This is the second of four stories on Major League Baseball and social media. You can read the first story here. Full disclosure: Major League Baseball Advanced Media employs FanGraphs contributor Paul Swydan, who wrote this series.
While other leagues have seen attendance dips in the past few years, Major League Baseball has held strong. And though that success initially didn’t translate online quite as well — as the first part of this series indicated — baseball has begun pumping social media fastballs. Among its best decisions was allowing fans to share video.
Much to fans’ delight, Major League Baseball Advanced Media started using an embedded player last year. “If you think about social [media] — with the backbone being sharing — what YouTube really allows you to do is naturally share that content,” says Andrew Patterson, MLBAM’s director of new media. “We’ve seen great success with [the embedded player] this past season [because] it allows fans the opportunity to share that content out.” So while MLBAM still would prefer you to come to its website to view highlights, the league now lets you share those moments elsewhere online. And if you read FanGraphs’ best pitches series, you saw that those videos can be extremely handy — and helpful — for folks who want to better understand the game.
That doesn’t mean the league is done improving its social media position. Patterson says MLBAM is already working to make an HTML5 version of the embedded player so that fans don’t need Flash to view it. Regulars to MLB.com also have seen that the site has improved its search function tremendously, becoming dogmatic about tagging videos with player and team identifications. The league also created a MLB channel on YouTube and has plans to release select content on it.
The position change on social media is an extension of the work the league began last season. Case in point is its tweeting strategy for last year’s Home Run Derby. The league set up laptop stations near each dugout, and players were allowed to tweet from their phones — a moment that deepened the connection between fans and players. It was an unprecedented success for professional baseball: Twitter told the league that the self-proclaimed “Social Media Derby” was among the top-10 most tweeted events of all-time. The event had lasting effects for players who participated, too. MLB said that the 23 players who tweeted during the derby got a combined 121,428 new followers in an 18-hour span around the event — and the average “follow” increase per player was 17%. Still, for all the success, the derby got little recognition outside of its fans. “We viewed it as a big success, just not to the extent that we would have wanted it,” MLB spokesperson Matthew Bourne says. In particular, the event didn’t receive as much media coverage as MLB had hoped — though at least part of that is the league’s fault: The then-unprecedented idea got an OK from MLB officials only one week before the All-Star break, which didn’t give the league’s public-relations team much time to spread the word.
In addition to the derby, perhaps MLB’s biggest success in social media was the introduction of the MLB Fan Cave last season. The idea was simple and effective. Two fans watched every game from a tricked-out space in New York, and played host to a number of players and celebrities. The concept was an immediate success, and MLB was deluged with applicants. As Forbes noted at the time, Fan Cave finalists included a Mormon minister, an off-Broadway actor and someone whose annual salary was in the millions. The project also earned more than 100 million social-media impressions and put MLB in the online conversation.
Not only did the Fan Cave score, it scored big with a younger demographic. Bourne says the average Fan Cave fan was 30 years old — compared to 45 to 48 years old for the average MLB fan. Courting younger customers is important for any business, but it’s especially important to MLB, which has been skewing older in recent years. The Cave “combined music, technology, art, pop culture and celebrity — and it did so, obviously, through the medium of social media,” Bourne says. Adds espnW contributor and self-proclaimed social-media junkie Amanda Rykoff: “The social media success of the initiative cannot be denied.”
But baseball obviously has some work to do. “Engagement seems to be lacking” in other areas, such as on Facebook and on Twitter, says Maury Brown, president of the Business of Sports Network. “Compared to other [major American] sports leagues, baseball is running behind.” A quick examination of the league’s Twitter account, @MLB, bears this out. While the account is very active, it rarely replies or retweets its fans’ comments. On the other hand, the league ensures that someone writes each of its tweets — and often in a clever or witty fashion. According to MLBAM’s Patterson, the league’s goal is to help “organize” fans’ conversations. That might not lead to one-on-one engagement, but the league thinks it has found a way to both disseminate information and get fans talking about that news. The merits of that stance are debatable, but the fact that they have a position should count as a win.
One clear example of MLB’s organizing the conversation came this past postseason when it created the #postseason hashtag. Undoubtedly, you saw the advertisement behind home plate and in other sightlines. And the league didn’t stop there. Following Game 6 of the World Series, the league office put out a press release that reprinted tweets that players and celebrities had written during the game — from Evan Longoria to Kelly Clarkson. The MLBAM side was hard at work as well, as they encouraged fans to use #gorangers, #gocards and #11in11 (since 2011 marked the Cardinals’ 11th Wold Series championship), and made digital mosaics from tweets and Facebook posts. “As they kind of had a singular experience within their Twitter account, it aggregated into a cooperative fan engagement,” Patterson says. It worked. More than 26,000 fans tweeted the #11in11 hashtag.
Being creative through technology is nothing new for MLBAM. “I’d say MLB — with MLB Advanced Media — is ahead of other leagues, from a technology standpoint,” says Jamie Duklas, the director of social media at Booyah! Online Advertising. At the forefront of that is the MLB At Bat application, which is fully integrated from a social media perspective. By the end of last year, the app worked with Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare. The league has also created fun, interactive features like Tagoramic — where fans could tag themselves in the stands at games — and ran with it in each of the past two postseasons. Something that could gain traction this year — once more people switch to the timeline profile view on Facebook — is Timeline Cover Images. It can be hard to find great landscape photos, but with these customizable images, fans have an easy way to show off their team pride.
Between their embedded player, the “Social Media Derby” and the Fan Cave, 2011 was a good year for MLB’s social media campaign. But baseball is far more than its two offices on Park and Ninth Avenue in New York — and tomorrow, we’ll look at some teams that are being rewarded for their social media efforts.