Digital Momentum for NJ Devils on Draft Day and Beyond

ipadThe New Jersey Devils take a strategic yet experimental approach to social media, and the hockey club’s recent dive into the uncharted waters of virtual team stock investing is just one example. The Devils launched a comprehensive social media program early this year – complete with a battalion of fans selected to assist in the project. But now that the NHL season is over, there’s no shortage of fodder for digital discussion aimed at maintaining fan engagement, whether it be tomorrow’s start of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, next season’s game schedule, or summer concerts at the Devils’ home, The Prudential Center in Newark.

The Devils launched Mission Control, both a brand name for the social media initiative as well as an actual hub stocked with flat-screen computer and TV monitors, and red and black-skinned Apple iPads in the team’s administrative offices, in February. Since then, the team hired a new Mission Control coordinator, and Devils execs have fielded phone calls from other clubs interested in developing similar projects.

There’s been no sign of a slowdown since the Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup earlier this month. The team’s #Devils1stPick hashtag and promise of a prize for guessing correctly has spurred a long list of tweets this week that use the tag – and feature some surnames that are perfect for ice hockey, like Huberdeau and Couturier.

The Devils will pair up with division rivals The New York Islanders to host a tweet-up in Manhattan as part of Mashable’s Social Media Day on June 30 – an off-season, hockey-embracing détente of sorts. It’s planning to launch “Devils Deals” discounts on tickets, merchandise, and other exclusive offers for its Facebook likers. The team is even asking hockey addicts to use the #IsItOctoberYet? hashtag on Twitter to maintain momentum behind the sport through the summer months.

Recent tweets from the official @DevilsGenerals account typify the team’s approach to Twitter, which it uses not only as a way to spark conversation, but as a communication channel (“If you’re participating in #Devils1stPick make sure you’re following us so we can DM if you win!”) and customer service (“Fans who asked about age limit to #DevsSMDay: We will be finding out & tweeting an answer by tomorrow.”)

The Devils are even wagering that virtual investing will spur excitement online. Virtual stock in The New Jersey Devils is now available through Empire Avenue, an online stock market simulation game that allows members to buy shares in people and other entities using free virtual currency. The system operates on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, and Flickr. Stock values rise and fall based on social media clout: Facebook likes, Twitter followers, etc.

For The Devils, the goal is to give fans the opportunity to “invest” in the team they love. “I think it relates at every level,” said Rich Krezwick, president of Devils Arena Entertainment, the operations company for The Devils and related brands including The Prudential Center, regarding the Empire Avenue effort. “I think you can mold it in different ways for different audiences,” he continued, suggesting that hardcore hockey fans with real stock market knowledge might interact with the game differently than the way a young college finance major who roots for The Devils might.

During hockey season, members of the 25-man and -woman roster of Devils Army Generals, charged with fueling digital discussions and activity around the team, took turns working multi-hour shifts in the Mission Control room throughout the day and during games. In the off-season they’re seen at Mission Control less frequently, though they still carry on daily tasks virtually.

Tomorrow’s Draft is on the minds of every General, and the team has deployed them to sift through the reams of information about the potential picks to surface little known tidbits about the players – in the same way a publication might crowd-source for story research.

“What is that one nugget of info that only Mission Control has? That’s what we focus on,” said Krezwick.

Krezwick, who when he spoke with ClickZ News in March called Mission Control “a business initiative” intended to be conducted “in an organized fashion,” sees the project as a lesson in branding focus. “You could be doing exactly the same thing for any other entity but without the brand focus” it wouldn’t work as well, he said.

For instance, he explained that before Mission Control existed, if the Prudential Center were to promote a concert event, the marketing department might take a more general approach by posting about it to Facebook or sending out an email blast. “Now we walk into a special place – Mission Control. I give them the information and they have a template of what to do,” said Krezwick.

“For our fan base and the rest of the sports business world, it’s not ‘The Devils are good at social media.’ It’s ‘The Devils have Mission Control.’ It’s an exercise in branding.”

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