The power of virtual support for rapid innovation

With the Covid-19 pandemic forcing physical venues to close, digital platforms have become central to maintaining fan engagement

Alex Smith
By Alex Smith on 16 April 2021
The power of virtual support for rapid innovation

NBA

In a year that has brought live events to a halt, digital platforms have provided some of the few remaining available links between fans and the teams, bands and brands they support. Whether it’s streaming live matches and performances or engaging with the latest releases through online advertising, the way in which people connect with the brands they support has been reshaped by the pandemic.

Many people have been introduced to entirely new experiences, as they get to grips with the realities of supporting from a distance. And to maintain engagement with audiences, media companies and their partners have had to accelerate development of innovations and solutions, which are now set to change the fan experience even after the pandemic eases.

“Across the media industry, companies have had the same conversation with us about how they can change the way that they interact with their audiences leveraging digital platforms,” says Jennifer Cooper, global head of media and communications industry strategy and solutions at Microsoft. “Covid-19 has certainly accelerated that change. What’s also interesting is that understanding people’s engagement and behaviour has actually become a lot more possible, as organisations now have access to data that would never be capturable if fans were just sitting in the stand.”

The dramatic shift towards digital platforms has therefore presented both a challenge and an opportunity to the media industry. Those who may not have previously embraced digital transformation have used the example of more recent entrants to the market as a model for their own strategies, according to Martin Wahl, principal program manager of industry accelerators for the media & telecommunications sector at Microsoft.

“So many companies have looked to the new players, who were born in the cloud,” he says. “It’s not just about user interface, it’s the ability to understand what your users have watched and what they’re likely to watch in the future. How do you better target the content you’re producing to the audiences that want to watch it? To understand that, organisations have to be able to merge all of the data they have access to and analyse it to produce actionable insights.”

Microsoft’s Power BI service is one tool which has helped companies to uncover these insights as they attempt to build greater engagement with their platforms. The service can unify all the data that an organisation has access to and visualise it in the form of interactive dashboards. Microsoft AI can help those who are not data scientists to prepare data, build machine learning models and find insights quickly. 

Media companies can also make use of Dynamics 365 Customer Insights, a real-time customer data platform. Customer Insights brings together transactional, behavioural and demographic data to create a profile of an organisation’s customers. By analysing customer interactions with prebuilt AI models, customer needs can be predicted to make informed decisions and personalise customer engagement across channels. Organisations can also connect Customer Insights with Power Bi to model and visualise the knowledge they have gained about their customers. 

“Microsoft technology is helping our customers make sense of the deluge of data during this digital transformation,” says Cooper. “We’re helping organisations automatically and systematically take all these data sources and rationalise them to personalise the fan experience, while enhancing it with other technologies such as augmented or virtual reality.”

One example of how Microsoft technology has been used to help deliver fan experiences is in the NBA’s use of Microsoft Teams’ Together Mode. Together Mode uses AI segmentation technology to bring people together into a shared background, allowing them to focus more easily on each other’s faces and body language. The NBA outfitted each of its team’s courts with 17-foot-tall LED screens that wrap around three sides of the arena, serving as virtual ‘stands’ populated by more than 300 fans using Together Mode. Participants could then view both their fellow fans and a live feed of the game within Teams.

“We are excited to partner with Microsoft to virtually incorporate NBA fans into our season restart,” said Sara Zuckert, head of next gen telecast at the NBA. “This unique live game experience will allow fans to maintain a sense of community as they watch their favourite teams and players.”

Behind the scenes, Microsoft is also helping organisations to reduce the time they take to build and deploy apps that can help to drive fan engagements. The Dynamics 365 Media & Entertainment Accelerator includes new media-specific data entities and attributes that extend the Common Data Models for fan and engagement scenarios, along with sample apps for tasks such as venue management, event registrations and the tracking of ticketing. These assets can then be used as a platform by Microsoft’s partners when developing their own apps.

“The goal of the accelerator programme is to provide our partners with already constructed software code that gives them a template to build an app,” says Wahl. “We don’t need any credit for our role in those apps, but we help by giving our partners a big head start in their development. We’re able to engage our customers to find out their business needs, then identify partners who can fill those needs, while we can help with the engineering if needed. It’s supercharged our partner ecosystem.”

As vaccines begin to be rolled out across the world, fans will eventually begin to return to live venues when it becomes safe to do so. However, the acceleration of development that the pandemic has caused will continue to have implications into the future.

“A lot of these changes will be carried over after the pandemic, and we believe that the transformation post-Covid is going to be built around the pillar of data,” says Cooper. “Engagement is about so much more than what we’ve traditionally defined as fan experience, and I think we’re just beginning to understand what those experiences are going to look like with technologies such as virtual reality being powered by AI or 5G. Covid has accelerated innovation, and we as consumers will soon see the benefits.”

“The pendulum has swung all the way to the virtual side during the pandemic, and that’s led to investment in that area,” adds Wahl. “But as the pendulum swings back to a middle ground between live and virtual experiences, we’re not going to lose sight of the important lessons learned in the digital space. Physical venues will begin to make more and more use of digital technology, and this effort will continue to be very important once we reopen again.”

This article was originally published in the Spring 2021 issue of The Record. To get future issues delivered directly to your inbox, sign up for a free subscription.

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