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Just about a year ago, video on NHL.com was, by the organization's own admission, not thoughtfully implemented, and user information was widely dispersed and not well-leveraged. In a very short time, using a homegrown content management system and a video player built by NeuLion, and with the assistance of design company AQKA, the NHL.com site is running as smooth as, well, ice.
View on video
According to many pundits, one of the keys to the future of the Web is video. However, based on much of the current use of video on the Web, this future seems to be a ways off.
True, many businesses today are using video on their sites, for everything from spreading news and company information to handling product demos and walk-throughs. But, typically, there is little or no integration with these videos. They basically live in their own siloed areas of a site, with no connection to other content or online commerce.
This was the situation the National Hockey League found itself in more than a year ago. At that time, the NHL.com Web site had plenty of video content, and intrepid fans could search for videos of their favorite teams and players, but the content wasn't very well-structured.
Indeed, most video was just thrown onto the site, according to Andre Mika, NHL senior vice president and executive in charge of programming new media. (Click here to see a video interview with the NHL's Mika)
"We weren't programming for our fans, especially not when it came to video," he said.
A little more than a year ago, Mika was charged with working on a new design for the NHL.com site, including a rethink of how video is programmed and distributed online. The first step in this process was the launch of the NHL Network Online in April 2008.
Key to the upgrade of the NHL's video capabilities was an improved Adobe Flash-based video player, built by NeuLion, that allowed the organization to program multiple channels of original video content. This made it possible to create more video viewing options for visitors and to increase the potential for video integration throughout the site. The player that NeuLion built uses the Adobe Flex rich Internet application technology to enable much of the modular capabilities and the high level of interactivity that the new NHL video provides to visitors.
The player also allows the NHL to create opportunities for "appointment viewing", where visitors can go to the site to view specific video programs on specific days and at specific times. This includes a new HD-quality program called "The Hockey Show" that is produced at the NHL offices in New York.
One of the most impressive, and important, new capabilities on the site is the way in which video can be extended and integrated.
For example, while viewing video on the site, users can continue to filter and dig down in multiple ways within the videos offered. This is the result of the extensive tagging that Mika and his team perform on video contentall video is tagged for all relevant information (such as teams, players and types of scores). NHL.com actually has a leg up on many other sites in this regard because it has been doing extensive tagging of video for a long time as part of standard league archiving and video use.
Using Flash coding, the NHL.com staff can do advanced video sorting using the detailed tagging that's already in their video infrastructure.
"You can pick any night of any season and watch the highlights of that game," said Mika. "You can also watch any highlights of a specific player." In fact, Mika added, the site now makes it possible to see every goal, hit and save of every player in the league going back four years.
The new video player and its improved content and capabilities resulted in an immediate surge in traffic and use of video on the site.
"Immediately, our fan base was energized by the new features. Video traffic was through the roof," said Mika.
Users also can now reuse and embed NHL.com videos on their own sites using a provided Share button, and the new GameCenter Live feature lets pay subscribers watch live games and full videos of archived games. Many of these features are made possible by the NeuLion content management system on which the player is built. The user interface takes advantage of a Web service to pull data from the underlying video management system. By doing this, the video player is able to support multiple video formats.
Another important upgrade made throughout the NHL.com site is single sign-on. Not only does this capability make using the site easier for visitors, but it provides the NHL with information that allows it to target contentto grow both affinity and revenue.
"Once you register, we know who you are, where you live by ZIP code and who your favorite team is," said Mika. "That's important to us because 40 percent of our fan base is displaced. If you are a Detroit fan living in Phoenix, I want to tell you that you can watch the Detroit game tonight on your computer or on Center Ice [the NHL's full game package for cable and satellite]. And, oh, by the way, the Red Wings are coming to town next week and you should really buy a ticket." Previously, user information was contained in different databases across the NHL online properties. Information is now consolidated in one database.
"The corporate imperative is to be able to consolidate all the names, all of the behavior, and put it in one place," said Perry Cooper, senior vice president of NHL Direct and Digital Marketing. "If you don't have the ability to see a fan that is on multiple sources that spends a lot of time and money, you're not going to be able to market to those people."
One from many
Like many organizations, the NHL has many Web sites. In the NHL's case, each of its 30 teams has its own site, with different online presences and capabilities. A big part of the uber-NHL site redesign is to get all of the team sites on the same platform and with the same capabilitiesespecially in terms of video.
All 30 of the teams have voted to move to a new common platform, and all of them are now using the new video player. Mika said the plan is for all the teams to standardize on the same Web platform, but that each of the teams would be provided with the ability to customize its site.
The Web transition is under way, and Mika said he expects it will be completed by the end of the hockey season.
The updated NHL.com site has not gone unnoticed, nor has the technology running it. According to Mika, the homegrown, Java server-based content management system used for NHL.com "is so good that we've been approached by other companies that want to buy it."
The analytics for the site are performed through Omniture's SAAS (software as a service) analytics suite.
According to Cooper, the NHL hired an expert directly from Omniture to handle all customized analytics and reporting. "As we start to understand the preferences and the user profile through single sign-on and through behavior analytics, what was otherwise a generic environment will become a one-on-one environment," he said.
With the improved tracking through the customized Omniture system, Cooper said, "we know a lot about how people are using video. We know how many people are starting videos, how many are going halfway through and how many are finishing." According to Mika, more than 50 percent of videos on NHL.com are watched from start to finish.
Mika said that this initial rollout of the new site and its video capabilities is still somewhat experimental, and that new features will continue to be implemented.
"Someone asked me the other day, when will it be over?" said Mika. "It will never be over. By the time we get done with phase two of the site, there will be new things on the list to add."