Inside Look: How The Boston Celtics Win in Social Media and Digital

The Boston Celtics know how to win. And while the team is now preparing for the next NBA season, Peter Stringer, Senior Director of Interactive Media is on the court every day. With 6.5 million fans on Facebook and 600k followers on Twitter, Peter’s work is just getting started. Serving customers in today’s hottest networks is one thing. Catering to a worldwide community of rabid sports fans requires in a series always-on digital arenas takes a different level of engagement altogether.

As part of an ongoing series that celebrates the experiences, vision, and strategy of those leading transformation, Peter shares with us how the Celtics approach social and digital strategies to compete for attention and affinity before, during and after each season.

What is the prevailing mission and purpose for the Boston Celtic’s social media strategy?

Fans have an insatiable appetite for news, information and inside access to the team, and we try to provide that across as many platforms as possible where we’ve established an audience. For the Boston Celtics, that currently means Celtics.com, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Pinterest. If our fans are congregating on these platforms and discussing our team, we want to be the dominant voice in that conversation.

From a business standpoint, we want to learn as much about our fan base as possible, and turn those passionate fans into customers. To achieve that, we are actively collecting data from them in exchange for opportunities to win tickets, merchandise and unique Celtics experiences. We want to know where they live, what other brands they like, if they already buy tickets, etc. We have a product that our fans are incredibly passionate about, and therefore, they’re willing to make that value exchange.

What are some of the unique challenges you face as a sports franchise?

Social media and sports dovetail very nicely, so in some ways my job is actually easy. But the challenges I face are much more practical in nature. For instance, when you’ve got a massive audience like we do, you can’t afford to make a mistake. That toothpaste isn’t going back in the tube. You want to be sure that the message you send out is on brand, not only from a marketing perspective, but also from a basketball operations perspective.

I take great care in managing our social media properties to be sure that they reflect our team and brand in the right way. The Boston Celtics have a reputation built on 17 championships and 60 years of history. I don’t want to tarnish that with one poor tweet that doesn’t hit the mark or sends the wrong message. It can be tempting to try to be funny, sarcastic, or irreverent, but risk usually far outweighs the reward.

Maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but that’s the lens through which I see our social channels. I look at every tweet, Facebook post and Instagram photo as an official statement from the Boston Celtics. And at the end of the day, the social media channels should reflect the team’s brand as a whole, and not attempt to create it’s own identity. After all, our product is our players, head coach, and the team’s incredible legacy. So I try to channel their voices, their thoughts and their moods and deliver them to our fans.

What is the current size of the communities you manage and what has overall growth and size of your social media footprint evolved?

Facebook is obviously our biggest channel, with over 6.5 million followers. That makes us the second biggest Facebook fan page in North American team sports. We were growing by about 15-20,000 fans a day until last year’s F8, when changes to the News Feed throttled our growth dramatically. That seems to be true for most teams and brands, and our reach rate per post has been decimated by the Edge Rank revisions. Given how frequently Facebook tweaks their platform, it was bound to happen, but I think Facebook has really hurt brands in this regard. These days, only photo galleries really seem to get any penetration into News Feeds thanks to heavy sharing by fans.

We’re at about 580,000 on Twitter, and that number continues to grow. During the postseason it’s been escalating at much faster rate than normal, which is to be expected. The quotes, pictures and notes we’re tweeting are getting a lot more attention the further we progress in the NBA Playoffs.

As for Instagram, we just passed 200,000 followers today, and that growth has been driven by taking a unique, more artistic look at the team. The credit for that goes largely to our team’s creative director, Keith Sliney (@pantone356). I snap a few photos here and there from the road, or if I see something at practice that warrants sharing, but by and large, he’s the driving force behind that platform and I believe we’re the #1 or #2 sports property on the service, and among the biggest brands globally as well.

We’ve been dabbling in Pinterest this season with merchandise and photos from our Instagram feed, and that’s picked up some steam. We were also the first team to my knowledge to try running a “Pin It To Win It” contest based on Pinterest to promote our Celtics web store.

What are the expectations of fans and how are they engaged as customers and as stakeholders?

Sports fans expect scores, news and information instantaneously on their phone during every waking hour. They no longer want to surf to ESPN.com, Celtics.com or anywhere else. They just expect it to show up in their Twitter feed. And so for us, that means tweeting our news as soon as we can effectively (or realistically) break it. Running social media for a sports team is an around the clock job, because this type of news can break at any time.

The challenge here is that some of the news fans really want will never be able to come directly from the teams or leagues first. When it comes to trades, for instance, that news never breaks on a team’s official feed first, because we’re not allowed to announce anything until it’s actually official and approved by the NBA league office. By that time, players’ agents, league employees or even team executives have already leaked the story to reporters. So connected journalists have a huge edge in that regard, when it comes to breaking news first. However, we still have a massive advantage in audience size. A beat writer who covers us probably only has 10-20,000 followers, so it may take them time to get their tweet circulated. Our tweets, on the other hand, get a lot more amplification and tend to circulate quicker, especially when we have big news.

That said, we do spend a lot of time mobilizing and orchestrating our fan base. We were the first NBA team (and to my knowledge, pro sports team) to put our @Celtics twitter handle on our court, and we’ve been promoting #CelticsChat throughout our local TV broadcasts throughout the season. We curate the conversation from #CelticsChat into GameTime Live, our live stats and game-blogging application on Celtics.com that allows fans from all over the globe to follow the action and join in a conversation around the game.

But I think the biggest thing we can provide through our social channels is an inside look at the organization. For instance, last night’s Eastern Conference Finals Game 6 vs. Miami is a perfect example. I snapped a photo of a simple message on the dry erase board in our locker room that was authentic and symbolic. It said, “12:30 Flight – Pack for a Week.” The implication was simple for fans in the know; it was a message to our players that after we win Game 7 vs. Miami, we’re flying directly to Oklahoma City for the NBA Finals. It was a motivational message from the coaching staff to our players, and by sharing that picture with 200,000 fans on Instagram, and 500,000 on Twitter, we sent a message of hope to a fan base still reeling from a disappointing loss. It helped turn the page from the past to the future. It was simple, raw and powerful; the perfect combination of insider access and emotional marketing. We just shared our coaches’ marketing to our players with our fan base. It was one of my favorite things I’ve ever shared with our fan base, and I really think it struck a chord with them.

What were some of the challenges you faced to get here? What challenges do you still face?

Staffing and bandwidth remain a challenge for us. When I started with the Celtics in 2005, I was a one-man show and my job was simply managing Celtics.com, a site that had little-to-no basketball content and was simply a ticket sales driven property. Given my journalism background and existing passion for the team since childhood, once I got my feet wet, I started overhauling the site, revamping the design and emphasis into a content driven site. Then we started dabbling in video and production in the 2008 season when we won our 17th NBA championship.

In the following seasons as Twitter and Facebook emerged, to me they were obvious extrapolations of what I was already doing with Celtics.com. But every time you add a platform or distribution channel, you add additional work. We’ve yet to launch a mobile app, and part of the challenge is simply a resource issue. Professional sports teams spend millions of dollars on world class athletes, but our technology and staffing budgets aren’t anywhere near what outsiders would imagine.

How did you get buy in?

Buy-in on social wasn’t really an issue here at the Celtics; I’ve been given a lot of freedom to drive the direction of our digital and social media platforms by our CMO and Team President and they’re very much sold on the importance of social media. As our Facebook and Twitter grew to become some of the biggest of the biggest in pro sports, and the audiences wildly outgrew our email database, it became clear that these channels would evolve into a large marketing channel and that’s exactly what’s happened. I’ve certainly done some evangelism internally, and I’ve done quite a bit of speaking around the country talking about what we do as a brand in the social space, so that helps as well.

What are some of the prime metrics that you use to define success?

From a success standpoint, I keep my eyes on how many tickets we’re selling via our social channels, and database growth. I look at the number of names we acquire for our database from each promotion we run, the best of example of which would be Celtics 3-Point Play, our first-of-its-kind Facebook application. On a more granular level, I look a News Feed reach and post sharing; ‘Likes’ and comments on posts are far less important in my view. Most comments are garbage anyway, and a ‘Like’ is almost meaningless unless the numbers are well above or below the norm. Sharing is far more relevant – if someone is willing to share your content with their friends, that’s a far better indication that you’re hitting the mark.

How does strategy materialize in the organization?

We revisit strategy mostly during the offseason, because during the season, there’s not much time to be plotting this stuff out. There’s always another game or practice to cover, corporate partner to satisfy or internal fire to extinguish. But on the whole, our strategy is simple: Our fan database is at the center of everything we do, and all of our digital platforms should be geared at building our database, which in turn gets us in front of more potential customers. “Engagement” is a great buzzword for social media, and it has its place, but monetization is the leader in the clubhouse for me.

How have you organized around social media to manage an extensive and engaged network? What does the social media organization look like?

I oversee our digital marketing and social media, and have a full-time direct report who generates a most of the written content we distribute. We also have a part time video producer, a full-time video host, and another part-timer who helps out on our game nights. We’re looking to add a technical developer this summer, and may potentially add additional staff as we continue to bite off more initiatives and create more content in the digital space.

Any special practices for internal coordination?

– Social CMS?

– Style Guide?

– Best practices?

– Training?

Given how small our organization is, a lot of this stuff isn’t formalized. As we grow, we’ll need to put more processes in place. For now we’re small and agile, but we certainly aim for consistency in our approach in terms of how we deliver against our digital and social media platforms.

Any final advice, tips, or cautionary tales to leave us with as we put your experiences into action?

I think to do social media right, you have to appeal to your fans’ passion points, even if your brand isn’t something they’re are organically passionate about. The only way to do that is to understand your audience and your customers. That’s easy for the Boston Celtics to sense, but probably a lot harder for consumer brands to decipher. I would advise figuring out who they are and what they want before you formulate your strategy. That means collecting data, surveying fans, keeping up with your competitors and studying leaders in the social media space.

Follow Peter on Twitter.
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ABOUT ME

Brian Solis is a digital analyst, anthropologist, and also a futurist. In his work at Altimeter Group, Solis studies the effects of disruptive technology on business and society. He is an avid keynote speaker and award-winning author who is globally recognized as one of the most prominent thought leaders in digital transformation.

His most recent book, What's the Future of Business: Changing the Way Businesses Create Experiences (WTF), explores the landscape of connected consumerism and how business and customer relationships unfold in four distinct moments of truth. His previous book, The End of Business as Usual, explores the emergence of Generation-C, a new generation of customers and employees and how businesses must adapt to reach them. In 2009, Solis released Engage, which is regarded as the industry reference guide for businesses to market, sell and service in the social web.

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