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Interview with Boston Celtics’ Peter Stringer on Social Media

As Director of Interactive Media for the Boston Celtics, Peter Stringer (@PeterStringer) oversees the social media entities of one of the NBA’s most successful, storied and beloved franchises. I caught up with Stringer recently and asked him about social media, engagement, mobile apps and how job seekers can help their cause through social media.

What is your primary objective in representing the Celtics brand via social media?

We can only host so many fans in our arena throughout the season, but there’s seemingly no end to the amount of fans who want to experience the Celtics whether it’s in the arena, on TV, the radio or online.  Our fans actively seek out Celtics content and we need to have a presence everywhere our fans are willing to engage with us.  Social media platforms allow us to direct interact with those fans without the middle-man, and it’s a powerful tool for us, given the massive audience we’ve built on social media. Right now, at almost 1.9 million Facebook fans, we’re the third largest team sports brand in North America, and at 85,000 followers, the fourth largest (North American team sports) team on Twitter.

What is the biggest challenge facing an NBA team (or any pro sports team) when it comes to social media?

The biggest challenge is the pace of change.  It’s constant, there’s always something new to learn, and the rules of engagement and technology change on a daily basis.  Facebook loves to roll out new rules or features with little or no notice and as marketers, we have to be ready to adapt.  And from a league standpoint, some of the rules that are in place hamper our ability to market to some of our most passionate fans. Leagues really need to rethink how teams are allowed to engage fans and leverage corporate partners, and not just inside their own marketing territory. There’s opportunities well outside a team’s DMA upon which they currently aren’t allowed to capitalize.

How does your organization view players on social media? Does the organization like/dislike having players who tweet?

There’s nothing we can do to stop them.  We can advise players on how to best use these technologies, but at the end of the day, they now have a platform to interact with their fans directly, or “quote themselves,” if you will.  Some guys like it, others want nothing to do with it.  For us, it’s a brave new world and every team has to adjust to the idea that guys may make missteps with regard to how they use these platforms, and we have less control over the messages that our players disseminate.  It’s not going away so teams will have to learn to adjust and deal with situations as they arise.

Recently Shaq caused a stir by posing as a statue with fans in Harvard Square for one hour. How did this idea come about? What is the team’s stance on players holding social media contests independent of the team?

That was all Shaq.  He’s new with us this season, so we’re still learning about him as a personality, but he certainly doesn’t shy away from interacting with our fans off the court.  I don’t think that’s a bad thing. For us, website traffic is way up this season, and I have to believe that as one of the most recognizable people on the planet, Shaq’s driving some of that increase. People are more excited about the Celtics this season and Shaq is one of many reasons why.

In what ways do the audiences on Facebook and Twitter differ? Do the Celtics approach each audience differently? Why or why not?

We’re still learning.  Our Facebook audience dwarfs our Twitter following, so in terms of scale alone, they’re very different.  And I think that fans interact with us on these platforms for different reasons.  Part of the appeal of becoming a Facebook fan is that our logo shows up on people’s profiles and I think fans are proud of that affiliation. I don’t think Twitter offers that same sensation; Twitter fans want short, timely updates from us.

Either way, on both platforms, we are careful not to “spam” our fans and we want to make sure that we’re providing a lot of value while occasionally marketing to them.  If the only thing a fan gets from us on Facebook is ticket marketing, they’ll probably get sick of hearing from us pretty quickly.  We want to provide them with news, info and items of interest, and occasionally, put a ticket offer in front of them.  One thing we do know is that about 75 percent of our digital fans live outside of New England, so it’s unlikely those folks are going to be regular ticket buyers.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t want to interact with them, and that we can’t monetize them down the road.

One thing few pro teams have done is develop their own mobile applications for selling tickets and merchandise. Do the Celtics have plans to develop such an application in the near future? If no then what are challenges are in place that currently prevent teams from adopting this technology?

We’re exploring our options in the mobile space right now; the NBA just this summer loosened their restrictions around what teams can do, but we are just now getting a chance to explore the options.  I’ll say this, we’re not going to just throw something out there for the sake of it, and simply offering your website repackaged as a mobile app is not a sophisticated play.  There’s plenty of inexperienced vendors out there trying to get into the space and pitching us all the time, but if we’re going to do something in that space, it has to be something worth downloading and the technology has to be sound.

You oversaw the development of the Celtics’ popular Facebook game “3 Point Play” and the team’s “GameTime Live” stat tracking application last season. How did these entities come about? What are the team’s plans for them in the future?

GameTime Live is something I actually developed myself on nights and weekends three years ago, leveraging the NBA’s existing XML data feeds.  I don’t really have a CS background (I went to journalism school) but I know enough to be dangerous, and was able to build it out with some jQuery, XML and a CoverItLive’s incredible live blogging tool. The concept was simple: we needed to give fans a compelling reason to be on our website during the game, when traffic naturally spiked anyway as fans were looking to check the score.  Now GameTime Live fans are staying on the site for an average of 30 minutes per visitor. That’s incredible engagement and fans love to chat about the game while they’re watching it. After our first season, the NBA took it a step further with their TV companion application, which is now available to every team around the league.

3-Point Play was something we conceived of here and we were the first NBA team to launch a Facebook app.  The concept was simple: How do we get fans out of Facebook and into our database, while giving them a fun, easy-to-play game that allows them to compete with their friends and win Celtics prizes?  That’s where 3-Point Play was born.  We went to Isobar North America to help us build the game, and spent almost the entire summer last year building it from scratch.  And from the business side, it was a huge success, and we’re excited to have re-launched it for this season.

As for the future, we’re always thinking about what’s next…we’ve got a few ideas cooking but nothing we’re ready to share at this point.

Can you identify one essential element of a social media campaign that is often overlooked in the sports industry? How and why should teams approach this element differently?

Well, I think it boils down to this: social media sounds sexy, gets plenty of press, and it certainly is something every sports marketer needs to understand, but I think too many people overlook the database.  Every digital platform you own should be a funnel into your team’s database.  If you’re not capturing data, you’re missing the point.  Maybe five years ago, your website was considered the center of your team’s digital marketing. But these days, the website is just a spoke on the wheel alongside your social channels, mobile devices and email marketing.  As fans’ behaviors continue to evolve, you need to be agile and engage them where they are spending their time, and finding ways to get these fans into your database.

Plenty of eager would be employees are trying to stand out through social media. As a team executive, do you think potential employees can help their cause through their use of social media? Conversely can an application hurt their cause through their use of social media? Given today’s landscape, how important is a strong grasp of social media in an applicant’s overall portfolio?

Absolutely.  Anyone who wants to establish their own brand should be utilizing LinkedIn, Twitter, and a blog (remember blogs?) to get their name out there and “own” their digital identity.  That said, just because you have a Facebook page or Twitter account doesn’t mean you’re a social media expert. I still think the people who will set themselves apart in the social media marketing landscape will be those who have a solid background in analytics or technology development.  Just being a Facebook junky isn’t enough.

What’s one emerging trend in social media that will dominate the sports industry in the next year or so?

Analytics. There’s more data out there than Twitter and Facebook are sharing at this point. When that data becomes more available, whether it’s through third party vendors who exploit the APIs, or the companies themselves offering teams and marketers better tools, it will be a huge step forward for teams as they try to understand and capitalize on their growing social media fan bases.


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