Financially Pinched MLB Teams Turn to Social Media to Sell Tickets

Social media platforms have served as low-cost marketing channels for all kinds of budget-strapped companies during the ongoing economic crisis. Major League Baseball franchises haven’t typically been among the earliest adopters, but they are getting into the game in a serious fashion this season.

The San Francisco Giants have been gearing up on Twitter, while attempting to entice a followers base of 19,000. For instance, the team ran a “tweet-up” tickets special in late April that included inexpensively priced seats and a commemorative T-shirt. Twitter president Biz Stone and Giants pitcher Jeremy Affeldt participated on a tweet panel, with numerous fans of the team also tweeting away.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The Washington Nationals have let barely half an hour pass recently without hyping rookie sensation Stephen Strasburg on its Facebook page; the Cleveland Indians are leveraging Groupon to sell half-price tickets; the Seattle Mariners are getting fans to check in on Foursquare during games; and the Houston Astros have pitched Facebook-exclusive ticket offers twice this season and plan on doing more.

Indeed, MLB teams are trying to squeeze all the engagement they can out of social media in order to put butts in seats.

“It’s something we started doing more of towards the end of last year,” said Alyson Footer, senior director of social media for the Houston Astros. “I think it’s something that you are going to see more and more of and, by the end of this season, you’ll see [most MLB teams] doing social media in full force.”

The Astros have accrued 137,000 fans since launching its Facebook page last year. The ball club has chiefly built up the audience with constant plugs on Astros.com, as well as via a blog written by Footer – who became well-known as an Astros.com beat reporter covering the team before taking on marketing responsibilities.

The fan page has also been pushed via digital scoreboards at the team’s home games at Minute Maid Park, she said. And whether it’s a Facebook-based ticket offer or other single-game ticket discounts, the specials are also distributed to the Astros’ 5,000 Twitter followers.

“I think – like social media communications in general – the [Facebook] ticket offers engender goodwill by reaching out to the fan base,” Footer explained. “The deals are really good – usually half-price tickets… I don’t have the exact numbers in front of me, but I can tell you the response has been pretty good.”

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Outside of a few MLB exceptions – such as the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Los Angeles Dodgers – most teams in the league have had difficulty filling stadiums in the last two seasons because of the economic crisis. And some marketing departments for the clubs have had to contend with fan apathy due to a team’s lack of success on the field in addition to thinning wallets.

The Astros are one of those teams. It had a losing record in 2009 and has spent much of this season in last place in its division. Utilizing Facebook and Twitter has not only helped the Houston team bring more people to the ballpark, Footer suggested, but it’s also created what all modern marketers strive for – engagement.

“That’s our intent,” she said. “Social media is a great way of communicating with our audience…certainly better than simply expecting them to pick up a newspaper.”

Michael Anderson, public relations manager for the Cincinnati Reds, echoed Footer’s sentiment about social media increasingly complementing – and sometimes supplanting – older methods of outreach. Specifically, his team leverages its Twitter follower base of 13,000 to inform fans of daily information items like a game’s starting lineup.

“[We] don’t even send out an e-mail anymore,” Anderson said. “When we get the official lineup from [manager Dusty Baker], the first thing we do is put that out on Twitter. That’s unique content, and we try to keep Twitter content unique. We don’t want to bog it down with too much repetitive stuff.”

In other MLB-related social media news, the league will reportedly unveil a self-developed Foursquare-like app next month. The locations-based app is expected to allow game attendees to check-in, get exclusive in-game content on their handhelds, and communicate with other fans who check-in around the stadium.

Follow Christopher Heine on Twitter at @ChrisClickZ.

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