Don’t Manage Social Media Like the NFL
The National Football League in recent weeks has arguably earned more attention for its unusually tight social media policy than anything happening on the field. The league is starting to reverse course, but it nonetheless remains a great example of how not to manage a social strategy.
A couple of months ago, the National Football League—which makes billions of dollars on television contracts each year—had a really bad idea.
The league, as part of its social media policy, decided to limit the ability for teams to share videos, animated GIFs, or livestreams of games currently in play. Nor could they shoot their own videos from within the stadium while play was in progress. The teams, instead, had to wait for the NFL itself to approve game footage that could then be shared online.
The idea, according to Mashable, was for the NFL to keep control of what was being shared on different outlets, and to put the focus less on individual teams as well as the league as a whole. (And because this is the NFL we’re talking about, the strategies were attached to fines of up to $100,000 per violation—penalties that were more costly than anything happening during a game.)
To put it simply, the NFL wants more control of its most valuable clips. It’s understandable, to a degree: The league doesn’t make money from people watching GIFs of game action, but it does make money from ESPN sharing a highlight of something happening in a game.
This policy proved extremely controversial with social-friendly fans and teams alike—an example of why the NFL is sometimes called the “no fun league.” Part of the complaint, per Yahoo Finance, was that the the NFL moves too slowly with its social media strategy, and that the centralized approach was making it impossible for teams to highlight big plays. One social media official who spoke to the website’s Daniel Roberts put it like this: “The league says they never miss a viral moment. Yes they do.”
TOUCHDOWN BROWNS! pic.twitter.com/RjRt9DVlpB— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) October 16, 2016
Some teams, such as the Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles, responded satirically to the rules, replacing actual game action with a tabletop equivalent. NFL Players Association Assistant Executive Director of External Affairs George Atallah suggested that the tweets pointed out that the league had “reached near peak ridiculous” with its social strategy.
(And it wasn’t the first time, either. The NFL, last year, raised a few eyebrows among fans after twisting Twitter’s arm in an attempt to bar two popular news outlets—Deadspin and SB Nation—from sharing GIFs on their Twitter accounts.)
This past weekend, with the regular season nearing the finish line, the NFL appeared to be taking the criticism to heart. According to Yahoo Finance, the league decided to loosen its policy once again—not allowing clips of game action but opening up non-highlight video, including touchdown dances and halftime ceremonies. Additionally, the league struck a deal with GIPHY for putting game video online—but not, it turns out, until after the game.
Mashable’s Jacob Lauing suggests they may be overthinking things a tad. “So, to recap, the NFL went from no GIFs during games to having a deal with the biggest GIF host online,” Lauing writes. “But still no GIFs of plays that just happened.”
But still, it’s a better situation than it was a week ago.
The Problem With Too Many Rules
To me, this whole state of affairs, despite the clear difference in scale between professional sports and associations, sounds awfully familiar. It’s the kind of thing that naturally happens when an organization gets too aggressive with managing a social strategy designed for a large group of people.
There are definite cases where this kind of control might be called for—such as, for example, when the American Health Care Association created guidelines for its members after nursing home employees made improper comments about residents.
And there are plenty of cases where saying the wrong things will get you in trouble. In 2013, I wrote about Pax Dickinson, the former chief technology officer of Business Insider who lost his job over his controversial tweets. Clearly, there was an obvious line that was crossed in that case. (Dickinson, for what it’s worth, was recently suspended from Twitter as part of the network’s ongoing efforts to combat hate and harassment.)
But there’s a difference between organizationally putting thoughtful limits on how people use their social accounts and actively trying to stifle uses of social media for larger business reasons.
It’s not outside of the imagination, for example, for an association to tell its employees ahead of an event not to share certain parts of the event online—say, a short video of a presenter saying something astute—out of concerns that it threatens the business goals of the association, which puts its own webcasts behind a paywall. (Or that, if such sharing happens, it be limited to one carefully curated account.)
Yes, there are certain places where this makes sense. For example, a startup drew buzz earlier this year for creating sock-sized cellphone cases designed to prevent mobile phone use at concerts—helping to preserve what might be intended by artists as an intimate experience.
On the other hand, a strong-armed approach to social media, as the NFL is currently learning, is a slippery slope, and one that might do much more harm than good. By limiting the teams’ ability to share viral elements around their own games, they hand off that market to someone else or limit the momentum around its sport at a time when TV ratings are down.
Much of the conversation around brands—be they associations or otherwise—happen on social media these days. It’s just the way marketing is done nowadays. There may be a natural desire to want to craft that approach in a very polished, specific way, like a TV commercial or a print ad.
But that’s not what social media is about, really: It’s about keeping your voice in the conversation. Not controlling it.
So let go of the reins a little. Guidelines, not rules.