Social Media: Why Engagement is Key.

This past weekend MIT held the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and a topic I noticed from some of the twitter posts was the emphasis on engagement over followers and assumed popularity.

We have talked about the issues with certain pages that have tens of millions of followers, but lots of those followers are fake or bots, and their engagement with those followers is very low.  So why are followers deemed so important and why is engagement less so? Is there a mix that needs to be present for both follower count and engagement numbers?

Businessinsider wrote an article on this a while ago in regards to social media and sports media companies. The article focuses on SportsCenter and how it is lagging behind heavily in social media engagement, and thus losing precious market share which it once controlled. In generally, a large portion of the population is now looking to social media for its news and updates, and not waiting to find out about it on TV. This creates an importance for social media engagement to reach a large sector of followers and audience. This graph shows the difference between the social engagements of 3 major sports media companies.

sports social engagement v3

As the graph shows, ESPN is lagging HEAVILY behind Bleacher Report and Barstool in views and fan interaction across major social media platforms. So if ESPN, while having huge deals with all of the major sports leagues and having a huge platform with almost half a billion visits to its site every month, but viewers look at only a few pages per visit, compared to some other sites that have a dozen, and they don’t drive a lot of traffic from their social media platforms.

Screen Shot 2018-02-28 at 12.11.54 AM.png traffic overview from

ESPN is a great example to use because regardless of their social media engagement and follower engagement in general, they are still a very large company.  What will be interesting to look at is how this will effect their volume of younger fans. Across all media, not just sports, people have turned to social for most of their content and news and while they are successful now, is ESPN missing out on a large opportunity and losing marketshare by not engaging enough?

Another thing that needs to be addressed is the idea of fake followers. The NYT wrote a detailed article about a month ago detailing the “black market” for social media followers. While some individuals boast to having hundreds of thousands or millions of followers, quiet a few have purchased “followers,” which are really bots that artificial boost up numbers and engagement for people’s accounts. So lets say a company has 10 million followers, but only 1 million of them are actually engaging with the company regularly and genuinely, then does it really matter what their follower count is? The actually profit that could be earned and exposure gained through this account is no longer accurately depicted through simply the follower account. This is a big problem specifically with models and influencers on social media platforms. As an admittedly not amazing example, Kim Kardashian West has about as many fake followers as she does real followers on twitter. While Kim still has a huge influence on her market, other smaller influencers that are still building up their brands could be less influential if their deemed influence isn’t accurate. It’s also not even simply about fake followers but also unengaged followers in general. While the followers may not be fake per say, if they don’t regularly use social media or care about the content that an account produces, then they aren’t actively engaging in the content, and thus not as important as a simple number.

This information is particularly important for advertisers and sponsors. While follower count is a necessary indicator of relevance and can give a general idea of how many people know/care about a company, if the majority of the followers are fake, or they aren’t truly engaged in the content/media that a company is producing, then the relationship between media company and advertiser isn’t going to be as profitable as it could be. Companies that have less followers but much higher fan engagement levels based on impressions, bounce back, and duration on the site, can create a more desirable relationship than those with a lot of followers but very little follower engagement.

Follower and fan engagement has become a huge focus for media companies and I’ll be exploring this idea further in another blog post focused on Barstool Sports, its integrated content, and its rise as a media company. They are a company that has excelled with monetizing on fan engagement and commitment, and while controversial, show the benefits of having a dedicated fan base online.


  1. nescrivag · ·

    I totally agree with you. Nowadays it is so easy to just ‘buy’ followers so it looks like people are liked by a lot of users and therefore have power on social media platforms. The number of followers doesn’t accurately depict how much fans care about the content posted by this person. I think it is interesting that ESPN has such a low engagement because it is very known all over the world. I have never heard about Barstool Sports or the Bleacher report, but maybe because they are smaller that ESPN they have a bigger engagement, since only true sports know of these social media websites ?

  2. tuckercharette · ·

    Grace I really liked this article. I hadn’t really considered sports social media as such a powerhouse in the industry and that ESPN lagged behind because I mostly consume sports purely through watching them on TV. However, I do have Bleacher Report installed on my phone in case I do want to check recent news more frequently than I hear about it through other people. As infrequently as I use it, I would just go to Bleacher Report because it’s the most widely adopted app. I feel like a lot of the time I would consider ESPN to be king when it came to sports because it’s a major broadcasting company but I didn’t think that if more brands move to an online subscriber base similar to ESPN Red Zone, then ESPN could be in major danger if the “news” aspect of sports is extinguished through online consumption through politically correct (Bleacher Report) or non-PC sports news networks (Barstool). People like to engage with sports entertainment outside of games, but frankly I grew up with ESPN running in the background at my house so it’s hard to imagine a world without it.

  3. Keenan Neff · ·

    I agree with your point about ESPN. When I was in middle school I used to wake up every morning before school and watch SportsCenter because it had the rundown of all the sporting events that happened the previous night. I used to be obsessed with it. Now however, whenever I want to find the scores of a game or news about a team I rarely use ESPN. They really do not to a good job on social media when it comes to news. It seems as if Bleacher Report always is constantly making posts and breaking news before them. What is interesting is how Bleacher Report and Barstool have used online-user engagement to build their brand. They are constantly tweeting and engaging with followers, which makes the followers feel more valuable. The fact that these big reporters are responding to a tweet you mentioned them in or favoriting a tweet will generally result in that user to revisit their page. ESPN rarely engages with their followers, largely because it is such a huge organization with millions of followers, but I believe that nowadays people want to have interactions with the people who are breaking the news. This is why Barstool and Bleacher Report are trending upward. ESPN has not adapted to the changing culture, and it is pretty known. For example, If you follow all companies sites on twitter, Bleacher Report and Barstool Sports are very good at creating relevant GIFs that relate to news in sports. They have been doing this for some time now and it really allows the followers to engage with them. ESPN just started recently incorporating GIFs into their tweets, but most of the time the GIFs feel forced and out of place. It will be interesting to see in a few years what the sports news market will look like.l

  4. tylercook95 · ·

    Great Post! This made me think about social influencers and how companies have begun to target social influencers with smaller fan bases because they know those influencers have stronger connections with their audiences. The bigger a company or a social influencer gets the harder it is to have a personal connection and interaction with everyone that approaches the site. Keeping fans engaged is already hard with the wide array of information thrown at them, and if you aren’t able to comment back to posts and questions it makes you seem uninterested in their ideas and questions. I think this can become really hard as influencers and companies reach a cusp of being a big influencer and a smaller one. Learning how to keep things personal with the consumers is very difficult and it is hard to keep people engaged when they have the attention span of a goldfish. I would be interested to see if ESPN can bring back a community feel within their fan base even as such a large company. They could make some changes to up their engagement by looking at smaller news agencies.

  5. phanauer1 · ·

    Great post! I think the sports example is really interesting and relevant. I’m surprised that ESPN doesn’t make more of an effort on some of these platforms, especially Twitter, given that a lot of people use that for a quick news source. I know that many people have the ESPN app which has many of the same functions, but by utilizing Twitter, they would be able to more directly steal attention from competitors. I’m really glad you brought it all back around to Insta-celebrities and influencers because that’s what I was thinking of throughout reading. Kim Kardashian aside, I think that the ability to buy followers is especially important for the smaller influencers. Kim will have a ton of followers regardless, but for smaller people, buying followers gives them the ability to be more discoverable and to attract sponsors in a new and meaningful way where they can probably make a significant profit.

  6. While having “fake followers” seems empty and dishonest, does having a large following increase real followers and therefore engagement?

  7. JohnWalshFilms · ·

    As mentioned above, I’d be interested to see how the ESPN App factors into their overall engagement, or lack of engagement, on social channels. I subscribe to notifications about my favorite teams on the ESPN app and therefore get nearly all of my news from ESPN (which I realize might be the minority), but I’d be interested to see if ESPN’s lack of Twitter following is mitigated by the app and their constant notifications.

    Great post, really interesting to clarify followers and engagement in marketing.

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