How an NHL Team Built and Executed its Brand: ‘You need to have a vision and a north star’​

I remember my first social media job in major pro sports. I was an entry-level, one-man content band for social, among other platforms. And nobody told me what content to create.

Early on that often meant piggybacking off the beat writer stories until I got more comfortable talking to players and coaches. And, looking back, I had some strategy in my head — stories to tell, events to amplify, and my interpretation of the ‘brand’ of the team on the marketing side and how that should manifest on social media.

Social media has grown up since then. One-man bands in major professional sports are no more; social channels are powerful and they command more resources and efforts now. Strategy is now table stakes. The best teams have social media leaders collaborating with the rest of the organization, carrying out a thoughtful, cohesive brand through content and social media activity.

The content and social strategy starts with the brand, not the other way around. That’s an important distinction that can be the difference between engagement and connection, short-term results that can set up long-term wins. A strategy built out from a strong brand foundation stands the test of time. I recently spoke to the New Jersey Devils’s Senior Manager of Content Strategy Chris Wescott about the team’s success in building a distinct, relatable, objectively successful cross-platform content practice that effectively activates the team’s brand.

“You need to have a vision and a north star for your brand,” said Wescott, who has been with the Devils since 2019, the third National Hockey League (NHL) team with which he’s worked. “And then you kind of build your content plan around that, build your marketing around that, and you kind of build your voice around that.”

One reason that’s so key for social media, too, Wescott explained, is because the voice should not be the voice of the person on the keys. It’s the voice of the team and it should remain so even as key pushers change.

“The whole point of having a brand identity and voice is so that you can survive turnover at the creative level, too…,” he said. “You have to invest in [social and creative] positions. So that’s where you’re going to get a little helter-skelter in terms of brand voice and then you’re gonna see things that don’t necessarily make sense coming from that team.”

It’s just as integral to realize that a brand is more than the copy and memes on the team’s social media channels. It represents and manifests from the organization as a whole. And because brand is always the first brick laid, upon which the strategies and tactics are built, it’s vital that everybody works together and works out from the same foundation. That everyone has the same north star. Wescott talked about how this process played out for the Devils as they sought to reinvigorate and define the team’s brand in recent years.

“Our social media team does not operate in a bubble; we operate alongside marketing brand strategy…,” said Wescott, who previously worked with the Chicago Blackhawks and Edmonton Oilers before joining the Devils. “We all kind of sat in a room and started [asking] what are the Devils? Who are the Devils? Who are we gonna be five years from now? Who are we gonna be 10 years from now?

“There were a lot of meetings and discussions that went on with this evolution of our brand and how the voice should not only complement who the brand is, but really work in tandem with it to grow brand affinity.”

Think about one of your own favorite teams or athletes. How would you define their brand? Then consider how the content they post, what they talk about, how they talk about it, how they interact, and whether it all lines up with this overarching ‘brand.’ The word brand gets a lot of play nowadays (I hope you’re not playing a drinking game for use of the word ‘brand’ in this article), but less discussed is how you go from the strategy to tactics, how you put into practice what is put down on paper. As Wescott and his colleagues defined the brand of the New Jersey Devils, it was up to him and his team to activate the brand through their social media.

“We are Jersey’s team and there’s a certain pride and toughness that comes with New Jersey…,” said Wescott, describing a bit of the team’s brand. “We wanted to reflect that pride, that toughness, that roll off your shoulders kind of mentality in our voice. There’s kind of an attitude and a bit of a swagger with it…if you come at us, we’ll swing back. We’re not gonna take it from anybody, we’re gonna dish it back.

“And I think that plus a little bit of irreverent humor really kind of blends together with that attitude and toughness to create who the Devils are on social media.”

One of the best parts about social media, too, is that it offers both quantitative and qualitative feedback on whether the brand, strategy, and tactics are working. Wescott noted that the team has seen largely positive results since they adopted the more ‘Jersey’ brand. And what’s cool is that it’s not just social media. That brand north star really permeates throughout the rest of the organization in a lot of ways.

“There are certain times where you kind of hold off on integrating it,” Wescott cautioned but also noted, “But I think for the most part, like game presentation (for example) — everything should have that tone to it because you’re the Devils and everything that you do should have that tone to it.”

Tone, voice, and personality are important parts of a brand. But they’re not the only parts. Particularly in recent years, what a brand values — and how they actively demonstrate they hold those values — is of utmost importance. Remember, the Devils are ‘Jersey’ and that means not just representing the personality and tone of New Jersey, but showing that they really do love and support the Garden State. Wescott discussed how that well-rounded brand plays out through the team’s content — the team and the brand are more than their tone and voice.

“I think that there are some people [that] just think ‘Oh, the Devils are rude or they’re always roasting [people]’ or something like that,” he said. “But if you see what we do in the community and the amount of social justice initiatives, the amount of helping different underserved parts of our community and what we do for [the] ‘Hockey is for Everyone’ [program] and all those initiatives; it’s also welcoming people into our family, and once you’re in our family, you’re family…”

A significant part of forming an emotional connection is getting to know someone. It’s hard to form a relationship with someone inconsistent, to understand a disparate collection of interactions. The same challenge persists when sports teams don’t know who they are and who they want to be — if they don’t know, their fans certainly don’t know. The end result is often weaker connections, perpetually chasing short-term engagement day-to-day. A brand north star changes that. It creates a gravitational pull around which everything else orbits. Things just make sense and fans can get to know you, to appreciate you, and to fall in love with you. That’s how relationships form that will stand the test of time.

LISTEN TO MY FULL CONVERSATION WITH CHRIS WESCOTT

Measure Everything. But Also Don’t Measure Everything

We’ve gotten really good at measuring things in sports business. But some of the most powerful elements that comprise sports fandom simply cannot be measured. And that’s okay.

We’re in the age of digital and social media, backed by data-driven strategy and analysis — and yet there is, and always will be, so much fan engagement to which we’re blind. And that’s the engagement that creates super fans, fangelists, and individuals who have their heart invested even more than their wallet.

Just because we’re relatively blind doesn’t mean we’re powerless to drive that fervent fandom that gets expressed in more subtle or off-platform ways. There are so many opportunities to capture fans at a deeper level; it’s time to start thinking about visceral fan engagement…

% Identity

You meet somebody new or maybe come across an acquaintance’s Instagram profile or you meet up with coworkers outside of work or, heck, just randomly chill and people-watch at a Starbucks — how much are you, or the people you encounter, identifiable as a fan of the team? 

So much of people’s time, thoughts, and effort go into creating and expressing an identity. Run through just a few ways and it quickly becomes clear how powerful these little pieces of a fan’s identity can be: what’s in their social media bio, how they or their friends describe them, the clothes they wear, their social media avatars, stickers on a laptop, dog collars on their pups, popsockets on their phone, a welcome mat at their door [everybody’s got a door!], a poster on their wall at home, a magnet on their refrigerator, a license plate frame, the towel they take to the beach or pool, the keychain their house and car keys are on — this long list can keep going! Fans pay for this stuff, but maybe we should be paying them.

If the team can inhabit just a few of these aspects for fans, that’s a good indication their fandom is part of their identity. And such visual display not only serves as a message to others about their fandom, but also serves as a constant reminder about the team, every time they grab their keys or look at their fridge or see their Insta avatar.

% Heart

We all know some fans (perhaps even ourselves) whose mood is affected by their team’s performance. They exude joy when the team wins and sulk in gloom after a loss. (Of course, others mostly boil with anger, as well) While there’s something to be said for letting one’s team affect their mood and days excessively, this is the type of emotional investment that remains immeasurable but clearly identifies an avid fan.

So how can teams build such a depth of connection with fans? It starts with exhibiting that emotional investment on the team’s platforms. Amplify the feelings of the fans and the team, convey joy or frustration, excitement and nervousness — and don’t detract from it with stale language or silence. 

And help fans connect emotionally with the players. Let them see the players dance in exultation, but also grimace and groan when times aren’t as great. When fans know the players feel it, too, that not only validates but strengthens their own feelings of unconditional emotional investment — love.

Finally, help fans connect more intimately with each other. Foster that sense of community, commiseration, and celebration. When fans are engaging with each other when the team’s not “around,” that’s a sign of an engaged fanbase, amplifying their connection to the team through each other.

% Communication

Communication is universal. We all communicate in some form or another just about every day and, for most, we communicate a ton every day. Think about how much communication has transformed in the past decade — an emoji can say a thousand words, a GIF can often capture a sentiment more than anything one can type, and many people often just speak in memes.

Help your fans by helping them communicate. Empower them with the communication they need for any occasion. That could be GIFs for every common ‘feeling’ in the book, memes that carry a message, and e-cards or videos for every holiday and special occasion fans may have. Or help them make their own by providing the raw templates for memes or content that allow them to unleash their creativity or customize it for their needs.

Your fans want to find creative and original ways to communicate, whether publicly or on dark social channels and beyond. It’s a significant thing when fans want to, and are able to, weave their fandom into their communication. Help and encourage them to do so.

% Conversation

One of our most basic needs as social animals is something to talk about. Something to talk about gives you a reason to text your friends or something to break the silence at the dinner table. Don’t underestimate the value of conversations — sure, in keeping the team top of mind, but, more importantly, for the ability of conversations about the team to form the backbone of genuine relationships.

There are friendships for which chatting about the team and the league serves as the glue of their connection, the kindling that helps friendships flourish. Your team can help enable those relationships and foster conversation and community. Give them something to talk about and a forum on which to do it. Build smaller, more intimate communities of fans, maybe on Discord. Connect some pen pals across the globe united by their fandom, have fans register to be placed in small WhatsApp groups to talk to during a big game — the team can get them talking and friendships can often form from there.

This happens without the effort of the team, and without the team’s knowledge about how many relationships and chit-chats are full of talk about the team. But we know it does happen. Amplify the examples that do come out and remind fans that they can text the college friends group chat for the first time in months after the team clinches a playoff berth; or they should replace small talk about the weather with small talk about the team. Think about what it means the next time a big piece of sports news drops and you feel excited to message a buddy or two about it.

% Headspace

It’s pretty crazy how otherwise ordinary things become meaningful when you’re an avid sports fan. A number’s not just a number when just seeing it conjures thoughts of the player whose jersey bears that number. When there’s a song that gets played after every goal or win, or the star ballplayer has memorable walk-up music for their at-bat, all of a sudden a song makes fans think of the team, whenever and wherever they hear it played.

The team can inhabit permanent real estate in fans’ heads, unable to avoid being reminded of their favorite athlete or team when exposed to the right cue. Consider the corners of fans’ days and minds that the team can have permanent residence. Post a highlight of a star player, past or present, that wore #24 on the 24th day of every month, post a happy highlight or image at the same time every day no matter what and own that part of the clock, amplify the rituals that your fans have — build in little reminders, signals, or prompts that gives fans just that momentary thought of the team, a fleeting dopamine hit from their fandom.

We spend all day with ourselves, countless thoughts and memories passing through our heads. Your favorite team comprises some % of those thoughts if you’re an avid sports fan. We can’t measure it, but there is perhaps no symptom of fandom more significant.

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We’re armed with more data than ever about fans. But don’t get so buried in the measurables that you overlook the immeasurables. Because fandom has an intangible essence. It’s a feeling burning deep within, an indelible part of one’s heart, mind, and soul.

How Esports is Developing the Next Generation of Fans and What it Says about Sports Fandom More Broadly


What’s the most popular professional sport in the US?

Don’t think too long and hard about it; your first thought was probably football. What if the question changed to which professional sport do the most people have experience playing? That changes the equation a bit — it might be soccer, maybe baseball, but almost certainly the video games category is the correct answer there. And yet (American) football reigns supreme. Why?

This isn’t a story about football, though, it’s about all the reasons fans become fans and the different pathways to fandom. Because there is no more accessible sport than esports — a sport that can be played at any age, just about, and by anyone. And yet esports could also be called quite inaccessible — there are so many different gaming titles within esports, with unique communities, culture, jargon, and sometimes even insularity.

But Kayci Evans and esports organization Evil Geniuses are out to ensure esports welcomes everyone with open arms and, just as importantly, gives potential fans a way to connect to the most accessible sport in the world. Esports is unique, though. Not just because the actual competition takes place beyond the physical world, but because it is a sport comprised of tons of other sports. There is only one baseball, but there are hundreds, thousands, millions of video games.

So how do you market to fans that may be familiar with video games, in general, but have little to no experience with the specific games in which your teams compete? It’s not easy, but Evil Geniuses are Evans are finding a way. And in doing so are bringing to life universal truths about culture, fandom, and connection.

“Because you already don’t know how to play the game, or whatever they’re talking about; and then on top of that, there’s a lingo that is matched to that game style or that community,” said Evans, who is the Director of Global Brand Marketing for Evil Geniuses. “So it makes it a challenge on the marketing side to figure out how you’re gonna break down the barrier to entry.”

One way Evil Geniuses (EG) has brought fans, with vastly different levels of experience and knowledge about the games, together has been through (relatively) universal cultural experiences. Evans talked about how there are countless memes that enter the mainstream (or at least as ‘mainstream’ as anything can be these days), memes that often originate in the Subreddits, Discord servers, and Twitch and Twitter chats of the esports world. And while the hyperspeed and esoteric moves of esports can be intimidating and confusing to casual fans, memes — memes are something anyone can connect with. So EG built an activation around the uber-popular ‘touch grass’ meme.

“[The touch grass meme] is probably more of a general internet meme versus a League of Legends meme or a VALORANT meme or whatever,” said Evans, who worked for Major League Baseball prior to joining Evil Geniuses. “And so [it’s] tapping into things like that where you can start to seed the language to our audience that we’re trying to reach and get them in.”

The memes and other universally relatable things can help get potential fans in the door, to capture attention, if even for a brief moment. But how do you move them up the fan spectrum, or down the marketing funnel [if you prefer]? Just like not every football fan is a fan for the same reasons, the fans in esports have different things that may augment their avidity, as well. As Evans thinks about reaching the diehard esports fans that know all the ins and outs of the games, while also engaging those casual fans that don’t know Call of Duty from League of Legends — and all the fans in-between — it’s often about finding things that can span the spectrum. Evans talked about envisioning a future of scale, and segmentation, but also a campaign that can straddle all sides.

“I’d love to get to a point where we can host a marketing campaign that is super targeted to certain audiences and [then almost] multiplied,” she said. “So we can have a version of it that’s for our APAC audience, and we can have a version of it that’s for the hardcore gamer and it’s very stat heavy or whatever it might be, and then we can have a version that is for the casual gamer who just happens to like Animal Crossing and playing [Nintendo] Switch. But maybe the tie-in there is — if they play on Switch, they also play Zelda, and if they like Zelda and the lore of Zelda and the world-building, they might like the lore of League of Legends.

“Where’s the middle and how do we really go all-in on that cross-pollination and the middle line that all of the fans we’re trying to reach can participate and don’t feel left out?”

Evans and her team are trying to find things that don’t require an esoteric knowledge of gaming or the esports communities and jargon to understand. Because those (more) widely relatable ideas, content pieces, and campaigns are a welcoming introduction to any new fan — the top of the funnel, so to speak. Not every fan’s path to fanaticism is linear, but the paths are connected. “It’s all about connecting dots and trying to think about what would get you to each phase [the fan funnel] diagram?…, Evans explained to me. “How do you get people down the narrow funnel by hitting them with something a little more vague that they can connect with?”

But what comes next? How can teams and organizations like Evil Geniuses strengthen those fan connections, forming more powerful emotional ties? Fun activations, hilarious memes, and cool gaming tips and highlights can capture interest and tickle the senses of fans, but it’s hard to conjure feelings of love and dedication with those tactics alone. Fans fall in love with human stories — because while their avatars and gameplay may be digital, there are real people competing in front of those screens, living out lifelong dreams and playing a game at the highest of levels under the utmost of pressure. It’s through those players — and their stories — that Evil Geniuses can begin to capture fans’ hearts, deepening their path down the funnel.

“Where we’re gonna start to kind of separate ourselves in terms of really focusing on the human experience,” said Evans. “And yeah, it sounds difficult, but it’s actually so simple. It’s like what we all know at our core. So I think that’s gonna be big on how we get to fans.”

All the best content, campaigns, strategies, and tactics can drive fan development in any sport, but there is nothing more powerful than parents passing it on. If kids develop their some of their biggest passions at age 9 or 10 depending on which research you see, it’s not a stretch to say that we’ll know esports has truly ‘made it’ when playing catch or shooting hoops with mom or dad meets gaming. Then you’re building fans for life.

But guess what? It’s already happening. And as organizations like Evil Geniuses develop more fans and more avid fans of all ages and cohorts, such lifelong and generational fandom will continue to flourish. Evans talked about her own epiphany when, while at a conference and, still early in her tenure with EG, she saw a parent alongside kids pulling a wagon holding their gaming setups — supporting them like any parent supporting their kids in a sport.

“It was literally like watching a kid’s tee-ball game or something,” she said, the joy evident in her voice as she recounted the story. “And here you have dad wagoning in all their PCs, he’s taking them into the venue, he’s setting up their computers. You have parents who set up their popout chairs to watch their kids play. 

“I mean, it is the same. It is just, you know, not the same.”

LISTEN TO MY FULL CONVERSATION WITH KAYCI EVANS

The Thought-Provoking Possibilities for Sports and Social & Digital Media in 2022

The sports and greater sports business world keeps getting more complex.

It’s normal for industries to evolve day after day and year after year, but it sure does feel like the sports world gets involved in every new trend capturing people’s attention. It’s the blessing and the challenge of being part of an industry that’s driven by passion, unconditional fandom, and an endless supply of stories, characters, and live events.

But that’s kinda the point of it all.

Sports evolves with the mediums because it intertwines with the means to the important ends of connecting with others and feeling part of a community. Sports serves as the keystone upon which conversations, stories, and relationships are built.

As the universe gives way to the metaverse and gaming (or, at least, interacting in video game environments all day), the sports world already looks to be part of it. Gamers have been buying up ‘skins’ for their avatars to wear for a while now, sports teams have their own esports teams across a number of game titles, and organizations are imagining complex venues inside games, complete with sponsor signage and all. But look closer and those key underlying principles come to light — playing games is a pastime to do while you’re spending time with friends. You wear the skin featuring your favorite team partly because it’s a signal to other gamers to engage if they also like that team, an invitation to connect and interact.

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The gaming ecosystem has also helped to usher in connection through related communities, backed by an array of diverse Discord servers and through other live audio rooms (like video games without the games) such as Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces. If sports are among the original points of community and social connection, they can now give life to smaller, but highly engaged micro-communities. Just as gamers in Fortnite can come together because of their mutual love for the team, how can sports teams serve a similar platform?

If fans playing games can come together because of mutual interest in a given team, could sports teams do the vice-versa — help fans of the team connect with each other around additional interests? Fans of the team that play the same video game, or that have young kids, or perhaps those that are also CrossFit adherents, etc. etc.?

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We’re used to chasing big numbers in sports, but big communities don’t feel quite as special as they once did. And the world of non-fungible tokens — better known by the ubiquitous acronym NFTs — is serving to build these more exclusive, connective communities. In sports, they may become the new loyalty program — tracking/rewarding how fans engage, introducing those with similar passions and avidity levels an opportunity to connect.

Yes, there is the fiscal side to NFTs, with the community conversation often superseded by aspirations of making big bucks; creating financial assets more than communities. It’s not unlike the promise of gambling’s arrival to US sports. In the short-term it means big-money deals with sponsorships AND, the hope is, more engagement from bettors seeking to get an edge and to watch their wagers play out in real time. The long-term hope is that gambling can be an entry point for fans, as those buoyed by winning bets develop a genuine passion for the players and the team that helped win them money. And, vice-versa perhaps for teams, that existing fans become even more engaged as they learn to gamble.

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Many fans are learning about money lines and parlays through their favorite teams and team/league partner activations. Fans will likely soon learn about blockchain technology through sports, too, as ticketing evolves in that direction. Other fans are also learning about NFTs, DAOs, OTT, AR, and other new technology (even non-acronyms!) Sports will continue to be a key platform through which consumers try out new technology and learn new ideas that they’ll take with them to other parts of their life.

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Sports have been aspiring to transcend into lifestyle brands for years now. Look at the sports fan experience today — many will arrive at a game in the Uber or Lyft lot, they can order food [or even merch] to their seats often through a partner like Postmates or Doordash or even GoPuff. They’ll check the weather, make betting-like predictions, and (I’ve even seen) purchase and manage insurance plans all in the team app. For years, many in the west have expected Facebook or Instagram to become more like the super apps of the east such as WeChat and Alipay. Could sports apps start to head in that direction, too, with more of fans’ lives orbiting around their favorite sports? (You can read a good article about ‘super apps’ here if you’re interested)

The pinnacle is when one’s team becomes part of their identity, such that they wear the brand (in the physical and/or digital worlds) and feel a part of a community. This same feeling is starting to prevail in communities that form and germinate from fans of influencers, be they musicians, YouTubers, TikTokers, etc. In the influencer world, fans show they’re part of the club through buying subscriptions, emoting digital gifts, and, yes, purchasing NFTs. Many NFTs are now laden with experiential benefits, too, such as attending a Gary Vaynerchuk event, getting face time with their favorite influencer, access to exclusive events or merchandise, and more. Which influencer’s NFT will come with tickets to a game or series of games, or access to exclusive team swag and experiences? Influencers could be a viable entry point for fans to further connect and engage with the teams they love or could grow to love, too.

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Athletes were among the ‘original’ influencers. And they are starting to seize the opportunities presented to them in the increasingly influencer-focused economy. Leagues and college programs are facilitating athlete success on social more than ever now. They want to turn their athletes into influencers with the hopes they’ll reach and cultivate more fans. Many leagues and teams already work with the traditional influencers, but they’re starting to realize there are powerful social and digital influencers who are already on their payroll.

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The past year has ushered in rapid evolution of new ideas and technologies in sports and beyond. The majority are still wrapping their head around the opportunities that lie with blockchain, NFTs, influencers, web3, metaverse, and super apps and super brands, and the accessory mediums that pop up within and around these areas.

But, as becomes more clear every year — as things keep changing, the foundations that make the sports business great only get stronger. There’s passion, connection, community, and identity. I don’t know what 2022 will bring for sports, but I have little doubt we’ll all find a way to cheer and take it all in together.

How to Maximize Resources in Sports Marketing at Any Level

Not enough time, not enough people, not enough budget and resources.

No matter the size and scale, pro or college, American or abroad — the next department that says they wouldn’t love to have more time, budget, resources, and people will be the first (okay, there are some exceptions).

But bigger isn’t always better — except when it is. And smaller and more agile isn’t always better — except when it is. That’s why it was so enlightening to learn from Michael Murtaugh, who has spent time in college athletics marketing at a number of levels, most recently at Iowa (a B1G school with a relatively massive budget and department) and today at Montana (a Big Sky school with a relatively smaller budget and department, compared to its FBS counterparts). Both schools are D-I, both have passionate fanbases, and both have talented student-athletes that achieve in their sport and their studies. But when it comes to marketing programs and resources, Murtaugh and his team at Montana must be more mindful of how they spend their time and use their resources. The team is leaner and the initiatives perhaps a bit more scrutinized. However, both school A and school B face challenges; they’re just — different.

“I’m glad that I’ve been at both levels…I think there’s a lot of value in each [experience]. I don’t think one’s better or worse than the other. They’re just different and you just have to figure out what’s important to you and what matters to you,” said Murtaugh, who also spent time at Arkansas State, Western Kentucky, SUNY Brockport, and even an internship at Clemson. “You talked about having a lot of people at Iowa — .the department is probably two and a half times the size of the one here in Montana — so sometimes things might take a little bit longer to get implemented just because of the layers, where here you talk to one or two people. 

“Now there’s good and bad to that because on the way up you’re like, well, did you think about this, this and this? And you’re like, oh, I guess I didn’t. Whereas if you’d had less people you might make some errors because things hadn’t been thoroughly checked through, so then you have to say oops, won’t do that again.”

There are the pluses and minuses of the bigger departments and budgets. But one truth is that more resources means the athletic department gets to take more swings. When you shrink the ledger, each investment becomes that much more of a big deal. And therefore each decision must stand up to more scrutiny. If everything’s important, then nothing’s important. And if you try to execute every idea, well, nothing gets done. For college athletics marketers, there is a constant balance at play. Because there are so many sports, so many fan segments to reach and engage, and a mandate to make every sport and event the best possible. For Murtaugh and his colleagues, it means they have to identify and focus on what matters most.

“It’s really trying to figure out what is important. What should we be focusing our energy on? Because if we’re focusing our energy on like ten different things, we’re not really doing anything. And so what good is that?…,” he said. “And so it’s like, what are some of the things that are fads that it might be nice to know this now, but six months from now, it’s going to be nothing again. Do we spend our time on that?…You just have to kind of try to figure it out along the way, see industry trends, see what other people are doing, see what other people are having success with.”

Murtaugh also discussed how that mindset permeates their strategy 24/7/365. It’s not just about each game, each season, and each academic year. The volume and the speed of college sports necessitates always staying (or trying to stay) a couple steps ahead.

“What are some of things that we just cannot do without?,” Murtaugh asked rhetorically, reinforcing the equation of economy. “But what are some of the things that we want to do in the future?…Let’s start putting a plan together so when we’re talking in March and April of next year we’re hitting the ground running. So [come] summer we’ll be ready to go and we won’t have any downtime because we’re already going to have our kind of our marching orders because we already know where we want to go.”

Regardless of size, resources, or any number of variables, all organizations could benefit from the scrutiny and planning Murtaugh preaches. Plans, preparation, and certainly execution cannot happen in a silo, however. Cross-team coordination is becoming more valuable and expected than ever. Part of it is aligning goals, to be sure, but something else is at play here, too — a convergence around content. While there are different skillsets and tactics that permeate each aspect of a college athletics department, content is currency for most — telling their story, conveying their messages, and winning over their customers — content amplifies and is often the foundation of those efforts. Murtaugh talked about the various hats college sports pros have to wear, regardless of department. It’s not always ideal, but it’s often out of necessity (and increasingly so).

“Marketing departments are kind of becoming game operations/content creators. In my opinion that’s a different person…it’s a different brain [and] mindset,” Murtaugh explained. “So to be hopping back and forth from one to the other — I think that can be a little bit taxing and I think that’s why you’re starting to see some people [specialize]…

“I don’t think that we’ll ever be at a point where we’ll be able to have you just do [one thing], because I do think that there is some benefit to having multiple positions, but who’s the one that’s saying enough is enough? Like, alright, I’m already doing this and this and this. I don’t want to do this either, but it has to get done and you’re the only person that can do it.”

Back to the main idea at hand — that ubiquitous challenge of always wanting for more resources — because many of Murtaugh’s notions come together here. It’s about making each other better, the whole ‘sum of the parts is greater than the whole’ principle. There sure will be times when we have to wear the less familiar hats, but when we work together, align goals, and maximize the skills and resources at disposal as a group — that’s how an athletic department (or any organization) operates at beyond 100%. Murtaugh summed it up perfectly:

“You get so much more accomplished when you’re a bunch of we’s instead of a bunch of me’s.”

LISTEN TO MY FULL INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL MURTAUGH

Instagram’s Add Yours Sticker: How to Use it, How Sports are Using it, and How it Fits into UGC Strategy

In November 2021, Instagram released a new way to collaborate with other users and to create organically viral content themes across the platform. It’s the ‘Add Yours’ sticker, which Instagram describes as ‘a sticker that creates public threads in Stories.’ To use it, just select the sticker when creating your IG Story post and enter the reply prompt for fans. Then, when fans reply their avatars will be seen on your original Sticker and a new sticker with the same prompt will be seen in each fan respondent’s Story by their followers. It’s still fresh, even for the rapidly evolving world of social, but use cases and ideas are beginning to bear fruit in sports social and beyond.

One of the first campaigns to take off came from a call for users to post a picture of themselves and their pet and, in exchange, a tree would be planted. Because of the meta nature of the Add Yours sticker — each reply to the sticker creates another degree of separation from the original post, kind of like an old-fashioned chain letter — it became unclear who was responsible for all those trees, which numbered approximately 2.3 million

While tons of Instagram users found themselves connected by a love of pets and/or dendrophilia (a love of trees), the opportunity is also powerful in sports, where fans are connected by their passion for the team. Duke Men’s Basketball recently tipped off their 2021-22 season in a much-anticipated Champions Classic matchup against Kentucky at Madison Square Garden. And since their millions of fans around the world couldn’t join them at MSG, the team used the Add Yours sticker to help the community feel connected.

They posted two Add Yours stickers in their Stories, one calling for fans to share how they were watching the big game, and another inviting fans to post their game night outfits. As each fan posted their own Story in response (which also reposted the same sticker), the movement grew and more fans participated. The Duke account itself could only see the first-degree respondents, if you will, but each subsequent response to the responses (is your head spinning yet) begat more participating fans, growing the initial flake to a snowball — err, collections of snowballs — of Duke fandom.

Bundesliga football [soccer] club Borussia Dortmund similarly activated their worldwide fanbase but took it a step further in resharing some of the responses sent their way, kind of like retweeting a fan’s reply, but in IG Stories instead. And it got even more meta when a fan reposted their repost to share their excitement about the team sharing her post. (This new IG feature can get comically meta). The club asked fans to share their gameday moment and they clearly got several great responses. They picked out a few of their favorites to repost to show fans they were listening. But consider the movement they started — but instead of tons of dog and cat pictures like the example cited earlier, it was a viral chain of Borussia Dortmund passion.

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User-generated content (UGC) is powerful in sports, where fans were accustomed to cheering in unison at arenas and stadiums, they now channel their collective roar on digital platforms. The Adds Yours sticker is one way to help fans connect with each other, but it’s an accelerant and firestarter for UGC. It’s not the most effective method for the brand or team to collect and reshare the best UGC. Some organizations try their best to curate and collect UGC through hashtags (and then DM each user to get permission to use the content), but others are increasingly turning to more effective ways to collect and clear content from fans at scale using new technology. 

Greenfly’s +Engage product is empowering teams, leagues, brands, and more all over the world to invite fans to submit photos and videos, which come into the organization’s Greenfly channel automatically organized for review and download (And cleared for use). Some are also using +Engage to collect fan data, source creators, and activate sponsorships. Check out a few examples here, here, and here. As Instagram’s new sticker makes clear, some of the best content creators in sports are fans, and there’s an increasing array of opportunities to activate that fan-generated content, with the right strategy and solution in place.

11 for 11: Eleven Key Learnings from over a Decade in and around #SMSports

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.

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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.

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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!]

How to Marry Brand and ROI in Social Media and Sports

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.

LISTEN TO MY FULL CONVERSATION WITH AUSTIN PENNY

How the Arizona Coyotes Connect Social Media Strategy to Business Objectives

Social media has to wear a lot of hats. For a sports team, they have to learn a lot of positions, if you will. Social media is marketing and fan development. It’s communications, community, customer service, entertainment, partnership marketing, and it’s the most visible and powerful manifestation of the brand.

Many may sum up social media with metrics like engagements, views, reach, taps, clicks, and swipe-ups. But while those numbers can signal the success of tactics, strategic objectives sound more like those important to the business — customer development and acquisition (attracting fans, growing the database), customer retention and user experience, brand awareness and sentiment, and, ultimately, making money.

“I think the most successful social media teams are thinking about revenue every single day,” said Marissa Mast, Vice President of Social Media and Brand Strategy for the Arizona Coyotes NHL club. “I came in with a journalism background, storytelling was my passion. Over the years I’ve spent a lot more time learning about how do we bring in revenue on social media? How can we continue to grow there? And think about different ways to really meet the team goals.”

The pathways to reach those goals can be complex, but goals themselves can be clear. They want to create more fans from all walks of life, drive attendance, enhance love for the brand, and produce value for sponsors. With this (admittedly oversimplified) list of objectives in mind, it was enlightening to hear from Mast, now in her sixth season with the hockey team, walk through many of the ways her team attacks their goals. Mast told me about the team’s recent investment in influencer marketing, which includes working with local and national celebrities or influencers and typically having them attend a game. The goal of the influencer marketing tactic is not tied to those social media metrics like double-taps and video views; it’s about activating fandom. About showing different audiences what it’s like to be a Coyotes hockey fan.

“A big push for us in recent years has been influencer marketing. And having people showcase what it is like at a Coyotes game because we all know hockey on TV and hockey live are just two very different experiences,” said Mast, who worked for E! Online and NBC’s Olympics coverage before coming to the Coyotes. “So for us it’s all about if somebody is not physically in our arena, how do we bring them? 

“I think a big part of our strategy has been more the micro-influencer, who lives in Arizona, talks to people who live in the Phoenix area all day long. And having them showcase what a game day is like and why people should want to come to a game or should want to buy the cute beanie — all those elements that can go into it. Not just showcasing the game, but we love when they show the food options, the drink options, what they did before the game, what they decided to wear.”

There are thousands of different experiences and perspectives at every pro sports game. When teams can showcase and amplify those diverse points of view, the different people and ways to relate to the excitement and value of going to a game — that’s inviting, reaching, and bringing in new fans.

Fan development and growth. Marketing the game experience. Check and check. Mast and the Coyotes know they’re more than a hockey team and more than an entertainment option. The team can bring together Arizona like no other businesses can. So it’s vital for Mast and her team to appreciate that they’re stewards for a brand that can and does mean a lot to a lot of people. The Coyotes need to be a brand people can be proud of, want to support, and one to which they feel a familial connection. That’s a heck of a responsibility and an essential objective.

“We really want to be a brand with a purpose,” said Mast. “We want to showcase how much we are giving back to the community and really how important sports are to the fabric of the community. (It’s) so much more than just ticket sales and a game day. It really is, I think, a huge part of the culture of a city.”

In order to achieve all of these goals and help fans fall in love with the club, the players, and the brand, teams have to earn attention. Because of this mandate, social media staff for sports organizations often have to think like companies that make their living off earning attention. It’s why the kind of content sports teams produce often bears resemblance to Netflix, Hollywood, and TV networks. Stories are currency and are inherent to the unpredictable nature of the season. But when teams have programming and content that fans will want to consume regardless of the team’s record, the success of their strategy is not as contingent on the elements ‘wingagement’ (credit to Mast for that term!). And, just like media companies, there arises opportunities to monetize quality content. Entertain fans, help fans fall in love with the players and team, and drive revenue through partnerships. That’s a tic-tac-toe beauty of a goal right there.

“We’ve always taken the approach that we don’t need to rely on wins to have ‘good’ social media. I think at the end of the day that we’ve had that (mindset) for so many years,” says Mast. “(Because) we’ve been able to think creatively and think like a media company or an entertainment company, we’ve been able to do things like ‘The Bachelor Report’ or ‘Home Trippin’…That’s allowed us to entertain fans and…give people a reason to follow us besides just in-game action.

“From there, we were then able to pitch it to White Claw and White Claw loved that it skewed female. It was this perfect success story of creating great content and then bringing in a sponsor and then bringing in revenue.”

It’s true that social media was once left to entry-level employees or interns (I was one of them way back when). But those days are long gone. Social media is the most powerful lever brands, sports or otherwise, have their disposal. Hearts and minds are captured on social media, brands are manifested and felt, and the ingredients of business strategy come together on social media. Social media has grown into an adult, and the organizations that fully embrace and activate its capabilities will come out on top.

LISTEN TO MY FULL CONVERSATION WITH MARISSA MAST

Social Media Changes but Humans Mostly Don’t: A List of Needs to Heed for Sustained Success

As a new year begins, there will be no shortage of prognostications, trends, and visions in the social media world. Some (though increasingly fewer) industries take years to evolve, but in social media, seismic change can happen overnight. While the social networks evolve, the packaging looks different, and the surface-level behaviors may alter, they are all tied to principles of intrinsic human nature that pale any platforms.

So, before you jump on the next emerging social media trend or network, consider what behavior, what natural human want or need is being activated or exploited. Here are 7 ideas that form the roots of so much of what we have seen, continue to see, and will see in what takes off in social media.

1. People want to be seen and heard

Look at the trends emerging in platforms today. Twitch has made streaming more interactive than ever, and users are even paying for premium emotes to ensure their favorite streamers notice them. Meanwhile, the greatest thrill continues to be appearing on the video board at an arena or stadium. The only thing that can come close to equaling the hormone hit for a fan is getting a reply, retweet, or DM from their favorite team or athlete. The individual that has their question responded to in an Instagram Q&A, or whose comment leads to the team posting a specific photo from the pregame warmup, or whose video gets reposted by the team — all help fulfill that fan desire to be seen and be heard.

At a deeper level, people want to know they’re seen and heard in bigger decisions. It may be polling fans on the littlest of decisions or taking into account their collective thoughts on a highly visible or significant decision. Even the appearance of fans being seen and heard can yield considerable cachet. If more fans are feeling seen and heard, you’re doing something right. Embrace this idea going forward and always think about elements of engagement that make fans feel like someone’s paying attention to them out there.


2. People want to feel connected to others

Several months without large gatherings only reinforced this human need. But it goes beyond simply being around other people. It’s about shared experience, yes, but also shared emotion and shared interests. And, to conjure back the previous point, to know somebody else out there sees or hears them. How else could so many of us (myself included) have survived 2020 without painful feelings of loneliness? Social media lends that feeling, however real or artificial it may be, of connection. It’s why it’s difficult to enjoy a sporting event, a piece of social media content, or any moment at all unless there is someone to share it with.

A lot of times in social media, especially in sports, the primary source of content and attention is front and center. And while it’s fun to watch the Verzuz showdowns, for example, it’s even more fun to feel connected to so many others that experienced it or are watching it alongside you live (digitally). How can we continue to uncover new ways to drive human connections in 2021 and the years to come? As social platforms keep evolving, keep in mind this why and less about the shiny new toys and the ‘what.’


3. They like to feel anticipation and reward

As social networks, most notably TikTok, prioritized video completions to help inform their ‘For You’ algorithm, many creators realized they could leverage our human enjoyment of surprise. The chemical and hormone-induced excitement of uncertainty, suspense, and anticipating a denouement is enthralling. It’s one of the many reasons we love sports and the unpredictable, tension-laden action. It’s why, for years, movies and TV shows have made us wonder what’s around the corner. And it’s reinforced by comedians working their way up to a punch line as the audience holds their breathe for that payoff. Heck, it’s even part of some of our favorite music, which often builds to an awesome riff.

This buildup of suspense is becoming more intentional as the social platforms place greater importance on users spending the time to get to that payoff. And publishers on social media strive to play off that formula of creating anticipation (sometimes even explicitly with notes telling us to ‘Wait for it’ or ‘Watch til the end’). Strive to creatively come up with ways to build those feelings of what’s coming and what’s gonna happen, and give them a payoff feeling complete. And maybe even anticipating the next journey you’ll take them on.

4. We want to feel feelings (the emotional roller coaster)

Whether it’s in social media content, entertainment programming, marketing, or storytelling — the best stuff makes us feel something. Awe, joy, delight, anger, fear, sadness, inspiration. We feel alive when we feel. When sports came back following the pandemic-induced pause, whether our teams were winning or losing, something just felt invigorating about feeling feelings again, getting back on the emotional roller coaster.

We think and talk all the time about goals and metrics and executing (or gamifying) our way to those goals and metrics. But it can help to start with the feeling. What feeling do you want to induce and how successful is your content in creating that feeling? And then work from that point. Because if the consumer isn’t going to end up feeling something — anything — it’s not going to break through.

5. They want to socialize and need a reason to do so

The group chats, the social feeds, even the phone calls all light up when something wild happens in sports or significant news drops. Groups (in normal times) gather together at a buddy’s place or a bar to watch the game together or head out to the arena for a night out. And when sports went away, so did a source of connection and of socializing with friends and family.

How can we help foment friendships, start conversations, and give more and more reasons for others to socialize, converse, or message with each other? The best part of experiencing the excitement of a Woj bomb, a buzzer beater, or watching a hilarious or awesome video isn’t in the moment itself. It’s that it is an invitation to talk about it, share it, or experience it with others. To restart that previously dormant group text, or to slide into someone’s DMs. Keep this in mind moving forward. Entertainment and information is great, but as a source of kindling for friendship and socializing, it’s even more powerful.

6. People want things to talk about

I won’t wax poetic on this one quite as much, because it very much relates to the previous point in #5. We all want something to break the silence, something to bring up besides the weather. Among the most important, valuable things sports provide is something to talk about. There has been a renewed effort throughout 2020 to embrace this need, because there were no games or transactions to fill the void. And we could only talk so much about ‘these unprecedented times.’

All of a sudden the constant trend was teams and brands asking questions [or its relative, ‘pick/choose one from the choices presented’. Looking for users to flood the replies and comments. And while this kept engagement up during a time when nothing much was happening to talk about, think and go further moving forward. There is just as much value in the conversations being created (and the fodder being served up help start them) that happen outside the comments. The interest and enthusiasm won’t ever wane in the team or sport if it’s providing a bountiful font of conversation topics. We all want something to talk about.

7. We want to remember and recall personal memories

Nostalgia ain’t new. For years and generations we’ve realized the power of nostalgia. South Park satirized the proliferation of nostalgia with their ”Member Berries’ storyline. But something else is happening now, too, making nostalgia more personalized. Because just about everyone loves nostalgia, but we’re not all nostalgic for the same things. Social media isn’t segmented by generation, but when it’s more personal, it’s easier to activate. Not everybody recalls watching that game or playing with that toy, but everybody CAN recall (or look up) who their favorite player was at 10 years old or the first concert they ever attended.

How can we create opportunities for people to reminisce, to delve into their own personal vaults and pull out a memory? Every chance to revisit those times pours a little gas on the internal flames to keep them blazing. It could be from the earliest childhood memories to even where we were when something significant happened with the team or sport at any time in our lives. When the strength of the feeling and experience is conjured back up, we can all feel it. Nostalgia and memory will continue to play a key role and there will be more creativity and activity to evolve it in the years to come.

It can be easy to get caught up the trends and the trending tactics. To adapt or imitate, to ride the wave of proven concepts. But step back and ponder why something is successful and what base-level human traits and wants are being fulfilled. That’s what can help drive new ideas and original executions. And that’s what will keep you ahead of the curve, always. Because the platforms may change overnight, but human needs have been around, largely unchanged, for millennia.