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CafeMerc: The WNBA's First Social Networking Site

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A few weeks ago I posted about new media marketing ideas and looked at a few professional sports teams who have created social networking sites for their fans.

Well, just yesterday I saw an article about the Phoenix Mercury's new social networking site -- CafeMerc.com. It's the first of its kind in the WNBA. From an article at KNXV TV in Phoenix:
"Mercury fans want more than just the latest news and information," said Mercury and Suns Vice President of Interactive Services Jeramie McPeek. "They want to be able to interact with the site, voice their opinions and help us create exciting new content. CaféMerc.com will be a new hot spot for our fans to express their passion for Mercury basketball."
What makes this phenomenon interesting to me as someone interested in digital media is the assumption -- an assumption that I hold too -- that social media is good for professional sports teams.

The question is how do we turn that assumption into a statement of fact? In what ways might we be able to quantify the benefit to teams from these sites? Here are a few of my thoughts...

Minimizing development costs

One of the things I mentioned in my last post is that the development (and maintenance) costs of these sites could get rather pricey, especially for some of the fancier one. So the first thing that caught my eye about the Mercury's site is that they found a corporate sponsor for theirs -- Verve Energy Drink, the official drink of the Mercury. Again from the article:
As part of the five-year marketing partnership between the Phoenix Mercury and Verve, the Mercury’s home at US Airways Center is one of the select locations to offer Verve to fans, offering healthy energy to fans at all Phoenix Mercury home games at select concession areas in the arena.

Fans will also be able to purchase Verve product at CaféMerc.com, by clicking through to VerveEnergyDrink.com. The arena features the Verve Energy Zone- a high-energy section for Phoenix Mercury fans to cheer on their defending champs.
So one obvious benefit of social media sites to teams is the potentially attractive revenue stream for corporate sponsors.

Both sides benefit from this partnership -- the corporate sponsors gain exposure to what could be a target market and the Mercury have a place for fans to interact when not at the games. But what I also wonder is how much the Mercury benefit.

What's the added value of having a proprietary social media site?

So here's the part I struggle with -- as nice as these proprietary sites look, what's the added value of a team having their own site as opposed to using Facebook/MySpace or just targeting fan boards like RebKell?

First, I imagine that most fans of a team use multiple sites -- their favorite team's site and league-wide sites (like RebKell)...so they're not really competing entities I suppose. Second, there's the obvious benefit of the additional advertising revenue...but they could get that from their standard sites, right?

The primary benefit in my opinion is interactivity -- allowing fans to interact directly with the team in ways that were previously difficult. A blogger community for fans to express opinions, profiles that help build a sense of community and a better grasp of who the fans are, and of course instant access to fans and their opinions. It's one thing to have fans just sign up for email alerts and quite another to have fans help create the content that becomes part of those alerts.

If part of "fanhood" is establishing a sense of identity, this is an outstanding way to get fans engaged with the team and hopefully establish an increased level of commitment. But commitment without additional profit doesn't do a pro sports franchise much good. So how can we determine if users of these social network sites are putting their money where their commitment is?

Committing to attend

I guess the first thing that leaps to mind when I think of ways to get fan commitment from these sites is by giving discounted tickets or having some other kind of special offer that they couldn't get elsewhere. Maybe even better some discounts on season tickets somehow?

But perhaps the biggest benefit is the data mining possibilities. Could a team survey users to see how many games they attended or how many are season ticket holders? Are ticket sales among social networking site users higher? How do we know these sell tickets at a higher rate than a standard web presence? Are there specific campaigns that these users -- likely die-hard fans -- like more than others?

I suppose the question, to put in political terms, is whether these sites are good for "the base" or "the independents". With these sites though, it brings teams one step closer to their fans and understanding who their base is and how they should target that base. Data mining from a site like that does sound invasive, but from a team's perspective it seems like a massive opportunity.

Grassroots marketing

The one thing that these sites seem to lack is access to people's broader social networks that Facebook/MySpace provide. If the league wants to grow its base, having Facebook users that can place a group identifier on their profile or easily forward messages along to friends about the team's information seems like a huge benefit. These proprietary sites are asking users to build a new interest group network in a world that seems increasingly saturated with interest groups.

Again, I'm struck by the fact that the Mercury's site does not have a visible Facebook badge on it. Starting a new network is nice, but building on people's existing networks *seems* more effective to me. The benefit of the web is that things are interconnected; the more connections a team can make the closer they are to their fan base.

Again, it's really hard to say what's good and bad because this is all so new and I have yet to see any strong marketing research on the dollar value of social networking sites. In fact, just a year ago I would have thought it a pipe dream for a presidential candidate to run a new media campaign...so anything is possible.

In the meantime, kudos to the Mercury for being the first team to take advantage of social media in a formal way.

Transition Points:

MySpace discount for the Liberty: I got an email the other day about how the Liberty have distributed a 50% discount via MySpace. That seems to be one of the best ways to get people to turn social media into profit. If you're interested in getting the discount go to the following link and type in the code "LIBERTY":

http://www.ticketmaster.com/artist/805989?brand=liberty

Enjoy! (Thanks Adriana)

Another idea from the world of soccer
(from Amanda of Women's Professional Soccer): Major League Soccer's newest franchise -- the Seattle Sounders -- has done some pretty cool things with social media and they aren't even playing until 2009. One tangible outcome is that fans have already been gathering on Facebook and agreeing to sit together. The cool thing about it is that this grassroots marketing has the potential to take off once friends get more friends to join the party.

But the coolest thing about the Sounders?
They've used their website to display the profiles of the fans (season ticket holders I assume) who are sitting in each section. Want to sing the whole game? Try the seats behind the goal. Want to sit with other rec league soccer players? Try to upper deck. Pretty cool stuff and an innovative way to use the web to bring fans into the game.