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Got Game?

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Champs Sports, a specialty athletic footwear and apparel retailer, was looking for a way to capture the attention of the male teen athletes and fans that make up its primary customer base. The goal was “driving brand engagement and connecting with the customer,” says Frank Bracken, vice president of marketing.

Champs, with more than 540 stores across the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico, is a division of Foot Locker. In developing a strategy, Bracken and his colleagues considered the relatively high penetration rate of mobile devices among Champs’ customers: Nearly one-third (31 percent) of 14- to 17-year-olds have a smartphone, according to a March 2012 report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, and 30 percent of that group had used tablets to go online in the past month. “We know our customers pre-shop online,” Bracken says.

Bracken also took into account the fact that Champs competes for its share of customers’ budgets against a range of entertainment venues, including movies, trips to the food court and technology purchases. “We view our competitive set more broadly than just other specialty sporting goods retailers,” he says.

Working with creative agency Zambezi, Bracken’s group developed an app-based electronic magazine called SWAG – “Stylish Ways to Acquire Game.” SWAG gives Champs an “opportunity, before [the customer] comes into the store, to connect in an interesting way,” Bracken says. While the app contains e-commerce capabilities, they are secondary to the goal of engaging and connecting with customers.

The first issue, which debuted in August, was developed with an eye to creating a publication “that was more youthful and irreverent than something like ESPN or Sports Illustrated,” Bracken says. “We were really mindful of the end consumer.”

SWAG gives Champs’ customers an inside look at the lives of popular athletes and sports fans. The first issue featured an interview with NBA superstar Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder, as well as interviews with outfielder and 2010 MVP Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers and Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.

SWAG’s focus extends to the sports lifestyle, Bracken notes. To that end, the issue also profiled Gabriel Urist, who created a jewelry line based on the Brooklyn Nets basketball team, and examined the items that sports lover Snoop Dogg keeps in his carry-on. Among them: an Axiom keyboard, jacket, headphones, a pocket projector and a BlackBerry.

The athlete connection
Getting the technology behind the publication into place wasn’t a slam dunk. Readers can tap to purchase many of the products featured in SWAG; the publication routes e-commerce transactions through the website, where they’re actually carried out. Moreover, the e-zine needs to work on multiple types of devices and operating systems.

While SWAG incorporates sophisticated technology, developing the publication was closer to traditional publishing than website design, says Sean Carnage, editorial director with Zambezi. “It’s a very aesthetic environment,” he says. “The challenge was how to take great interactions [with the athletes] and showcase them in a way that was novel and fresh.”

“One way that Champs’ SWAG differs from web publishing—and is more like traditional publishing—is that it presents a distilled experience,” he says. “These are not random web musings. SWAG readers are directly connected to the pros we profile. You can really go inside these athletes’ worlds, without tons of highlighted links or banners that could distract.”

At the same time, SWAG incorporates some of the features for which the online world is known, including giving readers the ability to share stories through e-mail or social media.

To create the publication, Zambezi turned to Adobe’s Digital Publishing Suite software. DPS offered several advantages over the alternatives, Carnage says; for starters, it works with the other Adobe products, including Photoshop and InDesign, which the team also used to create SWAG. DPS also allows subscribers who’ve downloaded the content to read it offline.

Along with working with Zambezi, Champs collaborated heavily with its vendor partners, Bracken says: adidas helped make Snoop Dogg available, while Converse provided the alternative hip hop group Chiddy Bang, whose members are sports fans.

Positive early response
It’s difficult to estimate the impact the first issue of SWAG has had, but “the response has been great,” Bracken says. Between mobile advertising, public relations initiatives and social media mentions, the e-zine garnered some 30 million impressions across sports and lifestyle publications, as well as five million social media mentions on Facebook and Twitter, he says.

Bracken is in the process of analyzing readers’ click patterns, identifying those areas of the publication in which they spend the most time. It’s already clear that the video content “has been very well received, and seems to have the most sharability in terms of pass-along value.”

Carnage says that team members were aware that many start-up magazines never get off the ground. “We knew about the challenges others have had. We knew that it would be really tough.” Creating a success required a team effort from both Zambezi and Champs, as well as “jumping in with both feet,” he says.

Other keys, Bracken says, were “really thinking through the concept of production and delivery, and keeping the end user in mind the whole time, and the user experience itself.” That meant taking into account not only the editorial content that would capture readers’ attention, but also considering, for instance, how long a download would take.

“It’s all about presenting the product in an … engaging way to get customers excited about Champs Sports,” Bracken says. “SWAG is an external mechanism to prime the pump. We hope to close the loop within our stores and website.”