How FIBA 3×3 Constructs and Executes its Social Media Strategy to Build and Engage a Global Fan Base

You spend all that time in school learning proper English and how to write an academic paper — only to realize proper punctuation can be triggering and you can say more with a timely meme than anything too intellectually inspiring.In the world of social media, fluency doesn’t mean knowing the correct verb tense, it’s more important to know the slang that your target audience uses, the colloquialisms that are part of their culture.So when Esteban González was handed the reins to the digital and social strategy for FIBA‘s upstart 3×3 competition, he knew he had to school himself on mastering the language of basketball on social media. Not far removed from learning English, González studied the esoteric language of basketball on social. But it was more than that. FIBA, which governs the sport of basketball globally, has an international audience that spans countries, cultures, and communities all over the world, so the challenge transcended language and culture. González looked to other media outlets that seek to engage global audiences for inspiration, appreciating the challenge that lay before him. He cited the sports media brand Overtime as an outlet worthy of emulation.”[They have] Overtime Spain, Overtime France, and Overtime India — and every one of them has a different tone of voice to be identified with the audience from that country,” said González, who was born and raised in Spain. “Because at the end there are tons of jokes that some people could make in Spain that you would never understand because you don’t have that background or you are not following the most popular streamer in the country and in the end, they are the ones dictating this new vocabulary or these new ways of communicating with the audience.”González emphasized how vital it is to study each country where they seek to engage the fans. When you’re publishing for a fan base in a different country and language, it’s instructive to understand and appreciate the difference between translation and localization. Translating copy is easy enough, sure, but translation falls short for social media. Localization means understanding what resonates, what’s happening in pop culture there, and the slang that’s peppering the language — all of which Google Translate can’t give you. González cites an example of creating content about the South Korean team for fans concentrated in the country thousands of miles away from where González lives and works in Europe.”Before every event, we also try to look at what are the different trends in the part of the world that we are going to,” he explained. “For example, if we have a team in South Korea, we have a nice South Korean team, I need to go and check, okay, what are the best K-pop bands? So then I can make some references in the captions and these kinds of things.”González and his colleagues at FIBA aren’t just thinking about their audience and fans in terms of language and culture, there is also context to consider. The different experiences for local vs. remote fans is something any sports team or league can understand; NBA Commissioner Adam Silver often cites how 99% of fans won’t ever attend a game (as is the case for most pro sports leagues). So while FIBA 3×3 takes great pride in its dynamic, fun-filled live event experience, González recognizes that the gameday experience for the 99% of fans taking it in at home is different. They seek to deliver a meaningful, fun experience for fans in both contexts, whether they’re chatting with fans in the seats next to them or chatting in the rapid stream of messages on YouTube. And these fans are different, González described.”We are convinced that the people who would follow the event online might not be the same person that would like to go to an event on-site because the experience might not be the same for them,” he said. “They are not listening to the commentator, they are not interacting on the YouTube chat, they are not putting a comment on Instagram. And this is something that is really important for us is the community aspect of 3×3.”The community aspect is part of the 3×3 narrative and experience that transcends platform and context. FIBA 3×3 is building something special that fans and players and staff feel a part of, so it’s important that that comes across at all touchpoints, whether in the feed or on the floor. This is where attention to detail and adherence to a cohesive, cross-platform strategy comes into play, when talking the talk turns into walking the walk. It’s great to make fans feel at home when you welcome them to an exciting onsite experience filled with music, food, fun, and 3×3 basketball — but it’s just as valuable to activate those values on social media platforms, too. González described how this plays out for FIBA 3×3 on social, ensuring fans everywhere understand that FIBA 3×3 is a ‘family.'”This family aspect of 3X3 is really important for us and we will even go and trash talk to the comments on social media,” said González, who has been with FIBA 3×3 since 2015. “If we see that someone is criticizing our players or they said ‘Oh I could do this,’ we would say ‘Okay, it’s open to everyone, why don’t you go and try to qualify?’”So, if you come to social media also to try to embarrass our players, we got their backs and we are going to also fight for them and try to protect them on social media to build this family atmosphere.”There’s an intimate feel cultivated along with that familial brand. But the bar for fandom doesn’t mean FIBA 3×3 wants to keep that family small and insular, the goal is to grow the sport and the engagement and awareness around its competitions and content. FIBA 3×3 certainly loves sharing its awesome highlights that capture the attention of fans, casual and avid, across its digital platforms. But there is an emotional connection fans can make with such a global sport, a pride that fans feel when a top player from their country is thriving with FIBA 3×3 or a team representing the country is competing for a 3×3 World Cup title.This is the fun part where the strategy and the study come together. González and his colleagues recognize the opportunity brought forth when the spotlight is shining on a given player and/or country. They can step back and appreciate these opportune times to tap into a given country and spike growth and engagement among fans there.”For example, if we see that we have a lot of or we have the Serbian team is winning a lot of events, we are like okay, let’s think how can we try to boost more people from Serbia,” González said. “If the team from the United States is winning? Okay, how can we amplify the noise in the US? This is the thinking process there is behind this side of the strategy and I think it happens a lot when you have this global sport.”The international nature of the sport means those opportunities do come along when a national team is winning. It also extends more granularly, and more powerfully, through the players. Every player brings along with them a local, and often regional or even national fan base (and social media follower base) that FIBA 3×3 can tap into. So while one of FIBA 3×3’s strategic mandates is to maximize its own channels, it is just as important and valuable to build up player profiles and help individual players grow their reach and engagement.FIBA 3×3 is scrappy compared to its giant basketball counterparts like the NBA, so earned media and external engagement via its players is an important part of the picture. But so is, well, everything. Each piece of content, every minute spent must be done with purpose. It’s why attention to detail like knowing the right memes is worth spending time on, hitting the right spot can make a big difference in fan growth and engagement. This thoughtful mindset extends to everything González does in his role and he described the framework FIBA 3×3 uses to ensure they always have the right focus, citing three strategic pillars.”The first [pillar] is to develop stars and help the players build their own profiles,” he explained. “The second one is to get new fans and the maximum reach so that we can bring new fans to the sport. And the third one, of course, is making the partners happy because they are also the ones that are helping us to be where we are right now.”So every post that we put out there has to at least fulfill one of the three key pillars that we have identified for the strategy. If it’s not bringing value to the partners, if it’s not helping us to bring new fans, or if it’s not helping to boost the profile of one of the players, why are we posting this? So it has at least to be in one of those categories for us to create that piece of content and put it out there.”Okay, so I lied in the introduction of this article. Proper punctuation does matter. Proper, according to the platform and audience, that is. Every detail matters. We gotta sweat the small stuff and study the platforms, verbiage, memes, trends, and communities like we’re cramming for a final. Everyone that works in social media is a lifelong student and it’s the most studious that will ace the test on every selected platform, every day, with every post.


How Sports Teams Can Craft a Strong Brand Narrative One Social Media Post at a Time

Think about one of your favorite sports teams to follow on social media. How would you describe them? Which traits do they embody as an overall brand, which adjectives come to mind, what are their values, and what differentiates them from other sports teams?

In a time when consumers care what the brands they patronize and support stand for and how those brands come off, sports fans are also cognizant of whether their favorite teams and athletes mesh with their personal identities. And social media, in all its forms, is the most powerful mechanism teams have to develop and activate an identity. Every one of the hundreds of touchpoints teams have on these platforms with fans each week, every graphic and word — it all coalesces into how fans perceive the personalities and values of the team.

By the time Kurt Gies arrived at the Philadelphia 76ers, the team knew who it was and how to express it on social media. Luckily for Kurt, the brand of the 76ers was ‘Philadelphian’ and Kurt just happened to be a born and bred Philadelphian. So when he took over the keys (the social media posting) for the Sixers, he appreciated what his predecessors had built and sought to grow it further, along with the emerging personality of the team as embodied by its charismatic players.

“That [Sixers] account is not talking in just this plain voice, it’s talking as if it’s a Philadelphian, and Philadelphians appreciate that so much,” said Gies, who today is the Director of Social Media and Influencers for the LA Rams. “You look at the makeup of the team too…Joel Embiid especially in his early days was such a personality and it was like how do you take that huge personality and try and replicate that? Because at the end of the day, if you’re a sports brand account, you probably want to take on the voice of the people on your team…

“So having somebody like Joel Embiid is a huge piece of that and [the Sixers social media managers before me] did a great job emulating that and it just really opened up the doors for me as he started to play and become even more popular of like, ‘Hey, Joel is trolling people, we’re going to troll people too’ or we’re going to take on that similar voice.”

The Sixers were (and still are) one of the more distinct voices in social media and sports, and their originality and success continued, whether it was people named Max, Sandro, Kurt, Alli, Andy, or others behind the keys. It felt so organic for the Sixers when Kurt was there, and having guys like Embiid fueling the fire only made the direction all the more logical, sensible, and almost facile. So it was a new challenge when Gies left the comfy confines of the city of brotherly love to head to the LA Clippers, which had its own distinct brand identity and goals.

The Clippers were in the midst of a reinvigoration. The brand had been ascending, but with the arrival of newly acquired NBA stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George coinciding with Gies’s arrival, there was a salient opportunity to mold the brand and perception of the Clippers and its newly bedazzled roster. But to seize that opportunity meant paying attention to every detail, to ensure those hundreds and thousands of fan touchpoints all furthered an intentional narrative, Gies explained to me.

“When [his Clippers colleagues Sandro Gasparro and Charlie Widdoes] started they didn’t have Kawhi and PG [Paul George], but they did an incredible job of crafting that narrative and sticking to that narrative to help build that brand up from what it used to be,” said Gies, who had connected with both Gasparro and Widdoes from their time at the Sixers. “And then, you know, you get somebody like Kawhi and PG and you’re title contenders and everything was very calculated.

“That was probably one of the biggest I learned of many things from working with those guys. But that’s something that I always go back to, just there’s always a why behind what it is that we’re posting and what it is that we’re creating, and making sure that it’s achieving what that narrative is.”

Gies went on to describe what, exactly, that narrative was the Clippers sought to build. The ‘why’ to which every piece of content and post should connect.

“For the Clippers, it was, ‘Hey, we’re a blue-collar team. We’re a gritty team. We’re not this superstar team,’” he said. “So we want to show that we’re always putting in work. We want to show that we’re not afraid to roll up our sleeves and here are the specific players that we want to highlight and the keywords — so just really calculated and determined what it was that we were highlighting in the content that we were creating.

“We weren’t just creating things to create them. We were creating things and crafting copy — there are so many things that go into it. But we were doing all of this with meaning behind it.”

 Thoughtfully crafting a brand doesn’t always equal virality. Sure, it’s great for every post to hit big numbers and social media teams will always try to convey the desired meaning or value in the best way possible. But when it comes to activating different aspects of the brand, it may mean not every post will ‘blow up’ on social. If every post were to go viral, it’s probably a sign that the narrative is not well-rounded, the full brand picture is not being presented. Gies talked about the importance of balancing trying to win the internet with content that connects back to organizational goals, and did so more eloquently than this author ever could.

“Focusing on engagement, that doesn’t necessarily mean that can’t hit both [goals],” he explained. “Saying something that’s like, ‘Hey, this is a meme, but that still ladders back to a goal,’ which could be engaging in internet culture because that’s going to help hit fans that aren’t fans of the Clippers; or the complete opposite of that of like, ‘Hey, community is really important and showing what we’re doing in the community is really important for our narrative,’ but that stuff might not necessarily perform that well. There are ways to make it more creative, but that’s still really important to our narrative. 

“So understanding that sometimes things that you’re doing might not necessarily be for the engagement or for the impressions but are still really important in telling that story.”

Our reputations and personalities are the sum of every micro-interaction and impression we have with others. A perception is neither formed nor changed with a single engagement, let alone a single social media post. Over time, everything adds up and it’s integral that every word, each creative piece, and every post has purpose and precision. Brands aren’t built in a day, but they can last a lifetime.


Public-Facing Metrics, Social Media ROI, and What Makes Good Content

Even the best ‘KPI’ in social media can’t cover everything. Sorry, nope, it’s not so simple.

That’s a feature, not a bug, for social media and sports. It’s powerful because its definition of success can be versatile and multi-faceted. And that’s why it’s integral to build a mutual understanding of ‘what are we trying to do here?’ in the macro and micro sense.

Jared Kleinstein has these conversations a lot, pretty much every time his agency Fresh Tape Media embarks on a project with a client, most of whom are in sports and entertainment. Because the most holistic measures of success and best-constructed initiatives go beyond the traditional metrics.

“[We] set expectations early on about, ‘Do you care about the views? Do you care about the stats? Because in that case, shoot, we can just repurpose your highlights over and over again,” said Kleinstein who is Founder and CEO of Fresh Tape Media. “Do you care about community engagement? Do you care about creative reputation? All those things.”

“So I think that you have to get into the intangibles and you have to think about is the brand or somebody you’re working for — are they making money off it? Does it help their bottom line because it’s a part of a brand campaign, in which case they can start selling more and more things like this?”

The traditional metrics — the “public-facing metrics,” as Kleinstein refers to the stuff like # of comments, likes, et al. — still matter. Kleinstein also noted that their public nature is a signal to everybody else (other users, fans, potential fans, potential partners, etc.). But if you ask ‘why’ a couple more times, it turns out that social media delivers much more.

“[Also consider] are there soft things, like, does this [content] help them win any relationships with a player? Did the player have such a good experience with this that they [will be] more willing in the future to collaborate on creative executions?,” explained Kleinstein, who worked for Twitter/Vine before starting Fresh Tape. “So we love making sure that, for every project we do, that the athlete experience was good, that internal people got what they needed in terms of did they make money off of it and all that stuff, and then did it help the brand overall in terms of engagement and exposure.”

That’s a lot of objectives that social media can touch. Pretty good, eh? But go a little deeper into the evaluation and we can get even smarter. It’s easy to look at the social media feeds and compare one team or brand with another, making snap judgments on content concepts, quality, execution, and the ‘public-facing metrics’ they elicit. One can even consider those ‘softer’ things that Kleinstein alluded to. Kleinstein and Fresh Tape have an advantageous view, too, because they’re basically hired guns. A team or league or network or brand or whoever hires and pays them to accomplish whatever those objectives may be. And, regardless of which numbers comprise the KPIs, there is a cost and benefit look to the ledger. Discreet (countable) metrics, as Kleinstein stated, can serve as a bit of a consistent scorecard to track how good the organization as driving them. He’s seeing more scrutiny in that direction in recent years.

“I think [what] it is more valuable nowadays now that there have been years of foundational data to calculate your year-over-year engagement for each platform, and for each tentpole event and stuff like that, to compare your year-over-year engagement and your return on your investment,” described Kleinstein, who is also Founder and President of social media credits and measurement platform Gondola. “I think people are getting more granular about ROI in terms of like, ‘Listen, we got a million more views. Last year we were at 46 million, this year we’re at 48 million, 2 million more, right? But we spent $50,000 more. So did we get the ROI on that?’

“So people are definitely being a bit more granular about the ROI.”

Kleinstein also brought up that some of the most valuable engagements happen beyond owned and operated channels, so every ounce of engagement can’t be tracked and dissected. Again, that’s the power of social media, the viral capability of content that stretches success in a number of directions. We may not talk or think enough about earned media.

“Earned media is probably more valuable than ever,” said Kleinstein. “So just not just looking at your own stuff, but looking at the distribution of your content outside of your own channels. Are meme accounts picking it up? Are major media outlets picking it up?

“And [to track] earned media, there are a bunch of tools out there. Gondola is only one of a few other tools that are doing a really great job helping people track and find the reach of their content beyond their owned and operated channels.” 

Okay, so there’s been a lot of thought-provoking, advanced points about what makes for ‘good’, ‘successful’ social media and sports content in this article. It can be dizzying, really, because the goalposts often move and the industry also improves in the ability to measure, understand, and articulate these goals. At the same time, so-called ‘best practices’ and winning ideas are as ephemeral as TikTok trends.

But here’s the thing — as the platforms change, new features evolve, more metrics come about —the keys to quality, needle-moving content largely remain unchanged. Kleinstein has seen it. Kleinstein has lived it — from Vine (where he once worked) shuttering to Snapchat and TikTok coming and Instagram continuously adding features; amidst all the change, the most important elements are pretty much the same. Kleinstein recounted speaking recently at a Denver Startups Week event, where he showed how the substance of a deck he had from over six years ago remained the same today. The core principles of great content were the same then as they are today.

Said Kleinstein: “I’m gonna say a few sentences that have not shifted in forever: People’s attention spans are shorter than ever. Literally. Vine was a six-second platform, we were saying back then the same thing about TikTok and everything now. Creating evergreen content that shows player personalities and really gets to emotional attributes, that’s gonna be wins — hasn’t changed.

“Little things like when you’re framing for social media, don’t think of it like framing for a traditional interview. You only have so much square footage on the screen, so where a traditional interview may do a three-quarter shot or you can see somebody sitting back and you see from the top of their head down to their belly button — on social, you wanna be more faces. So getting more faces and showing more personality is great… 

“I think the biggest learning about the state of the creative industry is that what makes great content isn’t changing…”