SBJ/March 14-20, 2011/Opinion

Social media at the heart of strategy to achieve fan connectivity

At the most recent NBA Tech Summit during All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles, one of the dominant themes was the importance of good content and the ability of an organization to deliver that content for sharing in a variety of ways with its fan base. Mobile devices, engagement marketing (sponsor activation) and social media were all identified as crucial tools to disseminate content and encourage fans to interact in their own ways with that content.

The question we as marketers sometimes ask ourselves is: How much interaction can we provide? More importantly, how can we let the fan base manage and direct that content?

Managers Night
NEWSCOM
St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck (center) awards “coaching trophies” to two fans who participated in his Grandstand Managers Day promotional stunt on Aug. 24, 1951.
Historically, we have been asking this question since Aug. 24, 1951, when Bill Veeck, owner of the hapless St. Louis Browns, staged Grandstand Managers Day. Veeck, former Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack and thousands of fans held placards that said “yes” on one side and “no” on the other, while publicity director Bob Fishel held up cards with proposed moves: steal, bunt, change pitchers. The grandstand managers flashed their opinions, and the Browns players complied. The result? A Browns victory, ending their four-game losing streak — and a reprimand from the commissioner’s office for making fun of and attacking the integrity of the game.
While this example was extreme, it demonstrated the interest and willingness of the fans to become involved with the content if given the opportunity.

Sixty years later, minor league baseball fans are still given the opportunity to make decisions, but, at least for the time being, only on parts of the game experience and not the game itself. The Bowling Green Hot Rods, a Class A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays, is using Facebook and allowing the team’s fans to customize the game experience by giving them ownership of an entire game as they create the elements of the night.

The initial step of the promotion is to increase the number of fans on the team’s Facebook page. Currently at 7,000 with a goal of reaching 10,000, the Hot Rods will reduce ticket prices on May 18 by 50 cents for every 200 new Facebook fans that register until they reach 10,000. If they do, fans could receive a discount of $7.50 on a $10 box seat.

Content rules
In Phase 2 of the promotion, Facebook fans will be provided the opportunity to make choices on various game-experience-related decisions. The first decision, on Feb. 21, had fans select what time the game will start on May 18. Additional elements include which uniforms the Hot Rods will wear and what food and merchandise items will be specially priced for the game. Hot Rods Facebook fans will also be incorporated into several game-day activities, such as on-field promotions, first-pitch opportunities, and meetings with Hot Rods players and coaches.

All-Star balloting in the NBA and MLB are examples of providing an opportunity for fans to interact with the content (the All-Star Game) and influence that content by determining the starting lineups for the game. During this year’s Sprite Slam Dunk Contest at the NBA All-Star Saturday Night, the fans determined the winner by texting. They also texted their votes for the All-Star Game’s MVP the following day. On the pure entertainment side, fans attending concerts by The Rolling Stones and other artists are given the opportunity to suggest songs and vote on play lists that the artists will perform during the concert.

Content can also be created by people outside the organization and utilized for other purposes. We have all seen how influential Facebook has become in our society through the movie “The Social Network” and most recently put into practice through recent events in Egypt and the Middle East, where the power of sharing content and information has changed the course of history.

Similar success might be found in California, where Sacramento Kings fans are trying to prevent a proposed move of the Kings franchise to Anaheim. On Feb. 22, a campaign was announced to “show community support for keeping the Kings in Sacramento.” The effort featured four traditional billboards, four electronic billboards and online social media. Kings fans launched an online campaign via Twitter, Facebook and blogs. The effort helped sell out the team’s Feb. 28 home game against the Los Angeles Clippers and demonstrated fans’ interest in the franchise and their desire to keep it in Sacramento.

In my opinion, the key to the effective dissemination of content and the opportunity to influence that content through social media is going to be finding a balance between followers of the team and users of social media, who might not be current ticket buyers of the organization or part of the season-ticket base. We can assume that season-ticket holders would be older and less involved as a group than the typical social media user.

If an outside group is given the opportunity to influence and manage content and chooses to do so, what will be the impact on season-ticket holders? They may feel that these decisions should be theirs and theirs alone by virtue of their financial support of the organization. We must remember that social media is a tool for communication and connectivity, and like any tool, its purpose must be well thought out. It must have a strategic core and a planned and desired outcome.

Fan connectivity and greater involvement is the goal of all of these activities I have discussed. There are various ways to achieve them with social media being at the heart of many of them. �8;

Bill Sutton (wsutton@bus.ucf.edu) is a professor and associate director of the DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_Impact.

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