Learnings from the first season of DEDs in the NHL

The first season of the NHL’s new Digitally Enhanced Dasherboard technology (DEDs) is complete, so now’s a great time to look back at the last eight months to get an understanding of how the new technology has performed and identify recommendations for brands using it in the future.

A successful debut

The first year of DEDs has undoubtedly been a successful one. Reporting in April this year, Sports Business Journal revealed that YouGov data distributed by the NHL shows that: 

  • One minute per period of DED exposure provides brands with a 56% lift in unaided brand recall compared to old static dasherboards
  • A 24% improvement in category-aided recall and a 31% improvement in promoted brand recognition

Our own data provides further evidence of the technology’s success. During one randomly selected regular season game, we found that DEDs gained 66% of available exposure and analysis of another match found that the virtual boards are clearer than their physical counterparts. 

While the technology has been a success, it’s not a short cut to engaging activations. Brands using the tech still have a major role to play in producing creatives that draw audience attention and inspire action without distracting from the action on the ice. 

We’ve been monitoring activations across the seasons and have the following advice for brands looking to maximise DEDs and other forms of virtual advertising replacement going forwards. 

Embrace subtlety in animation

Animated creative is a big part of what makes DEDs stand out. Such activations aren’t unusual in sport, but in the compact world of the NHL, where the viewer is focused on a small puck moving rapidly around a small playing surface, big, bold, heavily animated creative can be distracting.

Subtlety makes a major difference and New Amsterdam Vodka, SAP and Discover were among the brands to find the right balance. They used their boards to carefully animate product shots, logos and messaging, therefore drawing audience attention without being overly distracting.

Perhaps the strongest example came from hair salon Great Clips, whose activation used green to contrast with the white of the background and ice, and a slow, fun animation to engage the audience and reveal the key message: a hashtag reading #ShowYourFlow.

Size and placement matter

The beauty of these creatives is that they work regardless of placement or size, but in some cases these factors make a major impact. When we analysed a randomly-selected regular season game, we discovered that the three zones in the centre of the ice (Attack Zone, Neutral Zone, and Defence Zone) were on screen more regularly than the left and right end zones.

When weighing up the value of this visibility, it’s important to understand that not all exposure is equal. Audience attention is just as vital, and while DEDs in the centre ice are on screen longer, play in that area lacks goal-mouth action. This means that fan attention while play is in those areas may be less focused than it is when play is in the goal areas and ad recall may be lower.

That said, the prominence of centre ice DEDs makes placement in those areas perfect for more complicated messaging where the length and clarity of exposure are of paramount importance – as Esso’s activation during the Kings/Oilers tie on April 19th proves.

The brand’s ‘Crystal Puck Contest’ allows fans to win tickets to next year’s Stanley Cup Play-Offs by predicting this year’s scores. Effective communication of such a specific campaign is vital and Esso found both success and failure.

At the start of the second period, with attention high and viewers thinking about what may or may not happen during the rest of the game, the creative took centre stage. Placement and timing were perfect, and the large canvas of DEDs provided enough space for a call-to-action to be placed, acknowledged by fans, and followed up on.

Later in the game, however, the brand used DEDs to convey the same message, but in a less opportune space (an end zone) and at a smaller size. With the camera moving rapidly there was simply no time for viewers to acknowledge or action the messaging, so the impact of the placement was lost.

Use interactivity carefully

The use of URLs and other connected messaging, for example those using QR codes, is also problematic.

Canadian manufacturing equipment company Heavy Metal bought up space at the Kings/Oilers tie to promote career opportunities. As you can see, the company’s logo is bold enough to stand out and draw attention to the ad, and the sharpness of the DEDs makes everything clear when the footage is paused. But in a fast-paced match, with the camera moving rapidly, the length of the email address makes it difficult to see, leaving even those quick enough to notice it frustrated by their inability to take action.

Interactive features such as QR codes provide more value, being both easier to spot and use, but again care must be taken. Placement in areas where the camera is more likely to be still (such as centre ice at the start of a period) is ideal, and the view should be unencumbered.

An example from the MLB this season shows that even something as small as a net can obscure a QR code so much that it becomes

Keep it simple

Sometimes the most direct approach is best and impact can be gained through a simple message. KitKat provided an excellent example during the Panthers/Maple Leafs Play-Off match-up on 2nd May.

Promoting its new ‘Pops’ product, the brand used the ball shape of the product and the extended width of the DED functionality to cleverly play on their popular ‘Have a break’ slogan. The large-scale lettering and unusual nature of the messaging helped it stand out and deliver the necessary impact.

Jersey Mike’s sandwiches have been similarly successful. Their ‘a sub above’ messaging was seen on DEDs throughout the season, with another (‘if it ain’t freshly sliced, it ain’t Jersey Mikes’) appearing during the play-offs.

Both creatives were marked by their simplicity: a brief, playful message delivered in black text on a white background with a bold logo to its left. Neither it nor the KitKat activation distract from the play, but they make a strong impression on the viewer.

The future of sports sponsorship

DEDs have enjoyed a wildly successful first season in the NHL, more than justifying the league’s heavy investment in them.

As the technology continues to evolve, brands have a major part to play in helping it grow. Light touch activations that make subtle use of the technology’s creative opportunities and flexibility will help fans adapt to its presence, while smart use of its ability to target by location will generate value for brands and relevance for supporters.

Virtual signage is no longer a theoretical nice-to-have, but an active option that can revolutionise rights owners’ commercial potential. As the technology develops, we’re likely to see more examples of its
uses – in fact, Major League Baseball is already trialling its own virtual replacement tech.

Want to know more about virtual replacement advertising or understand how DataPOWA can help you measure your sponsorship? Get in touch today!