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One Championship’s CEO Victor Cui gets real on his struggles with social media

One Championship started up in Asia five years ago. The company has since grown tremendously bagging partnerships with brands such as Under Armour and The Walt Disney Company. Most recently, it  also entered a massive definitive agreement, led by investment firm Heliconia Capital Management, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Temasek Holdings. The partnership is valued at “eight figures” in US dollars.

With mixed martial arts (MMA) being one of the fastest growing sport in Asia currently, the sport has seen exponential growth by over 30 times in the past decade. While no doubt the platform is gaining momentum across Asia, not all stages of its journey has been smooth sailing.

Addressing a crowd of over 200 marketers in Marketing’s Digital Marketing Indonesia conference, Victor Cui, CEO of One Championship said the start for example had been shaky largely because of a traditional marketing mindset. But since then, the digital and social team at One FC has come a long way. He said:

I believe that it has never been easier to start a new company in the world because of social media and tools present. But it has also become more challenging now, because of the noise out there.

He added: “When I first started I was a traditional marketer and I would create this 360 degree campaign. The mistake I made was this was not how the world worked anymore, but I still thought that’s how we had to make a marketing campaign.”

His hires too reflected his traditional mindset, Cui admitted.  The folks he brought on board initially were people who well understood 360 degree marketing. But because of the speed of change in consumer behaviour, mastering traditional marketing was simply not enough.

Cui, who had worked in the sports media industry for over 20 years, told the audience he first moved to Asia in 1995 to work on Malaysia’s commonwealth games. He has over the span of his career worked with the Olympics, PGA tour and ESPN before launching One championship. Speaking of his learning curve when he first launched One Championships, he said:

I was an excellent traditional marketer but personally I wasn’t adjusting to the curve of social media fast enough. The consequence was that for the first few years, we missed our goals.

Recounting an experience in 1995, he said that back then, when the company asked the marketing and sales teams if they needed a computer, many said no.

“This was because making calls and closing deals and faxing details was getting the deal done. Many didn’t feel the need to embrace this new foreign technology known as the ‘computer’,” he said, adding that those same people were out of a job in the next 10 years.

And while working without a computer seems simply unimaginable today, the same inertia to embracing upcoming tools and technologies still exist. But it can, and needs to be overcome, for the success of any marketer and brand. Cui said to overcome his own inertia,he took online classes and courses to build up knowledge about the world of digital and social, adding.

Today Cui has a personal brand following with over 700k followers on Facebook and Twitter. Most of his posts garner approximately a thousand likes. He added:

This didn’t happen by accident, it happened by design. I worked the last couple of years to get to that. I didn’t just say I won’t worry about digital or social media. I am 45 years old, I forced myself to learn.

Cui candidly added that to truly ensure he understood social to its granular level, he taught the same social media skills he had acquired to his 75 year old mother.

“I forced my mom to do it and now she has 30k followers organically with no advertising spend. I had to make sure I could understand social media completely,” he said.

He also highlighted three key takeaways in the world of social:

1. Timeliness trumps everything

Cui said that from the traditional marketing and media perspective, marketers used to think that after they create a content piece or campaign and publish it, they are done with their jobs. But today it’s the opposite because the tracking and measurement  starts only after launching a campaign.

“Back when I used to run traditional campaigns, we spent months creating a campaign waiting for it to be perfect and you sit back and wait for results. But today it doesn’t work like that. The moment your work gets published, the social work starts. We at One Championship really take time to really look at the results and evaluate it,” he added.

Initially, Cui said, he was fixated on getting the information out with 100% accuracy which would lead to delay of the news getting out. But he soon learnt that 100% accuracy doesn’t matter. Of course, marketers should want to be as accurate as possible to maintain credibility, but what is really important is timeliness.

“If you can get information at faster pace to your fans, you are allowed to cross correct after. That’s a big difference in live sports because it is about results and nobody cares about it two days later.  Also our brands and partners want to work real time with the consumers,” he said.

He added that many times, marketers are still stuck as they fear “going live” on social and letting go of control. But the important thing is to reach out to people and connect.

“What people want to see are all the different stories that are not polished. The important thing is to listen to people who you want to reach out to,” he added.

2. Adaptation is vital

Recounting the days of 1995, he said often folks on marketing or sales teams would get an email, print it out and then fax it over to their clients.

“Sounds ridiculous right? But that is exactly what we were doing when we first started One Championship,” he said. The organisers would often take a poster and plaster it on Facebook. But they soon learnt that didn’t make sense.

“People don’t go on social media to see a poster. But to me, when we first started, that made sense. And I would wonder why people didn’t know about us and engage with us, despite our digital and social media posts and efforts. That was old school thinking,” he said, adding:

You have to embrace new technology and really the last 20 years of my life is useless today and I had to put it out of our mind.

3. Build content for each platform

“When I was in ESPN, we were so in love with the product and content, we would take content for TV and put it on digital or social media – and it failed,” he said. This is because the way people consume content on social media is completely different from how they do it on TV or print.

Think of how difficult it is to stop someone’s thumb [from scrolling down]. You have to capture attention and get them to stop their thumbs and look – that’s hard.

He urged marketers in the room to make content specific for each platform. Everything One Championship does, he added, is made by design for each platform be in a gym, video for social media or for even Cui’s own Facebook. It is all about understanding the audience. He added that the best thing this leads to is the various ways brands can tell their story.

Content for the Asian palette

According to Cui, if asked to replicate the success of One Championship with the same budgets and dynamics in Northern America, he would probably fail.

“If you are to give me same amount of money to launch in North America, I think I would fail. Every day of the week in North America, there is world class sports content because of the dominance sports plays in their lives. This however, is not the case in Asia. Sports is a new phenomenon here,” he said. As such, there is a great opportunity for brands in Asia.

Moreover, the taste palette for content in North America is also vastly different.

“Mixed martial arts has been displayed as a violent sport. In North America you have athletes who are arrogant and swearing and throwing water in your face during a press conference because the viewer’s love it,” he said. But in Asia that doesn’t resonate because the values of martial arts in Asia is “the complete opposite”, he said. It is about respect and loyalty. Moreover martial arts has a long history in Asia.

“We have very few examples of Asian athlete heroes to look up to, except in martial arts where we have history with the likes of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Lee and Manny Pacquiao. But across other sports in Asia we suck because we don’t have the sports history,” he added. He added that a new martial arts champion coming from Asia be it Singapore or Indonesia or China is far more likely that. Albeit not impossible, he added:

To think the next big F1 racer will come from Singapore or world tennis championship from Indonesia is unlikely.

A move into original content

When asked if he would move into creating content given the rise of players such as iFlix and Netflix in Asia, Cui said it is not off his radar completely but is something he and his team would approach carefully.

“There is a big gap in creating original content in Asia versus North America. When audiences watch Amazing Race and Amazing Race Asia, they can tell there is a difference but they don’t know what,” he said. He added that it isn’t the technology that is different but rather the soft skills that the region lacks.

“In Asia we aren’t there yet when it comes to original content. It is still a difficult challenge to create something world class,” he added.

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