The bowels of Miami's AmericanAirlines Arena are grey and charmless, the sort of place designed to discourage lingering. At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, two and a half hours before the Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks tipped off for Game 2 of the NBA Finals, the place was thick with bored sports reporters--both the pasty, anxious writers (and that's a self-description) hoping for some merciful scrap of action and the beautiful, camera-ready TV types, who were content to be admired and wait for their cue.
Just then a lone media guy cut through the ranks, parted a black curtain and entered the glorious, shiny center of the arena, where Dwyane Wade was warming up by shooting long-range jumpers. The guy held up his iPhone from the sideline and took 57 seconds of video, then tweeted it out from @NBA: "#NBAFinals: Dwyane Wade is putting shots up by himself on the floor right now. Game 2, 9pm/et ABC. http:// twitvid.com/MJQS5"
The NBA social media team calls this a "tune-in," a reminder for fans to do just that. The league has 117 million followers--once you count Twitter and Facebook followers of the league, its 30 teams, and its players--and it's of course impossible to know how many tuned in because of that one tweet. But we can see this: more than 100 people retweeted it, and one guy, @rastastar09, even responded, "@NBA TUNING IN!"
And anyway, it wasn't the last time the NBA would send out a tune-in that night or drive people to NBA.com, where 2.5 billion videos were viewed this season, more than double last year's count. (Top that bored and beautiful TV reporter!)
The league has a sophisticated plan to keep its followers engaged throughout the season--an effort that goes into overdrive during big moments like this. So Thursday, to see how they do it, I followed the team members who've tweeted dozens of clips and pics and 140-character-or-less quips long before the traditional sports hacks score a single quote. I learned a few rules of their social media game. And then tried to bury my tears as my long-beloved Miami Heat choked in the fourth.
Here's how they do it:
1. Make fans feel like insiders
The NBA joined Twitter in February of 2009. "When we first got on it, we looked at it as a quick, instantaneous way for us to alert our fanbase that there was something amazing going on during games," said Melissa Brenner, NBA vice president of marketing. But the league also polled fans--an effort that now happens twice a season--and discovered that people wanted more than an alarm system. "If we're not constantly putting forth clever, unique content and then evaluating its efficacy, it's hard to scale," Brenner said.
So the NBA built a team to create that content.
Thursday night, it operated like a small news organization. The group began the day, like every day, with an 11 a.m. meeting to cover the basics: how many sponsored tweets needed to go out, what NBA-related news needed coverage, and the schedule for the game. There were two guys working the arena (who the NBA asked me not to identify by name). One got on-the-court photos and videos; the other roamed the crowd. "People think we're just random guys, taking pictures for ourselves," one told me. "It's like, no, I swear, it's legitimate!"
The on-the-ground duo was helped out by a small group of guys in a New Jersey office, who gathered stats and monitored Twitter for NBA-related trending topics. Emails flew between them all night, and they each used their best judgment on what would be coolest for fans. "We want to give people a sense that they're here," one of the guys told me.
That's not totally possible, of course, but the DIY nature of the iPhone operation works in their favor: That video of Wade shooting around before the game felt raw, almost illicit, in a way that a lingering shot on ABC never could.
2. Don't join the conversation. Create the conversation.
Sports are about two things: cheering your team, and ridiculing your opponent. Twitter is especially heavy on the latter. That's why trending topics are often negative: "Dirk NoRingski" was big during Game 1, making fun of Mavs star Dirk Nowitzki for his lack of championship hardware. Some of the top trending topics during Game 2 included unkind words for The Heat.
This puts the NBA in a tricky position. "Our objective is to engage basketball fans globally on a digital conversation," Brenner said. But it doesn't promise to jump in on every fan comment or trending topic, lest it risk being accused of ignoring thornier moments (like a player scandal or a ref's bad call) that the league would prefer to handle more diplomatically.
The social media team's solution: Only engage fans in conversations that the NBA starts.
Before the game, one of the guys tweeted, "The key for the Dallas #Mavs in tonight's #NBAFinals Game 2 is________?" The predictable responses roll in. One fan tweets, "don't show up." The NBA guy likes @sirleemason15's response--"their bench"--and retweets it. Now the conversation is self-contained: The NBA asked for a response, got it, and engaged fans. The league stays above the fray.
After the game, as we sat in a room full of computers, one of the social media guys received an email with a list of current trending topics. It included the usual scuff, and then this name: Brian Cardinal. He's a benchwarmer on the Mavs who got a rare, single minute of gametime, which was exciting enough for fans to cheer him with keyboards.
"That's the most useful one in this email," the social media guy told me.
Again, the NBA won't engage this directly: It doesn't want to be in the habit of responding to trending topics. But he'll likely slip Cardinal's name into a tweet soon enough, just to play into the conversation.
3. Know what your readers want, when they want it
When the NBA joined Twitter, it figured fans would appreciate tune-in reminders a few hours before a game. "But when we polled them," Brenner said, "it turns out fans were making their TV viewing decisions much earlier in the day. So we responded by telling them first thing in the morning."
The NBA collects all sorts of data on how its social media is received, and adjusts accordingly. It's found, for example, that fans respond really well to posts about milestones, so it sends out more of them. Some fans love history and stats--and there's so much to say about those topics, in fact, that the league spun them off into two new feeds, @NBAStatsCube and @NBAHistory. The league wasn't concerned it would cannibalize its main feed; instead it sees these new feeds as ways to serve different audiences.
They also find that Facebook posts that go longer than one sentence are largely ignored. The post-game tweet is the only consistent exception. It makes sense: If fans are hungry for long post-game shows on TV and then more yammering on SportsCenter, they'll at least tolerate a yawning three sentences on Facebook.
So after the game, one of the social media guys ran back to his room in the arena to type this out:
Wow...a thriller for the ages saw the Dallas Mavericks mount a torrid comeback to erase a 15 point deﬁcit in the 4th quarter in Miami...
Of course, no Mavs run would be complete without a healthy dose of DIRK who delivered a clutch 3 and the go-ahead layup with just over 3 seconds to play to shock the Heat 95-93.
We've got ourselves a series!!!!
He didn't always put the score in his post-game Facebook posts, but then he looked at the comments people left and found a consistent response: "What was the score?"
You'd think these people would have just looked it up themselves. But that's fine: The NBA is happy to provide.
4. Don't overwhelm your followers
The social media team uses HootSuite to plan tweets throughout the day, and then supplements them with live tweets as they see fit. It also has a formula for how often to send updates: Tweet 30 to 40 minutes on big NBA days like the Finals, and every hour on quieter days; and post on Facebook every hour on big days and every two to three hours on quieter days.
But of course, posts go up with even greater frequency during big games.
"Twitter's a right-now kind of platform. You tweet, and then it gets buried and disappears," one of the guys said. "Things stick around longer on Facebook, so you don't want to flood it as much."
5. Plan ahead, because not every day has a big game
After the game, which Nowitzki won in the final seconds, one of the guys went hunting for the clutch star--which largely meant frequent check-ins with a dude stationed outside ABC's interview studio. The NBA social media guy didn't need an interview with Nowitzki (although he'd have happily taken one). Rather, he just needed a photo.
But Nowitzki was nowhere to be found.
So, we popped into the post-game press conferences and saw Heat coach Erik Spoelstra vow a return to form. (Snap picture, type quote into iPhone, tweet.) We walked back to the computer room, to tweet a video highlight of the game that someone else in the NBA social media world had already uploaded to NBA.com. And then, finally, it seemed like Nowitzki was going to come around, so we idles around the ABC room. Sure enough, the 7-foot German lumbered by, complaining to a handler about the number of interviews he had to do.
The social media guy took a quick shot on his iPhone. But he didn't post it right away.
It was nearly 1 a.m. by that point. Most fans had likely gone to bed or at least weren't sitting in front of their computers anymore. And Game 3 is on Sunday. Players may not be seen too much until then, but fans will still want a taste of the action.
So he might keep that shot in his phone, and send it out this weekend with a tune-in for an NBA TV show. "We have two days off," he said. "Got to fill it with something."
[Image: Getty Images]