LowKick 11 LowKick   A Case Study In A Startup’s Fight For Differentiation Using Social MediaFor those of you who haven’t yet heard of MMA, it probably sounds like some form of fancy business degree from the Wharton school of business – But for those of you who count themselves among the fighting aficionados of the 21st century, you must know that MMA stands for “Mixed Martial Arts”; the global phenomenon that combines such sports as Boxing, Kickboxing, Wrestling and Jujitsu, into one multidimensional adrenaline fest.

Even if you’re not a fan of violent tests of human will and ability, one can still learn a lot form MMA as far as what it can teach us about businesses fighting for recognition in a hot new industry where no one yet has any particular edge. In other words, how a company can effectively peacock to make itself an obvious standout from the rest of the pack? As a case-study, I would like to run through a quick inventory of LowKick, one of many MMA companies, but unique in its decision to take the road less traveled by, in a clear gamble to achieve its desired differentiation.

The potential market value for MMA is huge, and for good reason. MMA is gaining traction worldwide as the latest global sensation, and is already considered to be the fastest growing sport in America- hands down. It edged out NASCAR for the coveted slot in 2009, and added it to a growing list of yearly accolades. These include a record breaking $222,766,000 of Pay-Per-View earnings in 2006, and an impressive trouncing of boxing in betting revenues for the first time in 2007. It’s no wonder so many companies are looking for a piece of the action. A quick search on Google for MMA websites will turn up a veritable directory of MMA portals, with such industry recognizable names as SherDog, MMAFighting to name but a few. So what is LowKick’s strategy to earn a spot all its own amongst such tough competition?

LowKick 21 LowKick   A Case Study In A Startup’s Fight For Differentiation Using Social MediaLowKick, is a relatively new MMA community portal founded in 2007 by Itai Librider and Itai Arbel. From the get-go, the Itais realized that any attempt at being recognized as the best MMA portal at doing the same things as everyone else, would basically amount to an exercise in futility. Even if they did succeed, it would be like being the best Vuvuzela blower at the world cup, no one is really going to notice.Instead, the boys at LowKick decided to go in a completely different direction. As opposed to trying to be recognized as the authorities on MMA commentary, they passed the torch on over to the fans, granting them the soapbox rights to stand and be heard. Their efforts go way beyond the traditional forum model, where diehards engage in heated debate in the back annals of sports history which no one will ever see, hear, read or care about.

A mind boggling 60% of LowKick’s content is fan generated. With such a model, there is always the question of how to control site quality? – LowKick solved this issue by tapping into the natural competitiveness of the MMA fan. Essentially, the members themselves vote on what is considered the most quality driven content through their mouse, with the most popular content being featured on LowKick’s home page. So although the content is very similar to that of other MMA portals, with fans being able to upload anything from opinion statuses, to entire articles, pictures and videos – The degree of respect given to fan generated content and having it serve as the driving force behind the sight, is certainly unique.

LowKick’s understanding that their golden goose lies in their fan base, has led their site to resemble a sort of MMA version of Facebook in many respects. Even their competitions are reminiscent of the social platform giant, only with a little more testosterone built in. You won’t see an MMA fan playing “Name that tune”, even if it will win him a shiny new iPad. What you might see though are MMA fans crashing your server to play “Name the tune of Brock Lesnar’s walk out theme”.

LowKick 41 LowKick   A Case Study In A Startup’s Fight For Differentiation Using Social MediaPerhaps the most telling feature in LowKick’s arsenal that demonstrates this fan focused mentality is their “Picks” section. If there is one thing MMA fans like, its predictions. They like making them, they like hearing them, and more than anything else, they love the 20/20 hindsight ability to debunk them. Fight fans agree that MMA is the most exciting new development to hit the combat sports since Athens beat Sparta in 371 BCE, but agreement basically stops there. From which fighter is the pound for pound greatest athlete to hit the octagon, to which gym produces the best fighters – ask any two MMA fans a question and you’re bound to get three different opinions. That’s why LowKick’s fan picks are so exciting for the average MMA fan. Every fan is given the fighting chance to have their opinion reach the top of the rankings. Whenever a member makes a prediction on which fighter will win in an upcoming bout, his pic’s are tracked and tallied so that he can earn prediction points over time. Aside from winning cool prizes, a member with an accurate track record can build a homegrown reputation as a professional pundit, commentator and critic – and people will start to listen.

LowKick 32 LowKick   A Case Study In A Startup’s Fight For Differentiation Using Social MediaWhat you’re basically looking at then, when you summarize LowKick’s business model, is the functioning reality of an MMA based company adopting social media. There are already countless blogs, vlogs, fan made websites and fan based Facebook pages dedicated to MMA. There are also a plethora of professional MMA communities. LowKick though, is perhaps the first example of an MMA portal leaving the controlling stake of their portal’s direction in the hands of the fans.

This bold experiment of LowKick’s; to pin their hopes of success on the adoption of a social media based strategy in a fiercely competitive industry, is definitely a gutsy one. They have certainly managed to differentiate themselves, although the jury is still out on whether or not this uncharted approach will yield results. However, there are some telling indicators that point to their being on to the right track. LowKick already boasts a healthy 1.8 million monthly views and a 45,000 member fan base – But the most powerful indicator might be the $250,000 dollar round of angel investment LowKick has recently procured. If there’s one hint that companies look for to let them know they’re moving in the right direction, it’s whether or not investors are willing to put up the capital. As fight promoters have always told agents looking to get their fighters on a good card, it’s all about what people are willing to pay good money to see – The old saying rings just as true when it comes to gauging a startup’s chances – “Money talks”.