Staying on Message With the San Antonio Spurs
Twitter branding with the NBA's most notoriously conservative squad
At first glance it seems like an accident. Navigate to the Twitter directory on the San Antonio Spurs' website and a few mistakes stand out. A player here and there still listed despite no longer playing for the Spurs. A link to an unverified Kawhi Leonard Twitter account, whose bio simply reads "Kawhi Leonard does not have a Twitter account." Despite nine players listed, only five of the players have Twitter accounts at all; all five are mildly active at best. This is no accident.
It's tempting to suggest never tweeting. Now more than ever, social media is a tricky minefield to navigate, with fans and foes scrutinizing every move. NBA athletes' ill-advised tweets, even after being deleted, find themselves immortalized on sports blogs like Deadspin. Celebrities are expected to have opinions on every societal movement, without ruffling feathers. Companies are routinely criticized for capitalizing on news in failed attempts to be relevant. Even when you're not saying anything, you're saying something.
Whereas building a social media presence was once just having an Internet home loyal fans could click to, building a brand in 2016 is another beast that involves playing defense as much as offense, while walking on the knife's edge of seeming authenticity. But even an ostensibly media-eschewing brand like the Spurs is meticulously curated to exacting specifications. Which is where the architects come in.
Behind most verified Twitter accounts – the famous ones, anyway – is a well-trained social media team, carefully jiggering every word, every emoji that appears to have been rapidly fired off. While social media teams of celebrities and brands past often lurked in the shadows, ghost tweeting for their famous bosses, they now operate largely out in the open, making sure fans are able to keep tabs on their faves at all times, offering best practices of when and what to tweet, and yet maintain the enigma of celebrity allure – an allure that not long ago was predicated on its exact lack of access.
It's not merely enough to tweet, or snap, or vine though; an architect is only as good as the brand message he or she creates – a mission that's harder than ever when you consider that brands speak to a global audience, and not just their core demographic.
"Only 30 percent [of our followers], maybe even less than that, are even in San Antonio, so you have to really keep that in mind when you're socializing," says James Chandler, vice president of digital operations at the IMG Studio, who ran the San Antonio Spurs' digital department for four years, amidst their 2014 championship season and will speak on the Digital Media Strategy for NBA Championship Teams panel this year. "The things that you think about as a San Antonio person – seeing how fans act after a game, or a championship win, or a win during a championship – you have to understand that people globally don't get to experience that. So we have to translate that through our social media channels."
A strong brand identity is also critical, and not often developed in a vacuum by the social media team alone. While celebrity social media accounts are often characterized by engagement with fans and fellow castmates, championing social good, or often, both, the constant engagement model isn't one size fits all. For Chandler, the task at hand was to build a social media presence that matched the Spurs franchise's notoriously staid temperament. "The Spurs are a highly conservative [organization]. They're very conservative about how they use social media. ... The first thing you do as part of the digital team is you go downstairs and listen to PR about what the culture's about."
Indeed, the team rarely courts controversy online; that agnosticism lines up with head coach Gregg Popovich's general disavowal of the media. While Houston Rockets' social media manager Chad Shanks was dismissed last spring after tweeting emojis of a horse and gun at cross-state rivals Dallas Mavericks, the biggest story around a Spurs Twitter account was when new arrival LaMarcus Aldridge deactivated his Twitter and Instagram accounts after a particularly tough loss to the Golden State Warriors. While sports blogs cried bitterness, the Popovich-influenced social strategy may have had a point: Aldridge's scoring, field goal percentage, and rebound numbers all increased dramatically after he deactivated.
"The Spurs are a different beast because it is an older team, so [the culture] is different," explains Chandler. "Your [Tim] Duncans, your Kawhi [Leonards], even Manu Ginobili, who is a little more active on social media, don't really enjoy it. They like their quiet life. It wasn't difficult for us to [avoid controversy]."
Even for a brand like the Spurs, careful curation isn't always enough – especially when the line between the team and the player can get blurry. "There were some moments where the players made comments that were very cultural," says Chandler. "You [see] Tony Parker post something, so you think that must be something we can grab and run with too, and that's not always case, as we found pretty quickly."
Ultimately, brand building, even in the day and age where someone is always watching, comes down to the same original saws: Know what you're selling, intimately well. Whether the audience is local or global, on Facebook but not Vine, media-friendly or media-agnostic, the ones that seem to succeed are the ones that sell their story best, even if it's not the best story to sell. "It can be frustrating at times," says Chandler. "But the longer you're with a team and you understand their culture, it gets easier."
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