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.

Stephen Cleary Takes His Case for a Sports Management Internship to Twitter

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Stephen Cleary

University of Ulster Masters student Stephen Cleary wants your help getting an internship in the sports industry.

Sometimes all it takes is a little push.

I needed an outlet to write about two topics that factor into almost every aspect of my life: Sports. And social media. So, Fourth And 140 was born in January 2011. Since then, I’ve tried to bring interesting stories to you about the characters who fill this medium, and the trends affecting the ever-changing fan experience in social media.

Stephen Cleary felt that push, too. Fresh off graduation from Northern Ireland’s University of Ulster, Stephen saw potential in the sports industry – specifically this collision of sports and social media. He also needed an internship by summer 2012 to complement his Masters course in Sports Management.

“In a fiercely competitive industry, I needed to stand out from the crowd,” Stephen told me recently. “Building websites is something I will always be glad to have in my skill set, but I decided it wasn’t what I wanted to do for a career.”

Push led to shove when Stephen – already blogging about sports and social media – tweeted a recent post to the web content manager of his beloved Liverpool FC, an English Premier soccer team. He added a second request.

“I took a chance by asking for an internship,” says Stephen, whose post was re-tweeted. “Then I thought, if someone was able to share my desire for an internship, I could get others to do the same.”

The wheels were quickly turning, and Stephen embarked on a social media-based campaign to land that coveted sports management internship. His resume includes a website, a YouTube channel, an active presence on Twitter, and, of course, his very own hash tag – #StevesJob. It’s a creative, innovative campaign that’s garnered attention in the small, but growing, world of sports and social media.

“Steve Jobs had recently passed away. The name must have been on my mind, and the campaign name #StevesJob was born,” says Stephen, who believes social media, design and communication skills are valuable assets for a position in this industry.

“Using Twitter, I aim to get as many people as possible to tweet, ‘I back the #StevesJob campaign’,” Stephen says. “I record a weekly YouTube video, bringing the latest sports/social media news, as well as my views on the topics.” He’s also an active blogger in sports and social media, contributing to a site he shares with three friends.

Stephen definitely has the drive, determination and creativity to make it in digital marketing, but that push keeps him reaching for something higher.

“I would love to work on projects for a professional sports team, giving them a competitive advantage over their rivals, and, most of all, enhancing the sports fan experience,” he says. “With soccer being my favorite sport, I would love to work in the MLS, and my absolute dream would be to work for Liverpool FC.”

Drive and determination will take you a long way. This is still a niche area of social media that has plenty of room for growth – and new faces. I like Stephen’s chances, which is why I decided to feature him here on Fourth And 140. Something tells me I might be hitting him up someday.

“The sports community on social networks has been really welcoming,” he says. “I would recommend all aspiring sports industry professionals to start networking now.”

In the meantime, Stephen continues to feel that push to keep his Twitter campaign going. Maybe you can help with a tweet of confidence? Just remember to post, ‘I back #StevesJob campaign’.

Thanks for being a fan.

Taking the #StevesJob campaign to YouTube

Stephen Cleary’s campaign is on YouTube, too, and has included some sports and social media news, commentary and even a little dancing.

Five Offseason Twitter Activities for Major League Baseball Players

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Twitter doesn't take a break in the offseason, and neither should Major League Baseball's top tweeting players.

As early as tonight, the 2011 Major League Baseball season will be in the books. And as you read earlier this month on Fourth and 140, it was an extraordinary year for social media growth. But that doesn’t mean athletes, teams and fans have to stop connecting with each other in the offseason.

Klout recently published its list of most influential baseball players, and it’s a good reminder that the beginning of a long offseason – no matter the sport – does not have to be the end of social media activity, especially on a high-volume channel like Twitter.

So, I have five suggestions to keep Major League Baseball players tweeting – and their fans happy – during the long winter months ahead.

1. Stay active on Twitter
Engage with your followers. Ask and answer questions. Talk baseball in the winter. Even though the season is over, you can still build your personal brand and help your team when Spring Training rolls around. Fans who are with you in January will be with you in April. And August. And October.

2. Adopt a social cause
Most athletes support a non-profit or charity. The offseason is ideal for increased involvement, and Twitter can be a powerful promotional channel. Why? Your fans will support your efforts, which means they’ll tweet about your charity. And donate to it. And suggest their friends and family do the same. Get behind a cause, and bring your fans along via Twitter.

3. Share your workout
Keeping in shape during the offseason is a challenge for every athlete, so why not use Twitter as a motivator to up your game? Get your fans involved, too. You can inspire them to get fit, and they can motivate you to improve for next season.

4. Give stuff away
Got some game-worn gear? Reward your most active – or interesting – or funny – follower with free baseballs, caps or jerseys. Better yet, tie in your giveaway with a charitable activity by asking followers to re-tweet information supporting your cause. It’s a way to show them you’re human, fun and approachable. And you can unload some of that extra stuff just sitting around the clubhouse.

5. Avoid the mundane
This may be the most important suggestion on the list. (Let’s call it a requirement.) If you don’t have anything worthwhile to say, don’t say it. Too many times athletes discover trouble when boredom is expressed in different ways on Twitter. They end up challenging the athleticism of NASCAR drivers, making bizarre statements based on current events, or pissing people off with their politics. (See the previous four suggestions if you want to continue to tweet but aren’t sure what to talk about.)

So sports fans, what else do you want your favorite Major League Baseball athletes to talk about on Twitter during the offseason? Share your suggestions in the comment section below.

Thanks for being a fan.

World Series Caps A Social Year For Major League Baseball

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MLB Fan Cave helped generate new fan engagement in a sport that's seen dwindling attendance the past three seasons.

It seems odd to talk about fan engagement at the end of the sports season. The competition has boiled down to two teams, and, quite frankly, many fans have moved on because their teams are no longer in contention.

Still, Major League Baseball execs can bask in the glow of another Fall Classic knowing the past season was successful on several levels. Most importantly, attendance figures were up in 2011. Major League Baseball’s social media engagement were way up, thanks to some successful social media risk-taking and increased player participation on social networks.

The rising star in social media and sports is arguably Major League Baseball’s Fan Cave, a “first-of-its-kind immersive fan experience” housed in New York City and hosted by two super fans chosen from nearly 10,000 applicants. Talk about dream job!

The winners, Mike O’Hara and Ryan Wagner, were paid to watch all 2,430 MLB regular season games AND every postseason game. They shared the experience with the world on Facebook, Twitter and a blog on MLBFanCave.com.

It was an impressive run, generating more than 100 million social media impressions for Major League Baseball in just six months, according the ESPN.

“[The Fan Cave] accomplished exactly what we set out to accomplish, which was we wanted to become part of the online social conversation this summer,” MLB executive vice president Tim Brosnan told ESPN.

The Fan Cave experiment paid dividends in the traditionally tough and snarky digital realm, bucking a trend of low engagement and negative sentiment. ESPN reports 45 percent of tweets about Fan Cave were positive, compared to 15-20 percent for accounts representing the league and its teams. That just doesn’t happen in one season.

Social engagement is higher for Fan Cave, too, according to ESPN, a full 20-25 percent better than team and league pages. It’s a model other leagues and individual teams are sure to copy. Can you say New York Yankee Fan Cave?

While there’s no way to directly tie attendance to online efforts, Major League Baseball teams overtuned dwindling attendance figures in 2011. For the first time in three seasons, the leauge enjoyed growth in ticket sales.

In today’s economy – and the economy of the future – meeting the customers where they are has to include a social media strategy. For the most part, MLB Fan Cave did it right in 2011. Its success will likely lead to bigger and better things for sports and social media. And that’s a good thing.

Thanks for being a fan.

Coming Soon to Twitter: A Social Media Sideline Reporter

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The Phoenix Suns are hiring a social media sideline reporter. Here are 5 job qualifications the team most likely won't consider (but should).

Someone in the Phoenix Suns’ front office understands today’s sports fan. Not your average fan, but your more engaged, highly active one.

This week, the Suns posted a pretty crazy classified ad on the team website, looking for a “social media sideline reporter.”

The job description? According to the ad: “This unique position will play an exciting new role in the team’s home-game broadcasts on @FoxSportsAZ and @ArizonaSports620, as well as the experience at @USAirwaysCenter.”

It’s a bold move for an NBA franchise, and a good sign for the growth of social media in sports marketing. But let’s hope the Suns don’t fill the position with a predictable choice. With that in mind, here are 5 recommendations I’d give to Suns’ brass if I was choosing the perfect social media sideline reporter.

Choose authenticity over flash. No one spots a social media phony faster than sports fans. Yes, map out a game plan for what you want to accomplish with this position. But let this person be real. It may be bumpy at times, but fans will appreciate it more than a talking head.

Don’t just pick the hottest gal (or guy). Sure, I get it. There’s a certain profile that attracts followers and gains buzz from a large metropolitan community like Phoenix. I’m just saying there’s more to social media than a pretty face. Give those gritty (and less pretty) superfans a chance.

Pay this person a decent salary. Consider the reach of your Twitter audience. (For the Sun’s, it’s more than 72,000 when this was published.) This is not an intern’s job. Find someone with passion who also understands your brand. The first part is not as easy to find. You can teach the second part.

Give this position more than lip service. Social media is still a novelty to some industries – especially sports. But more fans today use Twitter to connect with their favorite teams (and other fans). They live vicariously through their teams in the real world and online. So, let your social media sideline reporter have a true voice in your team’s overall social media strategy.

Hire a writer. While the Suns appear to be going a different way based on the application process (via video submission), I see the job description calling for someone who can write. Providing “quick social media updates” and “giving fans a voice within the broadcasts” requires quick thinkers who also need to be quick, efficient writers.

Now, I doubt the Suns will give me a call when it’s time to hire this new social media sideline reporter. (And, no, I’m not interested in moving to Phoenix.) But I’d like to think some of these suggestions are already on Jeramie McPeek’s radar. He’s the vice president of digital for the Suns, who wants “to try something different,” according to the Sports Business Daily.

Let’s hope so. Because finding a passionate, connected and capable fan for “social media sideline reporter” should be easy. Finding the perfect one won’t be.

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.  

New NCAA Training Regimen: Social Media 101

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The NCAA and its member schools are missing an ideal opportunity to teach student-athletes the right way to use social media. Banning its use is not the answer.

The governing body of the nation’s largest and most talented collection of student-athletes has, in essence, started a war against social media. 

Rather than take advantage of an ideal teaching moment, the NCAA is spreading fear and loathing of Facebook and Twitter throughout its member schools.

It started with the recent ruling against the University of North Carolina, when the NCAA effectively made social media monitoring a requirement for all schools. Watch what your athletes post, document it, and be prepared to produce that content when requested.

Then there’s New Mexico basketball coach Steve Alford’s team-wide Twitter ban. Rather than worry what athletes might post, players are forbidden from sharing 140-character nuggets of wisdom. (Facebook is OK, but the team will be monitoring those pages.) Other schools are following this move, which also makes monitoring easier.

Finally, there’s this: a news release from a startup company called VarsityMonitor, promising athletic departments “monitoring and visual archiving of social media activities, ensuring proper recording of all social content.” This new service, borne from the ashes of these new NCAA requirements, will “offer solutions to help maintain institutional control of social media.”

Ugh. Because there’s nothing more fan-friendly, genuine, authentic and engaging than “institutional control.”
 
Rather than take advantage of this opportunity to educate young people about how to use social media properly, the NCAA and its member schools are choosing a more radical, conservative – and I would argue – less lucrative path.
 
Tim Joyce, from RealClearSports.com, put it best this week when he described the missed opportunity for colleges and universities related to social media:

This is where the NCAA, through no fault of its own, has stumbled on a truth: Colleges have quietly ignored warning signs and have not taken the time to monitor or educate their students – athletes or otherwise – about the pitfalls of expressing any and all thoughts in a public forum.

This is a teaching moment, and schools are foolish to not take the lead. Who’s job is it? Administrators? Coaches? The NCAA?

Nope. I believe sports marketing departments could champion social media training for their respective university athletes. Just as they train for competition on the field, athletes would get fit with Twitter.

It really doesn’t matter who leads it, but the training must include:

A better understanding of social media’s reach. Teach them words matter, and on places like Twitter and Facebook, what you say can move around the world in an instant, especially when presented to rabid and unsavory “fans”.

A review of privacy settings. This should include individual audits with athletes on what they’re sharing and who they’re sharing it with. Understanding these settings is an ongoing process for anyone truly devoted to knowing and understanding social media.

Basic dos and don’ts. Here’s where you get over the Twitter bans and after-the-fact apologies. Teach kids what’s OK to tweet about and what’s not. Give real-life examples. There are plenty out there.

A following/follower strategy. Big brands (like the one I’m managing) have a process for who to follow and who they’d like to have follow them. Give student-athletes the same understanding. Fill your follower list with advocates – family members, friends, fans – and be prepared to unfollow or block the haters and trouble-makers (including those overzealous boosters). 

A social media mentor. Offer instant feedback and guidance. Make these kids feel safe on Twitter and Facebook. If they have questions, give them someone to lean on.

Suggested content. This might be a bit radical to some, but it’s where I think sports marketing departments could shine. Schools already have social media posts going up daily, why not give athletes access to a version of their own to share? It’s a chance for them to promote their team through links to schedules, sports articles or ticket/merchandise offers.

It’s time for the NCAA and its colleges and universities to fulfill their mission: To “integrate intercollegiate athletics into higher education so that the educational experience of the student-athlete is paramount.”

Here’s your chance to teach kids the right way to use social media, to help them achieve excellence. What do you say, NCAA?

Thanks for being a fan.

Twitter Battles Between Athletes Only Push Fans Further Away

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Using Twitter and other social channels to battle is the ultimate #FAIL for athletes.

We really need the NFL lockout to end this weekend.

Football fans are looking at their calendars and counting the days left until the Hall of Fame Game. The gnashing of teeth has fans on edge, and they’re showing it in their News Feeds and Twitter Timelines.

Everyone is to blame from the owners to the players.

Oh, the players. Yeah, they’re doing all sorts of stupid stuff, and social media is only making it worse.

There’s the James Harrison-Ben Rothlisberger tiff that’s been played out on the internet for the past week. Did he really mean what he said about Ben? Was that a sincere apology? As a Steelers fan, it’s turned into Team Ben vs. Team James.

If they were playing football, we’d likely not be hearing about it. This fill-the-time-until-the-agreement-is-signed creates more opportunities for talk that has little to do with football and turns fans off to the game.

Worse than the Steelers infighting was Seattle receiver GoldenTate’s Twitter attack on NASCAR racers. Tate was apparently miffed at Jimmie Johnson’s ESPY nod for best male athlete. The offending tweet:

Jimmy Johnson up for best athlete???? Um nooo .. Driving a car does not show  athleticism.

And the quick back pedal:

I’m not arguing that the sport isn’t hard … If it was easy everyone would  do it, I’m Just saying he is not the most athletic.

Admittedly, it’s a valid question, but that’s not how Tate posed it. He poked the bear – a term my colleagues and I use when we post something aimed at an individual or group that might be considered controversial.

Tate could have posed the question to his (modest) 20,000 Twitter followers. An even better idea would have been to talk about football and not poke the NASCAR bear and, as a result, their vocal fans who have substantial influence on Twitter, Facebook and beyond.

I don’t agree with Donovan McNabb that athletes should stay away from Twitter. Like playing their sport, they simply need some coaching. As I’ve argued previously, social sites like Twitter and Facebook provide fans with unfettered access to athletes without the polish of agents, marketing departments or news releases.

That’s why athletes need to treat social media with respect. Tweet away. Engage with fans. Tell us about your charity, your kids, your workout. Let us in a little more than we get by just watching you on the playing field. But do so with care.

It’s a learning process, and athletes are beginning to better understand the power of social media. What you say carries weight, and it can quickly get you in trouble. That goes for football players who run fast, and racecar drivers who drive fast.

Thanks for being a fan.

Shaq Blazes Social Media Trails for Professional Athletes

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Happy retirement to a sports and social media legend.

Shaquille O’Neal retired from the NBA this week after an illustrious, 19-year career. He was a bigger-than-life figure on the court, but perhaps an even larger factor on sports business and social media.

It was fitting he used Twitter to announce his retirement, sharing a 16-second video and thanking his millions of fans.

Today’s professional athletes should thank Shaq for what he’s done for personal branding. I’m not talking endorsements, although Shaq has his share of those. In the not-too-distant-past, it was traditional endorsements using traditional media that enriched professional athletes beyond their player salaries. Shaq is a trail-blazer for athletes and other celebrities who today use their social media star power for financial gain.

Sure, Shaq has done a lot to get where he is today: Hollywood actor. Rapper. Product spokesperson. Humanitarian. He’s not Shaquille O’Neal anymore. His brand name is simply Shaq. In 2007, CNN/Money named him the seventh-best endorsement superstar. And that’s a product of intense, frequent – and often brilliant – personal branding.

He’s created a language all his own – mashing “Shaq” with other words to make them larger than life – or Shaq-worthy. As his Twitter profile boasts, he’s very “Quotatious,” and “performs random acts of Shaqness.”

There’s also that stellar stint in the NBA, where Shaq earned 15 trips to the all-star game, 4 rings and numerous statistical milestones. He was the last bridge to previous generation of NBA greats.

When he wasn’t on the court, Shaq seemed most comfortable in the social media space. It’s the one place he could – and can – truly be himself. The authentic nature of this medium translates perfectly to Shaq’s large, unencumbered personality. It’s no surprise he’s the “most-followed athlete and first verified celebrity on Twitter”, according to his social media rep, Amy Jo Martin of Digital Royalty.

Shaq burst onto the social media scene when it was in its infancy. At nearly 4 million Twitter followers and more than 2 million Facebook fans, Shaq’s following is large for an aging athlete who has spent more time injured than playing the past few seasons.

In early 2009, Shaq shunned so-called traditional media to pimp his latest endorsement deal at the time with Enlyten, a maker of mouth strips that provide athletes with electrolytes. At the time, he had just 500,000 or so followers, but no one had done such a thing using social media. Now it’s becoming commonplace.

Shaq’s retirement announcement on Twitter was, of course, how he wanted to go out. As Martin told ESPN:

Shaquille is the media. He didn’t need a press release so the media could tell the world he’s retiring in their words. He told his millions of friends directly, in his own words. The social influence he has built has given him the freedom to leapfrog the middleman.

Shaq’s using his Twitter following to determine a new, post-retirement nickname. “The Big 401k” currently leads the way, but you can still tweet up Shaq with your idea.

Regardless of what you call him, Shaq remains a social media force in the sports world. Or, in Shaq terms, he’s Shaq-tastic.

Thanks for being a fan.

Twitter Bonuses Are Bad for UFC Fans and Fighters

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Ultimate Fighting Championship athletes battle for Twitter supremacy, but risk losing reputations and authenticity in the process.

I’m not an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fan, and, admittedly, I haven’t watched much any mixed martial arts (MMA) action. That doesn’t mean UFC fighters aren’t incredible athletes with huge fan followings – or that the league is not relevant in today’s sports landscape.

In fact, UFC management made waves and headlines recently when it dangled a $5,000 carrot to boost the efforts of its athletes on Twitter. It was the first time any professional sport, team or league incentivized social media activity.

That’s impressive, but troubling at the same time.

The bonus structure breaks down like this: Beginning in June, UFC and Strikeforce fighters will be placed into four categories based on current Twitter follower counts. At the end of each quarter, three fighters from each category can earn a $5,000 bonus, based on:

  • Who gained the most followers since the start of the quarter.
  • Who gained the highest percentage of new followers, and
  • Who wrote the most creative tweets.

UFC president Dana White, who boasts nearly 1.5 million Twitter followers himself, will judge that last, very subjective category. In a sport with high testosterone and high drama, it has the makings for some interesting results. When the dust settles and blood dries on the mat, the UFC will end up paying $240,000 a year to fighters for battling it out on Twitter.

I was intrigued, but not exactly excited for MMA and UFC fans. Here’s why:

Pay-To-Tweet is Not Authentic
While it’s a sign Twitter has arrived as a more mainstream marketing channel for professional sports, it strikes a blow at the authenticity of social media as a whole.

Nothing brings out the phoneys on Twitter more than money – or the promise of a payday based on what and how frequently you tweet. Just ask anyone who’s been spammed with @ mention offers of free stuff after in “iPad” in a tweet.

Twitter is Risky Business
As athletes in just about every sport have learned, you tweet at your own risk. Or as pro golfer Paul Azinger tweeted this week, “We are all only one tweet away from brilliant, clever, insightful or stupid!” (I think my previous blog post on the subject made an impact on Zinger.)

Simply put, reputations can be ruined or damaged quickly, even at 140 characters (or less). Athletes put hefty endorsements and fan love on the line by sharing their innermost thoughts in this public and very viral space. It’s the reason other, more mainstream leagues and teams are headed in the opposite direction of UFC, placing a heavier hand on social media usage.

Social Media is More Than a Numbers Game
Success on Twitter also shouldn’t be measured by sheer numbers. To his credit, UFC’s White will factor in “creativity” to the bonus decision. But placing so much on the final follower count makes the journey to that number questionable. Will fighters follow me back? Will some spend money to buy followers (you can do that)? I suppose all’s fair in love, war and Twitter.

Twitter is Not for Everyone
Being successful at anything takes time, practice and dedication. The same is true for Twitter. Anyone who’s tried to find their niche on Twitter knows how much work it takes to build a following, to find a voice, and to become comfortable talking in 140 characters or less. Learning social media will be harder than UFC fighters might think.

The UFC does get high marks in my book for offering social media training to its fighters, which will help get them started. They’ve also generated good PR related to this incentive program. For a niche sports, it’s a great way to get buzz – especially in the middle of an NFL work stoppage and languishing MLB season. It’s also a nice for athletes in this amazingly dangerous sport have additional earning potential (even if it might be more work than they think).

Will we see other leagues follow suit? I doubt it, especially with so many athletes making mistakes with their Twitter feeds, and teams and leagues getting more jittery about their athletes. What Twitter and Facebook can bring pro athletes are additional opportunities to market their personal brand and any products or services they might endorse.

That’s the less interesting, safer route for athletes wondering about the benefits of social media. But as Zinger said, you’re only one tweet away from trouble. And that will always be the case with Twitter.

Thanks for being a fan.