by Adam T. Sutton, Senior Reporter
In Fall 2009, the Cleveland Indians Major League Baseball team was finishing the second of two consecutive losing seasons, and the economy was in a slump, as well. The Indians' marketing team needed to rally fans and thought social media marketing could help.
"We needed to make an impact," says Curtis Danburg, Senior Director, Communications, Cleveland Indians. "We understood and saw that our fans were active in [social media], and we felt we needed to be part of that conversation and kind of be aggressive in that area."
The team wanted to do more than launch a Facebook profile and send Tweets. The marketers wanted to find fans and empower them to spread the word about the Indians.
"What we were trying to do is create brand ambassadors who want to be part of that conversation," Danburg says.
The Cleveland Indians launched a program to invite online influencers to every home game of the upcoming season. The team gave the attendees Internet access and exclusive content, and encouraged them to talk online about the experience. The marketers hoped to foster more conversation about the Indians, build an audience, and give more impact to their online promotions.
Whether you sell industrial lighting or blankets with sleeves, there are influencers in your online market. The Indian's example shows how you can achieve exceptional results by identifying these power users, focusing on their needs, and going above-and-beyond to win their favor.
Here are the steps the marketers followed:
Step #1. Invite influencers to the games
The Indians launched a first version of the program in 2010 called Tribe Social Deck. A 10-seat section in left field was reserved for active bloggers and social networkers to attend a free game with complimentary wireless Internet access.
Free and fresh content
The invited attendees received access to a trove of fresh content that was previously available only to the press. This included post-game interviews, press releases, news updates and images that could fill-out updates and blog posts.
This was a great way to support the attendee's social activity without generating additional costs (since the content was already being created). One key difference between these attendees and the traditional press is the attendees were not given access to players or managers for interviews.
Bring a friend
Invited attendees were given two tickets and asked to bring a friend. This helped keep the experience enjoyable, Danburg says, and had a side benefit.
"We find that most people bring people that are interested in social media as well."
For major games, such as Opening Day, the team gave these attendees only one ticket. The idea was to maximize the number of strong influencers at important events to make a big splash.
Step #2. Launch a simple application process
Anyone wishing to attend had to fill out the team's online application
. The form requested:
- Basic contact information
- Links to social media profiles
- Descriptions of social media use
- General interests
The team used this information to identify the most active and relevant attendees to invite and to determine which games they should attend. For example, the strongest online influencers were invited to Opening Day, as the team wanted to start the season strong. Some applicants with pets or children were invited to relevantly themed games at the ballpark.
"We have an intern. One of their main responsibilities is overseeing the [communication] process. So it does involve a lot of communication and emails sent for the invite, coordinating the game, and then sending out all the information on how to access [the seats] and where their tickets are," Danburg says.
Don't wait for applications
The team expected to eventually have a trove of applications to choose from, but the program was not widely known before launch. For Opening Day, the team identified a handful of influencers and invited them to be the first to visit the Tribe Social Deck.
The traditional press caught wind of the program in its first week, Danburg says. Since it was the first of its kind in professional baseball, attention came from organizations as large as ESPN. The team soon had hundreds of applications to choose from and filled the seats for every game.
Step #3. Evaluate after one year
The team saw encouraging results during 2010. It increased its social media audience throughout the year and inspired blog posts, updates and tweets. Attendees occupied every seat in the Social Deck for most games, and the program had effectively created brand ambassadors.
"These people were out there talking about their experience first-hand, and it was like a third-party endorsement," Danburg says. "There was a stronger connection than us coming and saying 'hey, what a great experience it is coming to these games.'"
Two more observations:
Exposure to the elements
The reserved seats were under an open sky, which was great during a sunny Spring day. However, when rain or the Summer sun made reading on a screen impossible, it was not always fun watch the game with a laptop or smartphone.
The world of Indians baseball is only so large, even online. Attendees who had only met online were able to meet in person at the games and develop a closer relationship. The team wanted to encourage more of this.
Step #4. Update for the next year
Happy with the initial results, the team enhanced the program for the 2011 season and renamed it the Indians Social Suite. Here are the key changes:
Safety from weather
The exposed seats in left field were upgraded to an enclosed suite where attendees could enjoy a game from a private balcony or retreat behind glass if the weather turned. The suite included a living room space with an open atmosphere, which encouraged more mingling among attendees than a strip of bleacher seats.
Tell the press
The enhancements amounted to a redoubling of the team's commitment to social media, and this fact was not lost on the press. The team made sure to publicize the launch of the Social Suite in its social networks, website, email newsletter and press releases. The media picked up the story and again brought attention that drove hundreds of applications.
Step #5. Develop a full social strategy
The Social Suite program is one of several efforts the team launched to foster more online conversation about the Indians. Here are two others:
For 2011, the team focused on getting more players and staff to establish social profiles and engage the audience.
"We have our president, our manager, our players, front office and even our mascot on Twitter," Danburg says. "It's an integrated, strategic approach that we took a whole year to develop and launched this year."
Discounts for followers
The team wanted to add "an ROI element" to its social marketing in 2011, Danburg says, and ran campaigns to offer fans discounted tickets. Offers included $4 off a ticket for following the team in Facebook or Twitter. Fans could increase some discounts by posting about them on their social profiles and encouraging friends to share.
"We have seen that fan sentiments are higher. We know that we have created relationships in the community based off the social suite and social deck, and there is no question there has been a high return in value for what minimal costs have been in place," Danburg says.
The Cleveland Indians dramatically increased its audience and influence in social networks since launch, which translated to big increases in site traffic from the channel:
- 214% increase in Facebook fans
- 403% increase in site traffic from Facebook
- 699% increase in Twitter followers
- 112% increase in site traffic from Twitter
- Social media is now 5th largest referrer to Indians.com
Furthermore, the team also saw "huge traction" for its discount offers in social networks, selling more than 1,000 tickets for some games, Danburg says. Results include:
- 174% increase in revenue from social media efforts
- 45% of social media revenue generated by the discount ticket sales
Awarding full press credentials
The Social Suite has proven to be an effective minor league system for finding and nurturing strong media contacts.
"We've found that it is kind of a trial system where we find people that have executed well and delivered well in their content who we have been able to graduate to getting credentials and actually getting clubhouse access," Danburg says.
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