Twitter, Athletes and the Zimmerman Verdict: Can Social Media Advance a Larger National Dialogue?

In times of emotionally charged national events, athletes have an opportunity to impact a larger conversation with their social media presence.

In times of emotionally charged national events, athletes have an opportunity to impact a larger conversation with their social media presence.

Uncomfortable. Polarizing. Controversial. Important.

The recent not guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial produced a variety of adjectives – along with plenty of reaction on Twitter – from athletes and non-athletes alike. It unearthed the argument often repeated in times of national crises: Do we want to hear from athletes on such issues, or should they simply shut up and play?

As I’ve argued previously, there is no clarification button on Twitter when it comes to highly-charged reactions to current events. We all get one first chance at this, and if it takes more than 140 characters to make your point, perhaps Twitter isn’t the place. Maybe you wait awhile, collect your thoughts and share them in a blog (like I’m doing here, or like Russell Simmons did here).

And, I’m sorry, it doesn’t matter if you didn’t follow the trial from start to finish. Or if you know anything about the law. Or where you grew up. Or your skin color. What matters is where we go from here. Can we come together and collectively act in the wake of another national tragedy? Can any good rise from the ashes of burning anger, fear and hatred started long ago and only stoked by these recent events? Or will there simply be more talk (some of it really, really awful), followed by more apathy and inaction?

For better or worse, sports celebrities play a role in shaping this discussion – and the underlying and complex issues of race, gun violence, poverty …and more. We all do, actually. And Twitter is one of several vehicles we can use to advance the larger conversation. The difference for athletes is reach. On the whole, they have a louder microphone and can quickly nab the spotlight by simply hitting the TWEET button.

Dave Zirin of The Nation wrote this in a provocative piece about athlete reaction to the Zimmerman trial and verdict:

“Millions of people—in particular, millions of young white men—follow these guys on Twitter. Many exist in their own bubble where either Trayvon Martin doesn’t register at all, or if he does, it’s as someone who deserved to die. Maybe just maybe some of these comments by the people they cheer but rarely hear punctured their bubble.”

When the Zimmerman verdict came in, some athletes quickly took to Twitter. The reaction was – predictably – all over the board. Some – like Jared Sullinger of the NBA’s Boston Celtics – shared raw emotions in the moments after the verdict was read.

Jared Sullinger's tweet in reaction to the Zimmerman verdict.

Jared Sullinger’s tweet in reaction to the Zimmerman verdict.

Others incited further hatred and divide. Tweets were deleted and apologies posted. It was all too predictable. And disappointing. Many athletes passed on the opportunity to comment, swerving past the controversy like it was a wayward orange road construction barrel, yet missing a chance to impact a larger national issue.

As Steve Hummer wrote this week, Twitter continues to be a “two-edged sword” for athletes.

“At its best, Twitter personalizes the sports figure, which should in turn translate to increased marketability. The rawest, more reflexive reactions make for the noisiest tweets. It is a fine line the author treads, between being interesting and being offensive.”

The issues surrounding the George Zimmerman trial don’t require athletes to be offensive. Using Twitter for good – to further a collective conversation about issues affecting us all – is not controversial or polarizing. It might be uncomfortable. It’s most definitely important.

“We aren’t talking together — all Americans, black, white and all colors in between,” Jackie Warren-Moore wrote this week. “We are talking about each other. We aren’t talking about what divides us still. God knows, we aren’t even considering what might unite us.”

Athletes don’t have to risk reputations by asking questions and encouraging further dialogue. Showing emotion through Twitter – without making it hateful, incendiary or divisive – is OK. It’s human. It’s interesting. Heck, it can even be brand-building. And just maybe, it can make a positive impact.

Thanks for being a fan.

The Sports Strategy of Vine

Vine logo

Vine’s rapid rise hasn’t caught the full attention of the sporting world. Lack of strategic thinking could be keeping teams, leagues and athletes from jumping on board.

It didn’t take long for 2013 to bust out its newest, must-have social network. Vine debuted in January, providing a new micro-video service for its partner and big brother, Twitter.

If you haven’t heard of Vine, here’s the six-second explanation: You use your iOS device to record six-second video snippets and share them on Twitter. (You can also post Vines to Facebook, though the in-stream experience is not optimal.)

Vine speaks to the ever-decreasing attention spans of Twitter users while also reaching the creative and artistic Instagram crowd. Vine is hot, especially among 18- to 24-year-old iPhone and iPad users who already share short video bursts with friends through services like Viddy and Snapchat. Though there is no official count for Vine users (and no API or admin panel to tap into yet), the app took off. Just this month, Vine topped the charts among Apple’s free apps. (Now Android users patiently await the app in the Google Play store.)

Sports teams, leagues and athletes began using Vine immediately, including major professional sports leagues (and teams) from Major League Baseball, the National Football and Hockey leagues, and more. It was the new thing, and seemingly everyone gave Vine a try.

Vine is not spreading
However, like many shiny new social media tools, Vine withered (sorry, I had to go there) even before some teams gave it much of a chance (right, Dallas Mavericks?). Still other teams with impressive social media followings across several networks took a complete pass on Vine (right, Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers?).

What are the barriers? Similar to longer-form videos, creating Vines (good ones, anyway) requires planning and creative execution — two traits not synonymous with fast-paced, in-the-moment sports marketing, which is often done on a shoestring budget along with 100 other digital marketing/social media tactics. Simply put, snapping a photo is easier than shooting a succession of video clips.

Vine speaks to the ever-decreasing attention spans of Twitter users while also reaching the creative and artistic Instagram crowd.

Vine requires a strategy
It’s unfortunate Vine isn’t catching on more in sports. Not because Vine is a new and fun thing in social media (though it is), but because Vine provides value to fans. Vine complements content in a way photos and traditional video can’t, and that’s how strategic-minded teams, leagues and athletes use it. Vine is a chance to do more with less. It’s a highly creative and super-portable way to tell your brand’s story in social media. From a variety of angles, Vines can highlight day-to-day activities in ways text and photos can’t.

So Vine can and should fit into an overall social media strategy, but for some reason, it’s not catching on. I imagine some teams look at it as just one more social media account to maintain. One more beast to feed in the daily content grind. One more activity among a litany of others. This tactical point of view is short-sighted because Vine is so entwined with Twitter, much the way Instagram is baked into Facebook. These new visual mediums are not so much social networks as they are engagement sources and content feeders for the larger, flagship accounts.

Who’s doing Vine well in sports? Check out SportTechie’s solid review. Which teams and players do you follow on Vine? Leave a comment (or better yet, tweet me a Vine).

Thanks for being a fan.

Facebook’s Pages-Only News Feed and its Impact on Sports Brands, Athletes

Pages on Facebook

A new Pages-only Feed creates more questions than answers for sports teams, leagues and athletes who rely on Facebook to connect with today’s sports fans.

What’s not to like? A dedicated News Feed gives sports fan a one-stop shop for content, and makes athletes and sports brands happy because their stuff can finally be seen by all those adoring “fans”. Right?

Not so fast.

During the same week an outraged Mark Cuban blasted Facebook’s promoted page posts strategy, the Blue F introduced a new feature that should cause even more consternation from Cuban and other sports brands with significant investments in Facebook pages.

In a nutshell
The Pages Feed essentially streams content from only pages we “like.” Access it from the left sidebar of Facebook’s main page or via this link directly.

Read more about Facebook’s Pages Feed on the web.

Your mom doesn’t know what it is
Who’s going to use it? A link on an already-crowded left navigation is nearly invisible to the average user, who lives in the main News Feed.

The only ones talking about the Pages Feed are Facebook reps, marketers and those who cover the industry. Seriously. Ask your mom if she’s heard of it. It’s meant to appease marketers, who shouldn’t be satisfied. Despite rosy reviews, Pages Feed was poorly designed and hastily unveiled. To date, there are also no Insights available.

Pages Feed is also unavailable in those environments. That’s a huge problem because Americans now get the majority of their Facebook fix through apps and mobile. And if you love sports, you love using mobile devices to follow them.

Ask the tough question
No one wants to ask a fundamental question about Pages Feed, so I will: Does it eventually mean an end to Page posts in the larger, more important News Feed? It’s hard to imagine that would happen. But then again, a year ago, no one imagined only 16 percent of fans would see the average page post.

Time for Facebook to show a little more of its playbook.

Shows us your secret sauce
Another detail lacking in early reporting of Pages Feed: The algorithm driving the feed. Facebook hasn’t offered up much, and again, no one is clamoring for it. The post order appears very random, though Adweek’s Tim Peterson offers this:

“While brands should expect their fans who are fans of only a few other brands to see every post in the Pages Only feed, that won’t necessarily be the case for users who are fans of many brands,” writes Peterson. “In those cases, Facebook will essentially weigh the page posts as they do any content to the regular News Feed, taking into account engagement signals to make sure the stream isn’t lame.”

For leagues, teams and athletes who post multiple times a day to Facebook, these are essential details necessary to deliver on successful social media strategies.

So what?
Great. Another Facebook change, followed by a wringing of hands by marketers, who many believe have soured Facebook for good.

Except sports is different.

Our “fans” are actually fans. They’re passionate, dedicated and hungry to connect with their favorite leagues, teams and players. Forty-five percent of 18-35 year olds follow sports teams or athletes on social media.

This isn’t batteries or bath soap. This is America’s pastime and Americana. It’s homecoming and Friday nights. It’s March Madness and the Super Bowl. And Facebook is one of the first places fans flock to when they want to follow those passions. To connect, engage, consume and share.

Professional and collegiate teams and leagues – and their athletes – have more to lose. So, they need to continue weighing the value Facebook pages provide. They need to ask tougher questions and demand more when platforms change. Most importantly, they need to keep creating content fans want and will ask for – no matter what happens to Facebook.

Thanks for being a fan.