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WWE – Slamming the Competition in Social TV

Like most red-blooded American males, I grew up spending my Saturday mornings in the 80s watching the cartoonish gladiators of the WWE – it was WWF back in my day – battle in the name of good vs. evil. If you talk to your generational counterparts, they likely remember more than they’d care to admit about the wrestling from their childhood, from Jake the Snake Roberts to Ravishing Rick Rude.

These days, however, by leveraging the power of social media and specifically Twitter, WWE is revolutionizing the social TV experience. It’s worth keeping an eye on, even if you’re too cool to watch wrestling – or admit to watching it.

Wrestling’s popularity seems to be cyclical not unlike the global economy, getting a boost every few years when a new personality breaks into mainstream media. Hulk Hogan and The Rock became household names thanks to their superstar status in the ring, and moved on to bigger and better things when ratings tapered off or storylines grew stale. Still, despite fluctuations in both popularity and mainstream exposure, wrestling’s been a consistent ratings generator for cable TV networks since the inception of the platform.

TV’s biggest evolution in recent years has been the proliferation of HDTV, but over the past 12 months, social media integration has really gained a foothold in the broadcast industry. Currently, WWE is perhaps the biggest TV brand that’s putting a headlock on hashtags and making their broadcast experience truly interactive, in the process becoming the undisputed champion of social TV.

WWE’s flagship broadcast Raw airs live on USA Network every Monday night, and claims to be the longest running episodic TV program in history. While you can classify it as wrestling, the matches seem to be few and far between, and the show’s content pinballs between sports, comedy, drama and reality TV. Raw is consistently the top-rated cable program in its timeslot from 9-11 PM, and that’s impressive, considering that the show competes head-to-head with Monday Night Football for nearly half the year.

While I’ve watched more than my share of wrestling over the years, I’ve recently been drawn back in by WWE’s impressive efforts in the social media arena, and their overt efforts to socialize their programming. I expect sports broadcasting to follow suit sooner rather than later.

The company has already established a huge footprint across Facebook and Twitter, with nearly seven million likes for WWE’s Facebook page alone. Still, that doesn’t count the audience that each of their wrestlers have accumulated. John Cena, wrestling’s biggest active star, has nearly nine million Facebook likes, while characters like Triple H (2.6 MM Likes), and CM Punk (~500k Likes) have large followings controlled by the company’s headquarters in Stamford, CT.

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WWE has worked to integrate social media, and specifically Twitter, into the storylines and presentation of its live weekly wrestling program. Here, wrestlers are introduced in lower thirds with their Twitter handles displayed.

Most of the wrestlers have their own Twitter accounts, and they seemingly operate them with a great degree of autonomy. They also enjoy impressive followings on the platform; Cena has nearly one million followers, while CM Punk, a star who recently gained notoriety, enjoys an audience of nearly 385,000 on Twitter. It’s not uncommon for the wrestlers to extend their in-ring storylines to the digital media arena, tweeting at their opponents to keep the rivalries going throughout the rest of the week. It’s a clever way for WWE to blur the lines between the wrestlers’ real lives and characters, and it keeps fans interested even when WWE programming is off the air.

On the air, however, WWE is taking it a step further, deeply integrated Twitter into their weekly Raw broadcast. Moments after the show opens with a shower of pyrotechnics and blistering music, commentators instruct fans to tweet about the show with the hashtag #Raw. Lower thirds and theme songs trumpet wrestlers’ arrival on stage, but Raw recently added a new wrinkle. Almost every lower third features the wrestler’s name and his Twitter handle. It’s a nice touch.

Ironically, despite a significant effort to choreograph the conversation around the show, with such a massive social audience tuning in, WWE generates an enormous volume of organic chatter each Monday night. Characters, as well as their dialogue, regularly trend worldwide within moments after appearing on the show. This Monday night, 30 minutes into the program, “Kevin Nash”, “Teddy Long” and “Christian and Cody Rhodes” were all trending topics on Twitter.

For example, Kevin Nash is a longtime wrestling personality who recently resurfaced on WWE programming. Apparently, if you want to make an impact on Raw, the easiest way is to ambush your old friend Triple H from behind with a sledgehammer! Seems excessive, but it was certainly effective, as Nash killed two birds with one stone. He sent Triple H to the hospital, and instantly became a worldwide trending topic on Twitter. Charlie Sheen would call that “#WINNING.”

Kevin Nash - Trending Topic

Moments after appearing on Raw, Kevin Nash was a worldwide trending topic, and WWE was boasting about it on screen shortly thereafter.

Minutes later, the show did something unique, displaying “Kevin Nash” in an on-screen graphic, declaring him as a worldwide trending topic as play-by-play commentators informed the audience of the accomplishment. (They also noted their concern for Triple H as he convalesced from the sledgehammer attack.)

Despite the violent nature of this Monday’s opening segment, Raw typically features more dialogue between the combatants than brutal attacks and proper wrestling matches. Semi-scripted diatribes from wrestlers directed at opponents or the crowd are called “promos” in the wrestling industry, and they convey much of the inherent storytelling of the program. It’s not uncommon for a character to make an obscure reference during a promo to get the audience’s attention, and typically, those references will trend in minutes as fans tweet about what their favorite hero or anti-hero is discussing.

Cena took it a step further on Monday by promoting his relatively unknown tag-team partner Zack Ryder in his backstage promo, telling his boss – and the audience, for that matter – to follow his Twitter handle (@ZackRyder). It was blatantly shoehorned into Cena’s segment, but it was another clever way to encourage audience participation.

Honestly, there was so much Twitter talk that it bordered on overkill; repeated mentions of Twitter throughout the two-hour live broadcast began to grow stale. WWE may want to dial it back slightly, because it threatened to become obnoxious. Still, they’re experimenting to find the proper mix of social integration to compliment their wildly successful show, and they’ve made a commitment to make Monday nights a social experience for wrestling fans and Twitter junkies alike. It’s groundbreaking stuff, and you can expect more of your favorite TV shows to follow their lead.

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“I’ll Write It…And We’ll Do it Live!”

Broadcasting is probably not my strong suit, but I had the chance to try a little something different on Friday, filling in as a guest co-host on the weekly live webcast for Hubspot, an inbound marketing company in Cambridge, MA. Joining Hubspot CMO Mike Volpe for their live streaming “Marketing Update,” I took a crack at live broadcasting for the first time. And while I was given a format ahead of time for the basic outline of the show, for the most part, the show was pretty spontaneous, and in the proud tradition of Bill O’Reilly, Mike wrote it and we did it LIVE.

We covered a bunch of topics from the news of the week in social media in digital marketing, and spoke quite a bit about my role at the Celtics and how we attack social media. There’s a few laughs along the way as well.

I probably didn’t look at the camera enough, and my eyes just tend to wander when I talk in any setting, but overall I thought it went pretty well. Thanks to Mike and the team at Hubspot for allowing me to take part in the show. It was fun to do, and a pretty unique experience. We had a lot of fun with it, but I think Mr. O’Reilly’s job is safe for now.

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Erin Sharoni: Leveraging Twitter To Grow Your Brand

It wasn’t long ago that Erin Sharoni dismissed Twitter.

A year-and-a-half later, @ErinSharoni attributes much of her success to the microblogging platform and the contacts she’s made by connecting to people via Twitter.

Erin Sharoni

She’s currently the sideline reporter on Darren Rovell’s new show, “CNBC SportsBiz: Game On” which airs Fridays at 7pm EST on Versus, and Sharoni’s star–not to mention her following–is on the rise. Rovell (@darrenrovell) is the preeminent sports business personality on Twitter, and the new TV show is quickly carving out its own niche covering the high-stakes financial side of the industry. Sharoni’s background in both finance and sports made her the perfect fit in a supporting role to Rovell.

Sharoni’s career and interests are all over the place. A trained dancer, artist, actor and musician from Queens, NY, she worked in finance for the majority of her career – and never loved it. But her apathy for the financial world aside, she certainly learned to diversify her portfolio, so to speak. The 2003 Wesleyan grad with a degree in Digital Media and Architecture is a tech geek who can build you a desktop computer one day and get in front of the camera for a fitness-modeling shoot the next. She appears in the upcoming feature film Peace After Marriage, which is set for a 2011 release. A former swim coach and personal trainer, Sharoni’s naturally a sports junky and diehard New York Knicks fan.

Given her varied interests and jack-of-all-trades background, her LinkedIn profile seems a bit incongruous, but when you talk to her at length, Sharoni’s recent career path makes a lot more sense. She’s not afraid of opportunity when it knocks, and she knows how to open her own doors as well. Twitter’s been prominently involved in much of her recent success and is helping her extend her reach.

I connected with Sharoni on Twitter after offering feedback about “CNBC Sports Biz: Game On”, and found her story fascinating. So I reached out to her to chat more about how Twitter has helped grow her career and personal brand over the last year. Once a non-believer, Sharoni has embraced the power of Twitter and is now a self-described “huge advocate” of the service.

“Largely I attribute where I am today to social media. I mean, I also attribute it to my own ability to hustle and be industrious, and to my own talent as well, but social media has helped in a huge, huge way,” Sharoni said. “Twitter has helped with half of my success and half of my connections–it’s connected me to people who’ve helped with my success.”

Sharoni admitted that she was originally underwhelmed by Twitter and the hype surrounding it. “I was anti-Twitter because I am anti-conventional, or just skeptical. I was not informed about Twitter. We in the Twitter world think everyone is on it, but many people are not on it and have no idea how to use it. When people don’t know something they tend to be scared of it.”

Her first offline break came about a year ago, when a friend suggested she attend an open casting call for a FILA modeling shoot. After getting the part, Sharoni was featured in a national campaign for the struggling athletic apparel company. But when the company was covered during Rovell’s regular sports business segment on CNBC, Sharoni met Rovell, who learned of her interests in sports, finance and Twitter.

Rovell later mentioned Sharoni on Twitter after she’d appeared on the show, sending out a picture of her ad campaign. Sharoni instantly picked up 600 followers.

“Wait a second. This is really powerful,” Sharoni thought. That tweet led to Sharoni’s next big break when St. John’s University was looking for a host for their Red Storm Report show, and DIME Magazine also found her on Twitter as well.

“I had no idea how to do sideline reporting, but I can write and I can act, so I thought it can’t be that difficult, right? Of course, it’s a completely different beast, but I loved it,” Sharoni said.

That experience set the table for her gig on “CNBC Sports Biz: Game On”, where 4,000 followers later, Sharoni is featured in a weekly segment with Rovell chatting about the news of the day in the sports industry. And when she’s not on the air, she’s online keeping the conversation going on the #SBGameOn hashtag, gathering feedback from viewers and further discussing stories from the program.

“Now, my literal job is the show, so my main focus is helping to promote the show and that doesn’t mean just, ‘hey we’re on at 7pm on Fridays,’ but it means interacting with viewers, getting their feedback, and also, staying relevant in that niche or that circle so you’re on people’s minds. So that’s not about me, that’s about the show and trying to drive traffic to it and seeing what makes people tick.

“The show premiered a few weeks ago, so my follower base increased, I get more mentions, and it gives me more incentive to be on there more often because I can interact with people and they’ll generally reply,” Sharoni said.

Whether she’s tweeting about the Ortiz-Mayweather boxing controversy, or reading up on quantum physics, Sharoni enjoys interacting with people from all over the world through the service. She checks up on her Klout score–she’s listed at 68 and considered a “pundit” by the service–and is fascinated by the idea that she can influence people on the service even when they don’t specifically follow her.

Sharoni says she’s trying to create a persona and give people a reason to follow her, and ultimately offer up information that people can’t find anywhere else.

“My end goal is to tweet interesting stuff that people want to retweet and comment on,” Sharoni said. “You’re broadcasting yourself to the world. I think that’s the theme of the generation, and the different modalities we’re using to do that are going to grow and change over time organically.”

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AdAge Interview on Facebook Marketing

Before presenting a case study of the Celtics Facebook game, 3-Point Play, at the DMA conference in Boston last week, I was interviewed by Christine Bunish for a perspective piece in AdAge’s DMA section. The following is a transcript from that interview that appeared in the magazine.

“Digital technologies and social media have only recently become marketing tools for the Boston Celtics, but there’s always something new to learn about them.

“We got on board early with Facebook and Twitter, and built large audiences around them: Our 5.2 million Facebook “likes” is the second-largest audience in North American team sports; and at 220,000 Twitter followers, we rank the third-highest in the NBA. We’re out in front because we got there early and made social media a priority for communicating with our fan base all over the world.

“We were the first team in the league with a Facebook app—and among the first in pro sports—when we launched in October 2009. That app, Celtics 3-Point Play, allows us to identify fans on Facebook and get them into our database. It’s a simple fantasy game that enables people to predict players’ stats before every game and get awarded points.

“We can identify fans and collect basic marketing information through 3-Point Play, and then we can turn these fans into customers who buy jerseys, tickets and—the ultimate goal—season tickets. In the two seasons we’ve had about 180,000 people play, and we got marketing info for about 85,000 who live in New England. Our existing email database was about 250,000. So we experienced a huge percentage growth to our overall email base.

“When people sign up for 3-Point Play, we can find out if they’ve bought tickets in the past. We sold $150,000 in tickets to fans who played last season. Some would have bought tickets regardless, but it tells us that Facebook fans do come to the games and want to become customers.

“Overall, there’s more social media integration on our website. We’ve seen traffic drop on, but we’ve had dramatic growth on our social media. People want you to come to them as they spend more time on Facebook and Twitter and less time surfing the Web. You have to be where your fans are discussing your brand and engage them with a constant presence and dialogue.”

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