As marketing transitions to a focus on customer engagement, content marketing has emerged as one of the most valuable ways for brands to deepen relationships with customers, and indirectly market or sell products. By creating entertaining content and distributing it widely across social and traditional channels, the UFC has been able to attract more people to the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) and convert potential viewers into paying customers.
The UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) is the largest promoter of MMA fights, with around 40 events each year, 500 fighters under contract and a growing international fan base. The first UFC event was held in 1993, as a competition to determine what was the most effective martial art. In the years following, fighters began to learn and incorporate multiple martial arts styles, developing the sport now known as MMA.
To move fans through the sales funnel from awareness of MMA to purchasing fights on pay-per-view TV ($50–60 per fight), the UFC creates compelling content to engage and build emotional connections between fans and fighters — and it’s been a winning strategy. Recently, the rematch of Nate Diaz vs Conor McGregor, broke the PPV record with 1.65 million pay-per-view buys, and 5 million Google searches for ‘UFC 202’ during the week of the fight.
By telling stories, the UFC does an excellent job at putting the audience in the fighter’s shoes. What does it feel like to enter the ring? What goes through their mind before a fight?
The Ultimate Fighter
To gain mainstream exposure for MMA and their brand, the UFC created The Ultimate Fighter. In this reality TV show, 16 fighters live in the same house, train together, and compete for the grand prize of a contract to fight in the UFC. Many contestants of the show end up fighting in the UFC, and have even gone on to fight each other, with fledgling fan bases eager to tune in.
By leveraging its network of experts and industry connections, the UFC has created a scenario where all parties benefit — contestants get to train with top MMA fighters and increase their own exposure, viewers get more opportunities to follow their favorite fighters, and the UFC can promote their biggest and upcoming stars.
Free to watch on cable TV channels, The Ultimate Fighter has helped attract a larger audience for MMA, viewers who then convert to pay-per-view customers to keep following the fighter’s careers. Now in its 25th season, The Ultimate Fighter has been a huge success in engaging new fans with MMA.
UFC Embedded: Vlog Series
The UFC has produced video blogs for years, featuring behind-the-scenes access to UFC president Dana White, fight week events, and the fighters themselves — creating so much content, that it’s practically its own media organization.
The current incarnation, UFC Embedded, follows fighters during the week before a fight — producing free-to-watch, long-form content that essentially is an extended advertisement for the fight, but uses storytelling to engage fans and build connections with an athlete or the fight’s narrative.
Beyond the traditional hype for a fight with trash talking and comparing stats and records, UFC Embedded gives fans close-up and exclusive access to the fighters, and their excitement and challenges in the week leading up to the fight. By Fight Night, after following the fighters in daily episodes posted on YouTube all week, fans are invested and more likely to pay to watch the conclusion.
Each of the 6 episodes during the week before the record-breaking UFC 202 had over a million views — adding up to over 9 million views by fans deeply entrenched in the Diaz-McGregor rivalry and eager for more content.
For all the brilliant marketing by the UFC, the star power of the main card is the real draw for millions of viewers. Storytelling has become central to promoting fight cards, especially as its top stars become brands of their own. And MMA fighters know branding — they all have signature moves, nicknames, styles, etc. to distinguish themselves and attract sponsors.
The UFC knows that its stars are the main attraction, and by sharing their stories and engaging fans, the UFC is able to capitalize on the emotional connections formed. In 2015, the top two UFC stars — Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey — made 61% of the UFC’s PPV revenue.
As Bleacher Report puts it:
“Unlike the television product, fans aren’t tuning in for the brand; when it comes to paying a substantial additional fee, consumers want stars.”
Amplification: Social Media
MMA has become the world’s fastest growing sport, and the UFC’s forward-thinking social media strategy has played a critical role in this rapid growth. By taking advantage of various platforms to create ongoing conversations with fans, the UFC has dominated at social media for years now. On any given Fight Night, 60+ UFC-related topics will be trending on various social channels.
Part of this success is due the rollout of the first-ever incentive-based social media program for athletes, where bonuses are awarded to fighters who have the most impact with their personal Twitter accounts. In 2011, Dana White hired a PR firm to teach over 300 fighters how to best use social media to build their brand and momentum before fights, the result of which had an immediate impact on pay-per-view buys.
The investment in social media training continues to pay off — with more fighters active on established social media channels, messages and content promoted by the UFC are amplified to reach even greater audiences.
By creating quality content and a network of powerful social channels, the UFC has built a large and loyal audience. Using storytelling to connect with fans on an deeper, emotional level, and providing valuable free content has proven to lead to paid viewership. The UFC is a great example of how good content marketing can truly add value and benefit both the brand and its customers.