Pac 12’s Hashtag Battle Brings Life To A Lackluster Football End…

In the time since Larry Scott took over as Pac 12 Commissioner, the league has emerged as a leader and an innovator in virtually every area of the business of college athletics. League expansion, marketing to a larger fan base in the central and eastern United States, mew media deals, a strong push to have member schools do a better job of telling their success stories nationally, proactive sponsorship and partnerships that promoted both the academic and athletic side of the conference are all big steps for a league which was sometimes an afterthought in the competitive world of big business and college sports. Even with all that success, the first Pac 12 football championship promised to be a bit of a dud, pairing UCLA and its lame duck coach Rick Neuheisel against the high flying BCS bound Oregon Ducks on their home field. With a national audience on Fox on a Friday, what little things could the league do to draw some interest to a game which is supposed to create enthusiasm and celebrate all things positive about the league this year? How about a little twitter contest?

The league used their digital and social platforms to call for the casual fan, as well as those supporting UCLA nd Oregon, to get into a little hashtag battle. They aggressively promoted #GoBruins and #GoDucks to a national following, with the hope that the digital world would follow the back and forth and add a little spice to a contest which most viewed as a blowout. The result of the hashtag battle probably was more interesting that the result on the field, which Oregon predictably won 49-31. While the Oregon hashtag’s percentage dominated the matchup 85-15, the coverage that the following got was very notable, including a national mention on Fox as the game ended. The Pac 12 gained more casual followers and was able to take a good look at who the most ardent, and largest twitter followers who participated were, and those followers can be invaluable in garnering grassroots support for programs going forward. They also got to see how national a footprint the two schools have in social media, and are also able to use this contest as a litmus test for marketers looking to engage in a social media strategy going forward. Keep in mind this was not a key rivalry game. The social media battle for a USC-UCLA or Harvard-Yale or even Army-Navy (given the military’s international footprint) would be much more intriguing and probably a lot more valuable to a brand.

Regardless of the overall outcome, the hashtag battle was a great test for the Pac 12 to drum up a little more interest and test an idea with big upside and no downside. It showed brands and schools that there is fun and value in working to promote interest and even drive viewers by cross promoting, and the league probably learned more about who and where they are being followed. Needless to say this won’t be the last or the most sophisticated battle online in sport, but it was another smart next step for a league which seems to have a better grip on the future and on engagement than many of the others in the space. A win for Oregon, and a nice win for the Pac 12 as well.

USA Baseball Cleans The Closets, Grows Their Following…

Sometimes a little clutter is the spark for innovation, and the folks at USA Baseball, the national governing body for the National Pastime, seem to have come up with new incentive for those late on their spring cleaning. USAB remains an undervalued resource for many in the lexicon of baseball, many times placed between the quaintness of little League and the success of the professional side. However nary a pro has made it to The Bigs without benefiting from the training or exposure that USA Baseball brings through its development programs, international and national tournaments. The growth of baseball as a global game would not be where it is, where it not for the work of USA Baseball working with its compatriots in other national federations or with MLB to help grow the game.

So it should come as no surprise with all that work that a great number of valuable and unique mementos gather at the USAB headquarters in North Carolina from time to time. It should also come as no surprise, since USAB is all about young developing males who have taken to the digital world, that the governing body should look to the digital space to grow its footprint and exposure. So into the mix came a solid idea, hold a summer long series of promotions designed to get some unused “memorabilia” into the hands of fans, with the social media space as the catalyst. The result is a summer long promotion, “9 innings,” which has fans join USAB’s social media platforms in order to be involved in a giveaway for some fun items, ranging from signed Bryce Harper to Clayton Kershaw items. Each “inning” runs for ten business days, with an item going each day to a deserving fan. The result? Some good buzz and increased awareness for USA Baseball among casual fans, a jump of over 50% for the Federation’s twitter followers, and most importantly for those minding the storage space, closets which will now be a little more empty for the next round of items to come in from various elite events.

In a day and age where all entities are looking to grow following and move some distressed merch after a long season or series of years, USA Baseball came up with a fun and innovative one that helps everyone, especially those who love the game. A homer of a promotion with no downside and little effort, just ingenuity.

Losing The Nuance…

Full disclosure, the headline of this post was stolen from Mike Greenberg this morning on ESPN’s Mike and Mike, but it is very true. Thursday into Friday we have again seen the power and buzz, and the silliness generated by the immediacy of social media. We again see that maybe social media isn’t for everyone, it can be a distraction and can cause the participants and others around them lots of unneeded stress. It also again brings up the question of how and who can help folks best manage their messages and get information out in a timely fashion.

Thursday unfolded with great promise and anticipation for both the media and fans with regard to the NFL Lockout. The owners announced a positive vote on the deal, with the players still having to vote and be presented with the details to bring full closure to the labor standoff. Then as the day unfolded, a huge amount of players took to their own space, the social media world, to voice their opinions on what they had “heard.” The information came from sources, most of which were unnamed, and were not in full detail, but many of the posts on Twitter were full of disdain and disappointment. Most were put forth well in advance of being briefed fully…the NFLPA did not fully communicate with their players until much later into the evening…when the union reps were able to fully go through the proposed deal and could offer an informed, balanced and well thought out communique. Player head DeMaurice Smith held his tongue, and although his “body language” portrayed disappointment at first, his thoughts were not spelled out ad hoc.

As the evening went on many of the players who were so filled with vitriol earlier in the day recanted, and took more of a wait and see attitude once they heard from their player reps. What the immediate rush to judgment did was cause confusion and distraction for the decision makers, and probably extended the process, and the fans disappointment, just a but further. The good news is that the PA did communicate in a proper and time efficient manner with its constituents, and the confusing news cycle of disdain was shortened. What the exercise did point out were again the simple rules for using social media.

1- Think before you hit send. If you are a public or nonpublic figure, don’t use social media as a self-serving way to vet your opinion to the world, unless it is what you really believe and are sure that is what you want to say. Make smart, informed decisions. Spew does no one any good.

2- If you send it, it doesn’t come back. Hitting delete after something has gone viral will not change the cycle, and the time one spends trying to retract and correct could be saved if you just think before you act.

3- Not everyone has to have an opinion every time. Sometimes it’s not about you, and it is better listening and making sure you have the facts before you speak. We have two ears and one mouth (and ten fingers to type with, but that’s another story), so LISTEN twice more than you speak. Now maybe you feel like you really need to have a voice, that’s great. Just make sure the voice is right and is in the proper, well informed context, especially when dealing with a very public issue.

4- Losing The Nuance. The written word, especially in social media, loses much of it’s context. Jokes are not funny, thoughts that were lighthearted can get misconstrued and most people don’t have the benefit of the background that you have. Posting off missives may seem fun and interesting, but a little mistake can cause a lot of damage. Calling someone can convey thought and ideas mush better than a series of random characters.

5- You Don’t have To Do It Just Because “Everybody” Is: It seems like more and more people are taking to social media to define and grow their “brand,” whatever that brand is. However a social media platform, like any other part of brand development, is not a “must do” for people that are not interested or equipped to do it. Many pitchers can’t hit, many actors can’t sing, many salesman cannot write, many writers cannot balance a checkbook. Know your limitations, understand the space and then listen to informed people, professionals, who can effectively advise you as to what works for your business or your brand. It is not for everyone, and not everyone needs social media to be successful. Speak when you really have something to say, not because everyone else does.

There was a story this week that University of New Mexico head men’s hoops coach Steve Alford has banned his players from using social media. While that may be extreme…it should be an informed, personal choice…it is probably well weighed out by the administration, and the “rush to post syndrome” will be avoided by the Lobos. It won’t make social media around the team go away at all…but it may help avoid the confusion and distraction provided by some who wanted to be first and be emotional, as opposed to being informed.

Who Really Benefits From World Cup? Brand Soccer.

They are on every talk show…one player adorns the rarefied air of the cover of Sports Illustrated. They are the new darlings of sport, despite their loss on Sunday. They are the women of American soccer, and their media tour this week has again helped to lift the profile of a sport…soccer…as much as if not more than women’s sports. So how does all this help in the long term for brand soccer?

While the natural assumption is that these heroes coming home could bolster the much beleaguered path that Women’s Professional Soccer is on (teams have reported increased ticket sales, at least for the first few homecoming games for the league), the bigger picture is how this success can be weaved into the overall interest in soccer…not men’s soccer, not women’s soccer, not youth soccer…overall. Next up for the sport in the United States is the very high profile All-Star game at Red Bull Arena…MLS vs. Manchester United…and the league will be pulling out all the stops to showcase the game, it’s brand and its stars across the river in New York to fans, advertisers and media partners. Having some of the recently successful women on hand would also be a nice help. Women’s World Cup will surely be mentioned in the same breath as MLS next week in and around the marketing and the soccer community.

The other big bridge World Cup success builds is to next summer and the London Olympics. Much as officials will say that there will be a huge bump in interest in WPS, the fact remains that professional women’s soccer, both here and even more so abroad, still does not register. Go up to the casual fan next week and they will know Hope Solo or Abby Wambach maybe, but ask if they know what Sky Blue FC is, even in New Jersey where the team is based, and you will probably get a blank stare. Publicity and media attention is great, but without continued reinforcement with marketing dollars and TV, the pro interest will wan as it has in the past. The real value is toward the next group of bright lights at the Olympics. USA Soccer and key brands now have added bounce to profile the women of soccer going into London, something they might not have had before this past weekend. While women’s soccer may not have been key for NBC before, it could be now, and those who played in World Cup and shined, and will play in the Olympics a year from now, will get more stage time. That helps the athletes and it helps the sport on all levels, as every ounce of exposure continues to be critical for the game’s growth in the States.

So as we look back at the real value of this past weekend, with its record tweets and posts and TV numbers and drama, we should look for the real winner, which is brand soccer. A sport which has enjoyed steady growth over the last ten years got another bump, this time from the women’s side, and that bump helps the game more than the individual, which is what team sports is supposed to be about.

Let The Olympic Social Media Games Begin…

One of the great aspects of the Olympic Games are the stories of triumph by athletes we may not know that much about, the stories told through either great triumph or through agonizing defeat, and it is through that window, and sometimes it is a short window, that the business of sport grows. In many cases those athletes rise to Olympic glory and then fade back into the fabric of sport, occasionally heard from but rarely on the stage size that they have while competing during the games. Some mega stars…a Usain Bolt or a Michael Phelps…can effectively use that stage to extend, create and grow their brand beyond their Olympic window. Some try and see that the window and the fame that goes with it is fleeting, as people move on to other things in the here and now.

Another aspect of success is how certain athletes can effectively use their success at the Games to invoke social change. This has happened despite the best efforts of the games to remain neutral in the political arena. Athletes are humans and know how to be creative, and their passions give them a window of opportunity for commercialism or for social consciousness that arrives and then closes so they have to best take advantage of that when they can, and the consequences are the consequences.

Now take those two types of opportunities…commercial and social…and insert the world we live in today with new media, and you have tremendous opportunity. You have opportunity for expression and a voice, which is what social media is, and you have opportunity for access to the world to learn more about overnight stars and who and what they are, and the opportunities for the entrepreneurial seem endless.

So this week the International Olympic Committee realized the coming convergence and got out in front with their social media issues for at the 2012 London Games. The IOC “actively encourages” competitors to “post, blog and tweet their experiences.” But it warned that if rules are broken it can withdraw accreditation, shut down online operations and start legal action for damages. Athletes can’t use Twitter, Facebook or personal blogs for commercial or advertising purposes or share videos filmed at Olympic venues. Games-time rules — which apply from July 16-Aug. 15 — also protect the rights of Olympic broadcasters and sponsors. The IOC also urged athletes not to comment on their opponents or reveal confidential information, and to conform to the Olympic spirit and charter. Posts, tweets and blogs should “be dignified and in good taste, and not contain vulgar or obscene words or images.” The IOC has drawn up the rules in the aftermath of violations during the last Winter Olympics, which included skiier Julia Mancuso, someone with a short window to monetize success, using her platforms to sell items ties to her success.

While it is smart for the IOC to recognize the issue and get out in front, and even set guidelines for posts as opposed to other bodies who have tried to shut down athlete social media around competition, the policy will have its challenges. Social media is about emotion and access, and the access is what will make following athletes interesting during the games. Being able to get a window inside the games for many people will be interesting…maybe it is not Michael Phelps minutes after leaving the pool, but it would be for a member of the Indian field hockey team to talk about what it is like to enter the Opening Ceremonies, or to meet Dirk Nowitzki in the village. Also the athletes with large endorsement deals already have been gearing up for the Olympics with large followings already, so those people will know and expect to capitalize on access during the Games as well.

Then there are the creative…the fans and the associates…who can use social media unencumbered during the Games from wherever they are. Will brands be able to associate with these people to tell the story of the games creatively, and effectively skirt the rules. Will the IOC have a zero tolerance property for ambiguity during the games, and then slow a medal ceremony because they will try and determine what was a proper post by an athlete and what was an improper post. Protecting the rights of broadcasters and sponsors from ambush is one thing, curtailing the emotion and free speech of an athlete is another. If posts are offensive or racially charged, yes that is an issue. If it is about the emotion of a competition or is an outlet to tell a story then social media should be effectively used.

We live in a very fluid world, and the IOC does address that by setting a policy in advance. What will be interesting is how the policy adapts to the emotion of the athlete and to those who follow the Games, and how such a large scale event will be played out in a world where immediacy and creativity, commercial or not, is now the rule and not the exception.

Running To Social Media Success…

Hitting a milestone for brands is a natural marker of success. The millionth sale, the 10 millionth customer etc etc always leads to celebration and justification that those selling are delivering on what’s required. In social media however, the ebb and flow of milestone numbers can sometimes be both impressive but can also be confusing. How many of those followers are spam, how many actually follow the “likes” they have or read the tweets that are posted. Are they following 50 or 50,000? Now finding a way to hit a milestone and use that milestone as an effective call to action in the social media space to show the value of all those followers can be tricky.

One recent example of using a milestone to drive ROI was out forth by the folks at Runner’s World this past week. Individual action sports…from running and tennis to skateboarding and skiing…certainly have a good sense of community that is conveyed through social media and word of mouth. While in many instances those communities are not as large or as buzzworthy as team sports or large media properties, individual action sports can drive product, event activation and best practices against a core audience very quickly. Those involved are passionate to be involved, not just watch, and that translates into a very solid following looking to engage and give positive feedback.

Runner’s World social media editor Susan Rinkunas knew that the magazine was approaching some social media milestones, and came up with a good reward system to tie signups and engagement for their passionate followers. As the magazine surpassed 200,000 Facebook fans, they commemorated the event/occasion/landmark/milestone by giving a free issue of the magazine to first 200 U.S. residents who joined. That offer closed quickly and ended up serving 600 new subs thanks to the overwhelming response. Then through Facebook and, the publication also offered deep discounts on Runner’s World branded book titles over the following 200,000 seconds after crossing the 200K threshold (through 2 am ET on Thursday 4/28… approximately 55.5 hours). All in all, the Runner’s World Facebook event/occasion/landmark/milestone sold over 200 units (actually about 350 books, training plans, Challenge packages) in the 55.5 hours the offer was extended. Runner’s World then steamrolled past 210,000 on May 4 (today) just nine days after crossing 200,000. The magazine had been averaging about 10K new likes per month, but surged in April, adding almost 30K likes in the month. That was thanks in part to the Boston Marathon, the brand’s coordinated efforts to keep Facebook compelling (including live updates during the Boston Marathon and other big events) and just plain old good spring running weather. On Twitter, Runner’s World has north of 76K followers, up close to 50 percent from the beginning of 2011 and 8K new followers in April, in part thanks to the brand’s specialized Twitter hashtag (#RWBoston) that allowed runners to ask our editors questions in the weeks leading up to the race, and follow the weekend in Boston and then the race itself.

What’s the lesson learned? Always know your customer and your followers, and service them with offers they want and need and can engage around. It’s great to hit milestones, but showing how those milestones drive the bottom line with engagement is the key, and you can only do that by asking, following, and then creating the right offer around news.

The Social Media Game On A Global Scale…

The social landscape in sports across North America is growing exponentially every day. Teams, athletes, events, brands, media companies, are all scrambling to add followers, build alliances, grow traffic and scream louder than anyone else to draw critical mass for whatever reason, from selling tickets and growing brand loyalty to giving consumers the unfettered access they crave. Yet for all the scrambling and the theories of what is brand success…is it millions of followers or the right few thousand for your audience for example…a great piece by Eric Fisher in this week’s Sports Business Journal shows that American teams are still lagging in the social media footprint to the soccer clubs of Europe, and that the recently completed cricket World Cup had more of an impact in the digital space than almost any other North American sporting event, save the Super Bowl…and that impact was not on non-American servers, it was on a well known platform in the States…ESPN digital.

This type of news may create some consternation amongst the sports social media elite in the United States, and may send some “experts” heading for cover as they advise brands. However in reality the news is a great example again of how the sports landscape is far more global than we sometimes care to admit, and taking a look at best practices of some of the world’s largest soccer clubs can continue to give North American brands insight into social media. Often what is also overlooked is the advanced use of the handheld outside of the States and in emerging companies, where landlines are not useful. Telecom companies have been using the digital space for years…the French Open and Formula One were among the first events ever, as early as the 1990’s…to use digital technology to bring fans multiple images and export data to as wide an audience as possible who were following events in their handheld devices.

The list also serves as a reminder to the tribal nature of soccer as a global brand. The largest clubs in the world have truly global followings…loyal groups who consume all things about their home club win or lose…and while American sports are king here, the amount of team-specific fans outside of this country (vs. fans of the league like the NBA or NHL) is far less than the amount of club-specific fans around the world.

This is also certainly not an indictment of the great innovation and brand activation programs American sport has pioneered in the digital space, and those programs are growing exponentially each day. What it is, is a great look and reminder into the potential of the global brand and the appeal of effective social media programs that are based on both content and support. Passion drives interest no matter what the platform.