SBJ/July 18-22, 2011/Media

ESPN ready to tap social, news-gathering power of Twitter

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John Ourand
When it comes to social media, it feels like media companies are testing just about everything to see what works and what makes money.
ESPN hasn’t embraced sites like Twitter, so far. For the most part, ESPN executives would rather bring fans to ESPN.com than have its reporters interact on Twitter.

But that is starting to change.

ESPN is targeting fans who use sites like Twitter as a supplement to their TV viewing. ESPN also is using Twitter as a news-gathering tool, committing editorial staffers to follow 2,000 sports industry figures. And ESPN is starting to realize the promotional power Twitter has to publicize its own stories.

There’s a reason for ESPN’s interest in figuring out social media. It wants to engage fans who increasingly are monitoring Twitter while watching TV. I’m one of those fans. I rarely watch a sporting event from home without having my computer close by to see what people are saying about it on Twitter.

Twitter was particularly engaging during last month’s NBA draft, when non-ESPN NBA reporters posted news and actual selections well before they were announced on ESPN. That night, Yahoo! Sports NBA reporter
News of NBA draft picks was tweeted by other news sources before ESPN could announce the actual selections.
Adrian Wojnarowski
, in particular, was first in reporting teams’ picks and trades on Twitter, usually several minutes before ESPN’s TV announcers mentioned anything. Calling on his league sources, Wojnarowski was usually in front and always accurate with the news.

It seemed like ESPN should have been irritated by his tweets that night. While ESPN held the media rights to the NBA draft, Wojnarowski owned Twitter during the draft.

But ESPN is setting up a system in which it will use Wojnarowski’s tweets — and tweets from others like him — to fuel its own online social media efforts.

“Twitter is a news feed, and we want our reporters to be part of that mix,” said Patrick Stiegman, ESPN.com’s vice president and editor-in-chief. “The two-screen experience is real. It’s how a lot of people are following live events now.”

ESPN will start using that news feed more aggressively on ESPN.com, probably later this year, Stiegman said. The site is going to start making tweets from both ESPN sources and non-ESPN sources available on ESPN.com. On ESPN.com’s Pittsburgh Steelers page, for example, ESPN will aggregate tweets from about 40 sources, including local and national media, Steelers players and team officials.

“There is a huge opportunity there,” Stiegman said. “We are actively working on that. We started creating lists and are assembling the tools.”

ESPN isn’t the only one. Turner Sports is using a similar strategy for its broadband shows, such as “TNT Overtime” and “TNT Race Buddy.” The site typically uses alternate camera angles and online chats to supplement the telecast. “About two years ago, we started to push the fact that these were companions to the broadcast,” said Matt Hong, senior vice president and general manager of sports operations for Turner Sports.

Hong said Turner has been experimenting with aggregating tweets around a specific event on one of Turner’s channels. During the NCAA tournament, it hired a staff of 10 to 15 people to pick out relevant tweets that it featured on an online site that was sponsored by Coke Zero. But Hong cautioned about the volume of available tweets being a potential obstacle. “The challenge about tweets and Facebook posts is that it’s like a firehose,” he said.

That firehose fuels another aspect of ESPN’s social media strategy. From an editorial standpoint, the number of athletes who tweet has led to stories ESPN would not have had in previous years.

ESPN’s editorial department follows 2,000 Twitter accounts from athletes and sports executives for potential stories. Stiegman referenced the case of Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall, who, after Osama bin Laden’s death was announced, tweeted, “What kind of person celebrates death? It’s amazing how people can HATE a man they have never even heard speak. We’ve only heard one side ...”

The tweet created a mini-controversy that ESPN covered online and on TV. Stiegman said the Mendenhall flap is one of ESPN.com’s top 15 trafficked stories in the last year.

“That’s an example of a story that would not have happened pre-Twitter,” Stiegman said. “If we’re plowing through athletes’ accounts, we will find those types of stories.”

ESPN also believes the social media firehose can provide a huge promotional platform that didn’t exist a couple of years ago. Stiegman mentioned a 10,000-word Wright Thompson story that ESPN.com published in March called “Why You Should Care About the Cricket World Cup.” The story produced a good number of page views when it was published — about 750,000.

About a week later, it produced another 1 million hits. ESPN credited the massive bump to an investment banker in India who tweeted the link to his 1 million followers.

“We can exponentially grow traffic around past stories if we disseminate the information in the right way,” Stiegman said. “Stories can become viral.”

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.

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