Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Sports social networking next phase in communication

At this point the words Twitter, Facebook and Linked In have become commonplace in our world. If you don't have an account with one of them, you probably know someone that does. But how are these tools being integrated into sports? And, are they achieving any success?

Social networking is another way of starting conversations. In the case of sports, these conversations revolve around fans and participants to make their experiences better, create awareness and ultimately drive sales.

With the majors (NBA, MLB, NFL and NHL), starting conversations is fairly simple given their large and strong fan bases. (Here is an article from USA Today about NBA players and Twitter and another one from Yahoo and Ball Don't Lie) But for minor league teams, starting these types of conversations can be more difficult. And, unlike their major league counterparts, they likely don't have the same amount of resources to establish conversations.

The advantages of using these tools are clear. First, it is cheap. Basic services are free and easy to set up. Second, the work can be done from anywhere and anytime as long as you have internet or a mobile application. Of course, with any tool, the rewards only come when there is a clear strategy and a commitment to use it.

Minor League Usage
We spoke with a few minor league teams to see how they are utilizing the social networking tools. The Idaho Steelheads (hockey), Idaho Stampede (basketball) and Boise Hawks (Baseball) are all using social networking in different ways.

For the Steelheads, the social networking responsibilities appear to be split between marketing and public relations, providing a mix of team news and fan interaction. Their passionate fan base seems to be utilizing the hockey team's offerings based on the number of interactions they receive.

The Stampede are just getting into this realm. Their goals are to create more awareness and generate fan interactions. In the future, they also indicated that they will explore targeted promotions and experiment with how these tools can expand their in game production.

Probably the most promising usage is from the Boise Hawks. They definitely have the most well defined social networking strategy and their goals are ambitious. While they use their full time staff to blog, tweet and post to Facebook they also utilize their intern's channels to push out their messages. The next step for the Hawks is exploring Linked In and the potential benefits of that platform. The baseball club is also looking toward the future. They see a demise of more standard current channels and are working to establish themselves as their own media outlet.

All of the teams agreed that MySpace is no longer a social networking channel that they will continue to pursue.

Evaluating results
At this point, there is little agreement about the best way to evaluate social networking success in sports. Without a direct tie to profit teams will need to look at the indirect ties such as content sharing, re-tweets, interactions and increased web traffic. These all give an indication of the depth that fans are digesting the information.

Some of the tangibles like number of followers, fans, and subscribers are helpful to analyze the reach of awareness but fail to measure the depth of the reach.

In the end, it appears that these new tools are just that - tools. Like any tool, your success depends on how well you use it. But there are lots of tools in the bag and right now it is hard to tell which one is the best tool to use.

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