If you ever run into Peter Wilt, CEO of the Chicago Red Stars (who will begin play in America’s new women’s league, WPS, on April 4th in St Louis) you’ll soon notice there appears to be a Blackberry permanently appended to his hand.
Despite being the antithesis of the stereotypical geek — Peter is gregarious to the max — his twittering, blogging, facebooking and forum-posting is becoming legendary in the world of American soccer.
Unlike the football brass in England, Peter’s every word is not plastered all over the papers by default. Instead, it’s through the drip-drip-drip of blogs and tweets that the Red Stars CEO plans to get the word out about his team to fans, whether he’s tweeting about his latest signing or twitpicing his “beer goggles” incident.
On the morning of March 10th, one of the leaders of the Chicago Red Stars supporters’ group, Local 134, tweets that she’s got confirmation of the details on the bus down to St Louis for the club’s inaugural match.
Minutes later, Red Stars CEO Peter Wilt “ReTweets” the news to all his followers:
An earlier exchange in the day saw Wilt twittering back and forth with one of his own players, as he “ReTweets” her own update on her way to LA.
And this tweet from Wilt comes directly after his update that he was responding to my questions about the Red Stars focus on new media.
I was asking Peter about this as the Red Stars have probably made a more extensive effort to reach out to fans through new media such as Twitter, blogs and more traditional web communications tools like forums and regular sites than any other professional club in the world.
Wilt believes this has been a success.
Tweeting and blogging has worked as two-way communication, which has both allowed us to get our brand and messages out to interested audiences and importantly has allowed various audiences to connect with the Red Stars and tell us what they want and don’t want. Twitter is an invasive medium that allows us to reach a small and targeted audience in a very direct way. Blogs allow us to craft messages creatively, address specific issues and provide information in a much more detailed fashion than traditional media.
Our audiences are receiving little if any information on the team or League from traditional media, so we must fill the gap online. Fortunately, our main targets – kids and young adults – live online. If we had to rely on traditional media support and traditional advertising, we’d be sunk – no one would know about us and we wouldn’t register on anyone’s radar.
New media has allowed the Red Stars to become relevant to thousands of people before we’ve even kicked a soccer ball. We are hopeful that this will translate into a larger initial audience, which will then virally spread the team’s messages and grow our audience from thousands to tens and even hundreds of thousands over time.
This marks quite a change from the last professional soccer team Wilt launched in Chicago. Almost twelve years ago now, Wilt headed up the launch of MLS’ first expansion team, the Chicago Fire, who were armed with a six figure marketing budget to make a splash in Chicago’s saturated sports market.
In 1997, we relied on a massive traditional marketing campaign to brand and promote the Fire. We spent close to a million dollars plus leveraged media in 4Q97 on TV, radio, print and outdoor. The “Jimi Hendrix Stand By My Fire” campaign blanketed the market and literally bought the team credibility.
Without the resources for a similar campaign with the Red Stars, and thanks to the spread of the internet in the intervening time, new media is the affordable path to creating buzz.
In 2008 and 2009, new media applications allow the Red Stars to be more efficient with a MUCH smaller advertising budget (less than 10% a decade later) and a much smaller sales staff – one person in sponsor sales and four full time (plus two split-time) in ticket sales. Specifically, we use bulk email blasts, individual email communication and on-line ordering to streamline the sales procress. The team and League website, blogs and plethora of on-line forums and social networking sites have become our platforms for promoting and branding the team.
This means a constant stream of updates, and one that it is starting to become a focus of WPS league-wide.
Does this stream-of-consciousness tweeting ever become a problem, in terms of TMI or simply over-saturation?
The danger of over Tweeting and blogging is similar to over-saturation of any medium. Too many messages can dilute the message and cause your audiences to skip messages altogether. It’s important that we expand the audience we are reaching – increasing our email database, adding Facebook friends, Twitter followers and Red Stars website hits. Part of that is managing the flow of information. We try to limit our email blasts of the Red Stars Insider to one per week. While our hard core fans may want more information, sending it more than that will result in subscribers not clicking through or unsubscribing.
Similarly, use of Twitter, blogs and SN sites needs to be managed thoguhtfully as well.
I’ve regretted posting internet forum messages, Tweets, blogs and emails just as I’ve regretted verbal and hand written comments. I try to read and reread my posts before sending, while keeping in mind the perspective of every potential reader. Nevertheless there are times I have offended people, published private information and put others in difficult positions. I try to avoid that, but if you communicate often enough, you’ll likely make bad judgments occasionally.
The Red Stars efforts extend beyond Wilt, as they have encouraged all their staff to get into blogging and twittering, with much of the emphasis coming from their original Director of Online Marketing Amanda Vandervort, who was a few months plucked from Chicago to head to the WPS head office and take this new media energy league-wide as Web Coordinator.
This emphasis in WPS marks a considerable difference in marketing focus from the efforts of the previous professional women’s league in America, the WUSA. Marcia McDermott, now Red Stars General Manager and once a coach in the WUSA, explained the change with new media a “point of emphasis” in WPS.
Social media was not emphasized in the last league, but I don’t think there was the same technology then. We had a website, but it was pretty limited in its interactive nature. It was more about creating content.
Of course, it’s not the technology itself that drives this interactivity — engaging the grassroots takes a strong and deliberate effort. Whilst WPS drips with social media almost to the point of over-proliferation, MLS’ efforts have been sadly half-hearted in new media thus far. Given their own limited space in traditional media, it seems like a massive opportunity lost for the men’s professional game in the U.S.
As an example, take the grandly titled and loudly announced “The Commissioner Speaks” blog on the MLS site launched last year (and folks, it’s not really a blog if it’s just a static page though, is it?): this hasn’t been updated since September 5th and it reads like a press release edited to death.
It should be said that a few MLS teams do have decent blog presences (props must go to DC United’s Behind the Badge), but for the most part, they have pretty sorry efforts. Given the resources they could muster and the interest there would be in new media efforts given the paucity of traditional media coverage, it’s a baffling state of affairs. Expansion teams Philadelphia and Seattle have shown the buzz that can be created online to help them do that most important of things: sell tickets.
Existing MLS teams might have larger marketing budgets for traditional media than nascent WPS teams, but in these trying times, surely they could learn a lesson from @redstarsceo in grassroots marketing.