It's been a long offseason, to say the least. As of this writing, the last Minor League Baseball game took place more than 16 months ago. Teams have had to be more creative than usual to stay in the public eye, which has involved finding new ways to maintain relationships with fans on social media.
Take, for example, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. The Chicago Cubs affiliate launched a "Week in Review" TikTok series at the start of 2021, offering minute-long recaps of their day-to-day operations. Encompassing everything from food prep to field maintenance to staff meetings to birthday celebrations, the series answers a question that has long been asked of those who work in baseball, even during so-called normal times: "What do you do in the offseason?"
"When we launched our TikTok, the plan to was to utilize players. Obviously, that didn’t come to fruition [in 2020], and we disengaged," said Pelicans director of fan engagement Hunter Horenstein, who oversees the team's social media accounts. "Now we're rededicated to it, trying to give people a look at what we do in a lighthearted, easy-to-consume way. I hope it continues to grow and evolve as we try to find different, funny, TikTok-y things to do. If you're on the app, you know what a TikTok-y thing is.
"We've really tried to carve out different voices this year. Facebook is more for headlines. The audience there is different than Instagram, where's there's a National Geographic approach -- pictures that tell stores. And then Twitter is different than Facebook and Instagram, because that's where you can have a conservation with the brand, joke around and have fun. And that’s different than TikTok, so now we're finding a voice there."
Horenstein is one of many Minor League Baseball social media managers traveling through these murky waters, honing tailored strategies for each platform while navigating the twin uncertainties of the pandemic and the restructuring of the Minors landscape.
"Back in March, everyone was in the same boat as far as, 'What do we do now?'" he said. "Early on, we released content that would hold us over as we were getting our bearings. ... One of the easiest things to do was highlights. I was asking our video guy to go as far back as 2016, so our fans could, like, wake up and see Ian Happ hitting a two-run home run. I don’t know if it was the best strategy -- to dump things out on the timeline -- but at the time, there weren't a lot of answers to give to our audience. Putting stuff out there that they’d want to see was really the goal, and at that point, we thought that everything would be starting back up in a couple of weeks."
As every sentient citizen knows, a delay of "a couple weeks" became an interminable (so far) quarantine slog.
"After realizing the severity of situation, it was a shift to a combination of entertainment and informative content. How could we fit it into those two silos?" Horenstein said.
"For community, it was things like 'Where are COVID tests happening?' 'Which of our restaurant partners are doing [takeout] or delivery?' 'How can we use our brand to promote that?'...Then things like the 'Wash Your Palms' campaign, blood drives, chicken sales ... weaving things into our community so that people knew what we were doing. We're the community's team. We're not just going to close up shop and lock our doors."
"The second half of what we were doing was entertainment, and we tried to weave in a revenue-driving approach to that. We had to work with what we had. Working from home, we'd review our hats, and hopefully, drive a sale or two. In the midst of that, it's being hyper aware of the landscape on the internet. Everything was negative, negative, negative. It's walking a fine line."
While walking this fine line, the Pelicans delivered the "Beer and Baseball" video podcast and recurring Instagram Live segments such as "Drinks with the GM" (featuring Myrtle Beach general manager Ryan Moore).
"We didn't have a ton of resources, but this was an opportunity to emphasize that it's always a human behind the account," Horenstein said. "It's about making your voice transparent. You're not talking to a blue checkmark. You're talking to someone running an account."
Horenstein, who realizes the toll maintaining a distinct and authentic voice across multiple platforms can take on one's mental health, is an advocate for what could be called "social media distancing."
"The brand is not my identity. It's part of it, absolutely. But I’m more than my notifications, and to realize that is a huge step forward in my personal development," he said.
"I've struggled a lot with wanting to be unplugged, but feeling like I couldn't be. As the months went on, I became much more comfortable with being unplugged -- setting those boundaries while also being aware of everything going on in the world. That awareness and perspective is key, realizing it's OK to take breaks, to step away and be able to lean on people and ask for help. I trust my coworkers and my support system. I can go to them, and they're going to help me out when I need it."
That support system includes social media professionals who work for other Minor League teams. He credits Chris Hagstrom-Jones (South Bend), Casey McGaw (Indianapolis), Abby Holman (Nashville), Casey Sawyer (Hillsboro) Evan Moesta (Carolina Mudcats), David Ratz (Jacksonville) and Nate Kurant (Charleston) with providing creative inspiration and personal support. Social media pros outside the sports world are helpful too.
"When it comes to our tone and humanizing the account, where that clicked for me was talking to Jen Hartmann. She's director of PR and social at John Deere," Horenstein said. "Jen had a great line once: 'Typos add personality.' There's no excuse for an egregious mistake, but, hey, you may miss a link here or a letter there. Listen, you're human.
"And Jenn Crim, she does social for the Grand Ole Opry. She and I had a connection in that she's managing social for this huge entertainment venue that people can't enter, and doing it as a team of one. Something she and I talked about was how you've got to set boundaries. It's OK to not pursue everything. Focus on being really good at a few things. Quality over quantity."
As the offseason drags into another February, Horenstein is devoting more of his resources to TikTok and "Week in Review."
"[That] allows me to have a new outlet, to feel like I’m contributing, helping grow our accounts," he said. "It goes back to trust and communication with coworkers. Hopefully, they won't get sick of me shoving a camera in their face, though it does give me an excuse to be on my phone. As insecure as I might be, as timid as I might be to put out the work, I want things to be good. I want people to like what we do.
"I firmly believe social media should be social, and what better time to be social than 2020? We learned a lot about our audience, and I'm grateful for that. As a social professional, I'm not who I was at the beginning of this. We can hang our hat on the fact that we tried our best every day."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.