Midway through a recent marketing meeting at the San Francisco 49ers' headquarters, 300-pound right guard Alex Boone strolled in, put his massive hand on the digital-media manager's shoulder and said, "Are we doing this Katy Perry lip-synching video battle thing today, or what?"
That might not sound exactly as important as practicing blindside protection schemes, but it's valuable currency for teams marked as early Super Bowl contenders.
Many teams have legitimate high expectations leading into the upcoming NFL season, and loyal fans want to soak in every moment of what could be an epic Super Bowl run. It's an opportunity the franchises cannot afford to miss.
Sure, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and Peyton Manning feel the pressure, but what about the digital quarterbacks that are diagramming every Facebook post, every tweet and every Instagram photo served up through their team's official social media channels?
Just as teams can count on 60,000 people hollering their support during home games, they can count on hundreds of thousands of fans springing into action with a video view, "like," comment or "favorite" every time a team's page or account is updated.
"Fan interaction on our social media channels right now is the highest it's ever been," said Scott Kegley, the 49ers' digital-media manager. "Our fans are very passionate about the team and we're constantly striving to produce unique and creative content."
So, to use some football terms, what does an extra hour of social media reps or a late-night Facebook film session look like? Content calendars are developed weeks, sometimes months in advance to capitalize on key moments that will keep fans excited and glued to their team’s digital and social channels.
Much of this planning revolves around team performance on the field, but sometimes the most compelling content can derive from events that have nothing to do with football.
This means mapping out creative ideas for high social media traffic days like Father's Day, Fourth of July, Halloween and May the Fourth ("be with you"). It also means exploring not-so-obvious moments that generate heavy social media bulletin-board traffic like blockbuster movie releases, cliffhanger TV show finales and even the National Spelling Bee.
A few weeks ago, I sat with the digital team of a trendy Super Bowl pick discussing whether or not anyone on its team had a good enough beard to justify a posting about the 2013 World Beard and Moustache Championships. Random, yes, but highly fun and entertaining.
Why make such a big effort to resonate with fans beyond the game itself, in the middle of the summer? Because having the spotlight provides an opportunity for these suddenly high-profile teams to expand their social following beyond their regional market, and that window of opportunity is widest right before the start of a strongly anticipated season.
Of course, generating good content ideas and nailing the execution can require some heavy lifting. Many NFL teams have been beefing up their digital resources by either hiring dedicated social media managers or shifting a larger percentage of their existing digital and marketing staff’s time into this area.
Helping alleviate this investment are team sponsors that have taken notice that many NFL teams have accumulated sizable audiences across their social media channels. Take for example the Denver Broncos, who, as early-season AFC favorites, have amassed a social media community of 1.8 million members and counting through Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. Savvy brands are specifically looking for creative ways to tap into this highly engaged and growing audience.
The wave of social media content ultimately reaches the practice field, where players contribute to the growing swirl of optimism by blasting out tweets that leave anxious fans itching for the start of the regular season. Seattle safety Earl Thomas (270,000 followers) and quarterback Russell Wilson (298, 000), for example:
What does all this mean? Digital and social content is becoming increasingly valued by fans and a growing source of revenue for NFL teams. When the experts start hinting at a Super Bowl season, smart teams stoke the fire by building great content and fanning the flames through their multitude of digital, social and mobile channels. It's never too early to capitalize on the hype.
So next time you stumble across the video of 49ers trying to spell Asomugha, or comment on a Facebook post, or like an Instagram photo, or re-tweet a player's 140 characters, know that behind the scenes in digital war rooms across the NFL, all those extra social media workouts are paying off.
Craig Howe is a marketing and digital strategist who advises some of the biggest sports leagues and teams in North America, such as MLB Advanced Media, NHL, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks and Tampa Bay Rays.
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