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Why the sports world should embrace social media as a customer service tool

On many levels, the Super Bowl was a huge success in Indianapolis. The unusually warm weather, a walk-everywhere environment and the Midwest hospitality combined for unbridled accolades from most of the visiting media.

The Super Bowl also revealed a big opportunity for Twitter in the sports world: customer service.

One of the Super Bowl success stories was the Super Bowl Social Media Command Center the Super Bowl Host Committee created on behalf of the NFL.

I wrote about the Command Center earlier this month, before the game was played. The center lived up to the hype, using Twitter to establish the Host Committee’s social media accounts as the go-to place for information during Super Bowl week.  In fact, the host committee garnered a higher Klout score than the NFL itself during the week.

It’s a good debate whether that’s a good or bad thing, but one thing became clear from this unusual arrangement: there is a strong argument for using Twitter as a customer service tool for big sports events.

Social media experts have been talking about using Twitter for customer service for almost three years. One of the early pioneers in this area was Comcast, the giant cable company. They took to Twitter to try and solve complaints.  By late 2009, Comcast had a dozen people working exclusively to answer Comcast questions on Twitter.

But the sports world has been slow to embrace many aspects of social media. Sure, prominent athletes have thrived on Twitter. And some colleges have stretched and broken news on Facebook and Twitter.

But many college conferences and teams have struggled to take full advantage of social media. Some college coaches ban their players from using Twitter. Some college communications teams have been slow to use social media as a way to communicate directly with their fans.

Some professional leagues have banned social media use around game times.

I predict much of that will change in the coming year. There is simply too much to gain by leveraging social media. The Super Bowl Social Media Command Center demonstrated the benefits of helping your fans.

“Twitter, and social media in general, has become a prime venue to show customers just how much we care about them, in real time,” said Ryan Smith, vice president of production for Raidious, the company which ran the command center for Indianapolis’ host committee.

What resonated from the Super Bowl’s effort was the focus on service and not classic public relations. What Raidious has figured out is that content is king, and that the definition of content is more than a feel-good story or video.

It’s telling fans where to park, how long the zip line wait is and where the traffic back-ups are.

“The Super Bowl project reaffirmed a practice we already take very seriously at Raidious, and that’s the importance of listening,” Smith said. “Listening to customers needs, before talking at them is vital.”

Think of all the major sporting events that envelop a city and draw hundreds of thousands of fans who need help.

As leagues, conferences, teams and schools look to replicate what the Super Bowl created, there are several things they should consider:

  • Start small.  The Super Bowl planned for more than a year.  Not everything needs to be done at that scale.  A mid-sized game with a few ancillary events will be easier to pull off and get everyone on board.
  • Establish the rules of engagement. The NFL turned over all communication rights to Raidious. That may not work with other events. One of the major hurdles to overcome is who will do the actual communicating.  Some leagues or teams will want complete internal control. One thing we do know about social media, and Twitter specifically: the conversations need to happen in real-time.  Building a multi-layered communication approval system will not work.
  • Listen to your audience. You can have the best-planned strategy, but social media demands that you listen and react to what people are saying. Plan for flexibility and on-the-fly changes.

Ronnie Ramos is the managing director of digital communications for the NCAA. Before that, he spent 25 years as a newspaper reporter and editor, splitting his time between news and sports at five newspapers, including The Miami Herald and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter.

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