Holton, Avery & Coddington, Mark (2012). Recasting social media users as brand ambassadors: Opening the doors to the first ‘Social Suite.’ Case Studies in Strategic Communication, 1, 3‐23.
Professional sports teams have struggled to incorporate social network sites into their existing branding and media strategies, wrestling with issues of access and trust. This case study examines an innovative effort by one organization, Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians, to create a physical space for online discussion about their team. In that space, called the “Social Suite,” local social media users were given exclusive access to watch the team’s games from a suite, along with access to team staff and information. Through in-depth interviews and participant observation this study found suite users saw themselves not as members of the media, but as active participants in the team’s own online marketing efforts. This self-perception corresponded with team executives’ goal to use the suite as a way to reverse negative online discussion about the team by creating a network of influential “brand ambassadors” who spread positive perceptions about the organization. This novel approach—one that illustrates the changing landscape of media and communication practice and theory—may serve as a model for other sports teams and businesses as they work to integrate the public into their digital and online efforts
This study relied on a triangulated case study with participant observation and semi-structured interviews of a professional baseball team in the United States (Cleveland Indians). Two researchers made two separate trips to the site to conduct research over a period of multiple days.
- Social media users—or, at the very least, those examined by this study—may see themselves less as critical media sources and more as active, willing participants in marketing efforts if given privileges perceived as positive and/or unique.
- Reversing negative attitudes and perceptions, particularly among fans, may occur in social media settings, which fans see as inviting, welcoming, and constructive.
- Fans do not reject the label or the role of “brand ambassador,” indeed embracing it more so than labels or roles of media creators (i.e., journalists).
- The case of the Cleveland Indians’ Social Suite may provide insightful digital and social media approaches, particularly in harnessing the power of social networking platforms such as Twitter.
Implications for Practice
Sports teams should embrace fans as active participants in their social media. While the NHL’s New York Islanders continue to experiment with a “Blog Box,” inviting select bloggers to report alongside traditional media at games, other teams and most other professional sports leagues in the U.S. continually develop policies that work against or around the integration of the public. Teams should tap into an evolutionary form of positive, online-driven branding.
Exploring the evolution of social media policies as they occur yields interesting applications for the growth of efforts similar to that of the Social Suite. For example, the Cleveland Indians have yet to encounter much resistance to their approach, but it is not unreasonable to imagine social media users who would be uncomfortable serving as brand ambassadors rather than watchdogs. Public relations professionals should consider the broader impacts of brand ambassadors especially in sports.
The full article is available for free at: http://cssc.web.unc.edu/cases/v1/art2/