on Instagram, we’ve built tools to open that up a bit. Instagram Stories as an ephemeral surface are a lot easier for athletes to just share stuff on a whim. It doesn’t feel like it has to be finely curated, like a feed video or a photo might be. We’ve really seen athletes flock to Stories to show their authentic self. Great examples are Russell Westbrook and LeBron James singing along to songs in their car. That’s content we wouldn’t have had on Instagram before. Because it’s just so easy and simple to do, it just shows up there.

While those guys are really big names, that authenticity really translates and really gives you an opportunity to endear yourself to fans at a local level. That’s the first thing. We’ve also launched Instagram Live, which we’ve seen athletes cling to and that’s like the lowest pressure place to put content on. Literally some of the best lives are just NBA athletes going live, putting their phone down and then playing FIFA or Madden with another player, and just talking smack with their teammates. That’s a really, really easy thing to do and it’s really, really cool for a fan to get that glimpse into their everyday life.

For an athlete, the fact that it’s live and the fact that it’s ephemeral, if something they don’t like happens, they can just not repost the Live and it’ll go away and people won’t see it again. I really think getting past that first barrier is probably the most important thing you can do. Once athletes see that success and once they get passed that first barrier, they actually get really interested and pick up what to do on their own. 

On Instagram separating itself from The Players’ Tribune and other outlets that allow athletes tell their own stories…

The Players’ Tribune is actually a partner of ours. We work really closely with their team to give them best practices so they can reach as many sports fans to tell the athletes’ stories as possible. Their superpower is they do a really good job of packaging up the athletes’ stories and distributing it across all of their networks. Of course, their dot com is the main part of their business, but they’ve really leaned in on a lot of their social platforms, especially Instagram, to tell those stories on their platforms both through their own handle and through the athletes’ handles. 

I don’t think it’s necessarily a matter of us versus other places. Instagram is a great tool to disseminate your content to reach a lot of people. Instagram definitely has scale. We have 800 million monthly people that use Instagram, which makes us one of the largest social networks in the world. We have over 150 million sports fans on the platform, so there’s a lot of sports fans on there and also our sports fans tend to skew young, so it’s something like of the top 100 teams followed by teens on Instagram, 30 of them are sports related. We have a really young passionate fan base, and we have a large sports fan base. Because it’s so simple and turnkey for athletes to share that content, I think it’s a no-brainer for them. In general, if athletes feel comfortable sharing a part of themselves online, that’s a good thing. It’ll help feed the entire ecosystem. 

On if he thinks Instagram will move to live content within the app…

I don’t believe there are any immediate plans to move into that space. We always try to see what Facebook does well and learn from them, but there’s also a bit of differentiators between our platforms. If you look at Instagram Live, it’s very much optimized for the use case of holding the camera up and talking to your friends just like you were video-chatting with them. We just launched video chat on Instagram at F8 this week because we’ve seen the success of that low pressure platform, so we are really working on low pressure ways to share.

For example, there is no API plug-in so you couldn’t broadcast a live moment unless you were holding your phone at the live event itself. That’s really the use case we’ve optimized for. As you’ve also seen, we are definitely short-form media compared to the other platforms, so there are no immediate plans to move into that space but I do think what the other platforms are doing in that space are really, really cool. I do think it’s cool to see that production model shift from primarily television to being all across the media landscape.

On the differences working with teams, leagues and individual athletes…

The best way to look at the entire sports partnerships team across Facebook and Instagram is that we are kind of free consultants for the sports world to really make sure that on both platforms, that people in the sports industry can share their very best content, so sports fans have the best experience on the platform. In a consultant-type role, it’s totally going to depend on what we see as the needs for our partners.

The short answer, yes. We will cater what we talk about to the partner itself because the needs for the NBA as an organization are obviously very different than the needs of Baker Mayfield. Even with the teams, we talk to a lot of college teams and using Instagram as a tool for recruiting. Your next generation of athletes are looking at your Instagram and that’s going to have an impact on what school they decide to attend, so it’s important. We’ve seen a lot of partners in the college sports space put resources behind making sure their Instagram is as awesome as possible because they know it’ll help them with recruiting future athletes. That’s not necessarily a need for say the Golden State Warriors, who are more focused on reaching as many people in the Bay area and around the world as possible and finding ways to monetize on that reach,. We will definitely listen to what partners care about and then try and adjust our advice and then the narrative we tell them based on that.

On if there are any themes from what sports partners want to see on the platform…

There’s usually a lot of themes. A lot of it is about education. Our vision of the product kind of helps with that. We get asked a lot about having a live API plug-in, similar to what Facebook has, to do more production-quality live on Instagram Live. People see there’s a huge audience there. Traditional media organizations would like to have a more polished product and a lot of that is a back-and-forth explaining, ‘Hey, here’s our philosophy on what Instagram should be and why we are or are not going in that direction’. We definitely get a lot of questions, especially for around the more polished tools that other networks have and whether or not we’re going to integrate them or how we think about them. From our standpoint, it’s ‘Hey, this is what Instagram is and we’re building tools for both media partners, but also tools that scale to everyday users so the best strategy is oftentimes how do you take these tools and adjust your strategy as opposed to hoping that the tools will come adapt to the strategy that you’ve been doing the last several years’. 

On the Instagram Student Section program…

The Instagram Student Section is one of my favorite things we’ve done at Instagram. Nick Marquez on the Facebook side, who oversees college partnerships and myself, we launched that in the fall of 2016. We had just launched Stories, and we wanted to help college sports partners launch the platform because we knew this was a tool we built for young people to express themselves. We wanted to make sure we could put together a program that had the very best college football content on Instagram Stories going into the season.

On that first instance, we went out to eight schools, all top college football schools and said, ‘Look, we’re building this program. If you pick a student from your university to be your game day ambassador and really use Instagram Stories to tell what it’s like to be a student at your game, we will give them training on how to use the Instagram Stories platform and then at the end of the season, we will pick the student we think did the very best job and we will fly them to the National Championship game and let them take over the official Instagram account that has 230 million followers to tell the story of what it’s like there’. 

The first time we did it we actually ended up picking a Clemson student, Paul Trimmier, who is now working for Turner actually full-time. He’s their social media editor for NBA on TNT. He was a Clemson student so we didn’t know that when we picked him, Clemson would be in the final so he got to create this awesome story of Clemson winning the National Championship that went out to hundreds of millions of people, which is awesome. We scaled that program to about 30 schools for March Madness. We got it to about 60 schools for college football this last year. We’ve reached 70 schools for college football this year. It’s an amazing program because one, it helps us help our partners get really great game day content on Instagram Stories, which is a win for everybody involved, but for Nick and myself, we’re really passionate about working with students.

I mentioned before how lucky I feel to have gotten my break and I always want to try and pay it forward as much as possible, so it’s really cool to have this network of students who are up-and-comers and really work with them to make sure they know how to utilize Instagram as well as possible, but also make sure they understand tips and tricks on how to find roles in sports once they graduate. We’ve actually created this really cool private Facebook group for all the students that participate and our partners will actually post job postings in there, knowing that we have this crop of super talented up-and-coming digital people.

We have a few people working in sports professionally, a few people who have gotten full-time internships with teams right after graduation, so it really warms my heart to see all these students have the opportunity to succeed and pay it forward as much as I possibly can. It’s a great win for Instagram. It’s a great win for students. I know it makes Nick and I happy to give back.

On the biggest sport on Instagram and how the company goes about measuring it…

By far the largest sport is global footbal. The last time we released data on this was a little under a year ago. At that time, there was 146 million fans connected to global footbal. The second largest is basketball across professional and college at 45 million. There’s about 100 million more people on our platform that are global football fans than even the No. 2 sport. The way that we measure that is we look at are you connected to an account that is global football-related or basketball-related. If you’re a fan of Ronaldo, you’re a global football fan. If you’re a fan of LeBron, you’re a basketball fan. It’s a really great way for us to get a sense of how big the sports are on the platform. It’s always really interesting to talk to people in the industry within those specific sports, so they can get an idea of where they rank and get an idea of how global Instagram is.

On if there’s a sports community of followers that surprises him…

Yes, combat is right behind and is basically neck and neck with basketball. Combat is a mix of MMA and boxing, which we actually structured before the Mayweather-McGregor fight, but it ended up being the perfect marriage. They actually met each other in the middle. That’s basically tied for the second-largest sport with basketball, which is really, really fascinating. That isn’t the same across other platforms I’ve seen. I don’t know what it is about Instagram. I know we have a very large community that cares a lot about MMA and boxing so that might be a part of it. Definitely a large community in Brazil, where I know combat is super popular, but that one always surprises people. The next largest sport is action, which I don’t think surprises people as much. If you think about the young demographic and the visual nature of extreme sports, that kind of makes sense. It’s pretty cool that you see global football, basketball and two more alternative sports as the two biggest sports.

On if he’s felt sports teams/leagues/networks shifting their focus or attention from Snap to Instagram at all…

Instagram has become a more diverse way to share your passions in many different ways. Because of that, more and more people have moved to the platform. Whether you want to put really, really beautiful long-lasting content in your feed or you want to share your everyday moments with Stories or you want to be in the now with Live or even more popular is our direct platform — which is really, really growing — there are more and more ways to utilize Instagram to your specific needs in a way that still feels simple and not cluttered. 

I think, if anything, a lot more people are drawn to our platform because we have a lot more ways to share. The other piece is we’re growing incredibly quickly. From a partnerships standpoint, our partners are really interested in investing in this space because one, they’re seeing growths in their accounts and two, they’re seeing a lot of organic reach because there’s so many people spending so much time on Instagram that are really interested in sports.

I don’t know if I want to pick on any platform in particular, but I will say yes, people do seem to be investing more and more time in the platform, especially recently. I think a lot of that is because A) there’s more ways to share and reach people in different ways, but also B) the ecosystem is growing stronger and stronger every day. If you think about it, I joined the platform two years ago and we had less than 500 million users. I think we were at 400 million users. You couldn’t share a video longer than 15 seconds on the platform. Stories didn’t exist. Live didn’t exist. We had a different UI and logo and that was just two years ago. If you think of where we are now with over 800 million people a month that come to the platform, 500 million a day that come to the platform, 200 million people that go to Explore, 300 million people a day that use Stories, we’ve just grown so much and we’ve become so much more robust of a platform while still having that simplicity that people love. If anything, that’s just a culmination of all this growth we’ve had in the past few years.

On his favorite Instagram follows right now in sports and why…

There’s a really great one. I loved this guy. I worked with him pretty closely back when I was on the sports community side. The account is @AZXD, which is super random but basically he’s a sports claymation guy. You should check out his account. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. He basically comments on sports moments that are happening, so he’s doing stuff on the NBA Playoffs right now using claymation. It’s just unbelievable. It’s hilariously done. Basically, what happens is he’ll wait for a moment to happen, like when the NBA Playoffs end tonight, he’ll basically work for eight hours straight to make a 15-second video of claymation and it’s unbelievable, so I love all the stuff he did. We partnered with him around the Olympics. I would just go check out his entire account. The videos are just amazing. It’s AZXD. I really like following @MarsReel and @Overtime lately. They’re these two really cool accounts that focus on high school sports, so they have videographers that go to all these major high school sports games, and they’re discovering this next wave of high school sports talent. Whether it was Bol Bol or Zion Williamson, they’re really finding these new up-and-coming talents and showing it in a fun unique way.

On his favorite book…

The Long Tail by Chris Anderson is one of my favorite of all time. It really makes you rethink assumptions, specifically for that example around business and Google built a market for themselves. If you take that logic into your everyday job, it’s just really fascinating thinking about where opportunities are that you aren’t thinking about. Hooked by Nir Eyal is a great book about how people develop products that are really, really sticky and how they get you hooked, hence the title. You can think about those same practices for social media strategy, for really anything, so it’s a really inspiring book.

On his favorite podcast…

I’m a big fan of Positive America. I’m a friend of the pod. Revisionist History with Malcolm Gladwell is coming back. They just had the teaser for season three. Again, I love that one because it makes you rethink assumptions, and I think that’s really, really important when you’re trying to build strategy. It’s really cool. He goes really deep on a subject that you had no idea existed in history before and look at how they viewed it previously and how he’s making you challenge those assumptions, which is a lot of fun. Former client, my boy Paul Rabil, has a great podcast, Suiting Up. One of the best out there.

On advice for students wanting to break into the sports industry…

One big thing is be as entrepreneurial as possible because even if you are given amazing opportunities while you are in school, what’s really important at the next stage of your career or building your career isn’t necessarily proof that you’ve done something before, but proof that you figured out how to overcome an obstacle and figure out a project. Really that’s what work is. You’re given a project. People are saying, ‘OK, here’s the obstacle we need to overcome. Go figure out how to do it’. If you have that skill, you’re going to be valuable no matter where you go.

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I didn’t really realize it at the time, but that’s what I was doing when I was in college. Whether it was building our first student newspaper online or figuring out how to stream our basketball and football games live so alumni could watch. At the time, I thought, ‘Oh, this is just a cool way for me to get more into media’, but what I realized after the fact was oh, this was me figuring out how to solve it, which is really what you do in your professional career.

Don’t underestimate opportunities you create for yourself. Those are incredibly value. Work hard. You’ll get lucky. Then with relationships, people ask, ‘How do you network? How do you keep up with your relationships?’ Honestly, I tell people to don’t overthink. Just be genuine. If you like people, people will like you and will stay closer to you. Have the mindset of give before you ask, and you’ll go far. 

If you can prove to someone that you are somebody who is going to work hard, that thinks intelligently about opportunities, even if that person can’t give you an opportunity, they’re going to know somebody else who will. A perfect example of that is I was working for Bloguin part-time for Ben Koo. It was a startup blog network. I think they were paying me $100 a month. I knew this was not my ultimate way into the sports industry, but I worked really, really hard because I knew it would help Ben out and Ben happened to know Jim DeLorenzo and referred me and that’s how I got the job. Always work hard and be genuine and give before you ask and good opportunities will find your way.

(@WillYoder on Instagram and Twitter).

About Mark J. Burns

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