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How The Portland Trail Blazers Became NBA (Social Media) Champs

They may be down 3-0 against the New Orleans Pelicans in the NBA playoffs, but Rip City keeps reaping the rewards of a winning digital strategy.

How The Portland Trail Blazers Became NBA (Social Media) Champs
[Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images]

At Coachella last Sunday, amid the bohemian Insta-models, headdress appropriation chic, and dude-bros gathered in the California desert, there was an unexpected NBA interlude. During their set, Portugal. The Man regaled the crowd with its own finger-pickin’ rendition of the Portland Trail Blazers’ “Trumpets” theme that introduces the team’s game broadcasts. All the while, they were backed by a massive screen playing a trippy animated homage to the band’s hometown hoops heroes.

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Given the team tie-in, and the Blazers hitting the first round of the NBA playoffs, this was no coincidence. Further evidence is found on the Trail Blazers’ Instagram account, with a post on April 4 (more than a week before Coachella) in which the band rehearses–you guessed it–“Trumpets.”

Shred @portugaltheman

A post shared by Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) on

While it wasn’t orchestrated by the Blazers, Portugal. The Man did get in touch ahead of time and invite the team to attend the rehearsal. It’s exactly the kind of cultural crossover the Portland Trail Blazers have been cultivating over the last few years, thanks to a social media strategy that prioritizes personality, a fan’s perspective, and content Rip City fans actually want to see. Complex has named the Blazers champs of NBA Twitter for the last two years straight. Social media also just happens to be the driving force behind the Trail Blazers brand business.

While the team is active across multiple platforms, it’s seen the most growth over the past year on Instagram. As a small market NBA team, they don’t have the most followers, but it’s the engagement numbers that really count. They’ve seen a 56X return on every dollar spent on Instagram Feed ads, 33X on Stories ads, and more than 14X across all Instagram campaigns. The Instagram work has also helped boost mobile ticket sales by 10%.

GET THAT ???? OUT OF @MOE_HARKLESS’ HOUSE

A post shared by Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) on

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Trail Blazers chief marketing officer Dewayne Hankins gives props to Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who understands the space really well. “A lot of teams struggle to get the resources to make social media a priority, and we’re lucky to have an owner who really appreciates what it can do,” says Hankins. “We know we’re not the biggest market, but if we can keep our fans engaged and excited, and have a personality while we do it, liven things up and be one of them, then we know it’s working. And so far, it’s been successful for us.”

When Hankins first joined the team in 2013, he and one other guy were in charge of everything under the umbrella of “digital.” Now his team is 12 people strong, and they enlist photo and video staff to create professional content with a fan’s voice. That approach has helped them attract a significant amount of new sponsor partners. “It’s gone from a place where you dabble and experiment with things to becoming a very substantial part of driving the revenue side of the business,” says Hankins. “We’ve seen a 10-times revenue increase across ticket sales and sponsorship using these platforms.”

Dramatic

A post shared by Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) on

But like the best of any sponsored content, it has to actually be good to have any value to the team or the sponsor. A while back, the Trail Blazers started filming the players as they arrived for games, giving fans a peek behind the scenes. Now, as of last month, those clips are a series sponsored by Verizon called Gameday Get Ups.

Comedian Ian Karmel is what one might call a massive Blazers fan. The writer for The Late Late Show with James Corden can be found gushing his Portland love all over Twitter and elsewhere, and says the personality the Blazers have established on Instagram and Twitter is pitch perfect.

MORE OF THIS PLEASE

A post shared by Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) on

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“They tweet like a fan, they tweet the way I tweet, they tweet the way the @Trillblazin account tweets–but you know, a slightly cleaned-up, safe-for-work version of that,” says Karmel. “It doesn’t seem thirsty, either, the way Wendy’s tweeting ‘YAS KWEEN’ with a picture of a baked potato seems thirsty. When you’re watching a game with a second screen open on Twitter, the way so many people do now, the Trail Blazer account blends in with all the other Blazer fan accounts I follow, and I mean that as a sincere compliment.”

NBA executive vice president of digital media Melissa Rosenthal Brenner says the team’s content elicits real emotion, drives conversation, and creates an exceptionally connected digital community. “Portland has developed an authentic and unique social media voice, defined by a swagger that clearly resonates with its fans,” says Brenner.

Hankins says another reason the social media work has caught on is the nature of being a small-market team. “Fans often think we’re overlooked, so there’s a lot of rallying cries we can tap into to match that,” he says. “Everything you see coming through the personality of the brand is a reflection of the work we’ve done with our fans to understand their perspective better.”

Based on the fan response–and the business results–it’s working like a charm.

“Did you see what Portugal. The Man did at Coachella with the Blazers theme?” says Karmel. “Beyoncé isn’t doing that for the Astros.”

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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