Can you make your Twitter account private to gain publicity? MLB proves you can.

Yesterday was a fun day for Major League Baseball (MLB) on Twitter.

Yesterday morning, MLB announced that they were going to make their Twitter account (@MLB) private for six hours between 12-6pm ET, during which time they would be performing exclusive giveaways only viewable to those who followed the account before it went private. In the hours leading up to the promotion, MLB sent numerous tweets with the hashtag #MLBMembersOnly to raise awareness and get additional fans to follow the account so as to be eligible for the giveaways.

Sure enough, at noon ET, @MLB went private, complete with a new profile picture and background image explaining the promotion. Giveaways during MLB’s private hours included 2013 MLB.tv subscriptions, tickets to 2013 Opening Day, and tickets to the 2012 World Series. Twitter followers became eligible to win prizes by retweeting phrases tweeted by MLB, like “Opening Day tix? Yes please @MLB! #MLBMembersOnly”

MLB’s promotion was meant to reward current Twitter followers and add new followers in the hours leading up to the privatization. By MLB’s account, the promotion was a success. Josh Lukin (@coffeeon3rd), MLB’s Director of Advanced Media, cited a sizable increase in Twitter followers, rewarded loyal followers, a trending topic on Twitter (#MLBMembersOnly), and the #1 question on the weekly Thursday Twitter chat #smsportschat. A look at MLB’s twitter stats on TwitterCounter.com backs up Lukin’s follower claims. @MLB gained 12,078 fans on September 20th, a sizable increase compared to the four days prior. They gained 973, 689, 1,466, and 1,727 followers on those days respectively.

MLB on Twitter Counter.com

While the statistics indicate MLB’s promotion was a success, there were some valid concerns brought up on Twitter by established minds in sports and social media. Peter Stringer (@peterstringer), who serves as the Boston Celtics Senior Director of Interactive Media, questioned the move, citing the limitedness of viral promotion (the sweepstakes tweets were private and therefore could not be retweeted), and the policy of what Stringer called “like-gating” overall.

Russell Scibetti (@rscibetti), founder of theBusinessofSports.com, also raised a few concerns in an excellent blog post. Scibetti noticed that the number of @MLB followers was still rising during the time the account was private, leading him to believe (and confirm) that new followers were being approved by hand. Scibetti noted that the practice of manually adding followers after going private damaged the promotion’s reputation of being exclusive and made the promotion more similar to a typical Twitter giveaway. Scibetti’s post is worth a read and is viewable here.

AwfulAnnouncing.com also weighed in on the topic. They identified the promotion’s timing as potentially troublesome, as there were several baseball games that started during the time-period MLB’s account was private, with a large majority of those games involving potential playoff teams. Had something important occurred during any of the games, MLB’s tweets would not have reached the audience size they typically do.

We know how those mentioned above feel. How do you feel about Major League Baseball’s Twitter promotion? Was the promotion a hit? Would you have done anything differently? Weigh in in the comments section below.

Don’t Call it Social Media Night: How the Washington Nationals are using Twitter to put fans in the stands

Since moving to Washington in 2005, the Washington Nationals have struggled with wins on the field and attendance in the stadium. From RFK stadium in 2005-2007 to Nationals Park in 2008-2010, the Nationals have consistently drawn half-empty stadiums while finishing in last or next to last place in the NL East in 2005-2010.

Losing, however, has its benefits. Armed with a collection of highly drafted young talent, the Nationals are competing in 2012 after showing signs of life in 2011. Led by an impressive starting rotation and teen phenom Bryce Harper, the Nationals are 31-22 as of this post and in first place in the National League East Division. Unfortunately for the Nationals, the massive improvement in the team’s win-loss record from recent years hasn’t directly correlated to sell-out crowds. Despite having the third best record in baseball, the Nationals sit at 16th when looking at the average attendance numbers at home games, according to ESPN.

In looking for solutions to the attendance problems, the Nationals have turned to Twitter. Championing the “Natitude” cause, the @Nationals have come up with several different special events to raise attendance, using hashtags such as #ourpark and #natitude to increase fan pride, drive conversation online and sell tickets at a higher rate.

Their most recent promotion, set for July 3rd, is a tweet-up that the Nationals are calling the “Ignite your Natitude Tweet-up.” The event has several makings of what are commonly called social media nights at other stadiums around Major League Baseball. The Nationals will provide a space for Twitter followers to congregate at the game and talk amongst each other, tickets will be discounted, and fans will receive a commemorative poster exclusive for the event. In addition, the Nationals will be rewarding early arriving fans with prizes and pre-game interactive games and giveaways, according to the Nationals official blog, Curly W.

The twist on the event relates to where, exactly, Tweet-up fans will sit at the game. Borrowing on the strategy employed by sites like LivingSocial and Groupon, as well as MLB’s highly successful opening day Twitter promotion, the Nationals are improving the seat location for the game based on how many people RSVP to the Tweet-up using the official hashtag #IYNT (Ignite Your Nationals Tweet-up). Quite simply, the more people that sign up, the better the seats.

We won’t know how well the promotion works until June 22nd, when tickets officially go on sale, and July 3rd, when the Nationals have an official attendance number for the game. So far though, the promotion seems to be a success. Back on May 29th, the Nationals announced via Twitter they were only a few more RSVPs away from upgrading the seat location for fans. They’ve also been diligent about reminding fans to RSVP and responding to fan tweets.

No word on whether or not ticket prices will increase as the seat location improves, but that is something to consider with this promotion. No team wants to price out fans that are well connected on Twitter.

What do you think about this promotion? Would the opportunity for better seats make you more likely to RSVP? Can digital conversation on Twitter lead to more fan pride? Let me know in the comments field below.

In the Sports World, Verified Accounts are Key

“It’s been a great journey down here in #Beantown my agent just confirmed im heading to Tampa to play with the Rays. miss you #Soxnation.” – @MikeAviles3

That’s how Red Sox shortstop Mike Aviles broke the news of his being traded to the Tampa Bay Rays this past month. The problem? He wasn’t traded to the Rays. In fact, he wasn’t traded anywhere. Another problem? Mike Aviles wasn’t on Twitter.

Check out influential athletes’ Twitter profiles, and you’ll notice an icon next to their Twitter username; a small ribbon with a checkmark on it. The icon signifies that a particular account has been verified by Twitter. Verified accounts are those that Twitter has claimed are authentic and are created by the actual person whose name is on the account. For example, that CJ Wilson’s account @str8edgeracer is really CJ Wilson, and not just a fan that created the account as a way to pay homage.

CJ Wilson Twitter Profile

Despite Twitter’s best efforts to verify as many accounts as possible, typically only influential athletes get verified accounts. Take a look at the starting lineup and bench for Major League Baseball on tweetstargame.com, and you’ll notice that every athlete’s Twitter account, sans Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish, is verified. You’ll also notice that the lowest Klout score among the athletes is 59, much higher than the average Klout score of 20. This leaves many less influential athletes with unverified accounts. These accounts belong to lesser-known athletes like Aviles. Aviles, a 30 year-old shortstop for the Boston Red Sox, started his career with the small market Kansas City Royals, and has never hit more than 10 homeruns, stolen over 14 bases, or played in over 110 games in a season.

While Aviles may not be considered influential according to Klout, his account was influential enough that the Red Sox had to officially deny the report. Additionally, Aviles took to Twitter with an official account, @themikeaviles, to announce that he was in fact still a member of the Boston Red Sox. The event is another example of the current sports media landscape, where the invention of Twitter, and its ability to let anyone break news, has created an atmosphere where the race to be the first to break news has become paramount for journalists. That need involves occasionally running with unverified, and potentially false, information. We’ve recently seen this with matters involving Joe Paterno and Dwight Howard.

Mike Aviles Twitter Profile

I don’t know what the fix is to this situation. Verification doesn’t come easy. Despite his recent issue, Aviles’s new authentic Twitter account still hasn’t been verified by Twitter, and journalists aren’t likely to wait to write breaking news. Doing so would run the risk of the news being broken by a rival journalist. The more likely situation is that we continue to struggle with this environment. An environment in which athletes can break news directly via Twitter, fans can create short-term chaos by releasing fake news via the same platform, and journalists and fans can’t tell the difference.

Twitter Handles: Coming Soon to a Uniform Near You

It first happened on the PGA tour in early February. TaylorMade, one of golf’s biggest equipment vendors, stitched the sponsored Twitter hashtag, #driverlove, on the side of hats worn by golfers endorsed by the company. The tag was in reference to TaylorMade’s marketing campaign, which looks to characterize the feeling golfers have with TaylorMade drivers.

Philadelphia Wings Twitter Jerseys

It happened again a few days later, when the Philadelphia Wings of the National Lacrosse League became the first professional sports team in America to wear jerseys with their Twitter handles on the back in place of their last names. The switch, which was the result of a campaign that sought to increase the awareness of the Wings’ Twitter presence, only lasted one game. The team raffled off the jerseys after the game for charity.

Then it happened again this past week, when Dexter Fowler of the Colorado Rockies tweeted a picture of teammate Eric Young Jr.’s cleats, which featured Young’s Twitter handle, @EYjr, on the heal of the cleat.

If once is an event, and twice is a coincidence, then three times is a pattern; and in this case, the pattern is clear: Twitter is infiltrating sports uniforms.

The reasoning behind the trend isn’t hard to figure out. Athletes are learning how helpful Twitter can be, when used correctly, in becoming more marketable and popular. Influential Twitter accounts can lead to new sponsorship deals, as Kevin Durant can attest to. Durant, one of the more influential NBA players on Twitter, recently partnered up with Nike for their newest product, the Nike+ FuelBand. Durant wore the band at the NBA All-Star festivities, and continues to wear the band today. During the day, he tweets about the amount of fuel he has earned, challenges fans to keep up with him, and on occasion, tweets back to those who have. The result is a powerful brand ambassador for Nike, new fans and followers for Kevin Durant, and a higher level of exposure for everyone.

Moving forward, more athletes and companies will look to create similar bonds as Twitter becomes a recognized platform to endorse products. When they do, companies will look for athletes with Twitter influence. Engaging with fans is the key component to building that influence, but the first step in the process is building a large following to engage with. To accomplish that, athletes need to promote their Twitter handle, and for an athlete, there is no better place to gain visibility then on the field. Hence, the growing trend of Twitter handles on uniforms.

For athletes then, the required task is finding an area on a uniform on which to put a Twitter handle. Sounds simple, right? Wrong. Standing in every athlete’s way are league policies that state what can and can’t appear on a player’s uniform. Not surprisingly, for several leagues, the list of what can’t appear on a uniform is much longer and more detailed than what can. These policies force athletes to get creative, as Eric Young Jr. did when he put his Twitter handle on the heel of his cleat. Where else can we expect to see Twitter handles pop up?

Major League Baseball’s policy specifically violates patches and designs relating to commercial advertisements on any part of the uniform. However, one could argue that a player isn’t promoting a commercial entity if it is their personal Twitter handle. MLB also states, “any player other than the pitcher may have numbers, letters, insignia attached to the sleeve of the undershirt.” That would seem to indicate undershirt sleeves are fair game. Also, don’t be surprised if you see a Twitter handle appear on a player’s baseball glove at some point this season.

In the National Basketball Association, players will have to take a page out of Eric Young’s playbook and look to their feet. NBA’s uniform policy specifically states what is allowed in terms of writing on all pieces of NBA equipment, including headbands, wristbands, calf sleeves and arm sleeves. It also states that, “no unauthorized commercial, promotional or charitable name, mark, logo or other identification can be displayed on player’s body, hair or otherwise.” However, the sneaker section stipulates only that the sneakers must be white, black and the colors of the team identify only, and that the left and right sneaker must match. Adornments are also prohibited, so if an athlete wants their Twitter handle on their sneaker, they’ll need to have it built into the shoe design.

In the National Hockey League, the uniform policy doesn’t mention goalie masks or tape on sticks. Goalie masks can get pretty detailed, but I would bet that an artist could find space on there to include a Twitter handle above the facemask, where it would get plenty of exposure. Another area where a player could get their Twitter handle noticed would be on the stick’s blade. A player is allowed to tape the blade of the stick, and could easily write a Twitter handle using a permanent marker on the tape.

No league, however, is tougher to crack than the National Football League.

Steve Johnson Happy New Year undershirt

When it comes to uniform policies, the NFL is as detailed and restrictive as they come. This is, after all, the league that fined Buffalo Bills receiver Stevie Johnson for wishing fans a happy new year on his undershirt this past season. The NFL includes “every visible item of apparel” in their definition of a uniform, meaning everything from shoelaces to athletic tape to sideline hats is covered. For athletes in the NFL, I suggest you get extra creative and shave your Twitter handle into the side of your head.

Other sports seem more willing to bend on uniform matters. One would think the PGA tour would be open to the idea of Twitter after the success of #driverlove. Nascar is a sport filled with decals, and is fresh off a Daytona 500 that made a significant impact on Twitter. Might they allow a driver to convert their name above the driver-side window to a Twitter Handle?

However and wherever it happens, Twitter handles will continue to make appearances on professional sports uniforms. For players who seek to use the platform as a marketing tool, visibility is imperative, and uniforms offer the perfect platform. Where do you think we’ll see Twitter handles next in sports? Do you think leagues will change their policies to become more accepting of athletes promoting personal Twitter accounts on the field? Let me know in the comments section below.

Facebook Cover Photos: Brought to you by the Philadelphia Phillies

When Facebook timeline was announced for brands earlier this year, bloggers and social media web sites correctly pointed out that the switch would enable brands to push content to fans in a more aesthetically pleasing and interactive way. And indeed, since the switch was made on February 29th, we’ve seen a large number of brands lead the way with innovative and creative timeline pages and cover photos, one of the most noticeable differences between timeline and the old profile page layout. Redbull, Starbucks, Coca-Cola and Manchester United were among the first to take advantage of the change in layout. Yet one thing organizations haven’t done is release branded cover photos that fans can upload to their personal Facebook profile page. That is, until now.

Major League Baseball isn’t typically considered to be one of the more groundbreaking organizations when it comes to social media. That being said, the Philadelphia Phillies have recently released what I believe to be the first instance of an organizational branded cover photo specifically meant for a fan’s Facebook profile. The Phillies announced the available photos via Twitter and Facebook, and are marketing the images by telling fans, “The Phillies have you covered.” The collection of images include a panoramic picture of their home stadium as well as images of current star players.

The move is a clever one. By releasing branded cover photos, the Phillies can transform fans into brand ambassadors by having them publish the image as their Facebook cover photo. Rarely does a team, or any brand for that matter, give fans a reason to go back to their actual Facebook page after they like the page. However, Facebook users are much more likely to go to a friend’s Facebook profile page. When they do, the cover photo will likely be the first thing that draws their attention, according to Mashable. The popular social media site discovered in late December 2011 via eye tracking software that Facebook users looking at Facebook timeline profiles looked at a user’s cover photo first, and additionally, that it only took a user .5 seconds to look at it. For brands, that means that their brand photo can be the first object a Facebook user looks at, even when they’re looking at a friend’s Facebook page rather than the brand’s page.

Roy Halladay's Facebook Cover Photo

The Phillies may be the first organization to release branded Facebook cover photos, but they assuredly will not be the last. For sports organizations, athletes are an incredible selling point, and cover photos lend themselves well to dramatic images of athletes in action.

What do you think of the idea? Do you think more brands will use this tactic in the future? Most importantly, would you make your cover photo a branded image from an organization, sports or otherwise, that you support?

Voice your opinion in the comments section below, and check out all of the Phillies branded cover photos here.

Three Teams. Three Leagues. Three Social Media Lessons.

These days, every professional sports team has a social media presence. They have Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, blogs, and more. Lately, teams have even started finding roles on Instagram or Pinterest.  Unfortunately, it seems that most teams’ strategy ends with a presence. Look through Twitter feeds of organizations and you’ll find they’re all filled with links to game previews and recaps, video highlights and team transactions. On Facebook, a team might get fans to ‘like’ them, but rarely do they give them any real incentive to revisit the page. It isn’t that the desire isn’t there. More likely, it’s the result of not knowing where to start. Luckily, a few teams have gotten creative and created a path for other teams to follow. Today, we’re looking at three teams in three different leagues who have achieved success in social media.

The Cleveland Indians

The Network: Blogs, Facebook and Twitter.

The Strategy: Find opinion leaders, treat them well, and let them do the talking.

How they did it: In 2009, the Cleveland Indians were coming off two straight disappointing seasons in an economy that was also trending downward. So when the Indians looked in increase conversation and engagement in the community, they looked towards social media. They transformed a section of their stadium into what they called the

The Cleveland Indians Social Suite

‘Tribe Social Deck.’ The section came with free wireless internet and access to content previously available to members of the press only. The club then invited opinion leaders within the Cleveland Indians online community to invite to the suite. As awareness of the club spread, fans were able to submit applications to be invited. Fans were allowed to bring friends and were encouraged to blog and tweet about their experiences. After the season, the Indians enhanced the club by moving it to a private suite, complete with protection from the weather and an indoor living space designed to stimulate conversation between game attendees. They also renamed the club the ‘Indians Social Suite.’ In an attempt to get some ROI out of the campaign, they added discounts for fans who liked the team on Facebook or followed on Twitter.

The Payoff: Believable third-party endorsements and a more active community. A 214% increase in Facebook ‘likes’, a 699% increase in Twitter followers, and a 174% increase in revenue from social media efforts.

The Lesson: Any team can brag about their stadium or game day experience. It’s much more believable when it comes from another fan, especially if that fan is already considered a respected voice in the community.

The Boston Celtics

The Network: Facebook

The Strategy: Gain better demographic data from fans.

How they did it: When you’re the Boston Celtics, getting fans to like you isn’t a huge problem. That includes getting fans to ‘like’ you on Facebook. But what happens after that? How do you get fans to engage with you? What do you do with the information you’ve gained about those fans? For the Celtics, answering that question involved an initial

The Boston Celtics 3-Point Playfinancial investment, a partnership with an outside vendor and a lot of thought. The end result was the 3-Point Play, a Facebook application in which fans pick three Celtic players and predict a statistic for an upcoming game. Points are awarded based on accuracy and the risk level of a fan’s picks. After each game, the top-scoring fan wins tickets to an upcoming home game. The game is quick and easy to play, and fans only have to play once for the Celtics to gain access to their demographic information. That information gets added to the Celtics team database. Once they have that information, they are better likely to see how much fans are spending on tickets or merchandise, as well as how often they spend on those items.

The Payoff: Since creating the 3-Point Play, the Celtics have added 85,000 Facebook fans to their marketing database. More importantly, they’ve sold almost $200,000 in tickets to those fans.

The Lesson: Give fans a reason to not only like your page but keep coming back. Then promote that reason on every platform you can to drive up awareness and interest. Know what demographic information you want from those fans, and more importantly, how to take advantage of that information.

The New Jersey Devils

The Network: Blogs, Twitter, and ‘offline’ viewing parties.

The Strategy:

1. Use influential fans to create engaging dialogue on game days and off-days alike.

2. Capitalize on that fan engagement by getting area partners to advertise.

How they did it: Despite a long track record of on-ice success, the New Jersey Devils were having a hard time creating a strong fan base in Newark, NJ, where they play less

The New Jersey Devils Mission Control

than 30 minutes from the more popular New York Rangers. So early in 2011, the Devils took a page from the Cleveland Indians social media strategy, and created a social media control center focused on influential fans. They called the center ‘Mission Control’, and gave a 25-person group, called the ‘Devils Army Generals,’ the room, assigned with the task of monitoring social media activity, blogging, arranging Tweet-ups, answering team questions and more. After accomplishing successful levels of fan engagement, the Devils took the strategy one step further. They used the Command Center as a lead in sales meetings, selling advertising opportunities to area vendors. Those partners sponsor online fantasy games and fan contests, rather than sponsored Tweets or posts, which keeps fans from getting force fed advertisements.

The Payoff:

1. Over 70,000 Facebook likes in the first month, and 1,000 new Twitter followers a week.

2. $500,000 in revenue from marketing partnerships in 2011.

The Lesson:

1. Your best fans will volunteer to work for you.

2. Engagement is great, but you can benefit financially as well without inundating fans with ads.

You can find more information on the above campaigns from the following links:

The Indians Social Suite: http://www.marketingsherpa.com/article.php?ident=32066#

The Celtics 3-Point Play: http://www.sportsbusinessdaily.com/Journal/Issues/2012/02/27/Opinion/Peter-Stringer.aspx

The Devils Command Center: http://www.badrhinoblog.com/2012/02/how-the-devils-monetized-social-media/