Social Media Expansion: Teams Get in the Game

This is the third of four stories on Major League Baseball and social media. You can read the first two stories here and here. Full disclosure: Major League Baseball Advanced Media employs FanGraphs contributor Paul Swydan, who wrote this series.

As the social-media revolution began, few major league franchises were fortunate enough to have a championship-caliber team. And perhaps only one was down the street from a company leading that charge. In 2010, the San Francisco Giants went on a historic World Series run while its neighbor was going on a run of its own. That company was called Twitter.

The close proximity between the baseball Giants and the social-media giant gave the team the online head start that perhaps no other team enjoyed — though several teams have now been able to replicate. And the rewards are still rolling in for those franchises.

Case in point: one of the first Tweetups organized by a club was one that the Giants hosted with Twitter founders Biz Stone and Jack Dorsey, “They have been instrumental in helping us understand how to use Twitter to communicate and engage with fans,” says Bryan Srabian, the Giants’ social media director. Twitter, too, most certainly understood the value of a live baseball game.

After the 2010 season ended, Srabian helped narrate a video that Twitter created for the team. But Srabian and his crew have enjoyed plenty of success on their own. Among the initiatives was the team’s #sfglive platform. The idea came from a suggestion that the team stream its batting practice and grew into a format where players interact directly with their fans — both on and off the Internet. Fans have interviewed players live on Facebook and Twitter, and at this year’s media day, Sergio Romo, Pablo Sandoval and Brian Wilson called several fans who’d tweeted their phone numbers.

Through these initiatives, the team learned quite a bit, including perhaps its most important lesson: listen to everything, even if it’s negative. “It turned out fans really appreciated the fact we were listening and in most cases, it was an opportunity to increase our customer service,” Srabian says. That was an important step, says Maury Brown, president of the Business of Sports Network, which is a series of online resources that examines sports. “What all clubs want are repeat season ticket holders,” Brown says. “Customer service is critical to that.”

Oganization buy-in is another must-do when it comes to social-media strategy. The Houston Astros were among the first teams to recognize that keeping everyone focused was a full-time job. When the team brought former beat writer Alyson Footer into the fold in 2009, she became MLB’s first social media director. “Everything we do on the business side now is dissected from a social media angle,” Footer says. She recently joined Pinterest and Tumblr, and plans to use them this season, saying “the more avenues we use to bring photos and videos to our fans, the better.”

In the past, the Astros have had success with their social media nights, and they make sure that each one includes a player — preferably one who’s active on Twitter. The team also has been among the most blogger-friendly, setting up interviews for bloggers during their recent FanFest that included manager Brad Mills, as well as J.D. Martinez and Bud Norris. With the franchise’s 50th Anniversary coming up this season, 2012 promises to be a big one for the Astros — and Footer is making sure the occasion is integrated for its fans. “We need to be utilizing every possible way to bring that part of the game to the fans,” Footer says, emphasizing that fans will be able to partake even if they can’t make it to Minute Maid Park.

While the Astros and the Giants are both ahead of the curve, it’s the Cleveland Indians that perhaps has best captured the social media environment. Embracing the platform probably seems obvious to fans, but it doesn’t always happen in the major leagues. We saw this just last week, when Bryce Harper deleted his popular Twitter account to please his teammates and his bosses. Cleveland, though, has had an opposite view. “We encourage” that interaction, Indians president Mark Shapiro says. That’s not to say the Indians don’t educate their players: the team has had a list of Twitter do’s and don’ts during their media training in Spring Training in each of the past two years — a list that includes not posting photos of players drinking or engaging in otherwise lewd behavior. But, as Shapiro says, “we’re dealing with grown men, and we expect them to make good decisions.” Not coincidentally, many Indians players are on Twitter — as well as manager Manny Acta — a development that has helped team camaraderie.

During one road trip in Kansas City last season, the Indians’ “Bullpen Mafia” — a nickname a fan started on Twitter — decided to get most of its members on Twitter. One of the relievers who joined was Vinnie Pestano, and he was hooked shortly after joining. Among his biggest enjoyments is having “stupid conversations” with second baseman Jason Kipnis and watching fans join in. “It’s fun to see [fans’] interactions with the conversations that I’m having,” Pestano says.

This winter, the Indians’ Twitter saturation became so heavy that the Indians beat writer, Jordan Bastian, ranked Indians players on the quality of their feeds. “I know the personalities on Twitter pretty well for the most part, so I knew there would be a little trash talking once I put it out there,” Bastian says. “Most fans seem to like it.” Bastian isn’t sure if he’ll keep the rankings going throughout the regular season, but that type of engagement between players and fans has helped keep the hot stove burning in the usually dormant part of the year.

And it’s not just the players who’ve become Twitter advocates. New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson recently joined Twitter. And Cleveland’s Shapiro has been active on the site for several years. “To acknowledge [fans’] passion, to acknowledge their interest, to engage them where possible, I think there’s a value to that direct connection that social media provides,” he says.

The Indians have done a good job building that connection during the past two seasons with their Social Suite — a place in Progressive Field that serves as pseudo Internet press box for bloggers and influential fans who apply. The suite started as the Social Deck in 2010 and was housed in left field, but it was brought indoors and renamed last year. The Indians are the first, and only, team to have this feature, and the response has been overwhelming. The team says that the goodwill built up from the Suite led to a 214% increase in Facebook fans and a 699% increase in Twitter followers last season. The Suite, Shapiro says, “was a better environment for the purpose of it — providing the opportunity [for fans and bloggers] to watch the game and communicate while they’re watching the game through social media — to having different people from the organization stop by and interact.”

Not every club is as social-media friendly, though Major League Baseball Advanced Media is trying to ensure that all teams’ fans have at least a modicum of interaction with their favorite franchises. Andrew Patterson, MLBAM’s director of new media, says that if a team isn’t as active on social media it’s their job is to “bring clarity by filling in those gaps.” They do so via their social media team, who will be getting an army of interns to assist them this year, as well as through the At Bat app, which is gaining even more traction in the season’s early stages than it did last year.

The Giants, Astros and Indians might have an early advantage in the social media marathon, but it is only a matter of time before the others catch up. Several clubs are devoting more resources toward fan interaction, and at least four franchises — Boston, Pittsburgh, Texas and Toronto — have social media/marketing chiefs. Seven other clubs have communications or marketing employees who have similar-sounding titles that highlight new media. As we move into the era of social media, teams will continue to adapt, and ideas like the Social Suite, tweetups and social media nights will become standard practice.

Tomorrow, we’ll expand our scope once again, and look at the challenges and opportunities in MLB’s social media realm.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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