I’ve been hammering the Worldwide Leader’s new social media policy this week for all and sundry reasons, highlighting some shrugging reactions from ESPN personnel on Twitter, noting a very funny parody, and charging the network with some dodgy disclosure.
Today, I can tell you and ESPN what the network should do in the future with Twitter and other forms of social media. And I’ll show you some of what they already have.
The most valuable characteristics of social media are interactivity (think of comments on Facebook) , immediacy (think Twitter), and individualization (think selective friends lists and grouping). Portability is powerful, too, but it only compresses the three key components. ESPN should consider how to serve all of these in considering its social media presence.
For insight on how they will, it’s illuminating to examine their approach to another Web concern, independent blogs, which combines acknowledgment and acquisition. One approach, as we’ll see, fails; one has succeeded beautifully.
ESPN’s Blog Buzz is the test case for acknowledgment. It is a short segment broadcast on the live AM SportsCenter that is meant to scan the blogosphere for headlines and give a sense of what’s causing the most commotion online, with a sentence or two excepted from representative blogs for color. Initially blasted by the blogosphere for being too narrowly focused, Blog Buzz has branched out, selecting quotes from, and driving traffic to, some smaller blogs. But it’s still far too top-heavy to be a full picture of the world of Internet sports writing, too inscrutable to be understood or democratic, and highly unlikely to broadcast the criticism of ESPN in the blogosphere. Worst of all, it’s inexplicably poorly promoted online—bloggers know that ESPN displaying their URL on SportsCenter is no worse than really cool, so why must they hunt for sparsely updated content on ESPN.com?
My suggestion in this realm is that ESPN could reach out to bloggers by creating an easily memorized page where bloggers could see both their content and others’ at a glance, giving bloggers the tools to do the promotion for them.
ESPN has fared far better with acquisition. Through their TrueHoop Network, ESPN has bolstered their already exhaustive basketball coverage with a set of ESPN-sanctioned team-specific and general interest NBA blogs. This allows ESPN to shine a light on the stories that blogs break or analysis they do without losing the appeal of the ESPN platform, and gives blogs extra exposure and an affiliation with a strong brand. It’s hard to see any negatives in this context, except for the loss of a modicum of independence for the bloggers involved, and the added value of the ESPN-blog harmony is far greater than the loss of independence.
But what does this have to do with Twitter and the rest of the social media herd?
It’s simple: ESPN must mix acknowledgment and acquisition of social media properties to enhance the interactivity, immediacy, and individualization of their Web product.
One of the overlooked points of the now-infamous ESPN Twitter memo is this one: “ESPN.com may choose to post sports related social media content.”
One of the overlooked points in this discussion is that they already have.
This is a screen capture from a TrueHoop article about the NBA’s Summer League this July. TrueHoop blogger Kevin Arnovitz opened a Twitter account and tweeted live observations from a Mavericks-Thunder game that were simultaneously published to the article ESPN.com.
Marc Stein has also been a part of this experiment with TrueHoop, and Jason Sobel has integrated Twitter content into his live blogs, soliciting questions from users that he will answer as a round progresses. The WNBA All-Star Game was a showcase for ESPN’s Twitter integration, with the CoverItLive blogging platform helping aggregate tweets from a number of WNBA analysts and players for a really interesting and multifaceted look at the game.
But it’s the app that powered that first TrueHoop/Twitter mash-up that I love. I thought the gadget ESPN had was so neat when I first saw it that I saved the screen capture as “VeryCoolESPNTwitterThing.” It updated automatically and looked very clean; both of these things are advantages over Twitter’s clunky, refresh-heavy web interface for delivering content.
So I’m glad this isn’t about to stop, either.
ESPN’s Amy K. Nelson tweeted that as I was writing this post. For ESPN to jump from using TrueHoop’s coverage of the NBA Summer League and WNBA to test Twitter integration to rolling it out with the highest-profile of baseball events on a Sunday night shows a lot of confidence in their product.
When it succeeds (and it will), it will show ESPN has both acknowledged Twitter can be used as a gateway to their site, a way to generate views and interest for content that they can monetize, and “acquired” the content that will make their site better. I can only hope that means more inventive social media integration down the line, and a push to make ESPN’s writers use Twitter less as a medium to break news and more to foster conversation.
But I worry that ESPN won’t do that as smartly as possible, or with interaction in mind.
A customized Twitter widget can help aggregate ESPN’s Twitter accounts, but ESPN could do more to give fans a sense of individualized ownership of the experience with the CoverItLive platform.
Ideally, allowing fans to comment on an ongoing game and have their observations published alongside ESPN analysts via tailored Twitter hashtags would be a way to give them that sense without making the entire enterprise about the fans.
It’s not hard to dream up another possible killer app for the Worldwide Leader using Twitter technology: ESPN could re-engineer its online chats for Twitter interactivity. Imagine Bill Simmons using his Twitter account and his replies with CoverItLive to conduct an evolving live chat for six hours. It would be an event that drove a large chunk of his more than half a million Twitter followers to an ESPN.com page.
The problem, here, is guarding against unsavory content being automatically published. Though CoverItLive’s hashtag importer is powerful for including a wide array of opinions, it would also be easy to spam. ESPN has to abide by certain rules of propriety, and would need a filter, probably a human, to ensure the content being imported adhered to ESPN standards.
For all those potential benefits, though, Twitter is just one social medium. FriendFeed, Facebook, Digg, Reddit, and scores of other sites are untapped markets where ESPN content is distributed haphazardly by independent ESPN readers. Looking into deploying tools for push-button publishing that would give readers the ability to share stories instantly on a variety of platforms makes some sense.
Done right, this would extend ESPN’s brand beyond the TV screen and the written content on ESPN.com to a more organic and user-centric experience. Individual actors on Twitter have already helped ESPN do that, but a concerted effort to both teach ESPN talent and employees how to more efficiently use Twitter—hint: use TweetDeck or another desktop client instead of the awful Twitter interface—and involve other users will help develop ESPN’s presence and serve the network’s interests more thoroughly.
So ESPN desperately needs a young, vital person immersed in social media on staff to direct social media efforts, and a panel of names it can tap for feedback. The company needs to have ears to the ground that will be as responsive as these social media expect and as honest as possible. I think those characteristics best fit young and sharp consumers of ESPN, and the network should look into finding help from that realm.
But, sadly, I don’t think they will, and that has something to do with their feeble attempts at self-policing.
ESPN’s incoming ombudsman, Don Ohlmeyer, as Ben Cohen noted, is probably not that person. Not only is he not a regular consumer of ESPN’s content, he’s nowhere near the demographic that would be. To outgoing ombudsman Le Anne Schrieber’s eternal credit, though she was also not of that demographic, she did her job as diligently as possible for two years. But she also toiled in relative obscurity, many of her suggestions unheeded.
As ESPN expands, the ombudsman’s role will become both more difficult and more critical, and this flap proves that social media expertise should be a component of that position. ESPN’s selection of Ohlmeyer, and his/their total lack of interest in acquiring an account on Twitter to serve as an immediate sounding board for concerns, portends ill. (If any ESPN rep would be interested in using that account, please contact me.)
Perhaps dividing some of the tasks to a demographic-spanning panel—putting radio observers on the ESPN Radio beat, bloggers on blog coverage, and so on—would help provide more thorough and valuable perspectives for ESPN to use going forward.
Moreover, the problem with restricting sports-related content but not personal missives on social media sites conveys a fundamental misunderstanding of the power of relationships crafted by social media. ESPN personalities can and have mixed personal and professional tweets before without much incident, and their brand has only been seen as more interactive because of it. (Perhaps following some of the recommendations their own Outside the Lines report on athletes and Twitter would make sense?)
To expect their roster of sports journalists—some diehard fans who love talking sports on Facebook, Twitter, and other sites—to separate the sports content from the personal content easily is both a foolish expectation and a wrong-headed move. I understand that the idea behind the restriction is to send viewers to ESPN.com, where clicks are worth money, but that could be done better with training on writing compelling 120-character ledes for links that can be endlessly retweeted. Discussion on Twitter, in our any-publicity-is-good-publicity world, is valuable, and squelching some of it just seems like a cash grab that doesn’t respect the possible financial benefits of the medium.
ESPN stands astride the sports media world as no other colossus has. But, in the words of one proverb, “The higher up the tree he climbs, the more you see the monkey’s ass.” And those who see it, increasingly, are learning how to climb and cover their own.
If the Worldwide Leader in Sports wants to continue to hold that tag, it would do well to implement some of the suggestions I’ve made here, and as quickly as possible. It is well within their power to tailor some of their product to the immediacy, interactivity, and individualization this new Web demands.
And if they don’t? Well, Ozymandias had a good run, too.