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Cleveland's Digital Village

Last week, Mark Shapiro and Chris Antonetti joined Manny Acta, Chris Perez, and a slew of major and minor leaguers in the wild world of Twitter. They each have about 2,500 followers, a relatively low number—for comparison's sake, Acta has about 4,500 and Rob Neyer has over 25,000. I'm sure Shapiro and Antonetti will gain followers in the weeks to come but I doubt they will ever reach a monster number: they're not likely to appeal to anyone besides the media and Tribe fans. We'll know they've arrived when their own manager actually bothers to follow.

Antonetti's tweeting (follow the links above) has thus far been boring, more or less covering the sorts of things that Bastian and Hoynes pass along already. Shapiro, however, is using his account exactly as I would've hoped. If you check out his timeline, you'll see that he's interacting with fans, even taking a fan's idea for free tickets for the craziest dressed fans and saying he's going to consider it. This is getting closer to my second suggestion in this post—giving the Indians a public face that interacts with fans in a meaningful way, trying to generate some kind of collective community ownership, a feeling of "That's our team" as opposed to "That's Dolan's team." Of course, selection bias is at work here: a fan that chooses to interact respectfully with Mark Shapiro on twitter was probably already going to buy some tickets. Still, I'm surprised by the low level of vitriol being directed towards the former GM—perhaps that will change as the losses mount.

This clearly isn't some kind of whim, as Shaprio has stated that the work they're doing with social media is "integral to the Indians brand." My perception is that they want that brand to be "ultra-fan-friendly" and the twitter interactions, stories like this one, and the ticket discounts mentioned in the above press release are all a part of that. Offering social media Opening Day tickets with an obstructed view (and making the promo code "obstructed") seems bad at first blush but it gets a lot better when you realize these are the last tickets left for the opener, they were set aside for this promotion, and they're relatively affordable ($26). Overall, what's clearly at work here is an attempt to use digital media as a way to create a feeling of closeness between fan and team, to shrink the space between Shapiro and Antonetti, long perceived as cloistered in an ivory tower where they counted Dolan's ducats, and the fans. Shapiro's twitter dialogues over favorite Tribe memories exemplifies this, as you see him taking the opportunity to show fans that he's also one of them, that he also has a memory of a first game attended and a favorite moment.

At the same time, the digital Indians world is a crowded and odd place: Ryan and Paul Cousineau have been at this a long time doing great work, WFNY, Cleveland Frowns and The Cleveland Fan trying to build one stop Cleveland sports shops, Tony Lastoria offering wall to wall prospect coverage, and then there's us and the umpteen other Tribe specific blogs doing whatever it is that we each claim to do. That's the crowded part—the odd part is best personified by the self-promoting PureRage_Perez account, as well as whatever strange premises are driving Cheap Larry Dolan and Not Manny Acta. That's the landscape that the Indians front office is wandering into with the intent of strengthening the brand—it's a complicated place and it will be interesting to see what, if any, alliances they end up forming.

All in all, I think it's a good thing that social media has been deemed a priority by the front office—being one of the first teams to embrace the digital discourse this wholeheartedly is impressive. It is not, however, a guarantee of success in the realm. Ultimately, the Indians are going to need to be extremely creative and savvy to generate any excitement about a team that isn't likely to contend. There's some limited blueprints for this—lots of NBA players tweet their locations with a promise to give free tickets to the first fan who finds them, for instance. Additionally, the Indians already have great assets in Acta and Perez, both of whom run likable twitter accounts that fans interact with regularly. Leveraging that likability, coupled with contests and digital media that's engaging and (most importantly) has a sense of humor, could help sell some seats. However, Antonetti writing semi-regular tweets with no real substances isn't selling anything. Recognizing that social media is powerful isn't the same as having the talent to use that power to your own advantage. I like the moves so far and I'm hoping we soon start to see signs that the necessary marketing/media talent is in the fold.