A Social Media Strategy for Non-Marquee Sports & Athletes

I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Dan Clarke (@speedydanclarke), an Indy Lights racer from England who lives in Indianapolis, and learning about his struggles this off-season. He’s looking for corporate sponsors so he can race in the upcoming season.

Dan Clarke at Carb Day 2010

Dan Clarke at Carb Day 2010

If you don’t know what Indy Lights racing is, then you’re starting to see Dan’s problem. Indy Lights is the developmental racing league for IndyCar — Indianapolis 500 — racing. In a sport with fewer US fans than the NHL, he’s in the minor leagues.

Think of your favorite baseball team. Can you name its AAA minor league affiliate? Can you name their players? Do you know who their best hitter was last year, or their best pitcher?

Now you understand Dan’s problem. He’s looking for sponsors for a sport outside the big three — NFL, NBA, MLB — trying to convince them that the developmental league is a great place for them to be seen.

This is where social media can help. A personal branding campaign, even for athletes, can help build their brand, find new fans, and hopefully, bring in the big sponsors. It doesn’t matter if you’re an IndyLights driver, a minor league baseball player, or even the veteran right guard for the New Orleans Saints. If people don’t know who you are, they’re not going to care, and you’re going to have a tough time getting them to notice you. But by doing some basic personal branding, you can use that network to bring in new opportunities that contribute to your total success.

Start with Twitter

Twitter is one of the easiest places to start. This is where you can immediately see your fan base (# of followers), interact with them, and even measure the impact you’re having. Turn followers into fans, turn fans into evangelists. And as more people follow you, demonstrate to potential sponsors that you carry a lot of weight with your network.

Most athletes ignore their fan base on Twitter, choosing instead to communicate with each other publicly about private issues. For example, most IndyCar drivers have only a few thousand followers and only follow a few dozen people. Helio Castroneves, one of the most famous drivers in the world today, only has 31,000 followers, Ryan Briscoe has 8,600+, and Penske Racing (“one of the most successful teams in sports history with 330 race wins”) has 9,900 followers. To put that in perspective, I have 7,200 followers, I write blogs for a living, and the last thing I won was “Best Comedy Script” in a theater script competition in 2005.

If you don’t follow people, they won’t follow you. When you’re in a small-market sport, you can’t afford to be picky about who you follow. If you’re worried about privacy, don’t tweet your personal life. If you’re worried about managing a large Twitter network, get TweetDeck and use Twitter lists. But don’t make yourself seem unapproachable. Twitter is the one place you can interact with fans and still keep them at arm’s length.

Tip: Use Klout or Twitalyzer to measure the influence you have. Show sponsors that a positive word from you can influence buying behavior among your fans.

Create a blog

The blog is really the hub of your personal branding campaign. The point of being on those networks is to drive traffic to your blog; the point of your blog is to get people to join you on the other networks.

Visual diagram of a social media campaign, with blogging at the center

Your personal branding campaign is a wheel, with the blog at the center.

A blog is a place where you can share a behind-the-scenes look at what you’re doing. Share your exploits on and off the field/court/track, post photos, post videos, and tell stories. Fans love feeling like they’re connecting with their favorite athlete and learning stuff the casual observer or fair-weather fan doesn’t know. This is why celebrity news is so popular. People get to learn something about their favorite stars. But since small-market athletes don’t get the rave coverage that the Peyton Mannings and LeBron James of the world, you have to make your own news.

Blogs are becoming more important and popular among the PR crowd, especially crisis communicators, because they avoid the whole filter of mainstream media. For athletes, this avoids the filter of the sports media, which only gives a scant amount of attention to your sport anyway, and even then, only to the victories of the marquee stars and screwups of everyone else.

Tip: Use Google Analytics or Yahoo Analytics to measure web traffic. Demonstrate to sponsors that you 1) can get traffic to your blog, and 2) can send that traffic to sponsors’ websites.

Social Media PR

Adopt a strategy of sharing with other bloggers in your sport. Even though I’m not a big open wheel racing blogger (I’ll get to blog from the media center of the Indy 500 for the 3rd year running, but won’t be going to any other races), I can name at least five other race bloggers who all have a decent readership. And they’ll gladly share some digital ink with anyone from the sport who will talk to them.

So, talk to them. Tell them stories, give them exclusive news, and grant interviews. In short, treat them like real journalists, and they’ll pay you back with space, exposure, and kindness. Let a few bloggers break the news about your new team, your plans for the year, or even your struggles. They’ll become your fans, and tell their fans all about you, which will make them your fans too.

I’ve been listening to Wall Street Journal sports writer Stefan Fatsis‘ book, A Few Seconds of Panic (affiliate link), about his weeks spent in training camp with the Denver Broncos as a kicker. While I have never been a Denver Bronco’s fan, Fatsis’ look at the danger and drudgery of training camp and football has me looking at the Broncos in a whole new way, and I may have to cheer for them a few times this year (something I would never have done until this week). Can you find bloggers to do that for you? What about bloggers outside the sport? When less than 1% of the country knows who you are or what you do, non-industry bloggers are a rich, untapped vein. (Just don’t blanket every blogger out there. You’ll be labeled a PR spammer.)

Tip: Let other bloggers tell your story. If they make it compelling enough, they’ll win your fans for you. If you connect solidly with 10 bloggers and they each have 1,000 readers, you’ll reach 10,000 people. Now, compare that to the effort you would need to put out to reach 10,000 people yourself.

Build a Facebook Brand Page

You may already have a Facebook page, but that should be kept private. Try not to connect with your fans on your personal Facebook profile, since that’s where you’re also connecting with family and friends. Instead, create a Brand Page, and connect with people there.

However, it’s crucial that you actually use this page regularly; don’t ignore it. Promote your blog posts there. Post status updates when you publish your tweets (but don’t feed your Twitter stream into Facebook; it’s annoying. Just rewrite them to be more Facebook friendly.)

Tip: Republish your videos and photos to your Facebook page too. Ask your fans to share them with your friends. It’s a well-known adage in social media circles that we consumers trust recommendations by our friends. Let your fans evangelize to their friends about you.

There are a whole lot of other strategies I could recommend — posting videos to YouTube and photos to Picasa/Flickr — but that’s for another post. Use these strategies as a place to start and start building your personal branding campaign as a way to get sponsors, build name recognition among fans, and add new fans.

Do you have any strategy suggestions? Anything you’ve done as an athlete, or anything you wish an athlete would do? Share your wisdom in the comments section and let’s learn from each other.

My book, Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), is available on Amazon.com, as well as at Barnes & Noble and Borders bookstores. I wrote it with my good friend, Kyle Lacy.

Photo credit: Just_Bryan (Flickr)

Social Media is NOT an Entry Level Position

I’m shocked at the number of companies who let interns and entry-level employees manage their social media efforts.

They do it because they believe social media is a young person’s game, and not for the geezers in management. That’s got to be one of the worst hiring decisions a company could make.

I was reading a February 2010 post from Chris Kieff on the ROI of Social Media. Chris looked at what happens when social media is handed over to an intern, who is usually working for class credit and no pay.Young woman speaking into a megaphone

VP, “Why is everyone doing spending so much time on social networks? We need more productivity!”

Manager, “We are learning about how to use them and starting to see some positive results.”

VP, “What’s the ROI of the time we’ve spent so far?”

Manager, “We’ve… ummm… got the training wheels on and are just starting to understand how to use social media. We don’t have a formal ROI measurement system in place yet.”

VP, “Well it’s clear that all this social media crap is overblown B.S. I’m telling IT to shut down Facebook and Twitter so people can get back to work.”

It’s real simple: managing social media is not for kids. It’s not for rookies. It’s not for 20-year-olds who remembered to delete their drunken Facebook photos two weeks before the interview that landed them their internship.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that interns and entry-level employees should not do social media. I’m not even saying they’re bad people. They just shouldn’t be in charge of it. Think of it this way:

  • You don’t let the new PR associate do media interviews during a company crisis.
  • The marketing intern does not oversee your entire marketing campaign, or even a new product launch.
  • The corporate attorney defending your company in a civil suit didn’t finish law school three months ago.
  • The new HR staffer is not responsible for finding and implement the new employee insurance program.
  • And you certainly don’t let the VP of Finance’s niece, fresh out of business school, make C-level decisions.

So why on earth would you let a 22-year-old college grad handle one of the most public-facing communication channels your corporation is going to have? Other than PR and traditional marketing, there is no other channel that reaches so many people so permanently as social media. And you want to give it to some rookie who can’t use the phrase “in my experience” without cracking everyone else up?

At least with corporate PR and marketing, your professionals have the benefit of years of experience and knowledge. But when you appoint a recent college grad to manage your social media, you’re handing the megaphone to someone with no real work experience or a sense of corporate responsibility, and letting them speak to the entire online community (and beyond) in real-time.

Someone asks a question on your Facebook with 10,000 followers, the social media coordinator answers. The questioner gets a little snotty, so the SMC takes her response up a notch, and the whole thing turns into a pissing match in about 5 minutes, and hits the blogosphere two days later, and the mainstream media a week after that. Do you really want to hand that megaphone to someone who doesn’t even understand message creation, let alone how to handle an angry customer or avoid turning it into an embarrassing gaffe that you can hear about on NPR as you drive into work? (Don’t think it won’t happen, because it has happened several times to other corporations in the last two years.)

I think it’s a big mistake when any business, but especially the large corporations, hires anyone with less than five years of real-world, full-time work experience to manage all of their social media efforts. To be fair, I know some truly brilliant young 20-somethings who could make a corporate social media marketing campaign succeed, but they’re few and far between. The really good ones have their own agencies and are making more money there than they would working for you. So you get to choose from everyone else.

Social media is not just for young people. Social media is not only for the hip and the technologically-advanced. It’s for people who understand how to speak to your company’s customers and shareholders. It’s for people who have gravitas and professionalism. It’s for people who know that social media is an important channel of communication that can reach thousands or even millions. It’s for people who truly understand marketing and PR.

If you’re thinking about social media for your company, and one of your first thoughts is you need someone young to manage it, stop right there. You’re better off avoiding social media altogether than risking a bigger backlash by hiring someone who stares at you blankly when you make an OJ Simpson comment.

So am I offbase? Any workplace veterans — especially marketers and PR folks — who think you should give the newbies the keys to the social media car? Any interns or entry-level professionals who think I’m full of it, and that you have the experience and professionalism to handle your corporation’s social media campaign? Leave a comment and let’s continue the discussion.

Photo credit: Allio (Flickr)

Image is Everything, Twitter is Forever

It was a disappointing night in Indianapolis tonight (I’m writing this at 12:00 on a Sunday night/Monday morning). Our beloved Indianapolis Colts lost the Super Bowl to the New Orleans Saints, 31 – 17.

I followed the game with many of my Twitter friends, and we had a good time chatting with each other, and some of our Twitter buddies down in New Orleans. When the game was over, we congratulated the Saints fans, and wished them well. Everyone but one person. They tweeted what was one of the most egregious tweets I had seen in, maybe, ever.

Fine New Orleans. Go back to your stupid flooded shit hole of a city with the trophy.

Our collective jaws dropped. People were offended, and the whole thing created quite a firestorm here in Indianapolis among several PR and social media pros. It even got some serious attention in New Orleans.

This hateful tweet was made by a supposed PR professional — we’ll call them X — who didn’t seem to understand that when you’re in PR, you’re on all the time. If you make public statements, you and your organization will be judged by those statements. And when you make a joke about a city that lost over 1800 people to the country’s most devastating hurricane in a century, that reflects poorly on you, on your company, and even on your city.

We’re sorry, New Orleans

First of all, let me apologize on behalf of the entire city. This one person does not speak for the rest of us. For the most part, we were gracious in our loss, and I saw a lot of tweets congratulating the city of New Orleans for an awesome win. You fans have shown real class and pride over the years. You love your team as much as we love ours. And this was a great game. I’m very sorry one person said something that awful. We don’t think like that, act like that, or talk like that in Indiana. This person’s tweet is not indicative of the entire state’s way of thinking.

A Quick Aside

I have since learned, after I wrote the first draft, that X received death threats for their offending tweet. Totally uncool, people. While what this person did was hateful, death threats will land you in all kinds of trouble with the law. Do not make death threats, or violent threats of any kind. Be better than X, rise above it. Let’s keep our heads.

Back to the Story

So someone publicly tweeted X’s boss “Hey, congratulations on the AWESOME hire.” A follow-up tweet called on X’s boss to fire them. X deleted their tweet, and protected their account (because of the death threats), but the damage had been done. Screen shots were already circulating, and many people were discussing it online.

While I’m not calling for anyone’s resignation, I do think the entire incident was handled poorly this evening. As a PR practitioner, I would hope X would recognize that:

  1. there is no compartmentalizing of personal life and private life when you’re on Twitter and social media.
  2. Google lasts forever. Just because you delete something doesn’t mean it’s gone. The screen shots are out there forever.
  3. Anyone with even a basic understanding of crisis communication should understand that you need to react to the situation with remorse and speed, not hiding evidence or closing down. One would hope that a PR professional would understand this.

This is the kind of PR that no public figure — corporate, government, or otherwise — would ever want. And yet, it’s the kind that someone, who truly should have known better, got.

Think beyond the present moment

Whenever I give social media talks, especially to college students, I always say the same thing: If you don’t want skeletons in your closet, don’t stick bodies in there in the first place.

If you don’t want potential employers to find stupid photos of you on Facebook, 1) don’t do stupid stuff, 2) don’t take photographic evidence of your stupidity and 3) don’t associate with people who post photos of your stupidity on Facebook.

The same is true with Twitter. Don’t tweet things that are hurtful, painful, and just plain wrong. Don’t wave it off as sarcasm. And always, always apologize when you screw up. Don’t hide, don’t cower, don’t turn on your protective force field. Admit your mistake like an adult, and then quit acting like a child in the first place.

(X did apologize for their tweet in their blog post.)

This incident is just one more reason why businesses are loathe to let their people get on social media on behalf of the company. They don’t want someone tweeting, Facebooking, or generally communicating with the world when they shouldn’t be.

Actions like this hurt the social media community as a whole, and they makes our job harder when we try to convince C-level executives to trust their employees to do the right thing. If the people who should know better can’t do the right thing, why would the average employee?

Finally, I hope the person in question will apologize to the people of New Orleans, and follow it up with a donation to their rebuilding efforts. I also hope X’s employer will use this as an educational moment. Use it to learn and grow from.

And quit using Twitter after 5:00 if you can’t be trusted.

PR 2.0 and Online Marketing are Starting to Look Alike, Thanks to Gen Y

I’m beginning to realize that as much as PR and marketing folks don’t trust each other, the Maginot Line that separated them is starting to get a lot smaller.

And it’s all because of Generation Y.

Generation Y — people between the ages of 11 and 30 — have shunned traditional media and are regular consumers of online media. This is important, because Generation Y now outnumbers Baby Boomers, about 81 million to 78 million, depending on who you ask.

Gen Y consumes their media online: they read online newspapers instead of dead tree versions. They watch YouTube and Hulu.com, rather than traditional TV. They go out of their way to avoid marketing messages, rather than sit through 2 – 3 minutes of commercials (traditional “interruption marketing.”)

This has forced marketers to start reaching out to the Millennials where they are: video games, online videos, skate parks, social networks, and extreme sports sponsorships. They do this to build trust.

Public Relations 2.0 is all about building trust too. They use social media to expand their network to reach more consumers, and then try to create trust with the consumer. New marketing does exactly the same thing. They use social media, and try to build trust.

The ultimate difference is the motivation. Marketers try to make money for their clients, PR flaks try to get press for their clients.

I think we may see a day where PR and marketing agencies are no longer at odds, but begin cooperating, merging, or at least hiring someone from “the dark side” to handle that other side of the same coin.

PR Pros Take Note: Social Media is Changing the Way Companies Communicate

Social media continues to grow and have a big impact on the way corporations are communicating, both internally and externally. And now we have proof.

In their paper, An Analysis of the Increasing Impact of Social and Other New Media on Public Relations Practice, Dr. Donald Wright, professor of Public Relations at Boston University (official motto: “No, you’re thinking of Boston College”), and Michelle Hinson, director of development, Institute for Public Relations, found that social media continues to have a positive effect on the way organizations are communicating.

Every year for the last four years, they have looked at the impact social media has on corporate communication, mainstream media, the perception of blogging, and the public relations industry. They surveyed PR professionals from around the world, and received 574 usable responses. The 2009 study compared data between 2008 and 2009. The results may surprise you. (Or not. You’re a hard bunch to please.)

Has SM helped companies communicate (TABLE)

In a nutshell, the belief that social media is having an effect on external communication has grown by 11% from 2008 to 2009; internal communication has grown by 7%.

Similarly, the duo found similar results when they asked whether social media complimented traditional mainstream media, or conflicted with it. In 2008, 75% believed it complimented, but in 2009, that number grew to 85%

Does SM compliment traditional media (TABLE)

While the report is chock full of useful statistics (yes, I said “chock full;” I’m from Indiana, what do you want?!), these two are rather important for PR professionals. These two stats speak volumes about what PR professionals should be thinking about social media, and how they can and should be pitching it to their clients.

  • Companies are beginning to use social media to speak to customers. The fact that this number has increased by 11% from one year to the next says that companies are starting to take notice. And this trend will only continue to grow over the next few years. If your clients aren’t using social media, point out that their competitors are. And unless your client wants to slowly melt away into irrelevance, they will start using social media to get their own message out.
  • Publicity should no longer rely on traditional media. I recently wrote a blog post for a client about Generation Y, and how some marketers are calling this 82 million-strong demographic “The Unreachables.” That’s because they don’t read newspapers or watch TV. They read Yahoo, watch YouTube, and text the bejeezus out of each other. If you want to reach Generation Y, go to where they are, don’t make them come to you.
  • Your biz dev job just got easier. If more companies believe social media is beneficial, conversely fewer companies believe it’s detrimental. As a (thankfully) former salesman, the customers I truly hated where the ones who never saw the need for whatever I was selling, and were often stubbornly obstinate in refusing to try to understand why it was important. Now, while these stats don’t mean that 84% of all companies are open to using social media for external communications, it does represent a decrease in the number of companies that refuse to participate in social media. For the salesperson, this means fewer puzzled looks and steadfast refusal to accept that their thermal fax machine is now passé.

There are a lot more data points the study demonstrated, and a lot more surprising results that bloggers, social media pros, PR pros, and the mainstream media can all learn from. We’ll discuss some of them in future posts.

Why Lawyers Shouldn’t Do Crisis Communications

It irritates me to no end when the lawyers and MBAs feel the need to get involved in PR and marketing decisions. You can tell when they’ve had their fingers on a press release or written statement, because they come up with such gems as “We feel terrible for our customer. We are grateful that the customer is now recovering.”

This little beauty came from the owner of a KFC in Canada, after 15-year-old Kendell Lakin — heretofore referred to as “The Customer” — burned herself on a serving of hot poutine, after suffering an epileptic seizure and falling into the dish.

(Poutine is a dish of French fries covered with gravy. Not to be confused with “putain,” which is the French equivalent of the F-word. I’m sure French-Canadians have great poutine-putain jokes.)

The new social media society is all about people and relationships. We don’t refer to 15-year-old girls who burn their faces as “The Customer.” They have names, personalities, and pissed-off fathers. Calling them “The Customer” will piss them off more.

If you want to avoid looking like cold-hearted corporate monsters, stop depersonalizing people and reducing them to a genderless wallet.

(Note: I completely understand the need for attorneys. They keep us communicators out of trouble when we’re about to do or say something stupid. But while they do important work, they shouldn’t be in charge of the actual wordsmithing.)

Crisis communication folks need to seize the messaging away from the Legal Department. CEOs need to remember that hiding behind the stacks of legal books will only anger the public, not placate them. The madder they get, the deeper they’ll cut.

People who remember Chi-Chi’s restaurants will also remember what happened to it. After 4 people died and 650 people fell ill from a hepatitis A outbreak in Pennsylvania, the corporate staff avoided all contact with the news media.

In an article on Levick Strategic Communication’s website, they pointed out where Chi-Chi’s made a huge mistake that ultimately led to their bankruptcy and closure.

Right from the start, Chi-Chi’s made a critical communications mistake common among big corporations facing product liability lawsuits. In an effort to minimize risk, Chi-Chi’s top executives avoided direct contact with the news media. All communications with reporters came through antiseptic one-page statements that had a crisp “just-the-facts, ma’am” feel.

When Chi-Chi’s Chief Operating Officer Bill Zavertnik did finally arrive in Monaca more than two weeks after the outbreak was confirmed last November 3, he read a brief statement to reporters, took no questions, and then returned to corporate headquarters.

From that point forward, communications from Chi-Chi’s and its parent company, Prandium, in Irvine, Calif., came chiefly in the form of news releases and prepared statements written in language designed almost solely to avoid exacerbating the class-action lawsuits against the restaurant chain.

To make a long story short, people got madder and madder, and the class-action lawsuits are what killed the restaurant.

In other words, avoid saying stupid things like “We feel terrible for our customer. We are grateful that the customer is now recovering.”

You’re not going to avoid making people mad. But giving your apologies in some sanitized, half-hearted written statement that sound like they were hatched by some corporate lawyer will only make things worse.

In a lot of instances of corporate crisis communication, you’re going to need the lawyers to keep you out of trouble. But keep the pen out of their hands. They can edit, but they shouldn’t be creating. They need to leave it to the pros.