SBJ/April 21-27, 2014/Media

Where the pictures are the story

Instagram becomes a go-to social media choice for teams, fans at events

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In the spring of 2012, Instagram lagged far behind its social media brethren Facebook and Twitter in terms of users. The photo-sharing platform at that time was reporting 30 million total users compared with roughly 500 million users of Twitter and 1 billion for Facebook.

Times have changed.

The Boston Celtics use Instagram to post photos from on the court and behind the scenes.
From developing its app in 2012 for the Android platform (in addition to being accessible through Apple devices), to getting the modern-day corporate and cultural blessing in the form of Facebook paying $1 billion to buy the company soon thereafter, Instagram has become ingrained in the social media portfolios of consumers and brands across the globe. That includes sports leagues, teams and fans.

“Facebook’s purchase of Instagram was great for the industry because it combined two major platforms under one business and allowed teams, agencies and athletes to manage both profiles with one company,” said Jaymee Messler, senior vice president of marketing for Excel Sports Management. “Now, with things like linking Facebook and Instagram on athlete pages, it offers a seamless way for athletes to post content to both audiences and grow their followings.”

The numbers indicate how much that is happening. Instagram today reports having 200 million active users compared to that count of 30 million two years ago. Those users, according to Instagram, together share an average of 55 million photos per day.

But how exactly should a team or brand use Instagram as part of its overall social media strategy? That answer, for many in sports, continues to evolve.

Twitter has been firmly established as a means of providing news and information to fans. Facebook has seen its role in the social media space secured to the point of Hollywood telling its story. Teams know they can reach a large number of fans and engage them in conversations about the club by using Facebook. Instagram provides a more visual piece to the social media puzzle, and teams increasingly are using it to fill that niche — turning to the platform to present the unique pictures and sights that are associated with sports, particularly as a way to attract a younger audience.
Instagram officials see that opportunity as well.

“Sports are visual by nature,” said a spokeswoman for Instagram. “Teams are using Instagram to take their fan communities behind-the-scenes — into the locker room, on the team plane — and sharing all of these moments that people want to be a part of but usually don’t get to see. And the reverse is true, too. Fans are sharing their own moments on Instagram and keeping team spirit alive. It’s definitely a two-way conversation.”

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Those words, captured and shared via the Boston Celtics’ official Instagram account, stood alone on a dry-erase board in the Boston locker room as the team prepared to travel to Miami and face the Heat in Game 7 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals. The image offered Celtics Instagram followers a behind-the-scenes look not typically available elsewhere.

“The idea that I could take that photo and show our fans what our players were seeing from the coaches, I thought was a cool thing,” said Peter Stringer, senior director of digital media for the Celtics. “That message is simple, but direct.”

The image received more than 7,500 likes on Instagram, one of the Celtics’ most liked photos at the time. Less than two years later, the team’s Instagram account now has 545,000 followers, and posts routinely receive 20,000 likes or more.

That growth of the Celtics’ Instagram account, along with comparable accounts for other teams, parallels the explosion in popularity of Instagram itself.

Out West, the San Francisco Giants, an organization lauded for its use of social media and fan engagement, started using the platform in the summer of 2011. Instagram was developed in San Francisco and launched in October 2010.

“It was really popular in San Francisco, at least with our fans,” said Bryan Srabian, director of digital media for the Giants. “I think that’s the first step: Knowing where your fans are, whether it’s your city or your team. And we noticed a huge trend growing in San Francisco of fans using Instagram to share their experience at the ballpark or wherever they were in Giants gear.”

Today, the Giants use Instagram to present not only behind-the-scenes images similar to the dry-erase board message from the Celtics, but also to highlight the images associated with a game and with a day at the ballpark. Sports, particularly baseball, lend themselves to varying sight lines and scenes, and the filters offered by Instagram serve to enhance those images.

“There are just so many visuals that we’ll use that kind of tell the story of the Giants brand,” Srabian said. “From the very top of the ballpark showing the views of the bay, to inside the dugout [and] a shot of our players in their uniform and kind of a shot that tells a story — I think that visual is appealing.

“You can go to any major website and see the great Getty or AP shots of the game,” Srabian said. “We’re trying to capture the personality.”

Teams also encourage activity from followers on Instagram, commonly in the form of photo scavenger hunts and giveaways. For example, Arizona Diamondbacks President and CEO Derrick Hall will post a photo of his front-row seats on Instagram and promote a certain fan activity in exchange for being able to sit in his seats for an upcoming game.

Hall created his own Instagram account in February at the encouragement of his three teenage children. Consider it a case of the kids helping their dad at the office, recognizing the engagement levels of the younger demographics who are on Instagram. A 2013 Pew Research Center study noted that 43 percent of cellphone users between the ages of 18 and 29 use Instagram. Additionally, Instagram is now tied with Facebook as the second most important social media site for American teens, trailing only Twitter, according to a fall 2013 Piper Jaffray survey.

“I think the majority of Instagram users are in the younger demographic, and for us to try and identify and attract younger fans and future fans, we need to use it,” Hall said. “Pictures tell a thousand words, and the more likes you have and the more photos you have of fan interaction and looking like a place where these kids want to go, I think helps us.”

Analysts say that’s important not only for present-day, but also for long-term fan development.

“As the fan base is getting older, [teams have] got to find a way to pull in the younger fan and develop that fan,” said Kathleen Hessert, founder and CEO of BuzzMgr, a social media monitoring tool, and consulting firm Sports Media Challenge. “From a casual fan into an avid fan into an evangelist: That’s where Instagram and other vehicles like that are coming into their own.”


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