Online marketers of all stripes could relate when Chris Hall of the U.S. Soccer Federation quoted basketball great John Wooden at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas: “Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.”

The Federation is ramping up their online game in anticipation of the June 11 start of the 2010 World Cup, the most widely viewed sporting event in the world. Tuesday’s SXSW Interactive session World Cup 2010: Engaging U.S. Soccer Fans Online laid out its numerous branding and execution challenges:

  1. The U.S. Soccer Federation has no broadcast rights to the World Cup. The World Cup 2010 brand, all game footage and multimedia belong to FIFA.
  2. Soccer as a spectator sport is barely on the U.S. sports radar. There’s an ardent underground community of fans, but the sport is just beginning to gain a foothold in this country’s sports consciousness.
  3. American soccer fans’ allegiance is largely local, yet the U.S. Soccer Federation has no local presence.
  4. Many soccer fans in the U.S. are in the Hispanic community. Marketing to a bilingual fan base adds layers of complexity.
  5. Organizationally, the U.S. Soccer Federation is still in the process of shifting from a command-and-control culture to a culture of empowering nonstaff to have brand control.
  6. The danger zones for social media tend to be politics, religion and sports.
  7. The organization expects they will have uninterrupted wireless access in South Africa. But it can’t bank on it.

To rise to these significant challenges, the digital team at the U.S. Soccer Federation has:

  • Done its homework. As the joke goes, English football fans are likelier to change their spouse than change their team allegiance. So the U.S. Soccer Federation talked with European football club peers to tap into their online strategy: Treat supporters as part of the family, give them what they want and keep them engaged.
  • Decluttered its Web site. So far, the team’s Web work has focused on making ussoccer.com easy to find (via search engine optimization) and engaging in a way that drives passion, providing unique, behind-the-scenes perspectives, player interviews, off-the field footage that captures the excitement of the sport and videos of what the team is doing to prepare, travel to and experience the competition in South Africa. The team has also unified the site’s look and feel. Previously, the blog wasn’t connected to or telling the story of the U.S. Soccer Federation brand, so it was recently moved over from Blogspot to give a sense of brand consistency. According to Hall, the Federation considers the site a work in progress, not a one-time redesign.
  • Activated brand evangelists. They’ve made it easy for fans to embed U.S. Soccer Federation video onto their blogs, sites and social networks. To enhance this sharing experience, ooyala.com has implemented an anchor-tag system which enables users to point directly to specific moments in the video that are relevant to them.
  • Created foundations for real-world community. Pluck Media, recently acquired by Demand Media, has assisted with the Federation’s social-media strategy and elevated the level of user-generated content via blog and forum commenting. The Federation has also implemented a bar program that allows local bars to self-identify as places where the games are screened so local fans can watch matches together. Since bars are not always appropriate venues, the organization is also exploring other ways to bring families of fans together offline, such as house parties and community screenings. This kind of grass-roots organizing will be a focus of the Federation’s strategy moving forward.
  • Closely monitored what fans are saying and where users are embedding their videos.

The room was packed during the panel, replete with soccer fans and geeks who devoured the presentation but were not quite satisfied with the pace of the U.S. Soccer Federation’s progress. In the Q-and-A that followed, audience members said they want more passion in the coverage, more power for the fans to contribute to the site, better mobile accessibility and more sophisticated geo-based services such as Gowalla and Foursquare. They also homed in on how behind-the-curve the Federation is on Spanish-language adoption. The reasonable but unsatisfying answer — that Hispanic audiences are an important of the equation long term, but short term, they’re a small portion of their traffic — did not seem to satisfy.

Still, the changes are a step in the right direction and can serve as guideposts for the rest of us who are reinventing and fine-tuning our own online strategies.

Image credit, JM-Design, via Shutterstock

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