Social Media Clamor Can Undermine Sports Marketing Decisions

This month’s Marketing Insider: Marketing Sports takes a look at how two recent examples of social listening in the sports space, can sometimes create misinformation relative to what one might conclude from more formal and projectable research.

Like most of us, I’ve found social media to be transformative for fans and the sports industry in the ways in which we communicate with each other, build communities, and consume real-time information.

Further, after serving initially as an additive complement to legacy channels, social media has been found in our most recent research to have supplanted these channels as the primary lever for brand messaging.

For properties, this has created economies while further enhancing the ability to micro-target desired audiences.  For consumers, social is another extension of the participatory fandom that has blanketed the sports industry.

But, as a few recent high-profile events have demonstrated, social’s lack of credible curation can create shortcomings for consumers and the brands seeking to engage them.

With baseball’s opening day hanging in the balance, I found myself glued to social channels on Monday and Tuesday, clinging to the hope that my opening day plans for March 31 would not be disrupted.

I was taken aback first by the lack of timely conversation — and even more so, by the lack of clarity and frequent contradiction. That’s not to discount the vitriol and trolling that often render social channels as nothing more than virtual gripe fests.

It struck me, that just as several brands were distancing themselves from adjacencies to coverage from Ukraine, a similar phenomenon could be applied to advertising proximity to bad news and excessive finger pointing as baseball’s collective bargaining agreement negotiations sputtered to an impasse.

I remembered my days in the magazine business, when savvy advertisers often strategically managed insertion placement, and our research affirmed the positive impact of such decisions.  Having less control in a social media context can be bad for the brand and frustrating for the target.

A second illustration comes from the often-disingenuous amplification of specific points of view, positioned to appear as fact.  Many have followed the sudden fall from grace of Phil Mickelson, long one of the most popular players in professional golf.  Without belaboring the circumstances surrounding this latest example of attempted “cancel culture,” ostensibly off-the-record comments from Mickelson put him on the wrong side of most of the social chatter, quickly costing him several sponsorships.

I’m not defending Mickelson for what he said or for how he dug himself into a deeper hole with what many construed as a hollow and tone-deaf apology.  But what I do take issue with –- especially as a market researcher — is how the social media piling on passed for empirical and nationally representative fact.

Social media listening is a wonderful qualitative and directional insights tool for brands in sports and elsewhere.  But it is not a substitute for projectable market research.

Then there was that unfortunate incident with a fire hydrant that befell Mickelson’s chief rival, one Tiger Woods, back in 2009.  Listening strictly to the social chatter, one could easily surmise that Tiger’s brand was irreparably damaged.  Parallel survey work said otherwise.  Indeed, Tiger came back.  So will Major League Baseball — and so too may Phil Mickelson.  Caveat emptor.