What UMBC Athletics Reminded Us About The Genesis, Growth, and Importance of Voice On Social Media

Think back to the early days of social media. When trade announcements sounded like mini press releases. Compare that to the free agent signing of Michael Crabtree by the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens announced in a tweet with an emoji of a crab and an emoji of a tree.

So, yeah, things have changed.

And this was manifested marvelously by the performance of the @UMBCAthletics Twitter account, led by Zach Seidel, as the Retrivers captured the country’s attention, becoming the first 16-seed to ever defeat a #1 seed in the Men’s Basketball NCAA Tournament, stunning fans of March Madness. Seidel didn’t ignore the haters tweeting skeptically about the UMBC team, didn’t ignore what was playing out in front of him and millions watching, and, most importantly, didn’t speak like a formal press release.

The evolution on Twitter (where voice is most defined on social media for sports teams) from PR to personality has surely been gradual, but most veterans of this space will point to one seminal tweet and one magical title run that started it all. It was the spring of 2012 when the Los Angeles Kings ousted the favored Vancouver Canucks in an opening playoff series. The Kings took the opportunity to sarcastically (snarkily) tweet “To everyone in Canada outside BC, you’re welcome,” addressing fans all over Canada that didn’t feel to fondly about the club in Vancouver. It struck a nerve. It was different. Many didn’t know how to react – was it okay to showcase a bit of tongue-in-cheek personality? Was this befitting of a professional team and its official Twitter presence speaking on the organization’s behalf?

Articles were written, discussions were had, but, as is quite evident today, it only progressed from there. Soon, several team Twitter accounts were trying to elicit laughs and smirks, and trying to create copy that would strike a similar nerve and get fans to feel like their team was cool, and they were cool by association. Over time, more emotion was infused — teams were smartasses when things were going good, they weren’t sugarcoating an awful loss, they exhibited the same ups and downs and jokes of the fans — they were talking and experiencing with them, not at them.

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So what happened when UMBC realized they were doing what no one thought they could or should be doing? When all the attention was on their team and their school? They chose not to ignore the obvious, not to appear oblivious to what madness was clearly happening on the court and all around them, including their website. When CBS College Basketball Analyst Seth Davis tweeted his trademark “Sharpie” (game over) right after tip, they fired back because it’s what their fans would’ve wanted to do – and UMBC doesn’t need to adhere any no-cheering-in-the-press-box like rule when it comes to Twitter.

When TweetDeck started showing a ton of fans mostly saying ‘Who the heck is UMBC?,’ they didn’t shy away from it, trying to act proud enough that people would and should know them. They seized the opportunity to connect, to engage, and to even introduce themselves to the world. And when their website went down, likely as much a source of pride as frustration (too many visitors is a good thing!), they didn’t offer some PR-laden statement like “We are aware of technical difficulties and working to resolve…,” they acknowledged the issue like a human, demonstrating authenticity, playfulness, and even smart messaging reinforcing the long ‘line’ of fans trying to get onto umbc.edu.

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UMBC Athletics suddenly became the life of this March Madness party, on and off the court. More fans followed, more Googled UMBC, more became enamored with a personality that talked to them like a human, that reacted to the madness ensuing in front of them.

It conjures, for me, some of the work I do with teams at Hopscotch who welcome automated score alerts — Final Score: [Team Name] x, [Team Name] x. But others choose to do them manually – they want to convey the epic comeback or sold-out crowd or identify the hero.

As artificial intelligence and increased automation becomes possible, it’s important to appreciate the value of the human voice, and the capacity to express emotion. Some Messenger bots are getting smart, sure, but no bot could’ve reacted to the moments like Seidel and @UMBCAthletics did.

A social media presence can’t be devoid of emotion,

One thought on “What UMBC Athletics Reminded Us About The Genesis, Growth, and Importance of Voice On Social Media

  1. Who could have expected that a team that no one expected to perform as well as they did, also had a crack social media operator? I think it is important for Sport Media professionals and teams to understand that at the end of the day, they are in the entertainment industry. Team’s like UMBC and the Golden Knights have embraced their new voices on social media, they have the advantage of not having “old school” fans to disparage the playful use of social media. I agree with your point, that event if it is easier and more cost effective to use social media bots to post, nothing will replace the wit of a human operator. The danger that many organizations may be worried about is the inappropriate posting of content that may ostracize fan groups. It is on the media teams and administrators to create clear policy on posting etiquette and to provide training on the use of twitter, instagram, facebook, snapchat, etc to post in good taste.

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