Tribe opens up to social media users

These days in Cleveland, it's all LeBron James, all the time.

"Within Cleveland, things that get good press get put up high on a pedestal," said Dominic Litten, a social media strategist at Point to Point, a Cleveland-based marketing and advertising company. "So when the Cavs are doing really well, that's all we hear about.

"When it's Browns season, that's all we hear about. So the Indians are kind of being left behind right now; 2008 and 2009 were pretty bad. They really just don't have a whole lot of people talking about them; in general, people are pretty down on the team in town."

So at a time when the Indians experienced the lowest attendance in Progressive Field history, the Indians are flipping the script, reaching out and inserting themselves into Cleveland sports fans' conversations this season. And they're doing it in the most forward-thinking of ways: establishing a 10-seat section in left field for bloggers and social media users in an effort to engage fans and further the Indians' brand in the social media space.

It's called the Tribe Social Deck.

Think of it as a press box for social media types -- tweeters and bloggers get a press kit, media guide and press releases, and they are free to update followers and readers throughout the game just as they normally would. But unlike the traditional press box, they don't get any access to players or managers.

And it's just the first effort in a multi-pronged social media plan the Indians have devised along with Digital Royalty, which the team partnered with earlier this year.

"We knew that with our fan base being what it is, and for as many as our fans being in the space, we needed to engage with them in a positive manner," said Curtis Danburg, Indians director of communications and creative services, in a phone interview Wednesday. "To reconnect with fans, or to connect to a new generation with fans that are into social media."

Litten, who was invited and attended the Tribe Social Deck trial run on Opening Day and wrote about the experience on Point to Point's blog, said the Indians aren't looking to control the message sent out by those from the deck, a stance that he describes as "admirable," considering that's not always the case with bigger brands.

Though the Indians invited some influential social media industry types to start, active Indians fans on Twitter will also have ample opportunity to join in, as the team is currently in the midst of putting together an application to apply for a spot in one of the 10 seats.

"We want to be engaged with the casual fan that is an influencer and active in social media," Danburg said. "The focus right now is creating brand affinity and trying to understand where the fans are in their mind and how they relate to our brand. Even the casual Twitter user, somebody that is very active talking about the Indians, we want to understand how they view the Indians, and try to understand where their angst might be, or what are the good things we're doing."

The Indians certainly aren't the first professional sports team to let nontraditional media in for coverage. Plenty of teams across the country have credentialed Internet-only scribes. In the NHL, the Islanders have something called the Blog Box, in which credentialed bloggers are allowed to view the game and then have access to coaches and players afterward. Many bloggers in the ESPN affiliate TrueHoop and SweetSpot networks are also credentialed to cover NBA and MLB games, respectively. And of course, there's Peter Robert Casey, whom St. John's credentialed solely for his Twitter account for their men's basketball season.

But with the Indians' deck available to a wider swath of social media users and not just bloggers looking to do game coverage, Danburg said it's believed to be a first.

And the stroke of genius here isn't really about using a new form of communication to further their brand and get it more deeply ingrained in the social-media conversation; it's actually about the old-fashioned face-to-face.

When you have no personal connection to an individual or institution and can hide behind an online handle, it's easy to sit on the couch and blast away at a team with social media updates.

But when you're invited into someone's house, and they meet and chat with you -- Litten noted that attendees were able to chat with a senior member of the communications staff during the game -- it might make you think twice about what you're saying about such an institution.

So while the Indians aren't directly telling users what to send out to followers and the like, the whole process can have some influence on the type of coverage the team is getting.

"If we're not in that space, it's all one-sided," Danburg said. "We want to be a part of that conversation as opposed to it being one-sided."

Added Litten: "A lot of companies use Twitter to reach out and make it very personable. This is essentially no different than that.

"They're reaching out to people that are Cleveland sports enthusiasts or fans because they know these are the people that are going to spread that message: 'Hey, it's fun' or 'The Indians are doing cool things.'"

Some kinks still need to be worked out. Right now, there's no Wi-Fi in the area, something the team is hoping to rectify soon. Danburg noted the team is still trying to figure out the most efficient way to fill out the 10-seat area. The Indians hope it's filled for every game and they can continue it for years to come.

But for the here and now, it's a smart step to get the flow of Indians chatter online headed in a more positive direction, and other teams should take note.

Ryan Corazza is a freelance writer and Web designer based in Chicago.