The Sports Strategy of Social Media Influencers: The Miami Hurricanes #USocial Suite

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Whether it’s space or sports, the strategy of social influence remains the same. Put your strongest advocates in places few others will see, give them unprecedented access, and the value of your brand increases exponentially through positive word of mouth.

It’s time for college football, and who better to tell the season’s story than fans. Really, really dedicated and passionate fans.

So it’s refreshing (and about time, frankly) that college football realizes the value of fanvocates — those extremely invested followers of their team.

The groundbreaking honors go to the Miami Hurricanes, who will host “fan reporters” and select bloggers for three football games during the 2013 season inside the team’s #USocial Suite, a spot set aside in the Sun Life Stadium press box.

The athletic department hand-picked some #USocial participants, but also held a casting call (via social media) for superfans seeking spots in the suite as #CanesReporters. All will be expected to share their experiences across social media during Hurricane home games vs. Florida, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.

“Social media is a part of our culture,” Hurricanes’ Assistant Athletic Director/Communications Chris Yandle tells FourthAnd140. “Research suggests social media users are most active during sporting events. It’s a great combination. These are the people that – over time – will be the ones fighting for us online. Thanks to the TMZ culture and camera phones, everyone is a reporter.”

#USocial – and other on-site, in-game social media experiences (like the Cleveland Indians Social Suite) – help teams build stronger relationships with fans and their sports brands. Adopting a social media influencer strategy is becoming more mainstream among sports brands – at the professional (and now collegiate) level. A social suite is a smart, low-cost tactic.

“Everyone wants to share their experience. Everyone’s experience is content,” Yandle says. “Sharing fans’ experiences makes our jobs better. We want to be able to adapt and provide the best social, digital and entertainment experience possible for fans. [#USocial] could be the start of that.”

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During summer, Miami’s athletic department solicited fan tweet and video submissions to earn #USocial Suite access. Yandle says athletics staff members and fans alike recommended participants.  Some came from blogs or websites the university doesn’t credential as media for games.

“This will serve as a ‘test drive’ for them,” he says. “It’s as much as an interview process for us as it is them.”

#USocial Suite digs are more about function than luxury, but I doubt you’ll hear too many complaints. Participants will make their home in a suite on the second floor of the main press box at Sun Life. While Yandle says they won’t have post-game interview access, #USocial Suite will offer media materials, food and stats.

What more could a superfan need?

When it comes to college football, the amount of content available is overwhelming. Fans sites and home-grown blogs are plentiful, and Twitter streams clog on Saturday afternoons with play-by-play and fan commentary. Imagine having the opportunity to showcase your blog, website or fan forum by earning a spot at the big show. For influential fans, #CanesReporters provides a chance to set yourself apart even more, and up your street cred with other fans (not to mention grow your following).

It’s also just plain cool to see and report a major sporting event from a vantage point few ever see. (Trust me, it’s a blast.) Access is part of the deal, according to Yandle, who says several university leaders, including the school’s athletic director, will visit the suite, chat with participants and host Q & A sessions.

The lessons of brand advocacy and influence aren’t new to social media. Surprisingly, sports is playing catch-up. NASA has hosted tweetups for years. (I was fortunate to attend the NASA tweetup for Space Shuttle Endeavour’s final mission.) But, whether it’s space or sports, the strategy remains the same. Put your strongest advocates in places few others will see, give them unprecedented access, and the value of your brand increases exponentially through positive word of mouth and authentic buzz.

“Social media is vital,” says Yandle. “It’s free. No one can tell our story as best as we can. We want to take advantage of social media, while remaining as one of the trendsetters in social media among college athletics.”

The Hurricanes are leaders in social, and part of leading the way is taking risks and trying new things. Being first is OK, but doing it right is strategic (and smart). Yandle and his team nailed all three.

“My goal is to create a  great experience for this group, while building these relationships that can help us in our social brand moving forward,” says Yandle.

Social media is about relationships. It’s about connections. It’s about conversations. It’s today’s digital handshake, and in sports – especially college athletics – it can’t be ignored, vilified or downplayed. Through leadership and calculated risk, the Hurricanes will reap the benefits. But more importantly, so will their fans.

Thanks for being a fan.