John Cena may be the face of the WWE, but outside of the ring, he’s more comfortable limiting his appearances to signing autographs for fans, visiting the troops or supporting the Make-A-Wish Foundation as its most popular wish-fulfiller.
(From the pages of the April 9 issue of Variety.)
That’s why it was surprising when Cena showed up at last month’s SXSW Film Festival, in Austin. But his mission, to hype WWE’s runaway success on social media, shows how eager World Wrestling Entertainment is to connect with a following that has grown from 92.3 million to 145 million across 10 networks in just one year. And WWE couldn’t have turned to a better spokesperson: Cena has more Facebook followers than any athlete in the NFL, NHL or NASCAR.
While WWE has amassed a large and vocal fanbase eager to promote its roster of wrestlers and their soap-operalike antics in the ring, the company has a bigger mission: to grow beyond its hardcore fans to include family-friendly auds as it looks to boost its various businesses, which include a yearround schedule of live events, pay-per-views, four weekly TV shows, a film division, YouTube channel, magazines, websites, videogames, toys and other consumer products.
Overall, the company generated $484 million last year, flat with 2011, while profits were up 27% to $31.4 million. In 2012, 25% of WWE’s revenue came from outside the U.S.
The WWE’s numbers are strong for the wrestling circuit, which was seen as being too edgy for family audiences in the middle of the past decade, when its popularity was abating. It’s a rep the biz has been striving to overcome in recent years, by going more after families, expanding the availability of its programming and turning to its so-called “WWE Universe” to promote the brand.
“John Cena or the Big Show could walk down the aisle and shake your hand,” said WWE chairman Vince McMahon in describing the importance of the personal connection between WWE stars and fans. “It’s a little difficult for Spider-Man to do that.”
WWE just wrapped its biggest annual PPV event, “WrestleMania 29,” with more than 80,000 fi lling New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium on April 7.
“It’s a non-traditional world now,” said Michelle Wilson, WWE’s chief marketing officer. “Vince and I have been around the block. The ‘Aha!’ moment was when we realized we have to think (about our business) as being a 24-7 virtual network. We’re not just programming for USA Network on Monday night, we’re programming for our fans across all platforms. That changes the way you think about what you’re doing.”
WWE’s success, and the innovative way in which it has embraced new media for PR and digital distribution of its entertainment — especially over the past year — a ords Hollywood a few lessons in how to better exploit its own offerings.
Leverage Every Platform
While some companies have brokered exclusive deals with a pay-cabler or streaming service, WWE has shows on multiple networks — NBC, USA, Syfy, Ion, the CW — and offers up programming to YouTube, Hulu Plus and Netflix.
After seeing how some companies are selling more pay-per-views through apps, WWE recently launched its own on Microsoft’s Xbox Live and Samsung Smart TVs to boost sales.
“If that’s (the way fans are buying), we’re going to be there,” Wilson said. “It’s a fine line where your content should and shouldn’t go, but we’ve said we have to understand where our fans are consuming video content, and we need to be there. Some might say you’re oversaturating the market, but we’re saying a rising tide lifts all boats.”
More recently, WWE’s upped its presence through the second screen, offering up interactive content through a free app that counts 4.7 million downloads.
Get Creative With Social Media
With a vocal fanbase, WWE reaches more than 144 million people across 10 social media networks, including shortform video service Tout, which WWE invested in last year. Tout allows users to post their own six-second vids.
“We’ve been very strategic in how we leverage social media,” Wilson said.
That’s especially true overseas, where WWE found that 80% of homes in Mexico have at least one WWE fan, and they are heavy users of social media.
“You can’t just do English-language communication on social media,” Wilson said. “And don’t assume what works in the U.S. works in other markets.”
Even Stateside, WWE has been able to create local hashtags for cities to create customized content for fans.
“We visit hundreds of markets in the U.S., so when Peoria College goes to March Madness, John Cena tweets to those fans,” Wilson said.
WWE has added 40 staffers to its digital media team over the past year, growing it to more than 110. At “WrestleMania 29,” they worked out of a command center inside MetLife Stadium.
Change Up Your Content
The “Attitude Era” may have launched the careers of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson during the 1990s, but WWE’s programming was considered too edgy for advertisers. Five years ago, the wrestling conglom embraced a PG rating, and since then it’s helped attract family-conscious advertisers like General Motors, Ford Motor Co., Disney, DreamWorks, Paramount, Kmart, Subway, Taco Bell, Colgate, Frito-Lay, Schick and Mattel. WWE nabbed $160 million through its toy licensing pact with Mattel last year, up from $110 million in 2010.
Post Cereals recently put Cena on its box of Fruity Pebbles after the brand received regular shoutouts on WWE’s shows. The Susan G. Komen for the Cure org paired up with Cena to raise awareness for breast cancer.
The PG push has also opened the door to more kids programming, including “Saturday Morning Slam,” a co-production with Saban for the CW, and an animated Scooby-Doo movie set at WrestleMania.
“We’ve had a tall task bringing corporate America back into the fold,” Wilson said. The PG push “has given companies permission to talk to us again,” she said.
Once they do, marketers have sparked to WWE’s year-round TV programming and events schedule, its use of social media, its websites and magazines to promote partners.
A week before “WrestleMania 29,” Cena was on the cover of Men’s Fitness, while Brock Lesnar was featured on Muscle & Fitness. Elsewhere, Chris Jericho was hosting Syfy’s Robot Combat League, while David Otunga was playing opposite Halle Berry in “The Call.” On press tour and the talkshow circuit for “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” which opened big at the box office, Johnson talked up his role as WWE’s reigning champion, as well as “WrestleMania 29.”
With its social media presence, WWE alone is able to reach more than 44 million followers on 122 Twitter accounts, and 97 million on 121 Facebook pages — a massive number of volunteer promoters to hype PPVs. But WWE’s also turned to its celebrity fanbase like Sean “Diddy” Combs, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Charlie Sheen, Jimmy Fallon, Larry King, Seth Green, Perez Hilton, Piers Morgan, Mike Tyson, Snooki, Lil Wayne and Jenny McCarthy to reach its followers.
Shifting Business Model
With all its new initiatives, the WWE is mindful that its bread-and-butter is TV, and anything that cannibalizes that audience is counterproductive.
“Ultimately, you still need to make money,” Wilson said. “If you’re moving people from television, where we get a licensing fee, and trading down to a model where you get nickled and dimed, how do you build a significant business off of that? You don’t want to take people off of TV and put them on platforms where we make no money.”
So far, WWE collects a licensing fee and percentage of the ad sales for its content on YouTube and Hulu Plus. But to take further advantage of digital platforms, WWE is considering elements of gamifi cation, where fans can purchase virtual goods or be rewarded with accumulating “WWE Cash” for activity via apps or on Facebook and Twitter.
The company’s core business is still its live events, especially WrestleMania, which generated $67 million in ticket sales and 1.3 million PPV buys worldwide when it was held in Miami last year.
“At the end of the day,” Wilson said, “you have to have great content and go where your consumers are going and (ask) how you make money doing it.”