Sep 12, 2012

Social Media & Sports Audiences – Developing a Strategy (Part II)

In our two-part guest blog series with Nick Stover, Director of Social Media and Engagement at the University of Louisville, we highlight the benefits and pitfalls of communicating to sports audiences of all kinds. This can be a difficult feat as sports fans are often emotionally invested in their teams. In this installment, we talk social media strategy, public relations. and more with Nick.

When developing a Strategy to communicate to a sports audience for a particular team or franchise, what are five things to keep in mind?

Nick Stover:

1. Do not attempt to add too much too fast. Pick one or two small things to change or add in the beginning. 

2. Do not be afraid to make a few small mistakes. Quickly apologize and move forward when this happens. Social media does not have to be perfect to be effective, but it does need to be honest and consistent.

3. If other individuals previously assisted with a brand’s social media, include them in the new strategy development phase. People take a lot of pride in their development of online communities. This can be incredibly beneficial when trying to bring other passionate fans on board.

 4. Appearance is still important. Utilize simplified graphic design programs and/or consider outsourcing designs for logos, banners, profile photos, and online advertisements.

 5. When something goes wrong, individuals will often turn to social media first for information. Therefore, your social media strategy should include a crisis plan. However, if someone visits your pages during a time of crisis they should see an extremely positive mix of messages leading up to the incident.

 LEAP:

1. Know your audience. A football fan is different from a volleyball fan who is different from a cross-country. Understand those differences an create content appropriate content.

2. Moderate, do not flame. It is very easy to spurn rival fans. A company would never actively make comments against a competitor and it is in bad form to do that on your social media pages.

3. Harness the engagement that already exists around sports and use it to your advantage. Fans are deeply engaged with their respective sports and teams so leverage those activities.

4. Leverage the content created – video reels, photos, stats – around an event. Sporting events are ripe for content production so utilize them to enhance both the hard-core fan and the casual fan within the social media spaces.

5. Have fun and experiment. Many companies do not have the built engagement and content like the sports industry does. Yet they find time to be innovative in their social media sports. We highly encourage innovation for sports fans because you can quickly gauge whether it was effective or not.

What sport franchise do you think is making the most effective use of social media within their communication strategy?

NS:

Whenever I consider the merit of social media examples, it is important to search both large and small sport franchises. By looking at teams with the largest and smallest budgets, I gain a better understanding of tools needed to be effective. Large teams have a lot to work with and often help me to imagine possibilities. But smaller organizations are forced to plan their time and money spent online more carefully.

A source of inspiration for a lot of teams in the country last year came from the New Jersey Devils of the NHL. They added many innovative techniques to help monitor and push social media content to fans.

The 2012 Olympic Games in London also provided groundbreaking innovation. A lot of content-based ideas came from the athletes and news shows covering the games. For me, the London Olympic Games was really one of the first well-done examples of how traditional media and social media could combine forces to provide consistent added value for fans and viewers.

On a smaller scale, I constantly review the social media platforms of professional and minor league soccer teams in the United States. There are millions of passionate soccer fans in North America and their favorite teams do not yet receive the same extent of coverage as Football and Basketball teams. This forces teams in Major League Soccer to be a little more creative with their online activities than many other sport organizations.

LEAP:

A lot of teams are doing things well. The Indianapolis Cots have done a great job recently of trying to market themselves in the post-Peyton Manning era. Using photos, videos and a dedicated hashtag, #coltstrong, they push out a lot of really good content about the team.

A sports-related entity which does social media well is ESPN. They have multiple Facebook pages to appeal to different audiences. They pull live tweets and poll the Twitter-verse during their shows. All of their analysts have Twitter handles and are displayed while they are discussing sports highlights encouraging engagement. The website contains a lot of content which is all sharable via social media channels.

During the 2012 London Summer Olympics, there was a lot of controversy surrounding athletes and their personal social media engagement. What are your thoughts on the fine line between social media as an extension of an athlete’s personal voice, vs. becoming the voice of an institution/organization? 

NS: 

If you talk to Coach Charlie Strong about social media he will make it very clear immediately that once you put something out there the world has control over your words. His message is very important for our student athletes at the University of Louisville because they are still learning how their words can impact others. Having never been to the Olympic Games, it seems reasonable to assume many of these athletes are also learning such lessons.

In my experience, I walk a very fine (seemingly invisible line) between personal voice and organizational voice. I have accepted and cherish the opportunity to represent the University of Louisville. However, it has taken me nearly a decade of social media experience to fully understand what this means. Society expects athletes to be very passionate on the field and I assume most of them are passionate about topics outside of sport as well. On a personal level, I would feel bad seeing an athlete excluded from competition due to a passionate comment made online or offline. At the same time, it is important for the institution (whether that be a university, the Olympic Games, a high school, or any other sport organization) to help educate participants on the high expectations placed on their words and actions.

Regardless of whether or not athletes buy in to the notion of being a role model, it is important to understand that others are watching and listening. I view sport participation on any level as a privilege bestowed by the organization. Therefore, I think it is important to represent the values of the organization as best as possible. I think it is equally important for society to understand that some athletes embrace this expectation while others simply desire to remain independent spirits. 

LEAP:

The unfortunate thing, in this case, is that we thrust our youth into a position of representation without explaining the magnitude of the assignment.  Student-Athletes and Adult-Athletes who are expected to comment intelligently about the sport they play on behalf of a college, university or country is a big demand.

It’s difficult to recognize that if a reporter isn’t taking notes during an interview, or a camera is on and pointed directly at you that your words could somehow become viral. But they can, and do, constantly. For those born pre-internet, they are still leery and unsure of social media so thy often don’t use it or use it incorrectly. Those who were born into the boom are so comfortable with it that they forget its implications. The Summer Olympics was a harsh reminder that actions can have negative and seemingly unfair consequences on an individual’s desired goals. However, the fact remains, if you are a public figure, you have to maintain your public persona.

Before tweeting, posting or uploading a picture, everyone should ask a question:

“Will this negatively affect me, ever?” If the answer is maybe or yes, don’t post it. If it’s no – knock yourself out.

How did Fantasy leagues change the spectator environment for sport audiences? 

NS:

Fantasy leagues began a long time before the Internet but when Yahoo and other online sport leagues started receiving a lot of attention, they really provided a more engaging way to connect or reconnect with millions of fans. Fantasy leagues are a means for fans to spend more time learning about players and teams. This could eventually help teams achieve higher sales of tickets and merchandise.

I think fantasy leagues have been incredibly successful for sports such as football and baseball. However, it will be interesting to see how these develop through social media. It seems like the fantasy leagues I participate in are just barely scratching the surface when it comes to engaging users through social media. There are a lot more powerful tools that will develop here in the next 2-5 years.

LEAP:

The most notable, is that Fantasy leagues appealed to a wider audience, and brought woman into the fold. These online management tools let super fans and bookworms engage in a conversation that is a bit less one sided. No longer was there one person at the tailgate spewing stats and commentary – now everyone could participate! Online Fantasy Leagues reinvigorated the core sport audience base and started to attract new fans. Families could participate in friendly competition, and water coolers on Tuesday morning were a bit more animated from the final second of the Monday night game.

It will be interesting moving forward how these intimate league structures start to branch out into the more engaging social space. The cleverness of these leagues is that it educates participants to the players in each of the various games and helps introduce fans to new athletes and teams. The shortfall is that information for each league is isolated to one spot (Yahoo! Sports, etc.). The app development was a huge move forward, so participants can check their scores and manage their teams from the mobile devices (kudos!).

However, moving forward we hope to see more information and engagement through some of the stronger social channels like Facebook, Google+ and Twitter. Imagine not having to go to your teams message board to participate in the latest trade proposals and smack talk!