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What do the Phillies and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie have in common? Both are traditionally conservative and experienced a measurable decline in popularity in 2013.
The two collided on Twitter on February 16, 2017, with one emerging as the victor:
That is a progressive Tweet you wouldn’t have seen from the Phillies just a year ago. But after years of the relative mundane on social media, they have gone all-in on an effort to reach a new generation of fans.
Phillies Director of Marketing & Special Projects, Michael Harris:
“In the past we would have just rolled our eyes and simply decided we wouldn’t dignify the comments with a response, but that’s not the case anymore. He personally attacked our fans, he personally attacked our city, and that’s a threshold we won’t tolerate and it was really a perfect response to an otherwise idiotic comment.”
While the Phillies have been rebuilding the team and continue to place increased emphasis on analytics, the organization’s most rapid improvement may be in the world of digital marketing, where it has noticeably hit the nitro button on social media efforts. It’s a process that has been a few years in the making.
The Phillies rode their on-field success through 2011 and into 2012 as fans continued to pack the ballpark. But then, they didn’t. The team’s struggles led to decreased attendance and fan interest.
At the same time, the use of social media was on the rise. The Phillies dipped their toe in the water, but didn’t jump in. Their online efforts caught the ire and ridicule of this site a lot. During an era when professional sports teams, including all of the other local teams, were developing their social media voice, the Phillies seemed to treat platforms like Twitter and Facebook as little more than just another corporate marketing channel, with content derived from the one-to-many style of communication rather than created for the two-way conversation that takes place on social media.
The Phillies had fallen noticeably behind, and this was not lost on Harris, who spearheaded the changes in their social media efforts:
“Two or three years ago there were some very colorful articles written about our Twitter voice, particularly during our games and how things needed to improve and I agree with that. I’m not sure all the criticism we received over the years was completely valid. I think some of it was and I think a little of it was off base, but the fact is we didn’t adapt as quickly as we should.”
“We did try some things the last couple years and everything was well-intentioned, but at the end of the day, they didn’t necessarily work and I think the worst thing you can do is keep making the same mistake over and over again.”
Needless to say, the climate surrounding the Phillies had changed and the marketing department was ready to change with it. By mid-season 2015, they made their first move towards restructuring their social media approach. They also hired an in-game Twitter coordinator. The focus was entirely on game updates and content, a decision based on fan feedback. The goal was consistency, whether the team was home or away. It was a productive first step, but the tone still lacked the personality Harris envisioned.
Last fall, Harris and his team went for it, proposing significant changes to management:
“Quite frankly we were understaffed in this area for way too long, so we presented a plan at the end of last year to aggressively expand our entire digital and social media staff within the marketing department and which was whole-heartedly endorsed and fully supported by our President, COO, and Senior VP. Their message was simply, “Tell us what you need and go get it done,” which was awesome. “
With full support from everyone at the top, Harris and his team set out to not only catch up, but to excel and fully embrace individual platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. In January of this year, the social media department went from no full-time employees (several worked on it part-time) to three. Most teams have just one.
Having three voices had potential for its own set of issues, so first and foremost, the objective was to establish a culture of “one voice,” then set the tone for what that voice would be. Harris explains:
“We don’t want to be an organization that doesn’t reflect our values, that doesn’t reflect who we are, but you can do that and still loosen up and have fun and I don’t want to over-simplify the strategy, but that was one of the key goals, which was just, “loosen up.” We’re pretty hip, fun, we’re a cool group, and unfortunately, for a lot of reasons, that wasn’t necessarily reflected in our historical voice.”
“We saw a logical opportunity to re-craft our voice and style, everything from the tone, the type of engagement, the graphics, pretty much everything. We’ve loosened up and are having more fun, while still staying true to who we fundamentally are.”
For Harris, a dedication to the team approach is paramount to the entire plan. He wants the Phils’ social media tone to be consistent, with its three team members imparting one voice to followers, regardless of channel. That also means enjoying the successes together. Someone’s post goes viral, it’s a team success.
The voices belong to each individual, unscripted and unedited. Harris believes in empowering the team and setting them loose. That’s not to say that they don’t run ideas by each other or check to see if Harris is comfortable with selected posts. “Mr. Twitter” (yes, they have names, but they’d prefer not to be singled out) said that last year he did a lot of double-checking before posting, but this year, the “Social Three” are clearly comfortable with the voice they want to project. Harris meets with the team every week and talks to them many times a day, citing communication as the most important way to ensure success.
I spent a game with the Social Three and got to know them a little bit. They’re clearly comfortable with their roles and untethered in their freedom. While there is structure, they’re encouraged to think creatively and roll with it.
While similar in age (average age 24), their backgrounds are diverse. Two of them are from the Philadelphia area (both graduated from St. Joes). The other is from Florida. Two have prior baseball experience with the Rays, Indians and MLBAM. The other knows baseball but has a deeper marketing background, and works with Harris on many of the new and existing digital marketing initiatives.
There is also a Digital Media Producer, who produces the video content for all the marketing channels, and a Real Time Correspondent (RTC), who provides the staff photo content throughout the game. There are RTCs at every Phillies game, which allows the social team to work remotely while the Phillies are on the road, since they generally don’t travel with the team.
One thing the team doesn’t control is the use of game video. Approval needs to come from the mothership at MLB in New York, which can mean a slight delay if they’re looking for highlights to use through social channels.
The Phillies Twitter feed has received the most attention, and the success is in the numbers. They have gained 180,000 followers since the start of the year. It didn’t hurt that they kicked 2017 off with a bang.
Predating the Chris Christie exchange was a retaliation to a question posed by 97.5 asking followers if the Phanatic was past his prime. The Phillies responded:
They’ve also had some accidental hits. Last month, a fan inquired about a date for Autism Awareness Night and the Phillies offered them tickets:
The random act of kindness went viral.
Facebook and Instagram
The Phillies’ Facebook and Instagram accounts are both run by the same person. Instagram is an area where the team is working to make greater strides, Harris says:
“We’re trying to increase the frequency of our posts on Instagram, and be much more aggressive in engaging fans by responding to their comments. This is something that doesn’t generate a lot of widespread attention, but is another indication of our commitment to ramping up our overall efforts from an engagement perspective.”
Currently the Phillies use Instagram in-game to promote fan interaction. Instagram-to-Screen encourages fans to post photos using a particular hashtag. During the fifth inning, “Ms. Finstagram” loads the photos into Phanavision to be viewed throughout the ballpark. A favorite is selected, and the fan is then contacted and invited to guest services to collect a fan pack.
The Phillies have become increasingly active on Snapchat. It’s a platform that skews heavily towards a younger audience. According to Pew Research Center, some 56% of smartphone owners ages 18 to 29 use auto-delete apps like Snapchat. Harris explains this area of focus:
“The good news about baseball is that the appeal is spread across all demographics. It’s young, it’s old, it’s male, it’s female, it’s families and single people. I mean it’s one of the great advantages that the sport has, but one of the things we also know is we’ve lost some of the younger demo over the last five or six years and that’s not a surprise. Clearly some of them will start to come back when the team improves and we know that and we can’t necessarily force “cool,” but social media is a great way to connect with that younger demo and hopefully encourage them to come back a little sooner than they normally would have.”
Previously, the Phillies would tweet about a contest and then follow it up with a link to lengthy rules and disclaimers, which presumably none of their over 1 million followers read. It lacked authenticity and felt way too formal for the casual social media crowd.
Compare that to what they do now.
At every home game, the Phillies offer an interactive experience with Snapchat where they take a photo of an item they’re giving away in a spot that vaguely identifies the area of the stadium in which they’re standing. Having tagged along for the “hunt,” I couldn’t believe how fans instantly came out of the woodwork in search of a hat, which was that day’s giveaway I watched two young men walk past us looking to their left instead of their right. Then two other men came running from the opposite direction, arriving at our location seconds before other fans behind them.
“Ms. Snapchat” said she recently congratulated a couple of Phillies fans who had just gotten married and posted the news on Snapchat. The fans couldn’t believe the Phillies would notice such a thing… that the Phillies were paying attention to them.
How the players fit in
The Social Three also deals regularly with the guys in uniform and they are cognizant of how important it is to build a trusting relationship with them. Whether it’s behind-the-scenes photos or interactive chats, the players are a big part of social success. The younger players have been raised on social media and they tend to be the most engaged in the process. Harris:
“[Maikel] Franco, [Odubel] Herrera and [Cameron] Rupp are probably the most active, but we would certainly expect that if some of the younger guys come up from the minors in the next couple years, that the social media presence of our players will increase exponentially and it’s something we really look forward to.”
“Getting our guys more involved in our social channels is something we want to do, as well and it will only help further intensify the connection between our fans and the organization.”
The list of new digital marketing strategies is not short. The team also utilizes a ballpark app that offers a wide variety of ways to enhance your ballpark experience, something I’ll explore further in another post.
Despite all the improvements, the social media team is still far from where they want to be. Harris repeatedly pointed out that while they are happy with what they’ve accomplished so far, they are in no way resting on their laurels. He’s also aware that team success will be a driver. However, it’s not their only goal for growth:
“The teams who have grown the most on Twitter since the beginning of last year are the Cubs, Astros & Indians so it’s hard to not argue there’s some correlation between follower growth and team performance. Follower growth is a key objective, but actively engaging the fans that follow your accounts as much as possible is more important.”
And that engagement is in the hands of a staff Harris has quickly grown fond of:
“The staff we’ve hired is a young, energetic and talented group that understands who we want to be as an organization moving forward. They have formed a cohesive unit in a relatively short period of time. They collectively form our voice and deserve an enormous amount of credit as a group for the strides we’ve made and hope to continue.”
Here’s waiting for the next dismissive comment from a public figure.
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