'We're ahead of the curve': WWE's marketing chief says the wrestling brand is already where ESPN wants to be in terms of building a data-driven streaming service

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The WWE has already arrived where many TV companies aspire to go: it's built a successful subscription streaming product without undercutting its traditional channels.

The wrestling brand has had to ramp up its data chops to better its programming and sell merchandise.

"We're ahead of the curve," said WWE CMO Michelle Wilson.

Suddenly, it seems every big TV player led by ESPN is contemplating the launch of paid subscription services, and they may look to any unlikely rival for inspiration. When it comes to running a direct-to-consumer streaming offering, the WWE has a four-year head start.

Business Insider caught up with the WWE's chief marketing officer Michelle Wilson at the Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas this week to talk about the future of media delivery in an "over the top" world, what it means for a media company to become a data and tech company, and what advertising will look like in a few years.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mike Shields: You guys are seemingly at the forefront of where a lot of the TV industry, particularly sports, seem to want to go, in terms of having a subscription streaming product.

Michelle Wilson: It's kind of crazy that we made our announcement four years ago at CES. We were definitely ahead of the curve. At the time it was just Netflix and Hulu that were out there. Obviously we've had a long history of success with paid television as a way to reach the broadest audience around the world. We love paid television. But as we were looking at digital and social platforms that were emerging, it started to occur to us that there's another way to reach our fan base, particularly younger consumers. We had pay-per-view events that were 60 each, and they were reaching a limited audience, yet it was our most premium content. It was one of those business situations where we said, "How do we grow that base?"'

Shields: What kind of ideas did you look at?

Wilson: One of the things we explored was a linear cable network, much like the MLB Network, the NFL Network. We looked at an ad-supported channel. We looked at a premium paid channel like HBO. We actually had an opportunity to go in that direction. Simultaneously, we started doing research among our fans about how they were consuming content. They were consuming five times as much content on services like Netflix and Hulu.

Shields: So these were probably younger cord-cutters or cord nevers.

Wilson: As we started looking at that and contemplated a linear network, we presented that to our CEO Vince McMahon, and he's a real visionary. He said to me and George Barrios, our CTO, "Maybe we shouldn't do the standard linear network." He was fascinated about this opportunity to go direct to consumer. That was our business model when we started to do live events. We got feedback directly from our consumers. Technology was disrupting the middleman in media distribution . And so he basically said, "I want to do that." For us, it was disrupting our own business model to be prepared for the future.

Shields: A big motivation for these media companies eyeing this model other than catering to these younger demographics is owning consumer data and all that goes with it.

WWEWilson: When we were going through cable distributors, there was literally no transparency on data. We didn't know what homes were buying what events, how often they were buying, who was buying. They were like, "Here's how many buys you got," and that's it. That was part of our frustration. How do we make our business better without that data? So that was a clear part of the decision. How do we become more control of our destiny with data?

Shields: How has that paid off?

Wilson: I don't think we had any idea what we were getting into. In 2014 we had one pseudo data scientist. Now we have 40. And we have outside people helping us.

Because there's literally so much data. We had to build muscle around data and analytics. What's great about that is that it's helping us, not only with our streaming services, but other lines of business, like e-commerce and live event ticket sales. I think we're ahead of the curve when it comes to most media companies. We now have 10 million data files on consumers between the streaming network's nearly 2 million subscribers and any consumers who have made individual content or merchandise purchases . We know when people buy T-shirts, when people log on to watch shows, and how long they watch.

Shields: How do you balance giving your paying customers something of value, while also putting shows on TV and distributing content on social media?

Wilson: It's a great, delicate balancing act. We've developed metrics where we decide where to put a piece of content. We literally have a group where we sit in a room, and we say "This particular show, is it about brand building, and therefore, do we need to build the greatest reach? Is it about economics, and do we want to monetize it? Or is it about fan engagement?" We kind of always think about engagement, monetization and reach. I'll give you a perfect example. When we looked at 'Total Divas" a reality show about female wrestlers that airs on the E! network , we thought, "Do we put it on our network, to serve our most ardent fans? Or is this about building our brand?" With this show we thought it could bring in more women to the franchise. You're not necessarily going to get that on the WWE platform versus a broad platform like E! The reverse is something like Stone Cold Steve Austin doing podcasts. That content makes sense on our network.

Shields: Do you ultimately want everyone to become a paying subscriber?

Wilson: Our view is that we want the whole ecosystem to be healthy. It's not really an endgame to drive everyone to subscriptions.

Shields: Do you have any advice for sports networks or leagues as they mull similar subscription launches?

Wilson: It's funny, because we meet and talk with them all the time and they ask us. We tell them about this balancing act we do. You have to be disciplined. In some cases for us, we've had to make some unpopular decisions for what we think is the right thing for our fan base. You may take some short term hits. We lost money as a company in 2014 when we launched the paid network. Some people said, "They don't know what they're doing." Now they say, "They were smart, they knew what they were doing."