It is what it is: Social Media and the rise of the UFC

“There’s no greater marketing tool in the world than social media” – Dana White

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Few weeks back I made a post/rant about spotting the truth from a lie, based on a TED talk from Pamela Meyer. I kinda touched on the unshielded, transparent world that social media technology helps to create.

Much of what I wrote was from a defensive standpoint, about how to best protect and operate in an environment full of manic tweeting and social media clutter. Now I’m going to tell you about another side of the die, of the unbridled success that can be achieved by flexing your social media muscles correctly. And frankly, I’ve been trying to figure a way to wrangle the UFC into one of my blog posts and I’ve finally found a way…

If you consider the fact that there’s over 1 billion active users on Facebook now and over half a billion twitter users then I shouldn’t have to delve into the prospective market possibilities. If you know how to do social there’s gold at the end of the rainbow.

But how do you do social? Can you use Twitter, Facebook etc to grow a whole business? We humans take in information best when it’s in story form so I’m going to stick with the tried and tested method…

The rise and rise of the UFC

So, how many people have I lost after they read the above line?

Before you open a new tab on your browser bear this in mind, social transcends industry so what’s true here is applicable elsewhere. Besides this is the story of how $2 million turned into $1 billion in little over 10 years. How a once frowned upon sport and discipline is now ranked the number 4 sports brand in the world, in 1 billion households in 148 countries. The President of the UFC Dana White (@danawhite) has said himself the UFC would not be where it is now if it were not for social media. They are now recognized as the foremost users of social media technology in sports today. So how did social media help the cause?

If you’re still at a loss the UFC stands for ‘Ultimate Fighting Championship’ the elite competition for Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) in the world.

In 2001, Dana White and his Las Vegas casino owning friends the Fertitta brothers bought what was then a failing, unstructured UFC for $2 million. Effectively the $2 million acquired them nothing more than the coveted UFC logo and the rights to the Octagon – the octagon shaped ‘ring’ that fights take place in. From here the building began.

Circumventing the Media

One of the greatest challenges for the new owners has been to educate people about what the UFC is. But how can you do this when the media only wish to flog you in public and senators want you off the air? (as was the case back in 2001 -Senator John McCain was behind a campaign to oppose the UFC)

Where often a media source would deliberately misquote White so as to shape a news story against him or the UFC, White got adaptive, using twitter to circumnavigate the media and talk direct to fans. Now he had a channel to side step misquote issues. More over it has given White a pedestal to call out rouge journalists and media outlets, infront of his 2.5 million twitter followers. Even more entertaining for the fans he is known to call out fighters through twitter when they step out of line. Transparency.

But social media has been more than a communication tool.

White more often than not will use twitter to break news, new fights, new venues, new signings etc but social media is a two way channel and the UFC have used this to run a business.

During live events, be it on FOX sports or Pay Per View, White now constructs what has become known as ‘The Lab’. A room where he and his digital marketing team observe the night’s proceedings on one screen while the constant flow of interaction through social media sites comes through on a 2nd screen. If they see fans tweeting about broadcast issues for example they can then tweet them direct, live and help them or advise of other broadcast providers. On other occasions viewers have tweeted a camera to be obstructing views – it gets moved. Another time a fan tweeted White about a whole row of spectators that had an obstructed view – new seating was arranged. These fixes happen live, not after a review days later. While this is all happening White has 2 people taking live photos for Facebook, twitter and instagram.

“It doesn’t cost you anything. The only thing you’re limited by is your imagination and how fun you want to make it and what you want to do.” – Dana White

Imagination being the operative word above the UFC have been very active in instigating fun interaction with their fans. Each week before a fight is scheduled Dana posts a vlog (video blog) to youtube where he intros the weeks coming fights with the rest of the footage usually being of the preceding fight nights backstage goings on. If you watch these you will see just how much White and the UFC believe in a transparent business operation made possible by the transparency social media allows. And this works.

How well does the fun stuff work? Before every fight night White will assign a UFC fighter or staff member the role of appearing randomly in public with a few hundred free tickets then White will randomly tweet live where the person with the free tickets is. Cue a stampede of fans and perfectly executed guerrilla marketing. A few weeks ago in a similar scenario the UFC had just produced limited edition cans of Edge shaving foam with fighter images on the can. All tickets for the night in question’s fights were sold out but White had 200 tickets in his hand. After putting out a tweet to bring a can of UFC branded Edge shaving foam to a specific location in the town to be in with a chance of a free ticket, it wasn’t long before every store in the town was sold out of Edge shaving foam and a black market of $65 per can had opened on the side streets. There had been 6 million of these exclusive cans made. There’s none left now.

There are numerous accounts of UFC engaging online with celebrities. Often Dana will tweet live beside the octagon during a fight while Mickey Rourke or Mike Tyson sits with him. There’s many anecdotal stories that the UFC can pull on to show how socially active they are and one thing they never do is try be what they aren’t. White will always communicate in what might be best described as a colloquial tongue. If fights don’t don’t impress him he’ll let you know. He’s a fight fan first and foremost, using social media to show this. It is what it is.

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And what it is works. If it’s figures you need, 80 million people tuned in to watch Anderson Silva fight Yushin Okami in Rio de Janeiro in 2011. Only a few weeks ago 65 million people tuned in for a none title fight in Brazil. Earlier this month White turned up to Trinity college, Dublin, to receive an award where he was met with a rock star reception of people trying to get a glimpse. They are on the way back to Europe in a big way pending big money TV deals, with a European HQ now in London and plans for Ireland next year. They only recently signed Conor McGregor, an Irish fighter who promises to drag the UFC back to Dublin, title in hand I suspect. Cathal Pendred, team mate of McGregor is another to watch.

Dana White and the UFC have used social media to show people who they are and what they can do. They’ve been a breath of fresh, honest air in a media bubble full of twisters and spinsters. In doing so they’ve reached millions and made billions. They would not be the biggest global rival to football without it, with operations in America, Brazil, Europe, Asia, Australia and even have India in their sights. So if you’re running a business can you become the biggest without being social?

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