Barstool Sports started as a newspaper in August of 2003. Founder and President Dave Portnoy frequently references that blood, sweat and tears that went into growing the company to be a media mastodon. Since then, companies have more than taken notice and Barstool has been bought twice by investors. The Chernin Group bought a majority stake in the company in 2016, and Penn National Gaming also purchased a substantial stake in the company in January 2020, valuing it at $450 million.
Barstool has become the gold standard in viral marketing that so many other companies strive to emulate. The question is: what does Barstool do differently in its execution that make it so uniquely successful? Today we sit down with Former VP of Paid Media Tyler Prone to discuss his tenure servicing Barstool Sports from 2016-2020.
Host: Thanks for joining us today, Tyler. Barstool has been around for awhile now, but it seems like it has taken steps within the last few years to enter into the zeitgeist of culture. Can you speak a little bit about where Barstool was when they came to us? What were they looking to accomplish? What had they done in the digital space before coming to Hawke?
Tyler: They came to us with a need for paid search. I believe they hadn’t really done much in terms of search campaigns before coming to us, but they were overindexing on paid social and wanted to grow. Our objective was to drive revenue from their online store. They were sitting on a huge following stemming from their blog and greater digital community. Our goal was to meet their business goals by redirecting a lot of that traffic to the store.
Host: Can you describe to me the first moves you made when starting to scale the account?
Tyler: Absolutely. The question for us was really: how do you take advantage of a huge community? How do you sell products into the community? Looking at the data, we discovered a large portion of blog readers hadn’t been to the store, which was low hanging fruit for us. We utilized our suite of Google services to capitalize on these users, specifically Youtube remarketing, Google display remarketing, discovery ads (running on the Google discovery app) as well as search ads. We used these services to create a funnel to take users that were looking for [Barstool] content and redirect them to the store.
The number of users looking for [Barstool’s] content is big, whereas the number of users looking to purchase products from their store is obviously going to be a lot smaller. When we serve an ad on Google, we’re telling the blog consumers to check out the store. As an advertiser, we’re only paying for users who click. Users might be in the market for an agnostic Barstool search, looking for either their blog or website, but if they tell us they want to check out the store by clicking the ad, they’re valuable to us and users we want to get on site. We drove a lot of revenue just by redirecting people to the store. They also have a huge following on Youtube, they have multiple content channels that are all fairly unique. They have podcasts with different topics and audiences, whether it is Pardon My Take or Call Her Daddy, the list goes on. They sell merch for each content channel, so there’s many different avenues for different types of users to convert.
Host: They do have a very diverse portfolio of brands, whether is podcasts, YouTube shows, personalities, etc. I know that a lot of people look at who they’re marketing to in terms of different personas. When you were looking at this data, did you see that there were different personas for people that were interested in Barstool? How did the persona of someone that is interested in the Barstool blog differ from the persona of someone who was looking to buy merchandise from the Barstool store?
Tyler: Great question. Hawke Media’s CEO Erik Huberman would always tell me that when you’re ad buying on Facebook, you’re essentially bidding against demographics. You’re saying you’re willing to pay a certain amount for a CPM. If a person is age 18-24 and interested in XYZ, you’ll pay a certain CPM for those users and then Facebook’s algorithm will learn about that demographic over time and find out what the other signals are relevant to better target the people in that demographic that are more likely to convert.
It’s a bit different in Google where we have a supreme variable in play that we want to take advantage of, which is the intent of the search. We look at other variables as well like if a certain demographic is more valuable than another, but the intent behind a search can override anything. You could be a 75 year old grandpa. If you’re searching for the right thing, you still have a high likelihood of converting. If we target a 75 year old grandpa on Facebook out of the gate, it’s not going to work. The intent behind a search goes beyond a keyword. The keyword is just the input; it’s what you set up. The actual output and the granular piece of data that you really want to leverage is the search team, which is what the user is actually searching. You take that, and you leverage it. You say “I’m going to isolate spend on what I know works while continuing to test with 20% of our budget.” We have developed something called alpha-beta campaign structure, which we started a couple years ago at Hawke. Alpha-beta structure, put very simply, is a systematic approach to bidding on Google in which the advertiser focuses spend on where the ROI is.
Host: That’s very insightful. At a high level, when you look back on the Barstool account, do you think that Google was the better platform that allowed you to win earlier than you would on Facebook? It seems like figuring out what works on Facebook is a little more nuanced than Google because it is an interruptive as opposed to intent-based ad serving platform.
Tyler: My original background is in Google ads, so if I were to give an opinion there, it would probably be biased. I’ll hold my tongue on that one. What really matters is trying different platforms. You get a marketer at Hawke, and you get someone that knows what they’re doing on Google or Facebook. They set things up logically. They understand who the customer is because they’ve asked the brand and dove into the brand materials. At the end of the day, you set up a logical campaign and you’re able to measure success, but who knows what platform is going to work out? It could be Facebook, it could be Instagram, it might be Youtube, it might be Google. You’re going to find something that works. Then, you’ll dump spend into it early on and use the testing methodology you know to cut spend in underperforming parts of the campaign and pivot.
Barstool is a company that has no tolerance for coming up short. They’re a company that almost always wins; they have a very powerful community. They’re not going to just work with anybody. When we started working on the Barstool account, we knew that, and we won. We did the right things, and we made the right moves. We continued to scale the account every single month for three years. It was a fun ride.
Host: Amazing. You mentioned that there are multiple different factors you can leverage on the Google Suite. Were their certain tactics, whether it be the Youtube, the display remarketing, or the search ads that drove the majority of the revenue or was it fairly agnostic?
Tyler: I would say there’s three keys to success in this case study. Number one is list sharing. We had multiple accounts for Barstool, as they have a multitude of brands and subsidiaries under their belt. We were able to take traffic from the blog and other customer lists and use them for other tactics. We were able to leverage data across multiple subsidiaries, which played a huge role in our success.
Number two is search ads and being able to capitalize on the volume of searches that had intent behind them. The third item was Google Shopping. [Barstool] is a brand that goes viral, and when that happens they can have certain products fly off the shelves within a week. You have to take advantage of that. In normal situations, you would need to write out copy, build ads, and let the campaign optimize. Google Shopping is fairly automated. Hawke partners with feed providers that manage your shopping feed, which is the input that makes Google Shopping campaigns successful. We made sure that we had a good feed set up, and we could take advantage of all the different SKUs that Barstool has. A lot of inventory comes and goes because it’s topical and of the times. Sometimes [the merch idea] is a sound byte where it’s obvious it’s going to be a one week fad. Other times [the merch idea] is more evengreen. Google Shopping allows us to get great results across the board on all of their products.
Host: That’s super insightful. I can imagine how important it would be, seeing how quickly Barstool can put out a t-shirt or other piece of merchandise, to be able to keep up and continue to market at a high level while fads change over time. I appreciate you taking the time to go over all this, Tyler. Do you have any other takeaways from the account that you would like to add? The floor is yours.
Tyler: Absolutely. There are a lot of agencies out there, and there are a lot of marketers out there. In my three years at Hawke, I was able to ascertain that the culture at Hawke is a passionate one where you get to work with someone that is really excited. I was very excited when I got the Barstool account just because at the time it was a big deal, and it was a brand that had a lot of headway. It was a fun challenge. That is the culture of the Hawke. It is a company that creates relationships with clients that are filled with passion.
Hawke Media was able to use Google ads to tap into the purchase intent of Barstool’s massive online following to drive revenue. The brand had the search volume from its blog and online communities to become massively successful on the platform, and Hawke was able to deploy an advanced technique of Google campaign optimization called alpha-beta testing to focus campaign spend where the best return was while continuing to test new keywords and identify new growth opportunities for the brand. As a result, Hawke grew Barstool Sports return on ad spend 924% and e-commerce revenue 1082% over 3.5 years of service. Want to learn more about Google ads and find out if Hawke could be a good fit for your business? Fill out the free consultation form below, and one of our strategists will be in touch.