Advances in technology have changed the dynamic that exists between professional sports teams and their fans. Traditional mediums (TV, traditional webpages, print) allowed for a one-way exchange with consumers, content creation by the pro sports team and consumption by the fan (Kotler, 2011). The emergence of new technologies, including social media and mobile applications, have allowed for two-way, real-time, and dynamic communication between the teams and consumers (Abeza, O’Reilly, and Reid, 2013 A recurring theme in both the academic literature (Abeza et al., 2013; Miranda, Chamorro, Rubio, and Rodriguez, 2014) and practical sources (MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, 2013a and 2013b) was that new communication platforms allowed teams to listen, monitor, and act upon the conversations of their consumer base. The communication between modern pro sports teams and their fans aligns with a relationship marketing approach. As outlined by Gronoos (1994), firms and consumers can co-create brand equity and brand value through mutually beneficial partnerships. One team that has exemplified this relationship marketing approach to social media is the NBA’s Phoenix Suns.
“Engaging [on social media] is all about building a stronger relationship with our fans” – Jeramie McPeek, VP Digital Phoenix Suns
Though the Suns have not enjoyed tremendous success on the court (no playoff appearances in the last four years), they have been effective in engaging and fostering relationships with their fan base and sponsors. Of the four major pro sports teams in the Phoenix metropolitan area (Arizona Cardinals, Arizona Coyotes, and Arizona Diamondbacks), the Suns rank first in total number of Twitter and Facebook followers. At the time of this research note, the Suns were also the top-ranked NBA team in terms of Klout, an application that measures influence on social media. Listed below are some of the techniques and tools that the Suns have used:
Integration of Social Media into Live-Broadcast – In 2009, the Suns became the first NBA team to stream fan Twitter ‘tweets’ at the bottom of live, in-game broadcasts. In 2011, they hired a Social Media Sideline Reporter to gauge and relay social media trends to television viewers. In 2012, the Suns had fans tweet in questions during home games, and at half time a Suns assistant coaches answered a selection of these questions on live-broadcast. These techniques demonstrate that the Suns have made it a priority to co-create content with engaged consumers.
Club Orange and Suns Social Fan Hub
Club Orange and Suns Social are tools that the Suns use to connect their fans with the numerous social media and new technology platforms that the team uses. Club Orange is a loyalty rewards program where consumers gain points for various actions on social media (ex. like a photo on Suns Instagram = 20 points). Club Orange points can then be redeemed for Suns products and merchandise. Suns Social is a continuous social feed that amalgamates content from various social media sources. These tools allow the Suns to reward fans for their engagement and interaction social media.
Planet Orange Ambassadors
In 2012, the Suns appointed 12 volunteer Planet Orange Ambassadors (Wysocki, 2012). These individuals were fans that lived the Suns brand on social media and were asked to become part of the Suns’ digital team as social media activists. In terms of relationship marketing, these positions again represent the co-creation of brand equity.
In partnership with Verizon Precision Market Insights, a division of Verizon, the largest wireless provider in the United States, the Suns track spectator demographics, attitudes, and behaviours through mobile activity and wireless networks. The Suns use this information to not only inform their own marketing efforts (including positioning and marketing of their mobile app), but to also demonstrate ROI to sponsors. Recently, the Suns complimented their Verizon insights by becoming the first professional sports team to subscribe to SocialGuide’s Nielsen Twitter TV Ratings system, which measures Twitter engagement during TV programming.
All in all, Social media and new technologies have changed the relationships between pro sports teams and their fans from a one-way communication, to a dynamic two-way model. This new relationship fits within a relationship marketing framework because teams are using these platforms and technologies for the purposes of developing long-term mutually beneficial partnerships.
The Phoenix Suns have put an emphasis on listening and monitoring consumer conversations and co-creating brand equity through a dynamic relationship with their consumers and sponsors. The organization has invested in full-time staff that works to innovate on social media and new technology platforms. They have also used social media and new technologies to help measure ROI for sponsors. The Suns’ work has earned them recognition from other teams in the NBA as in 2014 they received the NBA Digital Innovator Award.
This area of research is difficult because technology continues to advance and change the dynamic between franchises and their stakeholders at a rapid pace. Other professional sports teams need to prepare for this reality by dedicating appropriate resources to digital and social media departments.
Abeza, G., O’Reilly, N., & Reid, I. (2013). Relationship marketing and social media in sport. International Journal of Sport Communication (6), (pp. 120-142).
Gronoos, C. (1994). From marketing mix to relationship marketing – towards a paradigm shift in marketing. Asia-Australia Marketing Journal, 2(1), pp. 322-333.
Kaplan, M., & Haenlein, M. (2010). Users of the world unite! The challenges and opportunities of social media. Business Horizons, 53(1), pp. 59-68. Doi:10.1016/j.bushor.2009.09.003.
Kotler, P. (2011).The view from here. In Peppers, D., & Rogers, M. (Eds). Managing customer relationships: A strategic framework (pp. 11-14). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Miranda, F.J., Chamorro, A., Rubio, S., & Rodriguez, O. (2014). Professional Sports Teams on Social Networks: A Comparative Study Employing Facebook Assessment Index. International Journal of Sport Communication,(7), pp. 74-89.
Wysocki, M. (2012). The role of social media in sports communication: An analysis of NBA teams’ strategy. Faculty of Public Communication: American University. Washington, DC.