Cracking the Twitter Code, Part I

By Carolyn Braff

When it comes to social networking, MySpace is out, and Twitter is in. But what exactly is Twitter, and how does it work? SVG dives into the ever expanding world of Twitter with a two-part series examining the latest craze in social networking and how the application is infiltrating the world of sports broadcasting.

What Exactly Is Twitter?

For starters, Twitter is a Website (http://twitter.com/). On that Website, individuals can set up personalized accounts, where they answer a basic question: what are you doing? The answer to that question must be less than 140 characters, fewer than in a text message, and can be sent via mobile texting, instant message, or the Web. The posted answers to that question are referred to as Tweets.

How Do People (and Institutions) Twitter?

In practice, Twitter members use their page to write down far more than just what they are doing, and the phenomenon is spreading across the sports industry, especially in the college space.

“I think that, if you put a dedicated effort behind it, it can be a tremendous vehicle,” explains John Kvatek, director of video services for the University of Central Florida Athletics Association. Kvatek set up a Twitter account for UCF Athletics (http://twitter.com/UCF_Knights) and turned it over to the marketing department.

“It’s a real-time touch point with the fan base,” Kvatek explains. “It’s not like sending out an e-mail once a day. Twitter gives you constant touch with your fans throughout the day, and, if you plan it correctly, you could be hitting them eight times a day, and they would like it. You could be sending updates on every sport you have, and they’d read them because they only have to look at the ones they’re interested in.”

Making Twitter part of an integrated campaign, Kvatek says, can effectively widen the school’s exposure for all sports by driving fans to the athletics Website or to an online or on-air game broadcast.

Who Tweets?

When the Tweets are written by someone the fan base wants to hear from, the Twitter page becomes a one-way message board that gets to fans directly on their platform of choice. And while 140 characters may not seem like much, that length is just enough to whet a fan’s appetite.

“One hundred forty characters makes you want to go look at the full press release, story, or video,” Kvatek says. “An appetizer’s not a meal, but you’re still going to sit at the table and order the main course.”

The Arkansas Razorbacks are one of the most recent collegiate athletic programs to join Twitter (http://twitter.com/arkrazorbacks), promoting that the team now offers exclusive “Grunts from the worldwide headquarters of the Razorbacks.” Tweets will help fans keep up with what’s new on the Website, as well as providing score and weather updates and event-time changes.

Tweets Trump Texts

Football coaches, in particular, are beginning to warm to Twitter. USC head football coach Pete Carroll has a Twitter page (http://twitter.com/PeteCarroll) and reportedly writes his own Tweets (celebrity athletes, on the other hand, have been accused of having ghost Tweeters write their posts for them). Prospective recruits can opt to receive Tweets from the coaches of their choice, which offers a social-networking option that sidesteps the NCAA’s ban on text-messaging athletes.

“These coaches are starting to figure out, when you couple Twitter with social networking, that’s a lot of real-time touch,” Kvatek says. “Twitter becomes a two-pronged attack to market the program to both fans and recruits.”

Professionals in on the Action

Professional leagues, teams, and networks are warming up to Twitter as well. The YES Network (http://twitter.com/YESNetwork) allows Yankee fans to submit questions through its Twitter page for manager Joe Girardi, who answers the questions on The Joe Girardi Show. The NHL is holding its first Tweetup, a “meetup” of people who use Twitter, at 6 p.m. April 15 at the NHL store in Manhattan to celebrate the launch of thePortal at NHL.com. Throughout the NBA playoffs, Turner Sports analysts will Tweet on their individual pages with updates, comments, and analysis. Fox Sports started its NASCAR on Fox Twitter page (http://twitter.com/NASCARONFOX) in early March and plans to launch separate Twitter pages for MLB on Fox and NFL on Fox.

“What we’re trying to do is connect with our viewers in a way we’ve never been able to do before,” explains Lou D’Ermilio, SVP of communications for Fox Sports. “We’ve been sending out Tweets that really keep our followers guessing as to what the next thing’s going to be. We’ve had tremendous cooperation from our production team and our NASCAR announcers, who help us generate a lot of the Tweet material.”

So far, alerts have included new videos posted on FoxSports.com, personal stories from announcers, and observations from the track. D’Ermilio got into the action himself when he noticed a response on the Twitter page asking what Fox’s Gopher Cam looks like.

“I remembered that I had taken a photo of the Gopher Cam on my phone last year in Daytona, so I sent out a TwitPic with the photo, and the response was unbelievable,” D’Ermilio says. “More than 1,000 people looked at the photo; it got posted on other blogs. The response to us was terrific.”

Traditional Media Teaches Twitter

The communications staff at Fox does the physical typing in of the Tweets, but the content comes directly from the talent, who have heard about Twitter — strangely enough — through traditional media outlets like the Today show and local newspapers. Having the concept reinforced by mainstream media has helped the announcers understand how it works and encourages them to work on their less-is-more approach.

“It’s amazing what you can get out in 140 characters,” D’Ermilio says, “but it makes you scrutinize every field to make sure we can’t say this in a simpler way.”

While Twitter can be a promotional tool, Fox Sports wants to use its Tweets to keep fans interested in the broadcasts and alert them to upcoming features, not hit them over the head with marketing promotions.

“We want the fans to be interested in the page,” D’Ermilio explains, “so we try to keep it robust to keep them coming back.”

The Fox Sports communications team is taking everything it learned from the NASCAR experiment into account as baseball season shifts into gear. “By no means do we have all the answers, but so far the reaction has been pretty positive,” says D’Ermilio. “We will incorporate similar strategies going forward with the personalities that we have in other sports.”