The San Francisco Giants are considered to be one of the most social media-savvy professional sports franchises in the world. Sports Illustrated recently ranked the Giants in its’ Twitter 100 list, which is a tab of the magazine’s “essential follows.” The Giants and the Boston Celtics were the only two sports teams to make the list. So who is behind the team’s success (535,000 followers on Twitter and 1.8 million fans on Facebook)?

Bryan Srabian, a one-man social media team who has been the lead for the organization’s social media strategy for four seasons now. Srabian joined the Giants as the director of social media in 2010. Previously, he had served as the director of marketing and entertainment. Srabian also currently teaches in the sports management graduate program at the University of San Francisco. Srabian and the Giants have come a long way since 2010. Today, the team is now on seven social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Google+, Tumblr, Pinterest and Vine. Srabian was kind enough to join us to answer some questions about social media in sports and business in general. Below are excerpts from the interview.

Was it a daunting task to come into a new role in a situation where you were the social media director at a time (2010) when there really weren’t a lot of companies hiring employees to run social media yet?

It was. It was something that I was not an expert in but I really enjoyed it … I think coming into an established sports team that had a pretty vibrant fan base and strong media presence overall, you could see a huge potential. But the idea was OK, how do we approach this? What’s the best way? And then, the other issue was getting internal buy-in from everyone that you work with, and understanding here’s how we want to do it and everything is going to go through a centralized channel … So it was a little daunting, but slow and steady we started to see some early success and we just built on that.

You have built on that quite a bit, all the way to now where Sports Illustrated put the Giants on the Twitter 100 list. That must have been a good feeling.

Yeah, any time you get recognized, especially by such a powerful brand like Sports Illustrated, obviously you are humbled and it is pretty exciting. It was 100 of the top people in sports Twitter, and there was only two teams on there, the Celtics and Giants so it’s pretty exciting. You just kind of look back on the road we started with, 3,000 fans … you would build it day by day and in the beginning, I was just focused on building up the follower base. I know you talk to a lot of people and their No. 1 question is probably ‘how do I get more followers?’ And there’s no really magical formula to that other than putting valuable content out there. And for us, it was really making a strong presence. We wanted to provide that value, we wanted to have personality and we really wanted to make it the best for our fans … The really fascinating thing about social media is that one day you are getting an award or somebody says something really nice about you and then things change. It’s not just the technology that is changing, but you’re strategies are always evolving, you’re always looking for better ways to communicate. What are the trends? What are your fans looking for now? … I look back a year ago, we obviously went on to win a second World Series in three years, but there was no Vine video, there was no Instagram video. So, I mean, it’s made such a huge impact in less than a year in terms of content. Teams are communicating especially through video.

What’s the difference between doing social media for a sports franchise verse doing social media for a regular corporation or even a small business?

Obviously, with a sports team you have a natural relationship with your fans anyway so no matter what team you are – if I am with the [Sacramento] Kings or the Giants, I think you are going to have those fans who are going to follow you. So obviously, the Giants are going to have maybe more exposure based on market, based on the history of the team and whatnot. So you take that with a  grain of salt; you understand that you are on a different playing field than the [Los Angeles] Lakers or New York Jets. You’re not necessarily comparing yourselves to them because you have your built-in fan base and you are just trying to deliver to those fans and go from there. But you have fans, you have a huge brand and you are very recognizable amongst the players that you have – Tim Lincecum, Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner. For a business, it’s a different relationship, you know, obviously trying to create some sort of personality traits and connection with your customers and you are trying to turn them into fans. You know, I have a few brands that I feel very loyal to and I feel I have connection with them even though they’re just a brick and mortar – if it’s Amazon, if it’s Apple, Starbucks – it makes me feel good when I see their logos or I interact with them or I follow them on Twitter and they say something or remind me about the beginning Fall … so it’s a different relationship. Sporting events we are so lucky because we have such a unique business model in terms of fans are engaged with us, especially while we’re winning or in the World Series or it’s a big game, they’re going to be engaged and they’re going to talking about you on different social media channels and that’s typically when you can take advantage of the exposure per say. Versus when you aren’t doing so well, then its really challenging … from a sports perspective, I am looking at what businesses are doing. What are unique ways that they are leveraging some of the newer things such as Vine? What are ways that they are telling their stories and doing contests? Is there a way that a sports team can utilize that? I think that is what makes social media unique, in terms of it’s so new that we’re still learning best practices from each other.

What is the best way to deal with negative feedback on social media?

The worst thing you can do is kind of stick your head in the sand and not look at any of the negative stuff, but try to learn from it as much as possible and when an opportunity strikes to use it as a way to increase your customer service and engage with your customers, and that typically is a win-win for everybody.

It seems like one of the biggest benefits of social media outside of building a brand is to gauge how your fans or customers feel about the company, do you agree?

Absolutely, you might not even have to post anything. Your content might be very minimal, but you are able to listen and see in real time what people are saying about you. If a trade happens, if you announce your schedule for next year or you announce a new program – there’s typically reactions that you can see on Facebook, on Twitter, obviously blogs, and you can get a pulse, if you will, on what the overall reaction is … Some teams and some business might take that and utilize it and build off that, you know, what their future decisions are. Others might use it just for talking points for the president or vice presidents to go in front of the media so they know kind of what some of the questions are so they can be prepared. So I think it’s valuable for businesses just from a listening standpoint. You don’t necessarily need to have three or four people actively tweeting and doing things, you can simply set up some listening tools. And you can do the same about your competitors … you can follow what people are saying about your competitors and learn from that for a strategic perspective.

Many in social media rely on statistics to build their strategy. I know in the past you have said that you use the “eye test” a lot to see how a campaign is doing. What do you mean by that?

Data is important as anything in my world, but if I am close to my computer and I am close to a campaign or the game and I am monitoring in real-time; if I see something that keeps popping up over and over again and see the reactions, I can just give you an eyeball. I don’t need to print out a fancy report. I don’t need to dive in and say, ‘82 percent say this,’ I can say, ‘hey, without question, fans were really excited.’ Here’s an example, our president wrote a letter kind of summing up the season and said ‘hey, you know, we didn’t finish where we wanted to but our fans are amazing,’ and we e-mailed it to all of our season ticket holders. We posted on Facebook, we posted on Twitter and the response was really strong and I forwarded some of the comments and tweets, but overall I could tell if I had to just eyeball it, 80-90 percent were positive.

As one of the main people in the social media spotlight right now, what advice would you give a small- to medium-sized business as far how they should start using social media?

You have to start somewhere. You can’t do everything and it doesn’t happen overnight. So my advice is start small and practice. Maybe it’s just on Facebook or maybe it’s just on Twitter … you get what you put into social media, so I mean, I think it’s a matter of you managing your time and you understanding that boy, if we could just maximize and put in some extra time per week, per day, there’s so much potential and there is so much opportunity there. But don’t try to oversaturate yourself and say we need to be on every channel, we need to do everything, that’s probably going to be counterproductive. So, I think the best advice is to start small and build your presence up and learn that way … look for companies that you think are doing innovative and creative things and use them as a way to guide you and learn from them. It’s still early in this process, but it’s been three or four years, for some even longer, that have been doing things in social media. There’s plenty of case studies, there’s plenty of interesting things out there for people to learn.

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