Social Media Marketing Lessons From the NHL

By offering engaging, entertaining, image-rich or problem-solving content on the right channel at the best time, brands can deliver impactful marketing that people love.
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Co-authored by Kristine Esser, digital marketing professional, poet and avid hockey fan.

In the last five years, social media has come a long way as a marketing channel. Marketers from all stripes continually test the limits of online engagement and transparency. Brands of all shapes and sizes are developing a true online voice and seeing positive, bottom-line results. Sports teams are no exception. The NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning is a perfect example of impactful and cutting-edge social media marketing that people love.

Julie Dolak, Manager of Digital and Social Media for the Tampa Bay Lightning, discussed how social media has changed the way fans interact with the NHL, as well as some of her thoughts on content strategy. Working in the sports world is nothing new for Dolak. She worked with the Indianapolis Indians and INDYCAR before joining the Lightning. She believes that hockey can benefit from social promotion, and can help expand its fan base.

"Being in a non-traditional hockey market requires us to work even harder to connect the sport of hockey with fans in the Tampa Bay-area, and social media helps bridge that gap," she said. "We're connecting fans and making the sport relevant in a market where hockey might not seem like a natural fit. Hockey fans are avid, passionate sports fans with a strong knowledge of the game itself."

According to Dolak, Twitter is the most effective platform, from the perspective of driving constant conversation around the brand. "Internally, we have great content production abilities, particularly for a sports organization, and Twitter allows us to distribute insider content to our fans that in turn share that content and extend our reach beyond our dot-com platform. Twitter keeps us relevant, even during the 2012 NHL lockout, by giving us a way to share our story."

It's not just the Lightning that has seen a spike in their social media channels. According to the 2013 Sports Media Consumption Report, by Sporting News Media, Kantar Media, and TV Sport markets, 63% of fans went online for sports content, up from 56% just two years ago.

Knowing which platform performs the best for your market is only half the battle; the other challenge is placing engaging content on those platforms. Evoking emotion from readers and getting them involved is what's important.

"Our fans love photos that capture the emotion of the sport, and we're fortunate to have a team photographer who consistently captures that for our fans," said Dolak. Image-rich content has been an integral element in social media and it's important to the sports world as well.

So what content works for the Lightning? "I love the fans response to our game night 'Social Activations' in Bolts Social Central at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, which started last season," Dolak said. "It's great to see on-site giveaways and promotions, such as giving away 1,000 free cupcakes for showing you've checked in to the game on Facebook or Foursquare--turn into real time conversations online."

Getting the team involved is another great aspect of social media. "I love that everyone in the organization contributes to social media -- it touches all departments and creates cross-departmental content contributors," said Dolak. "When done right, social media really is the collective brand-voice engaging with fans. That includes sales, marketing, PR, etc., all heading in the same direction to inform and entertain fans around the brand."

Social media marketing is clearly working for the Tampa Bay Lightning, earning its place among more traditional marketing efforts. "The NHL has done a great job of getting into the mind of fans to understand how, when and where to engage with them," Dolak said. "That means that the mobile, on-the-go fan wants access to their team, despite not being near a desktop computer." Over the last year, mobile usage jumped from 21% to 35%, and the TV and print numbers have waned. This means it has become increasingly important to be present and relevant on social media and that it will only become more necessary in the future.

It's a trend that Dolak anticipates. "Social Media for the NHL will continue to expand beyond traditional platforms and encompass a full-strategy approach to leveraging mobile platforms, including social, apps and responsive design in a way that empowers fans to talk hockey 24/7," she said.

The Tampa Bay Lightning truly understands the digital body language of its audience. The above contains many marketing lessons to be had by sports and non-sports brands alike. By offering engaging, entertaining, image-rich or problem-solving content on the right channel at the best time, brands can deliver impactful marketing that people love.

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