Social media is constantly evolving. There is little debate to that statement, and it’s almost a running joke among professionals in the space to note the new platforms, features, trends and tactics that pop up seemingly every week.
But while the pace of change in social media is dizzying, there are foundational principles that have been around since the first poke, tweet, and top eight first came to be.
It has now been over a decade since my own social media and sports career began. And while I’ve been in the space in varying capacities over the years, as I look back on my first season in #smsports almost 11 years ago to the day of this writing, those key principles that I learned through practice continue to ring true today.
The more things change, the more important it feels to heed those seemingly innate traits of social media and sports fans. So here are 11 for 11 — 11 themes that became clear to me in my nascent days of social media and sports and that continue to feel relevant today. (Agree? Disagree? Let me know!)
Fans want to feel heard
My peers and I recognized this over a decade ago, whether it was simply answering a fan’s question, quote-tweeting a fan (literally quote-tweeting, the old-school way!), DM’ing a fan to let them know you’re getting more info. This can take form in many entertaining ways, too — by asking fans their ideas for in-game contests (that was fun!), showcasing the ‘tweets of the game’ (I even used a Pinterest board for this, at times), and proactively listening across platforms for needs and opportunities to surprise and delight (I still think about the smiles on the fans’ faces when we surprised him and his dad at a game for his dad’s birthday and they tweeted from their seats to mark the occasion and we then showed up to surprise them with autographed swag).
It has become cliche to remind ourselves that the word ‘social’ is part of social media and sports. While fans are accustomed to screaming into ether of their TV screens or from several stories up from the field or the court, the beauty of social media is that it doesn’t have to be one-way communication. The most effective social media ‘tactic’ is simply to show fans that someone is there, listening. It comes in the comments, the replies, the DMs, even the ‘likes’ of comments and tweets.
There’s a level of connection achieved when fans feel heard and there always will be.
Deep engagements matter
While vanity metrics and big numbers still yield perhaps too much power today, the case was even more pronounced early on. But something we recognized early is that depth of engagement matters. When fans put more time, effort, heart, and thought into engaging, it just means more. Even if the bloop single looks the same as a line drive off the right field wall in the box score in baseball, it doesn’t mean we have to look at a double-tap ‘like’ the same we do as a comment that tells the story of how a fan first fell in love with the team.
While it remains challenging to tell that story through metrics, there’s an innate, intuitive feel that content which elicits more deep engagements, that fosters more superfans, is more successful than that which simply accumulates shallow vanity metrics. Heck, many of us have (and continue to) game the system to rack up those metrics, to ensure the engagement rate and reports look high at the end of the month, quarter, or season. When it came time back then to evaluate the success of content or campaigns, there was a mix of art and science that continues today, because while the platform evolve, the deeper engagements are those that create more valuable, lasting fan connections.
Fans want to know the team personally and no detail is too minor
When we first started in social media and sports, far fewer players were active and visible on social media, and those that were were largely not as open as athletes today. But even with that caveat, the most minute details of the team and its players slayed on social media a decade ago and still do just as well today. Looking back, I can remember fans delighting at knowing the littlest of little things like the restaurant catering lunch for the team after practice (man, I was jealous when they got to chow down on PF Chang’s), what songs were playing on the speakers while the team did their dynamic stretches before the game (I got reprimanded the first time I posted that information, believe it or not), or the novelty t-shirt one of the players was sporting when heading home from practice.
Those are just a small sampling of the tiny details that fans couldn’t get enough of back then and still love. And every little thing is an opportunity for fans to relate to the players and team they love, which deepens those emotional ties and helps foster more superfans. Sweat the little things; we did then and you still can and should now.
The ordinary is extraordinary
The social media and sports life can get monotonous at times. It’s why the seasons often fly by, with one game day rolling into the next, broken up only by tentpole events, holidays and milestones. But you can’t forget (just like we couldn’t a decade ago) that so many fans would pay to be in your shoes, see what you see, and have your experience on just a ‘normal’ day at the office. It’s why I once wrote about how Seinfeld could teach #smsports pros that there is content gold in what feels like ‘nothing’ happening as they go about their day. That article sums up a lot of my thoughts for this section, but it goes beyond even what the players, dance team, and mascot are doing.
Remember that fans delight in being able to see what you (and your coworkers) see, and that’s as true today as it was when Twitter was text only. What does the control room look like during a game’s pregame ceremony? How do all those t-shirts get wrapped up and place just so on thousands of seats or hundreds of hats get signed? Is that the equipment manager sharpening some skates or the team massage therapist working out the kinks in a guy’s calf? Is that corner of your office full of extra promo items getting bursting at the seams with random knick-knacks? What feels ordinary, everyday life for those that work it and live it every day is indeed extraordinary for fans, so give them a slice. Those behind-the-scenes peeks stand the test of time.
Fans like winning stuff — use that to the fullest
Contests and sweepstakes are some of the oldest tricks in the sports marketing playbook, and that is as true today as ever. An early revelation in my career was that fans are excited to try and win just about anything. An ETW (enter-to-win) for a t-shirt would often elicit just as much participation as tickets to a game or even some coveted signed swag. That corner of the office full of extra promo items referenced above was a gold mine. That fervor to win something is still strong today, as is the opportunity it presents.
Along with understanding the engagement earned from contests and sweepstakes was valuable, there was also an evolution for us in being more strategic. The goal was almost never just the nebulous ‘engagement.’ It may have been pushing fans to a landing page to collect names and emails (and fans entering to win tickets are almost certainly good leads to try and sell tickets). Or collecting content or stories from fans as part of a contest that could provide stories or media to repurpose. Or perhaps we wanted to promote the new community relations social media account so we could drive fans to engage there for the sweepstakes, or to the team’s mobile app to drive more installs and users. Social media is more strategic than it was over a decade ago, but even back then we recognized the opportunity that contests and sweepstakes presented, and planned and strategized accordingly. Many sports business pros still have that cluttered corner of the office, by the way — that veritable gold mine.
Be original and unpredictable
Social media was a lot more vanilla in the early days. But while the spectrum changes over the years, the value of skewing away from the ‘normal’ remains considerable. It’s the ‘purple cow’ principle espoused by renowned marketing thought leader Seth Godin — an ingredient of success is earning attention, and standing out from the crowd [being the purple cow] is a key factor.
There was more diversity, one could argue, a decade ago in social media and sports. While the voices were largely more stodgy before the arrival of personality (it’s not an understatement to say that the Los Angeles Kings started this movement), over the years, many seemed to regress to the mean; and the mean was snark and sarcasm, often paired with the same old pop culture GIFs and memes peppering everyone’s feeds daily. What was true years ago and remains true today is that originality [buttressed by authenticity and consistency] is important and give fans something distinct to invest in emotionally, something to integrate into their identity. If all brands and voices start to look and sound the same, it’s hard to conjure up passionate feelings.
It’s why we quickly became very intentional about who we were and who we wanted to be on social media. The omniscient voice of the team’s PR didn’t cut it if the goal was to form genuine relationships with fans, nor did the same old graphics day after day. The leaders in social media and sports are savvier than back then when it comes to defining a true brand strategy; and while there may be more decks today, the early days were defined by an internal understanding and evolution over time of being unique, staying true to values, and earning attention by keeping fans on their toes.
Good ideas can and should adapted
While the previous section celebrates originality, this section serves as a reminder that, as my friend (and sports digital/social business thought leader) Sean Callanan likes to say “steal with pride.” It took me a little bit to understand this way back when and I find myself reinforcing the key point to others today, as well — you may follow all the other teams to get ideas and insights, but the vast majority of your fans are not following what other teams are doing on social.
The point is not to copy exactly what every team or outlet does that results in success, it’s more about iterating on winning concepts and cool ideas, and adapting them in a way that fits your brand, your fans, and your capabilities. [I remember ‘borrowing’ ESPN’s “Beat The Streak” with first goal predictions — tweeting out the names of fans with active streaks before each game, showing them we’re listening and giving them a dopamine hit of fame] It’s a service to your fans to bring in and adapt good, fun ideas for them on social media. We’ll still be reminding future #smsports pros to ‘steal with pride’ in another ten years, I reckon.
Recognize when you get gold and maximize it
Every once in a while, the team gets dealt figurative pocket aces. An incredible play, a significant announcement, a historic milestone, or a championship. These moments and opportunities go a long way in separating the good from the great. In my first social media and sports role, one of the early days included a monumental announcement that the team’s most legendary player would be coming back to play for ‘one more year.’ It was one of those things where you know as soon as you pushed ‘send,’ that the Internet would figuratively break, at least in our world. And we had a laundry list ready of content, contests, and promotions ready to go.
Those fleeting pocket aces usually result in a win — big numbers, engagement, and emotiveness — but the point is not to kick back and enjoy the ride, but to figure out the best ways to maximize that pot [poker analogies!]. The mandate to make the most of the ephemeral opportunities is as powerful today as it was a decade ago. In fact, there are more levers to pull and, most importantly, social media (for the most part) is valued as a key part of the organization’s strategy in extracting the most value from that gold, so you have more hands to play. You may not always see the moments coming, but know what to do with when they arrive.
Stats tell a lot but they don’t tell everything
Every year, every season, every day social media strategy an marketing becomes more data-driven. Numbers don’t lie, right? Social media ‘ROI’ was a question we were just starting to truly tackle a decade ago and the vanity metrics were the majority of what we had to go off of, let alone what the higher-ups cared about. We received league-wide reports on digital and social media success (no CrowdTangle in the earliest days!) and measured up. But we all kind of knew, back then, that numbers could be game-ified. In fact, many of the simplest tactics delivered to a crazy degree, at times, back then. The first insights really came, however, when we learned to look at the outliers. What performed beyond predictability?
In many ways, we’ve gotten so much savvier in looking beyond the surface metrics, asking more thoughtful and penetrating questions, and demanding answers that vanity metrics alone cannot answer. Heck, I can even remember requesting data from our marketing department and having my request declined — it was pretty hard back then. Now data flows freely to inform every department, so we’ve come a long way. But in other ways, there is still too much pressure put on the optics of the vanity metrics and engagement rate. Rankings and virality are still seen, certainly externally and to some degree internally, as a marker of social media success, despite the diversity of goals, brands, strategies, and audiences. Whether a decade ago or today, we all have true objectives that can’t be measured in likes, views, or comments. But many still can’t quit those old-school numbers.
Forming community goes beyond two-way
Online community long predates social media. Before MySpace and Facebook, there were AOL chat rooms, forums, and message boards. But the early days of social media weren’t as social as they should’ve been. Many brands were so excited to have this ‘free’ broadcast channel, and the organic reach in those days was exponentially better than what it is today. And yet, the coolest role I realized we could play back then was fostering community among our fans. When fans formed relationships and friendships, and interacted with each other, with the team forming the glue of those connections. There was nothing more gratifying than seeing fans hanging out at real-life events, bringing relationships to life that started out on the team’s social.
Such relationship fomenting is even stronger today. Communities form in the comments, replies beget remixes and collaborations, and one-way communication has leapt over two-way to an enlightened present day of pan-directional conversations. So while it once seemed novel or even (sigh) groundbreaking to proactively spend time DM’ing and replying and starting, but not always leading, conversation — today fan nation-building is the expectation, and we’re all better for it.
Big ideas are only as good as your ability to articulate and execute
One of the most fun parts of social media and sports is that there is seemingly no ceiling for creativity (time and budget notwithstanding). It’s the type of job that has you lying in bed at night and thinking up cool ideas and clever executions. But as I started as a bright-eyed social media and sports rookie, I learned along the way that, in more ways than one, alignment and collaboration are key. And to earn that, you have to know how to make shit happen, and how to take that idea in your head, document it, explain it and justify it, and actually, well, do it. [A lot of social, and strategy in general, is writing it down]
Social media has become ever more valued and intertwined with sports organizations, and there are increasing layers of project management, backed by well thought-out processes, and often software like Trello, Monday.com, Airtable, etc. We may have had more whiteboards and Excel sheets than management software back then when we cooked up one of my cross-platform, weeks-longs campaigns that spanned departments (and is still going today!), but we still covered every post, asset, need, and responsibility.
The culture of innovation is as strong today as it was a decade ago — and anyone that works with me knows that I still very much approach each day with the idea wheel turning — ideation has just become more professionalized today AND more scaled. There is a balance there, to be sure. Because while the increased ability to scale ideas and campaigns across an organization increases its potential value, it also means there are more cooks in the kitchen and often that scaling cannot, and should not, be done at the expense of timeliness. The mandate for modern sports organizations is agility, to be able to make (good) decisions and execute (effectively) as quickly as possible before the fleeting moment passes.
[Bonus] Don’t be afraid to ask what for you need to achieve success
Okay, so technically this is #12 (and I actually cut another out — about ‘follow the money’), but this last point is near and dear to my heart, and one that continues to resonate in the conversations in social media today.
The demands of social and digital media staff are so massive, it’s almost a meme to list all of the professional skills one needs to succeed in these roles today, from creative to community to analytics to project management and the list goes on. And leadership continues to want their organization to be “best-in-class” across the board, and social media is as visible and measurable as anything.
But it doesn’t happen without buy-in, literally and figuratively. You need staff, you need resources, you need access, you need trust, and you need recovery time. I’ve found myself on all ends of this spectrum throughout the last decade-plus, some points of pride and certainly many regrets. The emerging generation today feels empowered to ask for what they need to achieve success and that has been a great evolution over the years. It doesn’t mean we always get everything that we want or need, but we’re able to better frame what’s needed for maximum performance and how different allocations and provision of resources affects the best potential outcomes.
These jobs are not getting any easier and the best of the best people provide immeasurable value, a high ‘WAR,’ if you will, thereby diminishing any notion that thousands of individuals would take their job with their hours and their salary in a heartbeat AND perform at a similar level.
It’s impossible to imagine what social media and sports will look like in another year, let alone another decade. But we can rest assured that certain fan wants, needs, and behaviors may not look altogether different than today. Ideas that work today will work tomorrow, even if they look or sound a little different.
Take to heart those core principles at play in your strategy and tactics, you’ll learn a lot by developing philosophies that can fuel you for life. The pace of technology and features and storytelling possibilities is as quick as ever, but if you squint hard enough, even if it’s in the metaverse, you’ll see that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
More random fun…
[Random fun I discovered from discarded remnants of a verrry old deck; I wish I had the whole thing and documented all the forward-thinking ideas my colleagues and I ideated and executed way back when!]
Listen to episode 203 of the Digital and Social Media Sports podcast, in which Neil chatted with
- Andrew Manning, Premier Lacrosse League (previously with Rabil Companies) — full episode
- Jeff Mason of University of Central Missouri Athletics — full episode
- Adam White of Front Office Sports — full episode
- Julie Phayer, Social Media Consultant (previously with The Ringer, Golden State Warriors) — full episode
- Donny White of Satisi Labs — full episode
Social media and sports pros are asked to deliver a lot. They must drive the key ‘vanity’ metrics to ensure the brand is reaching a wide audience, keep the engagement rate high in order to be attractive to sponsors, aaaand help develop new fans across generations — and do all that while building and enhancing the brand of the organization and activating their presence across a number of disparate platforms. And, oh yeah, create content and track and interpret data, too.
Yeah, it’s a lot.
The volume of demands and output requires a keen sense of brand development, and a deep understanding of each social channel. There are still some that press ‘send’ and see their content, copy, and creative plastered across platforms identically to drive up the vanity metrics; but the vast majority do not, and for good reason. I recount all this to set up the insights offered by Austin Penny, who helped develop and execute social media strategy for Auburn Athletics and Auburn Football, as well as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — recognizing each organization’s unique goals and how to effectively execute against them across platforms, while staying true to stated brand goals and values. Penny was able to frame the discussion in clear and stark terms, noting the similarities and differences of moving from Auburn to the NFL and the Bucs.
“Everything that we did at Auburn was based around recruiting,” said Penny, who had two separate stints working at Auburn around his time with the Bucs. “At the end of the day, you’re creating content to show what it’s like to be an Auburn Tiger; [to] really give that 14 to 18 year-old the best insight of what it would be like if they came and played a sport and studied at Auburn. So that was our goal every single day is how can we create content that’s going to show that?…
“[Then] with the Bucs], it went from recruiting to revenue…”[It was] ‘let’s do our best to create content, sell [social] media, work with corporate partnerships to make sure that we’re marrying the right content to the right partner.'”
The trick is to create content worth marrying to the partners in a way that aligns with the brand that the Bucs wanted to put out there, too. A brand that fans would want to identify with and wrap their arms around, and also a brand with which sponsors would want to partner. When Penny joined the team, the Bucs were about to set sail (sorry, had to do it) on a reinvigorated brand strategy, creating a desirable brand in which fans could take pride. It’s one thing to talk about a brand, another to articulate it, and yet another to execute and convey it. Penny described the pillars that guided him and the Bucs on social media. With an identity in place, they were ready to go when moves on the football side presented an opportunity — wind in their sails, if you will.
“We had fearless, we had being piratical and really taking advantage of our mascot — who we are — [and] we had being heartfelt,” said Penny in describing the Bucs’ brand pillars. “Then you start to have these [player] signings where you’re getting Tom [Brady], you’re getting these guys and the hype is starting to build, and then you’re rolling out this new brand.
“And you can see it from [around] last February into April — the brand transition, along with the jersey change, that’s kinda what helped spur that on, and then you get a brand that is high-class. You get a brand that’s really focused on the customer service side and look how cool we are. You want to be a part of this, you definitely want to be a part of this. Look, we’re winning now. “
Penny conceded that, of course, winning makes everything easier. But even the best teams still face the challenges that every organization does in trying to be intentional about their brand — being engaging to different fan demos on different platforms. The tactics, voice, and content packaging, substance, and strategy can all differ when speaking to diverse groups of fans and on different social networks. It’s not about trying to be everything to everybody; that’s a doomed proposition. To have success on each social channel is to respect and use those differences; to understand who you’re talking to on each platform and how they like to engage there. The brand’s north star can be consistent even as it floats to different platforms; it’s not unlike how, well, real humans have distinct personalities even if the way they talk around their aunts and uncles is different from the way they talk around their friends. Penny gave a thoughtful explanation of how the Bucs looked at some of the major social platforms.
“On Twitter, we were way more engaging, we knew that we had to constantly be talking back to fans — not in a bad way, but talking back to fans and engaging with them, making them feel like they were a part of this whole thing,” said Penny, who today works as a Social Media Manager for sports digital and social marketing agency STN Digital.
“On Facebook, we started a Facebook Group for our fans and we would always be in that engaging with them, giving them opportunities for giveaways and that type of thing. So we were a little bit more not necessarily reserved, but we were more appreciative, I guess you could say, as a brand. On Instagram there were times where we were telling people to walk the plank because they were clapping at us and saying how terrible of a game we had or how bad we were, and we’re just like ‘Hey, you know what, whatever we’re coming after you at times.’”
The reason it is so necessary to have presence across a growing number of platforms is that teams and schools and sports organizations are trying to reach everybody. They’re trying to reach existing fans across a variety of sociodemographic groups, while also reaching and converting potential new fans, particularly among the younger cohorts. It’s easier said than done, however, and it’s why hitting big numbers overall is not always a clear signifier of success on social media. And it’s why such a thoughtful approach across social networks is essential.
Penny broke it down further: “It’s not necessarily about just growing platforms,” he said, “but it’s doing it the way that we know that we should — are we putting out content that our fans are actually engaging with and then, to take that a step further, how are we locking in on the 14 to 18-year-old next crop of NFL fans? Are we showing content that’s resonating with them?
“And then it’s like, okay, how are we going to do our job so we can make sure that 10 years from now we’re still able to have a job because there is that next crop of fans coming. And that’s every professional sport league…”
Penny continued, hitting on what guides social media teams in making economical decisions about how and where to deploy their limited resources.
“Every platform has its own world, really, and you may have fans or followers that follow you on every single platform and kind of going back to my earlier point about having a different voice on [each platform] that kind of gives them incentive to follow you on everything. But from actually breaking it out and figuring out where we’re going to put our resources, it’s really prioritization of the buckets of the people that we’re trying to hit.
“Every platform is going to have a key demo that you’re going to hit and once you figure that out and you kind of understand that better, you can really start to attack it, divvy up your resources better.”
There’s no one way to identify success on social media, because each organization comes with its own goals and distinct brand. The best know what they’re trying to do, they’re intentional about it. Every decision, post, and piece of content is not about what will earn the highest engagement — that’s part of it, sure — but it’s what will earn the highest engagement while helping ‘x’ goal and conveying ‘y’ brand and reaching ‘z’ audience, among a number of other letters of the alphabet representing variables.
There are a lot of pathways to earning the engagement and impressions that many use to measure success, but the routes and destinations are unique to each organization. Every strategy needs to start by mapping out the routes and destinations that make sense for them. Don’t ever lose or forget the compass, it’s the only way to get where you need to go.