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June 18, 2009

The Biz Beat

Social Networks

by Shawn Hoffman

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Social media is still a tiny business for sports teams and leagues-not to mention for the blogs and social networks themselves. That's partly because the audiences just aren't there yet; the Cleveland Cavaliers are generally praised for their social media strategy, but their official Twitter account only has around 10,000 followers. The team's Facebook page has over 100,000 fans, but even that is still a small fraction of what they could reach through a local TV ad campaign.

The platforms are still maturing, but most companies are realizing the incredible benefits that could eventually come from this space: greater reach, lower marketing costs, and improved targeting, among others. In the short term, there are certainly a few opportunities to be had. As I touched on a few weeks ago, Amazon and Netflix have used affiliate systems to expand their ad presence across the blogosphere, with no up-front costs. Dell, meanwhile, claims that they've sold about $3 million worth of PCs through Twitter by offering discounts and promotions to their followers. That's still just a rounding error on the company's balance sheet, but it's a significant amount of money for most, and Dell realizes that there's no better time than the present to drive a stake into the ground of what could be a massive sales channel in the not-too-distant future.

What can teams (and the leagues themselves) do to improve their social media operations in the immediate future? Some thoughts:

Be Relevant, Be Human

The Portland Trailblazers doing it right. The New York Knicks doing it wrong.

The Blazers' feed is clearly done by a human being, someone who answers questions, offers relevant information, and is refreshingly informal. It seems as if it's being written by one of your friends, instead of by a corporate employee or a computer. On the other hand, the Knicks' feed appears to be either a straight RSS feed, or something written by a poor intern whose life has been threatened if he or she says anything even remotely unflattering about Cablevision management. This is twentieth-century marketing on a twenty-first century platform.

There are a few huge benefits to sounding human. It can drive a larger audience, and even more importantly, it can create a sense of trust. When a trustworthy voice recommends a product, it has a much greater impact than if a computer does it. Responding to followers is another great way to build rapport, and the Blazers do that about as well as any team.

Reward Audiences With Special Deals and Discounts

Note that I'm emphasizing sales over marketing, or at least marketing channels that lead to direct sales, rather than "impression marketing." Examples of the latter would include TV commercials, billboards, or stadium signs-none of which are actionable on the spot. On the internet, however, everything is just a click away, and every action is trackable. Online ads can perform well if done correctly, but why spend money when you don't have to? Blogs and social networks not only allow teams to funnel their messages to precisely targeted and highly engaged audiences, but they also strip out most of the basic marketing costs.

Affiliate systems are a great choice here, since it's hard to beat the blogosphere's reach at this point. Twitter and Facebook could end up offering tremendous tools for unloading hard-to-sell inventory as well. Imagine if there were still some great seats left for a game being played that night, and the team offered a big discount to its Twitter followers. Throw in some re-tweets, and that message could reach tens of thousands of people within minutes. If even a minuscule percentage takes the bait, the team will have moved some items that would normally have remained unsold.

Put Digital Products In Front Of As Many Eyeballs as Possible

MLB's primary "virtual good" is MLB.tv, which is a tremendous product, but one that is grossly under-marketed. There are plenty of ways that MLB Advanced Media could sell it through viral channels, but they are all predicated on BAM making their video player embeddable. If that were to happen, social media could instantly become BAM's top marketing tool. Some ideas:

  • Teams could embed their games on their Facebook pages, allowing users to comment while they watch. These comments would go out to those users' news feeds, instantly increasing MLB.tv's visibility and pushing it out to a whole new set of potential customers.

  • BAM could take a similar approach with Twitter by simply allowing comments on the regular MLB.tv interface. If a user is logged on to Twitter, his comment could be sent out to his Twitter feed, with a "#mlbtv" hashtag.

  • As I've discussed before, BAM could form distribution partnerships with popular blogs, which could essentially "broadcast" their favorite team's games and build communities around them.

Let me re-emphasize that allowing embeds does not mean giving MLB.tv away for free. Users will still have to log in to watch the games. Free previews-be they for Opening Day, or for five-minute teases on any other day of the season-could help drive sales, but the subscription fee does not disappear. MLB.tv will still be a premium product, no matter how many sites have it embedded in their posts.

Spread Out, But Make Sure to Maintain a Cohesive Presence

There are people who use Facebook, but not Twitter. Or who read blogs and Twitter, but aren't active Facebook users. It's important for the leagues and teams to be in a number of different places. That doesn't mean that they should sign up for every new service they see on TechCrunch, but it's essential to go where the eyeballs are. In other words, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, blogs, and the like.

The key is to create a cohesive experience across all of these platforms. A team's Twitter feed should be syndicated on Facebook, any videos posted on YouTube or Facebook should be syndicated to Twitter, and all of these pages should link to the others, so that fans know where to get certain kinds of information.

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There are plenty of other strategies that teams could use, and impression marketing may become more viable once the audiences have had more time to grow. The methods listed above could produce results immediately, however, and they would at least bring solid ROIs, if not immediate big dollars. In the long term, teams should be able to use social media to connect with millions of people, spending far fewer marketing dollars than they do today. And that's a future worth building toward.

Shawn Hoffman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Shawn's other articles. You can contact Shawn by clicking here

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