Listen, engage influencers, build relationships: Mariners' invitation to Russell Wilson hits three biggest social media best practices

I talk about the Mariners too much. I know this, my friends know this and everyone who follows me on Twitter definitely know this. So when I do it again right now in speaking to something smart their digital team did, I want to note that I do so as a lesson to other teams, to anyone working in or with social media—not to, again, find every reason I can to talk about the Mariners.

So what did they do, exactly? Well, they treated Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson to a ballgame when he went on Twitter to ask his followers what he should do with his Sunday. MLB's Cut 4 blog has the full story of what went down, with the actual tweets and even an accompanying Vine.

I'm sure these types of ideas come naturally, and this was likely spur-of-the-moment brilliance from Mariners Digital Marketing Manager Nathan Rauschenberg, but to break down the anatomy of actions like this, here are a few reasons why it's effective:

  • The Mariners listened. It's the most important, and probably the least ascribed to, best practice when in social media. Individuals, and especially brands, have to be aware of the conversation around them or they're going to miss out on opportunities like this one. Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to sit in on a presentation from Twitter's Director of Small and Medium Bussiness, in which he noted that 40 percent of Twitter's most highly engaged users rarely or never tweet. Brands could learn something from them, as many confuse social media with outbound marketing. The Mariners are obviously not one of them.
  • They engaged someone of influence. "Engagement" is the most worn-out word in the world of social media. It's important, but the reality is that not all engagement is created equal. By targeting specific communities or individuals, teams can enhance the impact of their social media efforts. Russell Wilson stands right besides Felix Hernandez—maybe even ahead of him—when it comes to sports influencers in the city of Seattle. If he's spending his afternoon taking in a ballgame, and sharing the enjoyable experience socially, it's likely to influence others to at least consider doing the same.
  • The Mariners continue to build relationships in the Seattle sports community. Going back to the "social media is not outbound marketing" point, social media is at its best when you're using it build positive relationships. For brands, it usually isn't a one-on-one relationship (though it can be with certain influencers) but is instead a relationship of one-to-many, with bonds being built up between the brand and communities. The Mariners higher-ups did themselves no favors in vocally opposing a new Seattle arena for the Sonics, but the marketing team has done a remarkable job working to rebuild goodwill by developing a relationship with Seahawks fans—the city's most vocal sports community at the moment. The is second time this season they've engaged the Seahawks, as Richard Sherman threw out the first pitch in Felix's first home start. Seahawks fans on hand loved it, as two other members of the vaunted "Legion of Boom" were on hand at Safeco to see it.

The Mariners have already received local acclaim for their digital efforts, and I wouldn't be surprised to see some national exposure soon.

Timing and strategy of Ichiro trade underscores the constant influence of the casual fan

As a fan, I want to influence my team. I want to make them better. It isn't easy to do, it may well be impossible in most cases. And while I may be the minority, I can't be the only one who thinks that way, that maybe if I yell enough, try to explain the team enough to my circle of friends or even just nag enough on Twitter maybe it'll make the smallest of differences. But the thing is, it's never fans like us, the fans that want to, that actually make the difference.

As evidenced by this Ichiro trade, events that have happened throughout sports history and happen each and every day, most times it's the the casual fans who collectively hold the most influence.

Let's look first at the timing and reasoning in the Ichiro deal. As was reported recently and even before that, the Mariners were either considering or already had offered Ichiro a contract extension, but he wasn't having it. And while the quote from Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln is that Ichiro's camp requested a trade "several weeks ago", Seattle Times columnist Larry Stone confirms that it was indeed "months ago." This may well be the same thing, but funny—and expected—that Lincoln would prefer the ambiguity.

See, Ichiro was making the team worse. It made no sense to have him on the roster. In 2011 he ranked (by WAR) as the sixth-worst outfielder in the game. He had one more year on his contract, so he was of course in Seattle's camp come spring, asked to alter his approach and bat third. It didn't help. He remained almost entirely ineffective.

It's puzzling then that, even though he explicitly asked to be removed from the team and was blocking other younger (and better) players from playing, the Mariners intentionally kept him on the team and in the lineup everyday. Hell, just a few weeks ago, before Franklin Gutierrez's concussion, the Mariners were wondering how they could fit Michael Saunders, Casper Wells and Gutierrez (all better players than Ichiro) into the lineup when Ichiro had to play everyday.

Not just that, but you have to wonder what effect Ichiro wanting to be elsewhere—and waiting months for it to happen—had on him. Think about being in the office at 3:30 on a summer Friday. How much are you really getting done when your mind is already at the beach or the bar or home on the deck? Just this past weekend in Tampa, Ichiro air-mailed cutoff men on multiple run-scoring plays. At one point he was asked to bunt a man over and knocked the first pitch right back to the pitcher for an easy out at third.

Even if you ignore that, Ichiro's been bad for a while. Jon Paul Morosi on it:

Because Ichiro had to play right field every day, the Mariners have been playing with what amounted to a National League lineup for the past two seasons. They punted on the chance to get any power production from a position normally associated with sluggers. Seattle had the lowest right-field OPS in the AL last year (.639) — and this year (.654).

And former Seattle Mariners outfielder Mike Cameron, via KJR 950's Mitch Levy:

In years after I left, I heard there may have been a few clubhouse problems because he became a little more selfish player.

So why keep him, an old bad player on a losing team, around after he requested to be traded presumably sometime in May? This of course is speculation but, as the Mariners marketing team—who of course had no say in the matter—described it, the Mariners played the "hottest June on record" in 2012: home series against the Dodgers, Giants and Red Sox. That was followed in July by home series against the Rangers and now the Yankees.

If there are series when you expect those who don't normally come out—the casual fan—to make it to the ballpark, these would be them. Families, tourists, what-have-you, to all of whom Ichiro is the most recognizable player. Would it be unfair to assume Mariners management, not including General Manager Jack Zduriencik, wanted Ichiro around to appease those casual fans and take what they still could from their wallets?

With those games out of the way, the Mariners made this move with those fans still in mind, but now hoping to avoid their wrath further down the road. Anthony Witrado of the Sporting News:

The point of the deal was to alleviate the pressure Ichiro's pending free agency was placing on the organization and general manager Jack Zduriencik, who said he was preparing an offer for the 38-year old future Hall of Fame outfielder. With his declining skills and the price it would have taken to re-sign him, it wasn’t worth it for the Mariners to bring back Ichiro, and that would have caused quite the circus within the team’s fan base, which has a strong and loyal Japanese representation.

I don't know about the last part of that, how much "Japanese representation" played a role in this, but the front office seemingly wanted to avoid a situation like that which played out with Ken Griffey Jr. in the fall of 2009, when he signed on for one last year only to retire two months into the following season because he was terrible.

In my mind, the Ichiro situation compares to what happened in Green Bay with Brett Favre, the standard to which these types of situations will forever be measured. Though Favre led the team to the NFC Championship game in 2007, he was growing ineffective, was somewhat selfish and lacked the leadership ability he once had so the team kicked his ass right out of town. Based on Favre's performance with the Vikings in 2009, the Packers may well have won one more Super Bowl with Favre but because they let him go they're set up for more sustained long-term success.

The lesson in all of this is simple, and one evident in countless other situations. The Mariners allowed their environment to shape their choices, instead of the other way around. Regardless, better that they make the right move a little late than bring Ichiro back for yet another fan-appeasing season.

Ichiro was amazing in Seattle, and I'll never forgot that Rookie of the Year/MVP 2001 season—but the Mariners made the move they had to make, and now they can finally move past the Ichiro era, and grow the organization in a way they could not previously.

Twitter at the ballpark--curation and geolocation could be key for teams

For me, getting scorched in the dome with a foul ball borders on being inevitable. See, when I go to Mariners games I usually sit about 20 rows up from third base and spend an inordinate amount of time on my phone because, in-between batters and innings, I am constantly checking my Twitter list of Mariners writers and bloggers.

Now, I'll be the first to acknowledge that if Ray Kinsella were sitting to my left, and Terrence Mann to my right, they would not approve. But in today's age, how different is this than keeping score? I'll admit it isn't as traditional or romanticized, but it keeps me engaged in the game and gives appropriate context to eveything that's going on. Whenever I tell someone about this practice, someone who also utilizes Twitter a bit, they give it a shot and usually enjoy it. It's such a great addition to the game, like those people who listen to the AM radio, but it's better. It makes the games more enjoyable and it makes me a better fan. The obvious question then is, how can marketers spur this kind of behavior?

I recently started thinking a little more about this as I took part Wednesday in #sbchat (sports business) on Twitter, where I conversed with Caleb Mezzy of 5MSports regarding in-game promotions. "Conversed" is probably a little kind, you can see the transcript here. While I understand the need, I personally despise many in-game promotions. I cannot stand the wave and that's not even a promotion so computer-animated hydroplane races are out of the question. So, I pressed Caleb to see how they could be done tastefully, without turning off some of your better fans while still offering something of value. Because of some projects he was working on, it was left someone else at "Tweets on big screen."

Well, that alone doesn't get me. Not only does pulling up random fan-generated Tweets seem a little like social media for social media's sake, I know Safeco already displays texts and pictures from fans through a Verizon promotion.

So what can we do to really incorporate Twitter into the gameday experience? After a four-paragraph lede, let's get to those two things I mentioned in the title.

Curation

This concept is very basic. You take the best stuff and put it in one easily-accessible place. It's exactly what I do with my own list of bloggers and writers. I only want the best stuff. This is why I monitor this list more fervently than a search column for the word 'Mariners'. So, what if a team threw their brand behind an official list, except one that was better with mine? I can't find the example now (believe they're oddly deleted) but the folks at NBC would put together a Twitter list for each Sunday Night Football game. It consisted of prominent writers, personalities, etc from each side. The same could be done for each series in baseball. It'd be great to see not only the various beat-writers and bloggers covering the M's, but those of the other team as well. And then, after you do something like that, you show "Tweets on the big screen". You introduce people to that list through mentions in the stadium. You explain how easy it is to follow, you don't even need to be on Twitter because you created a short at.mlb URL redirect and pull that up on the board. Now anyone can track it on their phone. And you know what? They'll be looking for that list when they're watching at home too. And if they're not, you can always remind them on the telecast.

But, you say this doesn't engage the fans at the stadium. How can they participate? Well...

Geolocation

The idea of combining geolocation with Twitter first piqued my interest when MLB updated its mobile AtBat app to include check-in functionality along with the ability to see Tweets from the ballpark and surrounding area. However, each of these carried its own problem. First, you just created a new geolocation service when there's already enough out there. Foursquare is the elder geolocation-centric application while Facebook Places is the most used. With the 'nearby Tweets' functionality in the MLB app, users have to actually turn on the geo-tagging of their updates. Many people don't. So what now?

I think you utilize Foursquare and Facebook Places. Foursquare is excellent for this because, when checking to see who else is there, Foursquare pulls up their Twitter account when available. From the Twitter accounts on there you, either manually or through API ninja work, turn those check-ins into a Twitter list. And now you show "Tweets on big screen" to highlight those who are participating and cue in those who haven't yet. "Oh you don't have Foursquare? Just check in on Facebook Places with your Twitter name as a comment and we'll be sure to get you added." Now this list is promoted at games using the same tactics as the previous list, likely in the same promotion. Fans not on Twitter can track it by going to a certain URL. Maybe the teams create a specific page displaying both side-by-side; it wouldn't be difficult. While this is great for those people at the game, to converse with fans across the ballpark, how cool would this be to track at home or from across the country? Sounds like fun to me.

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So, give it a shot sports marketers. If you're looking for a way to engage your fans and incorporate Twitter into the gameday experience, then really do it. Don't utilize social media just to be hip or offer customer service when there are so many other ways it could offer value to your most passionate fans.

Three types of sports content I'd enjoy seeing on Facebook--and other observations

There's been a bit of buzz this week spurned by the UFC's decision to air a fight on Facebook and the ensuing coverage of this development in FastCompany. As someone who's a huge fan of airing live events online, and especially for free, I find it odd that I feel like some of the excitement on this is a bit unwarranted.

As background, here's the lede for that FastCompany article, written by Gregory Ferenstein.

In a move that may break television’s sleeper hold on sports events, the Ultimate Fighting Championship will exclusively live-stream an anticipated fight on Facebook, available to anyone who “likes” their fan page. This is the first time a major sporting event has offered exclusive content through the social networking king, and, if successful, could make Facebook center stage for the Super Bowls and World Cups of the future.

Following up on that, he later speaks with the much-respected sports and social media whiz Amy Martin of Digital Royalty; the excerpt:

Martin, who works with a broad sports portfolio of social media successes, from Shaq to the LA Kings, tells Fast Company that so-called "like-gating" is "absolutely" the future of live sporting events. "We don’t have a network today that reaches the same global audience that Facebook does ... We’re taking the content to where fans want to be and where they’re spending their day."

Honestly, I do think this is a great idea, just what they're doing here. However, here's why it rubs me the wrong way: no sports organization knows that Facebook streaming major events for the cost of a 'Like' is absolutely not the future of live events more than the UFC. Why? Try to imagine the UFC without the economics of pay-per-view events. I'd enjoy it—because the UFC wouldn't exist, and frankly, I'm much more of a boxing fan.

That said, the more I look at it, there's likely more off-point with some of the things written in the article than the idea itself.

Before going into the content I'd like to see, I want to explain why what they're doing here is a good idea and what you're looking for in other content to broadcast for free on Facebook.

  • It engages your most passionate fans without undercutting the bottom line.
    While the lede to the article mentioned above calls this fight an "anticipated" one, that's a stretch. This fight is the undercard to two other undercards to be shown on Spike TV, four more undercards to be shown on pay-per-view, and then there's finally the middleweight championship bout between Silva and Belfort. On top of that, the fight has the lowest payout of all the fights on the evening. So, yeah, if you're going to watch this fight you're obviously pretty passionate about seeing whatever UFC you possibly can. The important thing is that sometimes doing things that doesn't appeal to everyone is actually smart. Doing things that exclude passive fans while specifically targeting, rewarding and engaging passionate ones not only builds goodwill, but also drops them all in the same place at the same time. Hey, did we mention there's a live chat with Dana White?
  • It goes to where the people are and gets them talking.
    This is mentioned in the article and is obviously the incentive for the UFC here. Anyone who was a Facebook fan of UFC previously will see something in their stream reminding them of the fight to be aired online. They may pop into that to check it out, and the opportunity to spread the word to their friends that the big fight is tonight will be right there in front of them. Also, for those who are passively checking this out and weren't planning on watching the main event, I'm sure they'll be reminded continuously that there's plenty of time to order the pay-per-view.
  • It wouldn't have been seen elsewhere.
    I can't speak for this fight with a high level of certainty but do believe there's at least a modicum of chance that this fight wouldn't have been seen at all and/or existed if not for this experiment with Facebook. And that's a good thing. This is an opportunity for unique or transparent content to be broadcast to some of your more popular fans.

As I'm sometimes apt to do, I waited far too long to get to the point. So...

Sports content I would like to see broadcast on Facebook

  • Blogger broadcasts.
    This may be the goofiest idea, or it may be the best. I've used this anecdote at least six times before but the reason I became so enamored with Twitter a few years ago was because of its potential for it to serve as an alternative commentary to the live sports I was watching on TV. Now, take that rough idea—creative, knowledgeable, humorous and real-world voices—and broadcast it via audio on Facebook.

    As an example, I usually listen to the podcasts put out by Jeff Sullivan and Matthew Carruth at Lookout Landing, my favorite Mariners blog. They're funny, young and know a ton about baseball. Have these two provide audio commentary on a game once a week, once a month, and I'd certainly listen, so too would all the passionate Mariners fans found on Lookout Landing. Then, during the game broadcast, maybe the regular guys on TV kick it to them for a batter or two. Now you may have some good fans who were completely unaware guys like Jeff and Matthew existed wondering where they can go to get more. And what happens when you take good fans, the type to tune into Fox Sports Northwest to watch the games, but not make it out to Safeco Field, then add social media? Yeah, this. The technology probably isn't all that much more complicated than setting up a Skype call.
  • Batting practice, shoot-arounds, walk-throughs.
    The idea of getting to the ballpark and sitting in the outfield bleachers while some of your home team's favorite players mash dingers is a romantic one. Unfortunately, many teams are done with batting practice before any fans are allowed to enter. The fans that do make it in as the gates open will only see the visiting team. So how do you make these passionate fans still feel rewarded for loving the team they do, and showing them what they want to see? Broadcast it on Facebook. While it wouldn't be overly entertaining, I'd check in from time to time, especially if it was more than a webcam. 

    Teams could have any member of the PR staff walk around batting practice, an NBA shootaround and maybe an NFL walk-through with a standard smartphone streaming it to an embedded Justin.TV channel, shooting the BP or what-have-you and asking basic informal questions that could easily have nothing to do with sports. I wonder if Milton Bradley watches The Wire.
  • Alternate camera angles and going behind the scenes.
    Isn't it amazing that every Major Leage Baseball team, at least as far as I know, has a batting cage inside the dugout? And I've seen some that project the pitcher's video onto the screen, with the ball coming out at that pitchers exact point of release. How incredible is that? Wouldn't it be cool to watch your guy take some cuts before going up to the plate? What about a muted camera on an NFL or NHL bench? It could be pretty great. Obviously, you're not looking to piss your players off or give a social media savvy opponent a huge upper-hand, but if it doesn't do either of these things then why not?

    Also, Facebook video could be used to give fans at home an idea of what it's like to be at a game. A video perched atop the bleachers at a baseball or football stadium could give fans a look at what the atmosphere is like without giving too much away. Or a better idea, something I tried to do with Twitter updates and Flickr photos in college, why not give fans at home an idea of what it's like inside the student section at a college football or basketball game? A school's SID or marketing department could position a student intern with a capable smart phone next to an outlet and let him shoot the game and the atmosphere around him.

These are just a few ideas, and by no means a limit to what a sports team can do with broadcasts on Facebook. Realistically, teams can do whatever they want. The point here is to have fun with it and be creative. Teams shouldn't constantly worry about trying to please everyone and pulling in the casual fan when doing great things for your best fans can be much more impactful.