Arroyo Proves Banning Twitter Makes No Sense

Sports news on Wednesday included the Ravens and Steelers publicly stating they have no policy on Twitter, hardly news if you ask me. News about who can tweet and what the penalty is and when they can tweet has quickly become nauseating. Partially because it’s not really news, but second because these policies are haphazardly put together. Banning Twitter is not going to prevent PR trouble, nor will it prevent an athlete from saying something, in fact preventing an athlete from using Twitter can exasperate the situation when athlete says something the team does not want him to say.

Case in point, yesterday Bronson Arroyo shows up in a front page USA Today story saying he uses supplements without checking if they are legal, and goes on to spit in the face of the MLB drug policy with his comments. This comes only days after his two former teammates were confirmed as PED users. Arroyo’s comments helped nobody – MLB, MLBPA, or the Reds. In essence, this is what teams and leagues fear about Twitter – an athlete putting out a stream of conscience before taking the time to think about the words.

Well, Arroyo didn’t need Twitter to do this. Arguably, he made a bad situation worse by putting it on the front of USA Today, published by a reputable reporter. On Twitter, you can argue situations don’t boil up to this point. With only 140 words, players don’t have the space to stick foot firmly in mouth as Arroyo did. Further, players can’t say they were joking, or have the opportunity to elaborate – essentially less recourse. Sometimes Tweets even get swept under the rug. Arroyo proved taking away Twitter does not prevent negative PR in sports, especially in today’s media world of 24/7 coverage where everyone can be a reporter of news.

A previous post elaborated on some of the rationale, but sports achieve nothing by banning Twitter. Arroyo proved that by doing what management fears without using Twitter. Sports properties need to embrace it, not ignore it, and educate on its use, not prevent it. Using Twitter as a reason to educate athletes may mask the fact that many were never trained properly to start.

ESPN Live Twitter-Type Coverage Good Thought, But Not There Yet

After a week of many negative Twitter stories, it was great to see ESPN experiment with its use in real-time, live game coverage, which can be a sweet-spot value proposition for the microblogging tool. ESPN employed Baseball Writer’s Jayson Stark, Rob Neyer, and Amy Nelson, now legendary Bill Simmons, the Stats and Info group, and an MLB Editor to tweet live during the game, though Nelson was the only one at Yankee Stadium.

ESPN provided a live chat type interface on their website that housed all the tweets from the aforementioned participants, and occasionally a user question – though none were good and we have no idea how they selected those questions. All tweets alos went out through Twitter under the individuals name, so you had to be following all of them to see the whole thing unfold, which I was not until last night, but now I am, so one goal of ESPN accomplished.

It felt very much like an experiment. My ESPN portal showed me the countdown screen more than the actual content, and my comments fell into the black hole. It was difficult to use in that it constantly froze and restarted. Lost me quick. On Twitter, my feed was a mess, and keep in mind that Twitter does not automatically refresh. Further, just because ESPN is hosting an event, the rest of the world does not stop Tweeting, so ESPN tweets intertwined with other users I follow, making it difficult to follow. Twitter really needs a filtering option, above and beyond search. In this instance, search was difficult because the tweeters were not consistently tagging any of the tweets. I would have liked to filter everyone out but them and a few other local reporters to create my Yanks-Red Sox feed, or have the option to filter all of them out of my feed so I could monitor the rest of my universe without the constant commentary flooding my screen.

While ESPN’s tool was anti-user, in that it prevented user comments, it successfully controlled the flooding effect of a message board or live chat, making it a tolerable experience. The next step is to let users pick who they want to follow, not force everyone on them, to stabilize the platform, and decide how to handle user interaction, which has to be incorporated, but carefully – as in not with the fire hose approach. Further, mirroring all the comments in Twitter may not be the best answer. Yes, it opens up all followers to the comments, but they can easily do that my tweeting to go to the website for live game action. This is where a team/network/league can add value by understanding its customer base. What did ESPN gain from the experiment last night? Some ad dollars I assume. But they left most of the traffic stay on Twitter, did not push users to register or provide any information, and failed to incorporate sponsorship or involve advertising in the live feed. Sports fans are engaged, a small hurdle of registration or advertising will not stop prevent them from engaging in live conversation during a Yankees-Red Sox game. Doing it for the sake of doing it will not hold the answer, they need to recognize value.

Plus, if Bill Simmons is involved, ESPN needs to put a die hard Yankee fan to match wits and trade barbs. It would add entertainment value.

ESPN, NFL Make Misstep with Twitter Rules

At least for a week, sports has helped catapult ‘Twitter’ past ‘Google’ in America’s mainstream technology vernacular. ESPN, NFL, reporters, players, leagues, teams – everywhere you turn it seems someone is making policy, discussing a policy, or defying one. It’s outrageous. Warrants a multi-part blog because there’s so much to comment on.

First, the live microphone analogy that I saw mentioned, but believe is incredibly accurate. The NFL and its teams are scrambling to make ridiculous policies that have no substantive justification. They clearly don’t have a strong sense for the medium yet, and want to mitigate risk. If coaches don’t want Tweeting during practice or games to make sure focus stays on the field, that’s perfectly reasonable. However, banning it while in the building or during business hours is arbitrary, and displays ignorance. Twitter is no different than the live mic the media sticks in front of players faces each day. Anything they say becomes a matter of record the whole world can hear. Twitter is essentially a distribution extension of that microphone. Players can now get the message out faster, cheaper, and to a broader audience – the same paradigm shift the Internet has brought to almost every medium, faster, cheaper, wider. The NFL and its teams should focus on training players to treat it like a live mic, and they should extend the rules that currently apply to traditional media coverage to cover Twitter usage.  The times when its fair game to give an interview, or when the media has open access, should be fair game to use Twitter. Whatever they say on Twitter, should be held to the same criteria as comments made to traditional media. If a quote about something would yield a fine, then a Tweet saying the same thing also should yield a fine. Similarly if it shows up in print and its not a problem, it should be fine on Twitter.

Where the NFL really stepped over the line is with 10 teams banning reporters from public practices. That’s ludicrous, and borderline infringement on first amendment rights, which should extend to cover this real-time new medium. Do the teams prevent cell phone usage by reporters, or emails? What’s the difference? Better yet, how do they plan to enforce it? Big brother can watch the people there, but reporters can call someone at the office to post tweets, or just email them the Tweets and tell users to look at a different account. By unfairly banning its use, NFL teams are inciting reporters and players to find more ways to break the rules, and in the process providing unfavorable coverage of the brand. Its that old axiom, the more you try to impose rules on kids, the more they try to rebel.

Many people overreacted to ESPN’s stance. Reading the guidelines sent out, it reinforces the ramifications of using this medium, and how employees should use it, not that they can’t use it. In fact, it sounds like typical employee handbook stuff, and is in line with the live mic example above. ESPN just extended its employee media policy to include Twitter, and that is perfectly within their right. We’ll see if it affects how their reporters used it, some of whom were really leveraging the tool.

The fact that ESPN and the NFL both made public moves, exemplifies where each stands as an organization. They are both industry leaders, the proverbial 900-lb. gorilla in the room. If nothing changes they win. They don’t need to go on the cutting edge because neither is trying to catch anyone, it’s the other leagues and media outlets that need to try aggressive measures to catch them. Therefore, ESPN and the NFL have more to lose than to gain from being a first mover, which is evident in each being among the first to pull back publicly. If ESPN had banned reporters, and it turned out to be a bad decision 3 months from now and they decided to reverse it, the Sports Guy would still get all his Followers back and more. They don’t need Twitter to build an audience. In fact, one would argue Twitter needs them to help add value to a product that has yet to find a sustainable revenue stream.

Teams Should Not Just Let Players Tweet…

Like it or not (I happen to), Twitter is the flavor of the year, and athletes are embracing it. Teams or leagues that try to stop it or ignore it will be left behind. Similar to children, the more teams reprimand players for using it, the harder they will try to find ways around the rules, and the more that developers will find new applications to help them evade the rules.

Rather than try to control the process, the very concept of which social media is the antithesis, teams should intervene in the process and manage it. This has nothing to do with dictating what the players can or cannot say, or when they can say it (I feel that’s the coaches design anyway). Teams should take advantage of the many opportunities Twitter creates as a marketing tool, an indirect revenue generator, and a distribution platform.

Start by developing an aggregation platform that captures tweets from anyone associated with the organization (players, coaches, personnel, employees) and presents them through a single interface. During any team related function – practice, games, flights, meetings, events, etc – all tweeting gets funneled through this interface. Uncensored, same grammatical rules as Twitter, same usernames, just aggregated through this platform. Fans could then come to the teams website, community site, or Twitter branded page and register to access this real-time event based feed. Once registered they would have the option to only see Tweets from certain people, set up a screen with separate feeds from different players and watch an aggregate feed, or some permutation of the many options.

The end game is building the teams customer database to extend its marketing reach, increase its value to prospective sponsors, create more advertising inventory via the platform, and add value to its fans/followers with real-time “exclusive” updates. If coaches prefer not to have players tweet, the front office should assign a media relations employee or website editor to roam the sidelines and locker rooms to post tweets from a mobile device as events unfold. Obviously, teams would have to put rules in place to prevent releasing any competitive secrets, otherwise its fair game.

CRM and online marketing represent a huge business opportunity in sports. Many teams are years behind corporations in this respect. If they collect the right information, this could help expedite its mobile database, especially since Twitter aligns well as a mobile app. Further, embracing social networking and giving players close to an uncensored voice generates favorable buzz from the fans and the players. With this newly found voice, players can connect to fans like never before increasing demand for jerseys and other merchandise associated to the team trademarks, thus driving revenue

Twitter is also a great promotional tool. Teams can run complex, multi-part promotions that require fans to interact with multiple platforms, look for hints from different players, or earn a certain amount of “social currency” through participation to become eligible. These promotions warrant an entire analysis in to themselves. Driving this type of engagement boosts marketing potential when teams need to move excess ticket inventory, disseminate information, or host events, and it creates new sponsorship and sales opportunities to help drive revenue.

Social networks can’t be ignored, can’t be controlled, but they can be managed and used to benefit the brand.

Verizon Pushes Innovation with Social Net Interactive TV Play

Last week, Verizon announced that FIOS users will have access to a Widget Bazaar product that provides access to popular social network sites such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as widgetized web content from ESPN among others. FIOS plans to evolve the service into another incarnation of the online app-stores that have taken over the public conscience.

The dashboard concept shows great foresight, and if designed correctly, it would fill the gap for something that Internet users would benefit from. Users suffer from information overload and most struggle to manage their presence on various social networks. Add to that the proliferation of news and information, and users face the “firehose effect”, more information than most can handle. Recent research shows the resulting effect, many users stop Tweeting or stop going to Facebook after only a few uses. People realize it takes an effort to manage their online personas, so due to frustration and lack of control they wind up leaving.

Verizon’s dashboard is a start, it gives users a framework (the dashboard), yet lets people customize what they want to see. Many online services give users the same control, however none have emerged as the aggregator of choice that solves all shortcomings. And my feeling is that the end all must include a built-in real-time search component that sifts through the data to present what you want to see, and allows you to dig in if you want more.

Besides getting it right with the application, and the numerous interactions with TV content that become possible, this is another example of why competition in the phone and cable space benefits everyone. No longer permitted to sit on local monopolies and simply collect monthly fees, cable companies must now provide better service than telco television, while telcos must work that much harder to convince long time customers to change. Competition spurs innovation. The outcome, value-added services, such as this Verizon Widget Bazaar and Comcast’s iPhone application to program DVR functions remotely, and the various services that Tivo is bundling into set-top boxes as it fights for survival.

With innovation, customers win, and win big. After stagnation for many years in local television delivery, expect lightning fast change in the next 5 years. Most people are not aware of the power within set-top boxes or at the head-end of cable systems. Power that to this point that has not been close to utilized. One issues these companies face, staying flexible and innovative in the face of deteriorating prices and low-cost online challengers. Will technology be enough, or do they need a la carte service to survive in the long term.

Athlete In-Game Twitter Use: Teams Need to Take Control

With every passing day Twitter is gaining more traction in the sports world, not less, so for all those that said it’s a passing a fad and ignored it, open your eyes. It will have a growing place in sports over the next year, like it or not. Chad Ochocinco proclaims he plans to tweet during games, and though we usually take his comments with a grain of salt, this has some merit. NBA players already started this past season, countless athletes are tweeting before or after playing, and many times in between, coaches are there, the list of tweeters is an almost endless cross-section of society.

Rather than prevent it or ignore it, teams and leagues need to take control of it. As silly as some people think it is, Twitter is a perfect in-game tool to further fan engagement. Fans consume media on multiple screens using multiple mediums, sometimes simultaneously, sports either needs to find a way to provide multiple engagement points, or make way to share its fans with other forms of entertainment and communication.

Teams should allow players to Tweet, however control the platform they use during games. Develop a branded Twitter extension that fans of the team need to register to use and that only displays tweets among fans and players on your team. Maybe it has an extension that can tie in with a similar system that manages tweets for your opponent that night so you can see those player tweets and maybe do some smack talk with the opponents fans. Don’t you think fans attending a game would be interested in what a player has to say after coming off the court, or about what happened on the last play, or even deliver a message to solicit more noise from the home crowd?

If sports properties can intelligently, and unobtrusively insert themselves into the process while still giving players as much free reign to speak as they have now, its creates an opportunity to add those 1 million Shaq followers, or at least a subset that’s willing to deal with a small registration process, into your team marketing database. That’s valuable. Armed with that marketing info, and an undoubtedly engaged audience given the research on how tribal and passionate fans are, especially during a game, it’s a great sponsorship opportunity. Brands can certainly extract value from this type of engagement – especially brands already associated with the team that can inject calls to action, or a brand the players believe in and can inject into their Tweets. Smells like measureable ROI.

Forget the argument that player’s should focus on the game, not Twitter. Tell me that next time some sideline reporter stops a player between quarters to ask pointless questions. I’d much rather give the athlete an open mic and let journalists report on the game and describe the action, not try to dictate what the player is thinking.

More to come on this, but I think its ripe for its own platform.

US Open Makes Strong Push Into Digital and Social Media, Supplemental TV

Heading into the final week before the US Open at Bethpage Black, the USGA has pieced together the most coherent, immersive digital media experience of any major sports even in the fledgling digital age. I’ve ranted about the unique position of golf and tennis to capitalize on digital media because of the international appeal, simultaneous play that TV can’t capture, depth of stats and strategy that invoke discussion, and multitude of different ways fans can experience a tournament. The USGA has stepped up to start attacking this user opportunity.

After the Masters, the USGA launched a casual online game at USOpen.com that allowed fans to play Bethpage Black. They setup various golf related competitions with leaderboards and prizes attached. Graphically, the game does a fantastic job of recreating the course and will attract fans just interested in looking at the hole layout. It also has many critical characteristics to create an attractive, sustainable gaming experience – element of competition, easy to play, ability to play in small chunks of time, and the aspect of interacting with reality in the form of the golf course.

Games have become a necessity in the online experience as users spend more and more time immersed in games, and games create new revenue opportunities. Same can be said for social media, its become a necessity. However, that has led to many useless implementations. Commend the USGA for creating a strategy, and then aligning its use of each tool with that strategy.

SBJ reports the tournament will use four Twitter feeds – one with general tournament information, which they have used well to disseminate information thus far, and three others that will follow three individual players selected by the fans around the course. Interactivity is one of the pillars of digital media. Giving the fans the vote on who they want to see is a good implementation. The next step is following each group and letting each fan follow who they want.

In partnership with IBM, the USGA has launched a free iPhone app that will stream live video and provide news and information (scores, updates, etc.). Mobile is a perfect distribution platform for golf. Fans at the event can use it because they can only see one or two holes at a time, while almost every hole has action, so it allows them to follow the entire tournament. The way fans view golf, one shot at a time, makes it a great mobile video play, fitting the short-form paradigm that has proven successful. It’s also a no-brainer because of the constant leaderboard changes and scoring updates.

Unfiltered message boards and online video will supplement the offering to create a complete package of interaction points for fans.

On the TV side, in addition to the ESPN and NBC coverage, DirecTV will offer three additional channels, similar to its Masters coverage. With one channel focused on a marquee group, one at a signature hole, and the third providing updates and presumably going around the course. While great for the golf fan, I view this coverage setup as a prelude to how the USGA – and golf in general – should approach online streaming. Add more user choice (as they are doing with Twitter), give the option for access to archives of past highlights from either the hole or the player, throw in some statistic applications, integrate the Twitter feed and/or the message board thread for the hole/player and its full-functional interactive experience. Fans will likely be willing to sacrifice quality for quantity and choice, so lower quality cameras, but more coverage. Golf should consider that as an online or interactive television play.

While the US Open deserves commendation on creating a solid strategic plan before delving into the digital space, they still need to execute and eventually monetize – a discussion I held off on here, but its certainly top of mind. One note, they did release the iPhone app with IBM, a great value-add sponsor integration for both sides. More to come as the Open plays out.