Relative to its its own established standards for adapting to, well, everything else, Major League Baseball has been pretty quick to latch on the Twitter phenomenon. Sure, it’s been around for years, but Twitter is still growing, and fast, having (according to itself in March 2012) picked up 40% of its user base over the preceding six months alone. Baseball teams haven’t missed that; all thirty of them have official Twitter accounts (some have more than one), most of them particularly active.
But it’s a very recent thing that teams have started directly trying to turn Twitter followers into real-life stadium visits, hosting “social media nights.” There were a handful last year, and something more like a plethora this year.
From what I can tell, most of these involve the team’s Twitter followers buying a ticket that gets them both a ballgame and extra goodies: the Cubs sold 300 special bleacher seats; the Astros hold multiple social media nights, each requiring the guest to purchase a patio ticket for $45; the Mets have a two-tiered package that set you back $35 (for access to batting practice) or $55 (for a player Q&A); the Pirates offered $10 off the regular price of a ticket to their Twitter followers for social media night, which also included a pre-game reception; the Brewers had you buy tickets to a special club area for $59 apiece, but included a buffet, two free drinks and “a special pregame panel discussion about social media and sports featuring a visit by Brewers players who participate in social media.” (The Blue Jays don’t seem to have anything like this yet, as far as I can tell from perusing their “Social Media Clubhouse.”)
The Twins seem to have taken a different view from the other Twitter-savvy clubs, forgoing the quick cash grab (and actually losing rather a lot of cash in the very short term, it seemed to me) in the hopes of enlarging their social media presence, and ultimately selling more tickets, in a more roundabout way. I was one of the lucky 15 or so (each with a guest) who was invited to attend the Twins’ “Social Media Deckstravaganza” last Friday — utterly free of charge — and take in the game in a suite stuffed with free food and beer, among other things. Did it “work”? Well, it seems to me they won’t really know for months, if ever. But it was a hell of a lot of fun.This was apparently the second time the Twins have done this, but I the first (late last season) escaped my notice. A month or two ago, the team’s Twitter account started encouraging people to apply for an invite to the suite, which one did by entering his or her basic contact information, then URLs and number of followers/friends/etc. for Twitter, Facebook, and (snicker) Google+.
I don’t really know what went into the selection process, but anyway, ten days or so before the event, I got word that I’d been invited. We showed up at around 5:30 on Friday, greeted by Keith, the Twins’ first-ever “social media intern” (and a very nice guy), and a pretty incredible buffet-style spread of sort of up-scaled ballpark food, along with soda, water and beer (and what it lacked in beer variety it made up for by having Summit EPA, which is fantastic), in a room that opened out onto a deck just on the foul side of the pole down the left-field line.
Fox Sports North, the Twins’ TV network, had one of their pre- and postgame personalities, Kevin Gorg, on the deck providing occasional in-game reports, and a camera guy who turned his camera on us every now and then. They had several of the Fox Sports North Girls, too, a farcical relic we should be way, way beyond by now (but the girls seemed nice enough). A few innings in, Rod Carew came by for a bit, shaking hands and posing for pictures, which by itself would have made the night memorable. They had us test-drive a game that they’ll be rolling out to the whole stadium soon (and my wife won a game-used jersey). The Twins lost, but it was a good game, and the whole thing was more fun than should probably be allowed.
So what was in it for them? Well, the idea was to get people talking, about @Twins and #MNTwins (but not #twins, which comes up with a lot of irrelevant and apparently some kind of disgusting results). We were encouraged to tweet early and often, using that hashtag, and many of our tweets (and many from other fans who used the hashtag) were featured on TVs around the stadium, sometimes on the big scoreboard (which was sometimes on TV, where I’m sure they talked up the whole thing, too). If that’s the only goal, it worked; #MNTwins was trending across the US, I’m told, which certainly got the team a lot of the attention they were looking for.
I thought at the time that the only flaw in the system was the selection process — it worked well for me, of course, and I have absolutely nothing against anyone else who was there, but the Twins have an especially vibrant and active Twitter and blog community of fans and analysts (and, um, fanalysts), with which I’m pretty familiar, and I only really knew one fellow invitee (Twins Daily blogger Parker Hageman, @OverTheBaggy). The rest all seemed like very nice people, but also seemed to have been selected based on their Twitter following almost exclusively; I’m sure they like the Twins or they wouldn’t have applied, but for the most part, the attendees’ social media presence and baseball had nothing to do with each other. That seemed like a big missed opportunity to me, at first. Why not pick the real, big fans and bloggers, people who not only have large Twitter followings, but whose followers are also big baseball fans, who will really eat this stuff up?
Well, that was dumb of me. If anything, I’ve realized, Parker and I were the ones who were out of place. Our followers, as I said, tend to be huge baseball fans. If the Twins wanted that crowd, they’d do what all the other teams did, and get them (us) to pay $40-$60 for the privilege of experiencing something very much like what we got to experience for free. Handing a couple of us a bunch of free stuff can’t be expected to have much effect on that crowd, except instill some jealousy over the fact that it’s you and not them.
On the other hand, take someone who isn’t the biggest baseball fan, but who regularly tweets to between one and five thousand followers about tech trends or local music or politics. If that person is now telling those one-to-five-thousand people — not self-selected baseball fans — about what an unbelievably fantastic time he or she is having at Target Field, the Twins are suddenly planting seeds that could grow into thousands of new fans, not just sowing jealousy and resentment among the existing ones.
So I think the Twins did it just right, and the more I think about it, the more I think this is the real future of sports’ uses of social media. Sure, it brings the diehards closer to the team and players, gives them a kind of “access” that wasn’t possible before. And sure, as long as it’s still a relatively new and growing field, you can get those diehards to fork over sixty bucks to watch lofty panel discussions about social media and sports.
But we diehards have only so much money to give them, and in the long-term — and social media is clearly a long-term thing, whether it persists in Twitter or in the next big Twitter-like thing — I think it’s going to be about using it to find ways to expand a team’s fanbase, not to keep bringing new products and services to the ones who are already solidly a part of it (though you have to do just enough to keep those folks interested, of course). Create a team account that’s funny and interesting to follow; maybe give some stuff away; maybe wine and dine some local twitter addicts who can spend the evening telling all their casual-fan or non-fan followers how spectacular you are. I don’t know, but that seems like a good place to start.
So. From my perspective, the “Deckstravaganza” was just an amazing, one-time-only sort of night, and I’m deep in the Twins’ debt for giving me the opportunity (I figure I should at least lay off some of the snark for a couple weeks). But from baseball’s perspective, I think it probably represents the future of social media — not throwing a fancy free shindig for a bunch of twitaholics, necessarily, but more generally, using social media to market primarily to the people who aren’t already happy to empty their pockets for you.
Now, it’d be nice to see the Twins get that far ahead of the game with regard to something on the field…