5 Things I Learned from Leading Social Media at a PGA Tour Champions Event

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Amfam Champ logo

The American Family Insurance Championship was held June 24-26 in Madison, Wis.

I’ve been writing and tweeting about the intersection of sports and social media for more than five years. My day job brings me alongside the sports industry often — but never as close as the inaugural American Family Insurance Championship — a PGA TOUR Champions event held June 24-26 in Madison. Wis.

When my company announced the tournament dates more than a year ago, I quickly raised my hand to lead social media activities. This was a chance to pursue a dream — something my employer knows a little about.*

To do this, I had to step outside the comforts of my little blog and put my experience covering the sports and social media (#SMSports) world into practice. It involved developing a detailed strategy, syncing with the PGA, tournament staff, volunteers, sponsors and media. There were also crazy-long days with little sleep, and lots and lots of walking.  .

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That’s me at the AmFam Championship Media Center with all the essentials: laptop, iPhone charger, coffee, sunglasses, gum, DSLR camera and visor.

Now that I’ve had a little time to reflect on my experience, I wanted to share my takeaways from running social media at the inaugural American Family Insurance Championship.

Here goes…

  1. Plan the work. Work the plan. This is my mantra with other social media projects, but it’s crucial for live sports events with lots of moving parts. It’s important to understand what you want to accomplish — something that’s not in some universal social media playbook used by every team or league. I had to start from scratch.

For AmFam Champ, I knew we had the opportunity to do more than other PGA Tour Champions event had done in social media. Our pre-tournament research showed the Champions Tour always led the way from a social media conversation and share-of-voice standpoint. I wanted to change that. And I want to be clear — that’s not a knock on other tournaments or the PGA Tour. That was my confidence in the community we were building online and offline in support of this event. (Stay tuned for how we stacked up.)

Part of the planning meant creating content that could be scheduled ahead of time or used at any time. I couldn’t have a designer with me at all times, so I worked with one ahead of the tourney to create customizable templates. These allowed me to pump out original, branded content (like the graphic above) to showcase some of the Tour’s top players, as well as promote tournament tee times and other news.

Strong, consistent branding was also a must — and something to put in any social media plan. For tourney week, I leaned heavily on these templates and the content calendar for guidance — but only up to a point. See next lesson learned.

2. Plan for the unexpected. Live sports is unpredictable. Throw fan interaction, weather, emotion and a host of other intangibles, and you have the opportunity to quickly get thrown off your social media game plan.

But if you expect the unexpected, it can deliver pretty special moments. Easier said than done, right?

In the flurry of activity on Day 1, I snapped the photo above of two spectator chairs near the 9th hole. One of our tournament mantras was, “Golf is back in Wisconsin,” and — to me — this image just fit the bill perfectly. It helped that Packer legend Brett Favre would be on site the following day, too, and so on a whim, I tagged the @Packers in the photo on Twitter. Later, I noted the team retweeted this photo — one of our most engaged tweets of the week.

The night before tournament play began, I noticed a slew of player bags in a spot just off the media center where I was stationed. I snapped this picture near the end of the day but wasn’t sure what to do with it. Sometimes your eye tells you things your mind isn’t ready for. It didn’t take long for the tweet to find me, and it was a great way to close the day before tournament play.

Also before play began, AmFam Champ host Steve Stricker toured the American Family Children’s Hospital — a beneficiary of the proceeds from the tournament. That day also happened to be National Selfie Day. While I’m not a fan of jumping onto trending topics, this felt genuine and true to the tournament’s brand — as well as Steve’s. And the photo (see tweet above) was perfect.

The lesson here is to be on the lookout for the unexpected. You may not recognize their value right away. But these moments — small or large — can really make your social media presence stand out, and provide your followers and fans something they can’t get anywhere else. That’s true for sports, or insurance, or breakfast cereal.

3. Be a jack of all trades. I’ve had the fortune to do many different things in my career that made this role easier. I’ve been a TV reporter and producer, video photographer and producer, magazine editor, and social media manager — to name a few.

Everything I learned in these roles helped, but I also made sure to pick up a few extra skills, like brushing up on Photoshop, and getting my hands on a nicer camera — one that was WiFi compatible and talked to my phone. (Seriously, that’s the best invention ever for covering live sports!)

The photo above was one of many I took with my DSLR camera. You can’t do everything with an iPhone, and I couldn’t always rely on our professional photographers or the PGA to get me real-time images. So I didn’t go anywhere without my Nikon (a Christmas present from my family, by the way), and created my own steady, reliable flow of visual content.

Take some time to add skills to your personal toolbox. They’ll help you appreciate the work others do, but will also provide you with crucial abilities that can serve you well in the future.

That being said, sometimes an iPhone photo is OK, especially when you can do some on-the-fly editing with filters. Our on-course branding made for some amazing visuals, and this was just one of many photos (and tweets) that made me proud.

4. Learn the lingo. I’ve watched a lot of golf on TV and played the game my whole life. But you need more than that before you can feel confident leading the social media coverage of a live, professional sports event. So I did my homework. I studied the social media feeds of the PGA Tour Champions and other tournament stops.

I incorporated my knowledge of the #SMsports industry into my approach, too. Because what works in football or basketball, can also work in golf.

Fortunately, leagues and teams have access to a library of statistics. Use those to create compelling, interesting content. Report on the action, but don’t just give play-by-play. Add value and use terms fans are used to hearing at the game, on the course or on TV.

But also be social. Use emojis, compelling images and lingo that’s familiar to socially-savvy fans.

5. Get some help. One person can’t do it all — at least not well or effectively. I was fortunate to partner with an energetic and talented social media pro — Jason Waller. We quickly established our own content swim lanes. We reviewed each day’s calendar and the opportunities ahead of us — together — but then went our separate ways to divide and conquer. And, we both adapted on the fly — Jason perhaps even more than me.13529075_10210038358023484_1498798714104140514_n

He was the master of behind-the-scenes content, showcasing our fans, volunteers, employees and entire tournament experience.

It was fun to watch Jason blossom over a week’s time doing this. It will serve him well in the future, too. Thanks, TBG.

We also tapped into other writers, photographers and videographers — all had other roles but all played a part in the overall success of the tournament’s social media presence.

So how’d we do? It was the first year for this PGA Tour Champions event, but you wouldn’t know that by the turnout. More than 56,000 fans attended, and the tournament raised close to $1 million for charity.

And remember those social media goals established in the strategy? Well, we met and exceeded them. The tournament’s social media accounts owned 43 percent of all related retweets and 25 percent of all shared social content. Strong Facebook and Twitter presences powered this surge, led by those branded messages I mentioned earlier, but also by strong video content and on-the-course coverage.

It was a fantastic experience for me — and I appreciate even more the hard work of those who do this every day.

I’m already gearing up for the 2017 American Family Insurance Championship, and will continue to seek inspiration from this community so willing to share ideas and expertise.

Thanks for being a fan.

* Tom Buchheim works for American Family Insurance in Madison, Wis.

Front Office Sports Opens Doors for Aspiring Sports Business Pros

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Front Office Sports logo

Front Office Sports is a resource for students and young professionals in which they can access our extensive database of informational interviews, infographics, and tips.

Sports business people give, and give, and give some more. Why else would a guy with few connections and little experience get to talk with talented, smart people in a highly competitive industry?

Four years ago, that guy was me. I took a chance, started a blog and hoped to fill a couple voids. One was an outlet for writing, which I desperately needed. The second helped fill a gap, because few were covering this curious intersection of sports and social media.

It was uncharted territory. Yet there was a community here, with plenty of guides willing to help me find my way … willing to share and give.

Since then, an explosion of social media in sports led to other voices in this space, and it’s been incredible watching so many with similar passions approach topics affecting the fans consuming the content, as well as those creating it. Talented people like Sunny CadwalladerJessica Smith, Neil Horowitz, Bob McKamey, Tariq Ahmad, Kevin DeShazo and many others.

While it’s a seemingly small pond, it can feel like a vast ocean for those trying to make a splash — and a career — in it today. Adam White likely had that feeling a year ago when he founded Front Office Sports, an educational resource for students and young professionals interested in sports careers. More than just a blog or Twitter feed, FOS is a community that connects the industry’s big fish with those hoping to make it big.

“People who work day in and day out to make all of this happen deserve to have their stories told,” Mr. White told Fourth and 140 recently. “When we think of interviews, we think of players and not actually people behind the scenes. That is why our motto is ‘the game behind the game’ because we are telling the stories of the people who are working behind the scenes.”

Mr. White wanted to create a resource to connect professionals and students on a more personal level, a seed planted by his professors at the University of Miami-Florida.

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Adam White is the founder of Front Office Sports.

“Many times I heard, ‘Connections are so important in our line of work because the industry is so small’,” says White, who juggles his FOS duties with a part-time job and full class schedule at Miami. “I figured if I was going to talk to people, why not share their insight with everyone, so those who were too afraid to reach out or didn’t have the means to could still learn everything I was learning. The whole idea was to help myself learn and give others opportunities to work on the blog while educating others at no cost or effort to them.”

Front Office Sports recently celebrated its first year of operation, and using a team of contributors, now cranks out content daily.

“We cover everything from how they got their start, to their favorite memories, to tips for students,” White says. “This content is important because it is relevant, real and not sugar-coated. The people we interview keep things clear and straight-up, which gives those who read it an unadulterated view as to what sports business is all about and if it is actually for them.”

In the past six months, White says Front Office Sports went from averaging 100 visitors a week to more than 100 per day. He credits the growth to quality content from volunteer staff contributors who also use their networks to draw in new readers — and new content.

“It has been remarkable to see the reaction of those in the industry,” White says. “They didn’t have to do it, yet they chose to take anywhere from 30 minutes to sometimes two hours out of their day to speak with us.”

White freely admits he hasn’t made money from the site, but believes the connections he’s building are invaluable. After a year of publishing, people now reach out to FOS, offering to contribute articles or share stories. In the coming year, he hopes to post more video interviews, establish Google Hangout panels, sell FOS merchandise, and start a scholarship — among an ambitious list of goals.

A true student of the industry, White says building Front Office Sports provides incredible learning opportunities, fueled by a sports community willing to share their time and talents. It’s not unlike the journey I’ve taken — albeit as a non-traditional student of the sports business game.

“Without FOS, there is no way I would have been able to talk to over 110 professionals from across the globe,” White says. “These people are such a well-connected group, but a group that is never afraid to reach out and lend a helping hand. They’ve not only helped catapult FOS to where it is now, but have truly impacted many other lives. That is a true testament to their characters and personalities.” 

I couldn’t agree more, Adam.

Thanks to this community for being so gracious … and thank you for being a fan.

#DSFE14 Day 2: Innovation, technology and data

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Day 2 of the Digital Sports Fan Engagement Conference focused on innovation, technology and data -- especially how it affects content and fan interactions.

Day 2 of the Digital Sports Fan Engagement Conference focused on innovation, technology and data — especially how it affects content and fan interactions.

As the Q1 Digital Sports Fan Engagement Conference rolled into its second day, the fan remained at the center of the conversation. But sports teams and leagues must understand fans better, and offer them reasons to connect in social media, online and at sports venues.

It was another amazing day filled with loads of valuable information. Here are some of the highlights.

Enter the Quack Cave
A leader in social media led off Day 2, as Oregon’s Craig Pintens shared the Ducks’ approach to social media. It’s simple. Be a national brand and activate a social media strategy focusing on heavy engagement, fan-centric and unique content (especially around the Duck’s buzz-worthy Nike uniforms), and creating and amplifying brand advocates.

“Influence is more important than growth,” says Pintens, who launched the first-ever social media command center among NCAA brands. The Quack Cave employs a mix of free and paid technology, including Postano’s social curation platform, to connect with fan advocates in social media, generating added interaction in the Duck’s already vibrant communities.

Rather than hire dozens of full-time social media pros to staff 30-40 accounts, Pintens enlists an army of student volunteers, eager to earn valuable experience and evangelize the Ducks’ brand. Quack Cave captures all things Oregon — across sports — and empowers students to join those conversations and share them. The Quack Cave site provides a one-stop shop for fans.

The Quack Cave even joined the #DSFE14 conversation.

“We want to be your second-favorite team,” says Pintens. “The Quack Cave is about finding Oregon in places you wouldn’t expect to see it.” Which is smart, considering 81 percent of Duck merchandise sales come from outside the state of Oregon.

Second-screen best practices
Teams and leagues see opportunity — and challenges — when it comes to the second screen, especially given 88 percent of fans use one when watching sports. From in-stadium connectivity (an issue WWE faces as it travels from arena to arena) to in-game content, each organization faces similar opportunities when trying to reach fans during the action.   

But, admitting their events are truly scripted, WWE seeks fan input via social media to give them control of the story line and keep them engaged via a second screen.

The University of Oklahoma seeks an idealized fan experience, bringing emotion and value to the second screen. How? Provide what fans can’t get anywhere else: access, analysis and immediacy. And make sure to provide platform-appropriate content, understanding the differences, for example, between Facebook and Twitter communities.

“We customize the content to our fans,” says Russell Houghtaling, Oklahoma’s director of digital media, noting the team invested in Bluetooth-enabled cameras to capture and share in-the-moment photos. “Emotion is why people love sports. We want to transfer that feeling to people on their couches.”

#ClubOrange rewards fans
Oklahoma sold out 92 straight home football games, so it’s important for the team to connect with fans who may never be able to attend a game at Memorial Stadium. 
The Phoenix Suns created #ClubOrange to provide fans with things they won’t find inside the arena.

The Suns’ Gorilla delivered pizza — and a unique experience — to Club Orange members.

“Money can’t buy experiences,” says Jeramie McPeek, the Suns’ vice president for digital. Club Orange rewards a variety of fan social media activities, including retweets, check-ins and hashtag usage. Fans earn prizes they can’t get anywhere else, including autographed gear, photos, and exclusive experiences — like a pizza party with the Phoenix Suns Gorilla.

The team collects fan data through the program and uses it to stay in touch with current and former season ticket holders via social media. The goal is to retain and even grow season those numbers.

Packers everywhere
By contrast, 110,000 Green Bay Packers fans are on the team’s waiting list for coveted season tickets to Lambeau Field, and only eight to 10 percent of its fans will ever get to a game. So the team built Packerseverywhere.com to create a “virtual Lambeau Field” filled with photos, tailgating recipes and a where-to-watch guide for more than 1,000 Packer-backer bars.  

More than 200,000 fans signed up for the new fan program, and — incredibly — half were not in the team’s existing database. Now the Packers use this portal to bring more fans into their sales funnel while connecting them to other fans through engaging, social media-friendly content.

“Fans become entertainment for other fans,” says Joan Malcheski, Packers media group and brand engagement director. Rightfully so, given Packerseverywhere.com boasts more than 40,000 pieces of fan content from 64 countries. Talk about a global brand!

Sponsors are a crucial part of the fan equation — in digital and social especially. But #DSFE14 panelists urged athletes, teams and leagues to remain diligent in these spaces, keeping content authentic and relevant. 

“Find natural fits for your sponsors,” says Jaime Carlin, marketing director for the Texas Motor Speedway. “Weave it into your story. Social media has a tremendous value. We can’t give it away.”

NASCAR uses sponsor-driven campaigns to continue conversations after race-day buzz dies down. But as Tim Clark, NASCAR’s director of optimization and programming, points out, it has to be genuine.

“Fans are smarter than we think,” Clark says. “They’ll see through sponsored content. If you’re creating something for a contrived reason, you’re probably going to fall flat.” Instead, teams and leagues should look for opportunities to partner with big brands to split costs and work together on sponsorships, campaigns and content that’s authentic to both brands.

There’s plenty more from both days of the Digital Sports Fan Engagement Conference, and I encourage you to check out the Q1 Sports event blog, review the conversation from the #DSFE14 hashtag, and read my recap from day 1.

As a media partner for this event, I’m humbled to have been invited and appreciate meeting and hearing from so many brilliant minds in sports and social media — and the powerful sports brands they represent.

As always, thanks for being a fan.

This Masters Tradition (Like No Other) Should Not Be Broken

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After a long day at work, I came home today and turned on my old friend, ESPN. I was instantly drawn in – not by the overdone highlights or talking heads – but by a well-produced special on the 25th anniversary of Jack Nicklaus’ Masters gem.

Son Jackie, who was on the bag that memorable Sunday, narrated the well-produced piece. I was taken back to that warm, sunny day in 1986 when I watched the tournament with my Dad. Jack shocked the sports world – and hooked me on the Masters – and golf – forever.

I tweeted about the ESPN program, which got me thinking about the PGA’s recent effort to make the game more fan-friendly by allowing cell phones on the course and embracing social media. It was a good move and a bit overdue, especially since fans have been tuning out the game for a variety of reasons. TV ratings dropped by a third at golf’s most recent major championship – last year’s PGA Champisonship.

I also thought how amazing the experience would have been at Augusta National in 1986, with the ability to take photos on the course and share them with friends, family and the world. What a memory.

Then I realized how awful that would be, actually. And I was suddenly glad for old traditions and stuffy rules. I wouldn’t want the Masters experience spoiled by thousands of cell phones and millions of tweets from fans, when actually you’re not a fan when attending the Masters. You’re a Patron. And Patrons must live up to a certain standard. They should follow tradition.

Yep, this social media nut, who loves to harp on teams and leagues and players about how bad they are at embracing this new medium, is completely turned off by the thought of a social media-infused Augusta National.

Some traditions are meant to be kept, and the “tradition like no other” fits into this rare category of exception. As incredible as it would be to tweet to the world shots of Tiger or Phil teeing off from No. 16 (my favorite hole at Augusta), I’m glad it’s not possible today. I hope it stays this way for generations to come.

“The Masters is about a certain formality and rigidity that is missing in most of our lives,” famed Masters announcer Verne Lundquist told Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times. “People crave that sort of thing.”

Plaschke punctuated the thought with his own argument for tradition:

You might think that the sophisticated American sports fan would grow bored of this, but it’s quite the opposite. We embrace this. We hunger for this. The Masters remains one of America’s most beloved sporting events perhaps because it is everything we used to be, reflecting a simpler type of sporting culture that will never exist again.

You can get your fill of the Masters by watching TV (especially if you’re a DirecTV customer). Or try the Masters website. And socially, plug into some of the active tour players, who are already posting some great content from this Georgia gem.

But keep the Masters as it is today. As it was 25 years ago. And 50 years ago. Social media will survive. But the Masters wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t for tradition.

Thanks for being a fan.

Pro Athletes Tweet About Politics At Their Own Risk

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Democracy in action: Protestors at the state capitol in Madison, Wisconsin.

The political situation unfolding in Wisconsin is a powder keg of emotions, and I’m trying not to be swept up by it all.

Friends, family and co-workers will tell you, my calm demeanor is one of my finest assets. I wouldn’t have survived my years in a TV newsroom or as a magazine editor without a thick skin and calming presence.

But certain things hit close to home, strike nerves and get me to break my vow to seldom talk politics on Facebook and Twitter. As a former public employee in my home state of Iowa, I feel for what’s happening to neighbors in my adopted state of Wisconsin. I’ve been there when budgets were cut. I’ve felt their pain. This is deeply personal.

For pro atheletes, that’s a little harder sell. 

Jumping into this – or any – political fight is risky business to say the least. It’s easier – and perhaps wiser – to stay out of it. Opinions are fine, but when pro athletes voice them publicly – especially on Twitter or Facebook – it’s a whole different animal.

Green Bay Packers defensive star Charles Woodson was one of the few to take sides in the debate between Wisconsin’s public-sector unions and its newly-elected Republican governor, Scott Walker. Woodson has sided with the unions, which is not a surprise, given his kinship with Wisconsinites. He might also be banking some goodwill when debate shifts to the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement.

What was surprising was Floridian Paul Azinger’s snarky tweets about the Wisconsin budget battle. I’m a casual Azinger fan when he’s on the golf course. I admired his recovery from cancer and his Ryder Cup leadership. He seems like a nice guy.

I know now that I don’t want to hear what he has to say about politics in Wisconsin. At all. Ever. Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk summed it up perfectly:

“When we want a fix of politics, we each know where to find it. When we want to get away from that crap (and, in many cases, it is indeed crap), we turn to sports.”

Recently, I challenged Tiger Woods to step up his Twitter game. But it was to talk a lot more about golf, life and the challenges of his comeback. I want the volume to increase, but I don’t want to hear what Tiger has to say about health care or the deficit.

Mr. Azinger is entitled to his opinion. He’s free to share it on Twitter or Facebook or wherever. I simply contend he is wrong, mostly because he lacks perspective: He doesn’t live in Wisconsin. He’s never been a public employee. 

I let him know so on Twitter:

A zinger for Azinger.

We actually had some interesting back-and-forth in subsequent tweets, and Mr. Azinger even DM’d me a couple times. (If he would only follow me back, I could respond there, too … wink-wink, Zinger.) I commend him for engaging fans (and non-fans).

I don’t deny his right to share his views on this issue. I’d just rather hear his views on Tiger Woods. Or the whacky world golf rankings. Or even pimp his new GolfPlan app. I’m getting that from his stream, too, which is why I’m still following him.

For now.

Sure, I could get nasty and talk specifically about Mr. Azinger’s politics, the current state of his golf career or his personal life. There’s no need for that. I simply believe he’s wrong about what’s happening in Wisconsin, and that as a professional athlete, tweeting about it repeatedly is probably not what his fans want to see.

Quite simply, he has a lot more to risk with those opinions than I do.

Thanks for being a fan.

Tiger’s Twitter Game as Disappointing as His Golf Game

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Tiger Woods needs more than help hitting fairways and greens, he needs help hitting the mark on Twitter.

The best athletes are built for competition. They want to excel – at everything.

Tiger Woods used to be that athlete. But his very public personal missteps, coupled with his failing golf game, have taken him from that pinnacle.

Nearly a year removed from a bizarre car crash, prolonged injury and eventual divorce, Tiger has been on the road to repairing his public image, along with his un-Tiger-like golf game. I expected him to recover fully and forge a huge comeback. 

He has not. Not yet, anyway.

Tiger’s return – the reputation-rebuilding part – included his supposed embrace of Twitter, which began in earnest late last year. Unfortunately, it’s been more like a limp handshake than an embrace. Much like his unimpressive golf game, Tiger’s swing at social media has left us hoping and expecting more.

I want to cheer, but I can’t even muster a golf clap.

Since resurrecting his dormant account Nov. 17, Tiger has managed just 56 tweets. An amazing score for 18 holes, but not good on the social media-meter. He’s answered a few @ replies, talked about the events in which he competed, promoted his foundation. He gained a meager 500,000 or so followers.

Blah.

Fans want those rare glimpses into an athlete’s life, and they appreciate the interaction on Twitter. But like everything with Tiger Woods, there’s a certain plasticness that stands out. There’s still a wall surrounding his every move – even on social media.

Twitter is about being authentic and approachable. Tiger is neither. It’s about reaching your fans at all times and in all places. And having those fans be able to reach you. Unless you’re Tiger, who apparently tweets from his “board room”:

Look fans - I tweet from the board room. Follow me!

I hope Tiger can get his game back. The PGA Tour needs it. I need it to make Sundays in spring and summer a little more enjoyable. But I also hope Tiger steps up his Twitter game, too. There’s no reason Tiger Woods can’t be the No. 1 golfer in the world again – and the No. 1 professional athlete on Twitter.

Thanks for being a fan.