100 Brains: NHL's Michael DiLorenzo on social media and the 2010-2011 season

In recognition of tonight's pre-season start, we begin the "100 Brains" series discussing how the NHL connects with its community, which according to DiLorenzo, include the most passionate sports fans in the world.
Written by Jennifer Leggio, Contributor

Tonight die-hard hockey fans will smile a little brighter as the NHL pre-season debuts with games in Philadelphia, Toronto and Calgary. The games may only be pre-season but they begin a sacred drumbeat that pounds in the heart of every fan; the drumbeat to the 2010-2011 regular season. Few people know this sound better than Michael DiLorenzo. As the NHL's director of social media marketing and strategy, DiLorenzo has been focused on engaging with the hockey community and using social to help scale awareness of the sport. In recognition of tonight's pre-season start, we begin the "100 Brains" series with DiLorenzo talking about how the league connects with its community, which according to him, is made up of the most passionate sports fans in the world.

Q. [Jennifer]We're getting close to the start of the 2010-2011 NHL season. How has social media played a part in prepping for the news season, both at a league level and at a team level?

A. [Michael] Social Media continues to have growing importance as an audience development device for the NHL. This year we have more ambitious plans to synchronize our events and marketing calendars with our social media channels, so we can adequately amplify the biggest events taking place around the League and invite fans to participate with us (which can range from attending, or sharing their voice with us on digital channels). We continue to want to shorten the distance between the fans and the League. Our teams are really embracing social media, too. We are seeing teams do much more in the way of specific campaigns designed to activate and excite fans around the start of the season, when all 30 teams have very high hopes. Whether it's Tweetups or Facebook apps, social is definitely something our teams view as a "must have" fan touch point.

Q. The NHL has come a long way with social, over the last two years especially. What are some of the biggest lessons learned so far?

A. Four lessons stand out. First, as trite as it sounds, it's important to listen to the consumer. When we listen to our fans and let them know we hear them, it can really make a difference. A perfect example of that was the blogger "Campaign for Change." The second lesson is that brands should not expect social media to be a high performing marketing channel unless they commit adequate resources to it. Third, there is so much we don't know about all of the opportunities in social media. That's why we take a lot of vendor meetings, we enlist strategic counsel from our agency of record and strategic consultants, and we read as much as we can. The final major lesson is that the dialog around sports is a natural for social media, and as a result there is significant demand from other brands to market to NHL fans on our social media channels.

Q. Professional hockey unfortunately has a stigma in the U.S. of being a "secondary" professional sport. How will the NHL continue to use social to change that?

A. I am not sure we think in these terms. Instead, we look at a tremendous fan demographic and ask, "What are the new content forms, platforms and distribution channels that can help us most effectively service an insatiable fan demand for NHL content?" We need to first capture all of these opportunities. But in terms of how we will use social to drive scale... we will continue to leverage social as an important means for shortening the distance between the League and fans. We will use data to inform programming of social media. Relevant fan experiences and pervasive marketing will drive fan activation and, particularly around big moments like the Winter Classic or Stanley Cup Playoffs, fan acquisition. That will increase demand for content and drive distribution opportunities - television, digital, etc.

Q. How are NHL fans engaging with players, the league, and other supporters online?

A. NHL fans are the most tech-savvy among the major sports (in terms of gadgets, broadband and HDTVs). So, social media is right in their wheelhouse. At the same time, and I am speaking anecdotally, I feel like our fans are the most passionate. Canadian fans are among our most sophisticated, and real stewards of the game. Our Original Six markets are steeped in tradition and knowledge. And then you have "newer" markets where fan interest is rampant, like Washington, Pittsburgh, Philly, Minnesota and others. As a result, I think our fans are active not only in following the League, teams and players on social media, but sounding off directly to us. I would also put NHL fans up against any others when it comes to trash talking with each other.

Q. Do you think that other more "popular" professional sports could learn something about social engagement from what the NHL is doing?

A. No question. I have always felt that our "voice" is the most authentic. I think we do the most speaking *with* our fans, and the least speaking *at* them. That said we are also in position to learn a great deal from them, too. I particularly admire the NBA and its ability to reach fans with special offers; and the NFL has done a great job driving executive participation in social networking. I also envy the level of player participation the other Leagues enjoy. But our players are still the toughest!

Q. Aside from any work you might do in social, how has social media changed your life?

A. Getting involved in social media is one of the three most important things I've done professionally. But how has it changed my life? I suppose it is convenience. I always practiced the things that social media enables - networking, maintaining connections, sharing photos and links, staying in touch with old friends. Social networks just make it so much easier (and more powerful).

Q. What is your social media engagement philosophy?

A. My philosophy is not to have a philosophy. I want to be able to freelance the approach depending on any number of factors. While maintaining fewer, high quality relationships certainly has its value, it's also good karma to democratize access. And you never know where and when a good business opportunity might come from.

Social Business "100 Brains" is a series of 100 interviews with some of social media's most compelling "thinkers" and "tinkerers." Each interview aims to showcase each subject's most unique perspectives and talents. Interviews will run until December 31, 2010. Know a top "thinker" or "tinkerer"? Send an email using the form below.

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