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Social media a focus for WPS

The ever-growing power of social media is undeniable, and its enormous value to developing grassroots brands such as Women’s Professional Soccer cannot be understated.

Headlined by Twitter, the social media (commonly interchanged with the term “new media”) phenomenon is still something that cannot fully be understood. Strategies have been designed as to how to best succeed at the relatively unknown but powerful publicity tool, but sometimes it just comes down to a little bit of luck.On the weekend of Oct. 24, Twitter added WPS (@womensprosoccer) to its list of suggested users, a select group of accounts made known to all users. From there, the league’s followers – essentially the number of people or accounts who can see what the league account Tweets – jumped from some 7,000 to what is now. As of 12 a.m. on Nov. 20, WPS has 93,513 followers.

That has certainly created some buzz, as WPS has shot up the charts in comparison to other sports leagues. Currently, the league sits in fifth place among major American sports leagues in number of followers, behind the big four of the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL.

The likes of NASCAR and Major League Soccer all have fewer followers than WPS, but what does that all really mean? Truthfully, team and league officials say, it is still unknown.But there is more out there than just Twitter, and every form of new media is essential to the development of a brand.

“The truth is we are a new league, and that means we have to keep our eyes and ears open for any type of new media that we can use to extend our brand awareness,” said John Archibald, director of communications for Sky Blue FC. “By maximizing our exposure on mediums such as Facebook and Twitter, we are able to take a much more creative approach than many leagues that are seemingly stuck in an ‘old school’ state of mind.”

What is so innovative about new media is that it gives more power than ever to the consumer. Suddenly, fans can directly interact with players, coaches and executives and tell them exactly what they think about the team, league, or even something completely random but conversational.It is this conversational element that is so critical to engaging fans. As WPS Director of Communications Rob Penner states, new media does not replace press releases or online news coverage, but it does allow for increased connectivity.

And it is that connection – whether a positive or negative one – that is so critical to the fan experience, Chicago Red Stars Marketing and New Media Manager Elly Deutch said.

“We’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly – but that’s what we want,” Deutch said. “We love any and all feedback, so whether it’s a complaint from someone about parking at our stadium on game day or praising one of our players for being graced with the foot skills of a goddess, it initiates a bond and conversation that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to have.”

All of that attention from fans is great, but there is also obviously an economic bottom line beyond increased fan experience. Using social media just for the sake of it does not produce increased revenue. Gary Grates, an executive at Edelman, the world’s most recognized public relations and communications firm, emphasized this point.

“Social media without a strategy means nothing,” he said. “Any tactic sounds great if you don’t have a strategy. You have to have a strategy.”

Without the proper approach, social media is just another way of chatting with fans. Then again, that is exactly the point.Twitter, Facebook and FanCorner, the league’s in-house new media experiment, are all ways to make the public more aware of the league at no cost. There are no advertising fees, yet the reach of the information is exponential; even endless.

And it is the broad reach to a large number of people that then begins to play a role in advancing the league.

“Numbers of followers on Twitter or fans on Facebook are just one of many metrics to measure a league fan base,” Penner said. “Certainly, knowing that a news report via Twitter about WPS instantly hits almost 100,000 fans is a great way to get the word out there and update fans. It is attractive to sponsors as numbers continue to grow. It also shows the potential of the league in driving fans to more traditional revenue streams such as TV viewership – which leads to increased advertising and ultimately rights fees – ticket sales and merchandise sales.”

The more people (in this case, fans) that get involved with the league, the more that others (i.e. advertisers) want to get involved.But moving forward, the future of social media is still unclear. Because everything is so new (How big was Twitter even two years ago?), there is no precedent or formula for success.Some sports organizations realize that social media is so powerful that league rules need to be instated, as evidenced by the NBA’s crack-down on Tweeting. Unfortunately for the nonbelievers, social media does not seem to be going anywhere, and cracking down on it is counterproductive. The likes of Shaquille O’Neal or Chad Ocho Cinco (let’s be serious, it is Johnson) are not going to stop Tweeting.Some things do cross the line, but a guy like O’Neal typically Tweets thoughts that are very funny, stirring up talk on sports shows around the country. And again, it is all free publicity.

Women’s Professional Soccer has been a pioneer in exploiting social media to the best of its ability, encouraging in-game Tweeting and using Twitter as a way to communicate important information, such as draft results.

There are several interesting plans in the works for how to further use Twitter to the best of the league’s abilities, as well a revamping of FanCorner.

WPS was lucky in the sense that its inaugural year (and even the year prior, when league plans really got heated up) coincided with the coming of age of Twitter. The two have created a symbiotic relationship that very well could help make or break the league.

“To say the least, without social networks our grassroots organization wouldn’t survive,” Deutch said.

Mastering the unknown beast of social media could very well help the league – and even particular teams – survive. WPS clearly realizes that, and is making strides to become a more recognizable name through these methods. Check out this coinciding blog post to see some of the specific plans that WPS has in place for Twitter and a FanCorner overhaul, as well as a comparison of followers and links to other great blogs on this hot topic.

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