Best of 2018: How ESPN+ became the Fastest Direct-to-Consumer App to Reach One Million Paid Subscribers

Back in April, ESPN announced a new all-in-one sports app that would bring together the ESPN app - the industry benchmark and number one sports app - with ESPN+, the first-ever multi-sport, direct-to-consumer premium subscription streaming service from The Walt Disney Company’s Direct-to-Consumer and International Group.

The new app was intended to “elevate the digital sports experience, giving sports fans the premier, all-in-one digital sports platform with easy access to all of ESPN’s news, scores, analysis, video and audio content” according to
ESPN’s press release. The $4.99 monthly service features a range of live and taped events, as well as original programming, designed to capture viewers who have moved away from traditional cable packages.

Within five months, ESPN+ quickly surpassed one million paid subscribers. To put that in perspective, it took Netflix more than three years to surpass one million subscribers. It took Hulu one year to generate one million paid subscribers for its Hulu Plus subscription service. Additionally, ESPN+ has grown faster than any other sports-based direct-to-consumer products, such as WWE Network, which took 11 months to surpass 1 million.

How did ESPN achieve this impressive feat? In short, by delivering a great product to the market, by understanding their customers, and by being smart and deliberate about how they encouraged customers to convert to the paid app.

ESPN had a great audience for its ESPN app prior to the introduction of ESPN+ (more than 18 million users). But more than that, the company had a massive overall audience thanks to its media network, huge social following, strong digital presence and its magazine. ESPN was smart in using a broad reach to promote ESPN+. According to Digiday, the company displayed the ESPN+ logo in its popular news ticker during its linear broadcasts and its website and mobile app had modules promoting the ESPN+ app and its content. The company also invested in advertising, with ads starring Keegan-Michael Key and Kobe Bryant, to help drive awareness of ESPN+. Additionally, ESPN used a combination of search, social and display advertising to target offers to audiences based on specific sports.

More importantly, ESPN was smart about how to tap into its existing mobile audience. The company worked with partners to understand the needs and behaviors of its user base to identify those most likely to buy into the ESPN+ experience. Subscription offers were sent to its most engaged users, with a major focus on personalization. The company sent more than 200 in-app messages to current users to raise awareness of new content that was available on ESPN+. These messages were able to reach hundreds of thousands of app users, prompting them to upgrade to the subscription service because they understood there was valuable content available that was meaningful to them.

ESPN has taken a data-driven, integrated and personalized approach in order to produce record-setting results. And with such a large audience still in front of them, it will be fascinating to see how quickly the company get to 2, 5, 10 and even 20 million paid subscribers.