Video: ClickZ visits the hockey club's innovative social media station.
NJ Devils branded iPad
Two Devils Army Generals are wandering The Prudential Center showing off their iPads and letting fans of the New Jersey hockey team know they can rent one to use during the game. Meanwhile, back at Mission Control, another Devils army general - the official rank has been given to 25 fans selected to assist in the team's social media efforts - responds to a ritual pre-game inquiry: Who will score the team's first goal?
"Kovalchuk by a landslide," says Mark Donatiello, a general on duty during the game time shift who has been keeping track of fan predictions.
It's just another home game night at The Prudential Center in Newark, NJ, home of National Hockey League club The New Jersey Devils. Donatiello is one of two generals embedded in the team's new social media bunker, officially known as the Mission Control Digital Command Center. It's set in a central location in the team's administrative offices.
For the record, defenseman Henrik Tallinder scored the first goal of that March 2 game for the Devils, but left wing Ilya Kovalchuk came through to score in the third period, edging the Devils to a 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Game Night Shift
Devils Army Generals in Mission Control
Mark Donatiello at left, Michael Accardi right
Donatiello and fellow general Michael Accardi just replaced other generals volunteering for a midday shift during which they monitored pre-game social media discussions and posted to the team’s for fans/by fans @DevilsGenerals Twitter account.
It's Accardi's "seventh or eighth" time manning the monitoring station, a small room with several flatscreen computer and TV monitors, and Apple iPads skinned in Devils red and black. He and the other generals - typically decked out in Devils team jerseys and ball caps - come and go throughout the day for multi-hour shifts.
"This has really just given me a renewed sense of [being a part of] the team, a feeling that I can have my input and be kind of the voice of some of the fans," said Accardi. "It’s just a unique perspective and something that’s really made me more of a fan than I was already." Of course, fan engagement online and off isn't hurt by the fact that the Devils, following an abysmal season start, have achieved a miraculous comeback putting them in the running for a playoff position.
The scene could become a common one throughout the NHL, and perhaps other sports leagues as well. It all started during the summer of 2010, when the team's owners and alumni players toured 13 cities in the Garden State, hosting "listening parties" in the hopes of learning directly from fans what they could be doing better.
As it turned out, many sentiments and questions raised by Devils diehards ("My seat in section 131 is loose," "What happened to the taco stand that used to be on the upper level?") were also communicated in social media environments. The team realized a more strategic approach to engaging fans on Twitter, Facebook and fan blogs would help strengthen relationships, better manage the Devils brand, and assist with customer service goals.
"There's a need to create critical mass in this area, to organize, to capitalize and simply to facilitate a strong message," said Rich Krezwick, president of Devils Arena Entertainment, the operations company for The Devils and related brands including The Prudential Center. "I personally spend a ton of time monitoring a lot of the online chatter and so does our owner Jeff Vanderbeek," said Krezwick. "It comes from all directions. That's the exciting, dynamic aspect of what we're doing, but it's also a very risky aspect of all of this."
Roll Call and Other Drills Keep @DevilsGenerals in Line
Entrusting a volunteer crew of bloggers and tweeters - fans who are accustomed to pushing out their own ideas about the team - to present a cohesive message may seem risky if not impossible. However, Krezwick stressed, "This is a business initiative. This is all about conducting business in an organized fashion."
Since launching Mission Control February 16, the Devils have distributed a Washington-style Morning Briefing each day at 10 am to all staff and generals with information on key team topics. A live 20-minute phone call follows during which staff and generals learn more about what is expected of them that day.
In the past week or so, said Krezwick, the chatter has focused on season ticket renewals. "We made sure everyone was versed in all the details of it...so they're able to respond to it immediately" if someone asks a question or posts incorrect information about the ticket offers. "If there is a call-in to a radio show that is incorrect or derogatory, our generals are going to be all over that," he said, noting they are being trained to correct misinformation via Twitter and other social platforms.
Mission Control is just one initiative within a year-long program developed in conjunction with sports marketing consultancy Activate Sports and Entertainment. Building a physical hub for social media monitoring and activity was part of the plan from the beginning, inspired by Dell's Social Media Listening Command Center and Gatorade's Mission Control, both established last year.
iPads, Stress Pucks, and Bringing the Virtual In-Game
Before the March 2 game began, Devils Marketing Director Will Carafello sat at his desk in the Mission Control room, using HootSuite to survey Twitter mentions of the team via three computer monitors. This was the first home game during which the team introduced a fan-suggested song into the in-game mix. Throughout the day, fans posted their ideas for the "Song of the Day" via Twitter, tagging them with the #NJDSONG hashtag. The winner among hundreds of suggestions - Van Halen's "Runnin' with the Devil" - was especially fitting.
Another virtual to real-world tie-in: The team displays the Twitter handles of fans who vote for the winning song, then posts photos of the scoreboard display to Twitter via Twitpic.
NJ Devils Digital Zone
The "iPad Education" initiative was also new that night. Two generals were dispatched to mingle with other fans as they made their ways to the restrooms or to buy another beer. In addition to teaching them how to use the iPad, the generals were tasked with making sure fans followed the team on Twitter or liked the Devils on Facebook. The team allows fans to rent iPads for use during the game at "The Digital Zone," a hub housing computer monitors and player memorabilia located on the main floor of the Prudential Center.
The select group of male and female generals was plucked from hundreds of hopefuls who submitted essays and met with team decision-makers in group and one-on-one interviews. About a month after Mission Control launched, the team has not experienced any significant problems with the 25 generals it chose as its inaugural members.
"Our business plan was to have six to 10 [generals], but the response was so overwhelming, we found 25 that we could not say 'no' to," said Krezwick. "I expect that there will be term limits," he added. "We'll re-address it next season."
Though the generals seem to realize the rare opportunity they've been afforded, and operate under a code of conduct, they've also subjected themselves to self-policing. One of the social media brass, for instance, sent an e-mail to his fellow generals reminding them to be mindful of the rules of engagement.
The generals also took it upon themselves to organize a tweetup that was attended by around 50 people, the type of event the team may promote more officially in the future. In fact, they've already had an impact in a more tangible way. After asking @DevilsGenerals followers what giveaway they'd like to receive at an upcoming game, fans conjured up a stress ball-inspired "stress puck" promo. The Devils found a sponsor for the giveaway - Holy Name Medical Center - and attendees will receive their stress pucks at a game sometime in April.
Having watched their team win 12 of their last 13 games, however, many Devils fans are feeling calmer than they have all season.
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Kate Kaye was Managing Editor at ClickZ News until October 2012. As a daily reporter and editor for the original news source, she covered beats including digital political campaigns and government regulation of the online ad industry. Kate is the author of Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media, the only book focused on the paid digital media efforts of the 2008 presidential campaigns. Kate created ClickZ's Politics & Advocacy section, and is the primary contributor to the one-of-a-kind section. She began reporting on the interactive ad industry in 1999 and has spoken at several events and in interviews for television, radio, print, and digital media outlets. You can follow Kate on Twitter at @LowbrowKate.
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