Microblog keeps fans a-Twitter

Teams' ability to update fans on Web site already paying dividends

(Fresno Grizzlies)

By Benjamin Hill / MLB.com | July 30, 2009 2:41 PM

"Follow Us on Twitter"

One year ago, the appearance of the above message on a team Web site would have elicited a confused response from all but the most tech-savvy Minor League Baseball fan. But word travels fast when it comes to social networking trends, and in the past year Twitter has risen from a little-known curiosity to a faddish phenomenon to an established communication tool with long-term potential.

Of course, many Minor League teams have taken notice. Some of these clubs are in the exploratory phase of their Twitter experiment, but others have fully incorporated the application into their day-to-day operations. Where teams fall on this spectrum varies widely, and the jury is still out on just how widely used Twitter will become. But for some clubs, it has already revolutionized the way in which they market their product and communicate with their fans.

It is necessary to pause at this point, in order to explain exactly what Twitter is. Because for all the breathless hype it has received in recent months, it is still an unknown entity to millions of Americans (a recent poll conducted by Harris Interactive found that 69 percent of respondents didn't know enough about Twitter to have an opinion one way or the other).

Essentially, Twitter is a "micro-blogging" service that allows its users to send and receive messages of 140 characters or less. These messages, called "tweets," are delivered to all of a user's "followers" (those who subscribe to a certain Twitter user's feed). The format doesn't allow for in-depth discussion or analysis, but it does provide a forum for instantaneous communication. Therefore, teams can market themselves specifically to their Twitter followers, while also being able to quickly answer any and all questions that these followers may have.

Really, it's not as confusing as it sounds. If the Minor League front office executives profiled in this piece have been able to incorporate it into their daily routines, then surely you can too.

Delivering information in real time

"Twitter is hitting its tipping point," said Scott Carter, vice president of marketing for the Fresno Grizzlies. "It just keeps evolving and is only going to get bigger. First sending out an email newsletter was the big thing, then MySpace, then Facebook and now Twitter. It's a refined way to communicate, in that it allows us to take our message directly to the people in real time."

The sort of messages that can be communicated are virtually infinite, but the real-time aspect lends itself particularly well to live game updates and other such fleeting concerns.

"People might not be at the game or in front of the TV or radio, so this gives them one more way to find out about what's going on," said Carter.

"It's great for more spur-of-the-moment things," said Northwest Arkansas Naturals GM Eric Edelstein, who maintains a team Twitter account with nearly 1,300 followers. "We can let fans know what the weather forecast is or when the tarp's coming off the field. It also helps to give fans an inside view of what's going on. Like when Alex Gordon was here on a rehab assignment, we sent out Tweets along the lines of 'Alex is in the building, and he's planning on taking [batting practice].'

The immediacy of Twitter has also helped the Naturals promote the team's players, something that is rarely done in the here today, gone tomorrow world of Minor League Baseball.

"There's an old adage in Minor League Baseball that you don't market the players, because they come and go so fast," said Edelstein, who also maintains a personal Twitter account that details his experiences as a Minor League GM. "But with Twitter as well as Facebook, you can go into details on the players and really talk about who did what. The more we mention these players, the more affinity our fans will have for them. ... This builds a familiarity not just with us, but with the entire Royals system.

"It's all so instantaneous. The worries about including a player in a marketing campaign are eliminated. It's not about buying an ad that runs on a week-to-week basis, it's about what is happening this very second."

The instant and informal nature of Twitter also gives fans a forum in which to ask questions regarding nearly every aspect of the club.

"We've fielded just about everything, from how to book a birthday party to how much a suite costs to 'Why did [manager Brian] Poldberg just pull that pitcher," said Edelstein. Brett McGinness, marketing director for the Reno Aces, goes a step further when it comes to the ways in which Twitter allows him to interact with the fans.

"Sometimes during a game, I'll tweet 'Where is everybody?,' and then walk around and meet the people who responded," he said. "And if I can, I'll do a postgame wrapup, thanking all the people who took the time to comment about something during the game."

Twitter also allows the Aces to conduct informal focus groups, so that they can best understand who their fans are and what they want.

"We'll send things out on Twitter, asking fans questions like 'How many games do you go to?,' and 'Do you listen to games on the radio?,'" said McGinness. "We want to make sure we're utilizing the two-way conversation aspect and that we're really finding out who these people are."

Twagers, tweetups and other seemingly made-up words

And this being Minor League Baseball, it's no surprise that Twitter-related promotions have begun to take place around the country. Earlier in the season, the front offices of the Grizzlies and the Aces engaged in a friendly "Twager" when the two clubs faced off in a four-game series. The loser of the series (which turned out to be the Aces) had to "re-tweet" every message posted by the winners for an entire day. Therefore, Reno followers were subjected to a day of Fresno-related posts, regarding everything from the hats available in the team store to the excellence of Chukchansi Park.

Coincidentally, the Grizzlies staged an elaborate social networking promotion Thursday evening -- just after this article was written. The "Great Fresno Tweetup" took place at Chukchansi Park, where Twitter users received discounted tickets for a designated section of the stadium.

"It's absolutely crazy, the response we've gotten," said Carter, who received three Tweetup RSVPs over the course of our 15-minute phone conversation. "I'd say at least half of the people we have attending have never been to a Grizzlies game. They're excited to meet all of the other Twitter users, people who they've only interacted with online."

The evening was also to incorporate Twitter into the in-game entertainment.

"We'll be asking the crowd questions, like what Parker [the mascot] skit they want to see later," said Carter. "They'll tweet their response, and then we'll tally it up and Parker'll do it. ... We'll also be posting the evening's best tweets on the videoboard, so that the fans can be recognized for coming up with good observations."

The Aces, meanwhile, incorporated MySpace and Facebook users in addition to Twitter, en route to staging Thursday's "MyTwitFace" promotion. Users of all three forms of social networking received discounted tickets in the same section of the ballpark. And while the Naturals have not yet incorporated Twitter into a standalone promotion, they did find success with an initiative designed to greatly increase their number of Facebook friends. A similar model could be used for Twitter followers.

"We had under 500 [friends] at the time and put the word out that if we could add 1,000 more in a week, then all our Facebook friends would get a free ticket [to a specified upcoming home game]," said Edelstein. "We were able to get to almost 2,000 friends because of that, and now we're up around 2,800."

Time could mean money

The Grizzlies, Aces and Naturals have succeeded in using Twitter as a communication and marketing tool, and much of this success can be attributed to a committed approach. It's one thing to establish an account and post a few introductory tweets, but it's quite another to incorporate Twitter into a daily routine. (Full disclosure: my own Twitter account has lain dormant for months.)

"You can't do this half-heartedly; at least one person on the staff has to be completely dedicated," said Carter. "You have to make sure that you're really interacting with people; otherwise they're going to see right through it."

A large degree of improvisational open-mindedness is required as well, as a template for how to utilize Twitter as a fan mobilization tool does not yet exist. Edelstein mentioned it can be difficult to incorporate Twitter into one's daily routine, while McGinness said he is still experimenting with the fans' Twitter threshold regarding how many tweets they will tolerate over the course of a day.

But the uncertainty and time commitment is clearly worth it, as Twitter has opened up a whole new world of communication for teams and fans alike.

"[Twitter] doesn't make real media irrelevant, but it creates a situation where we're all media," said Edelstein. "More and more people are telling me that they know more about the team this year because of it, and that's always going to be my barometer for success."

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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