Let’s Focus on the Conversation

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Conversation

Help FourthAnd140.com find the characters who make the intersection of sports and social media more interesting.

When you’re at a party, who gets your attention? I look for good conversation. I look for people who want to talk with me, are interested in what I’m saying, and who say interesting things.

The same is true in social media – and even more so when you toss sports into the equation. But the louder voices tend to drown out the smaller ones, and it becomes a numbers game. When people stop engaging, the conversation becomes less interesting.

I’ve been absent from this blog for a few months now. Why? So many others began covering this space – the intersection of sports and social media – and I couldn’t keep up. I lacked the vital resources to do so: time (I do social media full time for a Fortune 300 brand) and energy (I have two kids who keep me going from dawn to dusk).

I can’t compete with so many others out there who are now covering this space for a living. I can’t keep up with the Mashables and ESPNs of the world – and I never will.

When people stop listening, the conversation becomes less interesting.

However, I can still share a perspective they don’t offer – one part fan, one part social media/PR/communications professional. I can (and occasionally will) write about the latest and greatest happenings hitting sports and social media. Mostly, I want to focus on the conversation.

That’s the essence of social media + sports for me. It works best when everyone’s involved and engaged. The channel shouldn’t matter, though I’ll keep tabs on Twitter and Facebook, the two loudest parties. But we’re starting to hear music coming from other places – like Tumblr and Pinterest – and my new favorite, Instagram. And conversations worth joining. And people worth meeting.

So FourthAnd140 is back, but our focus turns to the people making this intersection of sports and social media interesting: The characters behind the 140 characters.

We’ve met a few in doing this for nearly two years, but there are many more we want to meet. And we want to share their stories here. If you know someone who lights up your sports + social media feeds – who understands the conversation – tell us. Send us a tweet, post on our Facebook page, or leave a comment. We want to invite them to the party and introduce them to our friends.

Let’s make this conversation even better.

Thanks for being a fan.

NCAA Fails To Lead (Again) on Social Media Policy

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The NCAA passes the buck on social media policy and monitoring. Again.

Let’s get this out of the way: Social media is here to stay. A recent Nielsen study shows we’re spending a quarter of our online time on social networks.

Will it change shape in the years ahead? Of course.

In society, people connect in new ways here. In business, companies reach new customers here. And in athletics, teams and athletes discover new ways to meet their fans here.

As I’ve noted previously on Fourth and 140, social media is a space ripe for opportunity – and disappointment. It needs leaders who take risks but do things the right way, with honor and authenticity. We’re seeing some professional athletes, teams and leagues exhibit leadership as social media matured in 2011. And I expect more leaders – and posers – to emerge in 2012.

Unfortunately, the NCAA remains behind the times – and continues to pass on the opportunity to make social media a safe, productive and learning place for its student-athletes and their teams.

Earlier this month, the Missoulian reported the NCAA’s plans – or lack of plans – “to pen an official policy that would punish student-athletes for the misuse of social media sites, like Twitter, anytime in the near future.”

Add this to the already growing pile of disappointing decisions and lack of action by the NCAA. The latest news came in the wake Lehigh wide receiver Ryan Spadola’s suspension for re-tweeting a message containing a racial slur.

The Missoulian’s reporting uncovered a two newsworthy items. First, the NCAA does not have the staff or budget to monitor student-athletes’ activities on Twitter, Facebook or other social sites. Second, and more importantly, the NCAA openly passes the buck on creating social media policies to its member institutions and leagues.

Disappointing. Again.

“Schools, institutions and conferences have their own guidelines in place for social media,” Schuh told the Missoulian. “The monitoring of social media is done on an institutional basis, on each campus. Some coaches say do whatever you want and some say don’t use it. That’s a school or a conference’s decision. They are the ones charged with overseeing those outlets.”

I’m OK with putting social media monitoring on schools. That makes sense. What’s irresponsible and a missed opportunity is failing to create guidelines and rules that govern these schools – and their athletes – in social media. I’ve argued before about the NCAA’s need for a social media policy, but it appears now the NCAA has no immediate plans to craft an official one.

The lack of leadership here is stunning, and allows the NCAA to cherry-pick schools and athletes who make very obvious and public missteps. In other words, it’s the easy way out.

What takes more work, courage and leadership would be establishing a committee of leaders – in athletics and in social media – to craft a credible set of guidelines for schools and student-athletes to follow. It would provide an ideal teaching moment for students to learn about social media.

Need a place to start, NCAA? Check out the NHL’s comprehensive social media policy. Read any of the hundreds of corporate social media policies available online. Ask your member colleges and universities or leagues. Start the conversation.

Until then, arbitrary action and lack of leadership will continue to make social media a confusing, dangerous and intimidating space for both NCAA teams and – more importantly – student-athletes.

Thanks for being a fan.

Baylor Athletics Takes Bold Step to Reward Social Media Engagement

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Baylor Athletics goes bold with a new, innovative way to reward fan engagement across multiple social networks.

The social media marketing game is pretty straightforward. It’s even more so in sports, where “fans” are actually fans.

Make it easy for people to connect with you, and reward them for doing so with engaging and relevant content, a welcoming “voice” and user-friendly technology. Throw in some free stuff, and you have a winning combination.

If I had to write a mission statement for how to win the social media marketing game, I would start and finish with “Make it easy for people to connect”. The payoff for cracking this code? Greater share of voice among your competitors, higher engagement in the wacky, EdgeRank-driven game of social media, and top-of-mind consideration in the purchase funnel. In other words, Marketing Gold.

Baylor University Athletics may have struck that gold with a new social media rewards program. Arguably enjoying one of its most successful and exciting college football seasons in recent memory, Baylor launched an innovative – and brilliantly easy – way to reward fans who connect with its sports teams through social media.

The Baylor Bold Rewards Program – a social media venture between the school’s athletic department and row27 Studios – rewards fans for creating social media stories around Baylor Athletics, including:

  • Sharing and liking Baylor Athletics Facebook posts, images and videos (250 points)
  • Re-tweeting Baylor Athletics tweets (500 points)
  • Tweeting with certain hash tags (100 points)
  • Uploading images (250 points)
  • Checking into Baylor athletic facilities through Foursquare (250 points)
  • (Students only) Attending Baylor home games in all ticketed sporting events (2,000 points)

Fans redeem points for prizes that are worth winning. No badges here, folks. Actual team gear. The top three point earners (decided at the end of June 2012) win more substantial prizes, including (third) seasons tickets to a sport of choice plus $200 in bookstore credit; (second) lunch with a Baylor coach of choice plus a flat screen TV; (grand) the chance to lead the Baylor football team out of the tunnel at the 2012 season opener plus an iPad2.

The Baylor Bold Rewards Program isn’t innovative because it’s an “outside-the-box” or transformational idea. It’s using available and adaptable technology (social network APIs), combined with a simple sign-up form and easy-to-understand rules. It’s innovative because of its simplicity, and because Baylor is the first sports franchise at any level to do this across multiple social networks and multiple teams.

The Baylor Rewards Program is easy as 1, 2, 3. That's the way sports fans like it.

Sports fans are already gathering on Facebook and Twitter to connect with each other and talk about their teams. The smart sports marketer fishes in the ocean, not the small ponds. And marketers who can get those fish to talk to other fish about their stuff are even smarter.

“With so much of our communication moving to social media, we felt this rewards program would be the way to get beyond our ‘friends’ to our friends’ friends,” says John Garrison, associate athletic director for marketing at Baylor. “We have some fans who are being rewarded for doing what they’ve always done, some who are being somewhat more active and some who are going wild with spreading the word. It’s fun to watch, and I think it will only increase as we begin to advertise it at our venues.”

For Baylor Athletics, the rewards program is part of a larger campaign whose success will ultimately be measured in ticket sales, not likes and re-tweets. But social media engagement is the most efficient path to get there. And, just a week-and-a-half into the program, who can argue with more than 1 million social media impressions for the Baylor Athletics Facebook page?

“We’re encouraging our fans to be more fanatical about Baylor Athletics – to come to more games, to cheer louder, to fly a Baylor flag at their business, to spread the word of Baylor,” says Garrison. “We believe it will help put more fans and students in the stands at all our games. And make them more informed, passionate fans as well.”

If I had to write a mission statement for how to win the social media marketing game, I would start and finish with ‘Make it easy for people to connect’.

Sports marketing firm row27 Studios powers the technology behind the Baylor Bold Rewards Program. It also created FanMaker, an application plugged into Baylor’s Facebook page that allows additional fan interaction through photo uploads, trivia, events – even ticket purchases. A staff of five sports marketers at Baylor does the rest – administering the program and managing the Twitter and Facebook communities.

The timing for the Baylor Bold program comes as its school prepares to wrap up an exciting and successful football season and begin a full slate of winter sports programs. If you’re a Baylor Bears fan, that’s something worth sharing.

Thanks for being a fan.

Turn Foursquare Check-ins Into Something Tangible for Sports Fans

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Sports teams and stadiums have the power to turn lame Foursquare check-ins into something valuable for fans.

How do you make location-based services (LBS) real for the average sports fan? Free stuff helps. And I’m not talking about any stinkin’ badges either.

What I am talking about is how teams can reward fan attendance, loyalty and engagement via LBS with actual rewards. More in a minute.

First, some background on why check-in services like Foursquare mean more to sports fans than the average person. According to recent research from Tariq Ahmad, checking in at your favorite sports venue is a status symbol fans find valuable, fun and engaging. In the deepest dive of this topic to date, he surveyed 245 active sports fans who use LBS. Ahmad found sports venues and stadiums are the No. 2 most checked-in places on services like Foursquare and Facebook Places (trailing only airports).

“You are at Madison Square Garden to watch the Knicks host Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, and you want everyone to know,”  Ahmad wrote in his white paper, Sports and Location-Based Services: How Sports Fans Use LBS to Connect. “So you check-in and post to various social media sites to let your friends know you are at the game (and they are not).”

Admittedly, it’s cooler to check in at your favorite team’s stadium, because, well, it just is.  I look forward to sharing my visits to Kinnick Stadium this fall with anyone who will listen. Besides the bragging factor of being at the big game, Ahmad says fans are somewhat constrained – unable to leave – another reason for higher rates of game-day check-ins. (What else you gonna do while you wait for the game to start?)

But let’s be real. Today, most Foursquare check-ins yield little. Some businesses offer specials, such as discounts or perks for being the “mayor”. And within Foursquare, you can earn daily points to see where you stack up with friends. For many,  Foursquare is just a competition among friends to see who has the most interesting life. It’s become another social game, like Mafia Wars or Farmville; a time suck that’s watering down our collective social media experience.

However, that’s not always the case for sports fans. Ahmad’s research paints a different picture, which creates an opportunity for teams to reach new fans in this social space. Why would teams do this? A tough economy and dwindling ticket sales are the two easiest answers. Ask the Florida Marlins how ticket sales are going these days? Perhaps a Foursquare strategy is worth a look.

And any successful LBS strategy begins and ends with offering fans tangible, valuable rewards. Ahmad’s findings reinforce this notion. In fact, he found 74 percent “would be more likely to check-in if they receive a tangible reward.”

As a social media marketer, I’d focus an LBS rewards strategy on a select group of super-fans first, perhaps through a Klout perk or some other special offer. Engaged fans are more likely to post updates about the team’s reward program, spreading the word to other fans through social media. Subsequent programs would reach a wider audience, because this should not be a one-time deal. It must have staying power, or it will not reach the more casual fans.

We saw one of the first examples this summer outside the MLB Fan Cave in New York. As part of campaign to promote “The Franchise” on Showtime, fans could check into the show via Foursquare, activating a storefront vending machine which released an official MLB baseball. Not a bad incentive: Gain foot traffic to the MLB fan cave and spread the word about a new show many sports fans would be interested to see anyway.

It’s a start. Fans are craving this kind of social media engagement with their favorite teams. It also makes marketing sense for non-sports brands (like Showtime) to partner with franchises, leagues and stadiums to reach new fans through LBS like Foursquare. It also makes sense for Foursquare to mainstream its service even more.

What’s your favorite team doing to engage you in this new digital space? What should they be doing differently? Leave your ideas in the comment section below.

Thanks for being a fan.

Editor’s note: Like what you saw in Tariq Ahmad’s ground-breaking research on location-based services in sports? Vote for his SXSW panel on this subject here: Sports and LBS: Gotta check-in.  

Social Media Shrinks the Map for Fans of Division III Athletics

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For me, this weekend means March Madness of a different kind.

I’ve made the case before that sports and social media often meet at a perfect crossroads. But this weekend, it’s an ideal intersection for me.

You see, I’m a graduate of Wartburg College, a small, Division III college in northeast Iowa that happens to be damn good at wrestling. When I mean good, I’m talking 19 straight Iowa Conference championships, 7 Division III national titles since 1996, and first- or second-place national finishes in 15 of the last 19 years.

Not quite University of Iowa Dynasty, but we’re getting there.

While it might sound like it, I am not a superfan. If I was, I’d head up the road a few hours to LaCrosse and watch this weekend’s DIII wrestling tournament in person. Perhaps I’m spoiled by Wartburg’s success and only pay close attention when tourney time rolls around.

Another reason could be coverage. Even while living in Iowa, I didn’t get much Wartburg wrestling action in my local paper or TV sports segment. It’s even more difficult living in Wisconsin. In years past, I’d have to rely on a paragraph (at best) or box score to catch results.

More recently, I’ve signed up for fan text alerts and e-mail updates, but those are not very convenient or immediate. The internet has improved access for me and fans of DIII athletics, too. The NCAA even streams live video of select DIII tournament wrestling matches (and other sports), but until this year, it was only the finals. And while it’s exciting to actually watch some of the action live on the internet, Wartburg is not always the featured match, and the commentary is generic at best. 

Enter social media. Fast, easy, fan-specific and collaborative.  

Twitter and Facebook are my best sources for updates on Wartburg College athletics. This was not the case just a couple years ago.

I’ve added Wartburg’s sports news to my Twitter and Facebook feeds. Boom. Instant access to real-time updates from the DIII tournament – tailored to Wartburg fans. Knights’ sports information director, Mark Adkins, provides the bulk of the commentary. He’s a fast, efficient and solid writer, not to mention a passionate ambassador for the college. You have to be. (Side note: I worked with Mark during my brief stint as sports editor on Wartburg’s student newspaper, The Trumpet, some 20+ years ago.)

Other Wartburg fans – and those of DIII wrestling in general – add to the mix through a real-time feed of hash-tagged content. It’s just what I need to get my Wartburg wrestling fix this time of year. It’s also a way to find others with similar interests – alums, current students, parents, etc. For a simple follow, I get their perspective, too.

I’m not there, but I am – thanks to this cool collaboration we call social media.

So while most folks are watching March Madness of a different kind this weekend, I’m cheering hard that another DIII national wrestling title trophy will accompany the Wartburg College Knights back to Waverly.

Thanks for being a fan.

NHL Goes Low-Tech, High Engagement on Facebook

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I'm short on hockey jargon... so let's just say the NHL knows how to do Facebook.

The National Hockey League’s official Facebook page is pure simplicity, and I love it.

Fancy apps, tabs, polls and widgets. Who needs ’em?

I’m barely a casual hockey fan – especially professional hockey. But you don’t have to know blue lines from red lines to see what the NHL does on Facebook works. Posts average hundreds – if not thousands – of fan interactions (likes and comments). And 1.3 million-plus “likes” is a good effort for a pro league, comparable to the NFL (2.6 million “likes”) and miles ahead of the fancier MLB site (280,000 “likes”).

My favorite feature on the NHL page has to be polling. These aren’t tricked-out, Flash-based polls requiring a lot of heavy lifting by visitors. No apps to install. Nope. Just a thumbs up/down image with a question: Like or dislike ________ (insert topic).

The NHL's polling feature is so simple, it's brilliant.

The simplicity is awesome, lightweight and easy to use. And that’s the way it should be.

Big brands spend big bucks trying way too hard to make fancy polling apps that fail to get the desired results: people answering the damn question. Facebook users end up spending so much time and effort installing an app or navigating through a tab, they forget the question. The NHL polling option cuts through all that clutter AND gets results.

Other quick hitters on the NHL’s Facebook page:  

  • Heavy use of its extensive video library of highlights and interviews.
  • Allowing fans to post directly to the Wall (although fan feeds are separate from the main NHL feed).
  • Alternating profile picture to promote its product.

That last tactic is something not too many brands implement. Most corporate-run Facebook pages are stuck with a logo or other boring image that doesn’t do anything to advance their social efforts. The NHL uses the available profile picture space well, promoting the day’s games with a call to watch the action on TV.

If you haven’t already, you’ll start seeing other brand pages doing the same. There’s a lot of real estate available in that profile picture, so why not put it to use? I’ve just started doing the same with the brand I manage on Facebook, and the results have been positive.

There is one downside to 1.3 million fans and an open attitude about who gets to post what: You get bombarded with a lot of junk. Thankfully, the NHL does differentiate its posts from those of its fans. However, if I was administering this page, the biggest area of concern would be the inappropriate pictures uploaded to the NHL site.

While they’re not readily visible to the everyday fan, they are still there. I’d suggest a little house-cleaning for the NHL admin at some point, to get rid of that off-brand, user-generated content.

Even if you’re not a huge hockey fan – take a minute to check out what the NHL is doing differently on Facebook.

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.