AUGMENTED REALITY

Augmented Reality was a burgeoning field in the social media and content space as my tenure at Bleacher Report began and I was able to delve deeper into this domain with a number of experiments around various deeply engaged customer segments in our audience. Specifically with an award winning mobile app and pipeline of social first consumers, AR and VR were exactly the type of sticky experiences that gave our users something unique that they could get no where else. These experiments were the first of their kind in the sports media space and allowed for some rather interesting reactions from our audience while amplifying marketing around some of our biggest initiatives around products like Game of Zones or the NBA Playoffs.

NUMBERS
3.85+ Million Average Impressions Per Filter
DATE
1.9.21
COMPANY
Bleacher Report
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Over 50+ Million Augmented Lens Interactions

CHALLENGE

The biggest challenges in a field like augmented reality and working at a sports media company was getting early buy in and investment to conduct initial experiments that would prove the viability of the technology as a monetizable platform or vehicle for content. Showing that we could tell a story through augmented reality and then build user engagement around it while building brand affinity and picking up media coverage was the key goal of these initial experiments, and once this was shown we were able to expand our ideas and tackle them in new ways while collaborating with a ton of creatives in the 3D design space to help bring our actual models to the next level. Launching multiple filters both as stand alone creations and on various platforms such as Spark AR and Lens Studio while jumping through the hoops of learning a new software was a challenge but a welcome one.

Bringing Social Content to a New Dimension.

A major goal for BR as we looked to building experimental content during the later years of my time at the company was to focus on innovating in the realm of XR content for both virtual and augmented reality. As a part of both our app engineering teams and our social teams we were looking to find solutions for virtual and augmented reality content experiences that we could leverage to drive audience to our app or to give our existing social audience a brand new experience. This led to a number of experiments in this arena that allowed us to test different ways to give our audience interactive experiences in the XR world that amplified existing moments on our sports social calendar. These experiences would provide a deeper level of engagement with our fans.

As can be seen in the video above, I had a chance to try out quite a few different Augmented Reality Filters around different moments that allowed us to begin to test the limits of this new realm of content. Being such a new and still relatively unstable technology, there was a steep but quick learning curve but I was able to help Bleacher Report execute against a bunch of different filters on a number of platforms that did a decent amount of engagement for us, gave us new was to activate in person at events, and then allowed us to drive new monetization opportunities on the app and with our webgl platform. These things led Augmented Reality to becoming a central part of the future of the company and something that I think will continue to drive a number of yearly engagement and monetization goals.

From its use as the first down marker in the NFL, the technology around Augmented Reality has been developed for quite some time, but the accessibility to the consumer is a paradigm which was shifting and shrinking relatively quickly. Eyeing this as an opportunity for innovation I took the initiative to develop Augmented Reality projects and concepts, working closely with various parts of our content publishing org to find various touchpoints where we could explore avenues for XR content. The idea would be to really take the storytelling our social content has and merge it with innovative and engaging augmented reality experiences. One instance being a tactical project I helped provide art direction for in collaboration with Mikey Navarro and JVarta Design was a Virtual Reality experience for the launch of the College Football Season.

One of the initial avenues for experimentation was a growth out of our popular "easter egg" style illustrations we would produce for major sports events such as the Super Bowl or NBA finals that would be packed with little references to drama or inside jokes about specific superstar players, coaches, or teams. Working with artists like John Keebs Lee and our social producer Mikey Navarro I helped build out a microsite and injected 360 capable code into the illustration for posting on facebook and youtube. The idea was to take the biggest NBA Free Agency moment in years with LeBron opting out of his contract with the Cavs and the attention that the news would draw as a chance to give users a playful toy to mess around with as they wait. The project saw a huge amount of metrics that pointed us in the right direction as we saw our users not only getting lost and spending a huge chunk of time in the experience, but also actively asking for more content like it.

One of my big beliefs as a content creator is to always work towards having an infinite learner mindset, in that my work as a designer and creative director was to be constantly open to disruption and capable of having a very short learning curve with a steep rise in competency for emerging technologies. When you are at the edge of innovation you oftentimes don't have experts to turn to and you have to learn by doing, and this was the exact spirit with which we embarked doing AR experiments. The idea was to move quickly and break things as we tried out new types of content on various platforms. Following the law of diffusion of innovation I would always strive to be the early adopters of a technology so that the understanding of the platform by the time others caught up would be far deeper than anyone else and give us that first movers advantage.

Harkening back to the days of the NIke Kobe and LeBron puppet commercials during the 2009 NBA season, one of the first experiment that I spearheaded in the AR realm for Bleacher Report was a celebration for LeBron hitting 33,000 career points. The milestone, and the release of his new Lebron Watch sneaker series provided a great backdrop to create a fun experimental piece of content. I helped create an AR Puppet version of LeBron that would give our fans nostalgia about this classic campaign and would be a fun way to activate around a tentpole moment for our social team. Working with our app and social teams I was able to devise a solution whereby we would publish a video of the AR filter to our social platforms, and then direct them through IG stories swipe up or from within our Team Stream app to experience the full immersive AR filter. An example of that can be found in the video below: 

Knowing that the NBA is a personality driven league, the idea to go with Lebron as one of the first augmented reality experiments leaned into the cult of personality around his fandom as something that we could leverage as a way to get good data to build out our Augmented reality experiments and infrastructure out of. Working closely with our app and development teams, we wanted to ensure a robust pipeline to funnel users to these interactive experiences within the app. This meant working to make sure the experience could smoothly be integrated into the user experience of the app while making the overall filter less memory intensive and a smooth encounter.

As a creative, I am big on finding white space and filling that from an experimentation perspective so that you can be an early mover in the space and have time to develop processes that can functionally allow for fast growth and scaling. Emerging platforms like instagram's Spark AR or Snapchat's Lens Studio allowed for quick iteration and an exciting product that could transform our ability to interact with our audience, and after those initial LeBron experiments which showed success both on traditional social platforms, within our app, and on native augmented reality social apps as well we felt more comfortable experimenting on more location based triggers for augmented executions as a part of our BR Kicks team and the All Star Break.

The LeBron James puppet filter was more social focused and something that we wanted to release large scale across our entire social audience and be something that a wide array of our users could interact with, however as we looked to make more intimate eventscapes as our marketing team built out our experiential arm, augmented reality became a way to differentiate our on the ground experiences just as much as our digital ones. I helped spearhead this initiative as our leadership began to see more value in location activated augmented reality as an incentive to get people to interact with content on the ground in a meaningful way.

Working cross departmentally with our marketing team, we launched a one of it's kind sneaker based Augmented Reality filter for our "Drop Up" event which was an annual festival of sneaker culture for athletes, musicians, influencers and fans to come together to see how the stadium tunnel is becoming the new men’s runway. The event sat at the intersection of culture and style with sports being the connective tissue for all and allowed our social fans to come to a physical location at a Chelsea Gallery in New York City to experience our brand first hand. Featuring an art gallery and many interactive exhibits, there were multiple opportunities to activate around it in a meaningful way. The BR Kicks All-Star iconic sneakers filter saw over 500,000 use cases and was a successful AR experiment I helped lead the charge on as we helped build out what XR executions would look like at Bleacher Report.

The idea was to create QR code activated posters that would be placed in the event space as a call to action for users who were interacting with the brand or social media in an innovative way. Collaborating with 3D designer Tak Wong, I helped model and creative direct the experience as I brought it into Spark AR and Lens Studio to launch cross platform as a way to enhance our user base. In person at the event on launch day we saw users flocking to the digitally activated posters as they became a focal point of the space. People would see folks with their phones out in the corner with the posters and come check out curiously to see what was going on, and what was quite interesting is that the shares and interactions on the filter continue to go up after the event, indicating organic growth simply from word of mouth as we didn't promote these filters anywhere else.

Continuing the legacy of these early AR experiments, I would get another opportunity to launch a filter as the NFL season swung around and superstar wide receiver Odell Beckham was traded to the Cleveland Browns. After the trade, Odell took to social media to post his brand new customized Bentley which featured a hood ornament that commemorated his iconic one handed catch that propelled him to the heights of superstardom. As a way to excite our fans around his new team, I collaborated with Ryan Hurst, Kasper Nyman and Brian Konnick as we launched a social video execution to welcome OBJ to Cleveland as seen below: 

Along with the video execution however, I also pushed forward to create an augmented reality filter that fans could use to interact with this content in a deeper way. Using the hood ornament for inspiration, we created a 3D model of Odell making the catch that could be used on social on top of any field as a way for Browns fans to showcase their excitement at the new signing. Furthering our ability to target specific groups of fans, we launched the filter in our Browns and OBJ player specific feeds and saw the highest user interaction level in those sub sections of our app for any calendar month in the history of those sub groups. Augmented reality really became a pot at the end of the rainbow for our users, as they saw it almost as a reward for being such die hard fans, sharing the execution on social like it was a unique digital signifier of their fandom.

This idea of augmented reality as a digital signifier for fans and as a marker of a new age form of digital fandom was something that was extremely interesting to me, in that it signalled that similar to buying a jersey of a team they support, an augmented reality filter could help signify just how invested a person was in their squad's success. As such, the next stage of executions I helped creative direct, build out, and launch were centered around some of the deepest fan emotions and were something that helped bring this concept of AR as a digital badge of fandom to the forefront of our experimentation.

For the next iteration of augmented reality executions, me and our tactical innovation producer Mikey Navarro collaborated with agency Project XIV to develop and launch multiple fan centric augmented reality filters for the stretch run of the biggest NBA teams going into the 2020 playoffs. Being in a unique situation in the bubble amidst the pandemic, this became a way to get closer to and interact with our fans on a deeper level. Each execution was deeply team centric, featuring a terminator inspired look for Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers, an actual digital dinosaur for the Raptors with built in sound effects, a Greek God inspired look for the Bucks and the Greek Freak, and finally a royal LeBron inspired LA filter with a crown and gold chain.

The idea that augmented reality could enhance the fan experience was central to the launch of these filters and to the engagement that they resulted in. The fact that mere word of mouth could spread the filters prior to us even promoting the use of them with a post or instagram story on our main page is a testament to the strength of interaction that is built into them. These were meant to amplify fan emotion and we saw a great deal of user adoption and immediate usage as soon as we launched, prior to even promoting the filters we saw organic use and engagement bloom as the filters spread across our user base. Another interesting aspect of these filters is that despite being released as playoff centered executions, they essentially became an evergreen piece of content that anyone could use even after that time period. We still see interactions roll in, which indicates fans are continuing to use the filters even after the promotional period, which is a great way to identify the content that really stuck with them.

Along with these face centric fan executions, I also had a desire to examine the intersection of these two worlds with something that would deeply touch on a fan storyline or emotion like our playoff team centric filters while also leveraging the location specific strengths of something like our BR Kicks sneaker execution. One concept that I had been dying to try was that of the virtual statue, which was inspired by the iconic Michael Jordan statue featured outside of Chicago's United Center arena. Legendary players get statues in front of their home arenas as a way to mark their legacy and territory, and knowing that this is something deeply debated and meaningful to local fans, I wanted to tap into this emotion while doing an augmented reality execution as well.

I ended up working with one of our longtime collaborators, sculptor Carlos Dattoli to launch 3D bronze statues of both Carmelo Anthony and Kobe and Gigi Bryant for both Knicks and Lakers fans to experience in front of their home arenas. The first one to launch was Carmelo, which was a fun and slightly cheeky execution to encourage debate amongst Knicks fans. We launched the filter in our Knicks streams while also putting together a street team to launch the filter by handing out QR code activated postcards and posters in front of Madison Square garden the night of Carmelo Anthony's return to the Garden with the Blazers. We saw over 100,000 activations in just 24 hours before launching to a larger digital audience, but this experiment proved successful as we saw both local usage at the game, and widespread usage once we launched to our wider audience.

Similarly, another thing that we wanted to explore was this idea of individual basketball players as augmented reality filters that came to fruition in our Everyday Ballers series. This allowed us to take a model of Kevin Durant, who famously signed with the Nets after tearing his Achilles in the 2019 NBA Finals against the Raptors and was injured in the ensuing season, to become an augmented reality filter that we would update weekly with new "side hustles" he could do while he was off the court. This meant users could check in with the filter on a regular basis as we updated the storytelling regularly. One week he would be practicing a dribble move, the next pretending to do a WWE wrestling move. We ended up doing these executions with Dwyane Wade and Giannis as well and found it to be one of our most engaged with augmented reality executions.


Something unique that I was able to help bring to market with my research in the Augmented reality sector was working with our Ad ops team to develop an interactive sponsored AR experience that we could built into ad units within the app and on the website. This type of in depth integration would allow users to spend time "Playing with the AR" as they spent time with our brand partner. Monetization is always a key aspect of the growth of any platform, and being able to integrate in an augmented reality based ad experience into our website and app was something that helped take both the investment and belief in this technology to the next level.

The opportunity to work on these various augmented reality executions is something that I truly enjoyed being a central part of and I hope to continue to explore this realm for more possibilities as I see it as a great and very powerful tool for connecting with users on various platforms and getting deeper engagement. Whether it was our early experiments or the more complex storytelling driven executions later on, each one solidified AR as an avenue to truly inspire creativity and build unique connections with people. This is at the heart of all the content I create and something that is a common thread for any digital execution but goes to show both the power and potential of this technology as we move into an ever connected world.