ESPN’s Foray Into Social Media Quicksand

pacman twitter

When I first saw the two stories I linked to in yesterday’s post regarding ESPN’s social media smackdown, I was admittedly pretty shocked. The World Wide Leader decided to place some serious stipulations on their talent’s presence in the social media world. No platform was excluded: Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, blogs and any other social media outlet there is, are now all subject to ESPN’s Gestapo-like smackdown on their on-air personalities.

It’s unclear to me why ESPN would do something like this, but I’ll explore a couple different possibilities and then take a look at what this might mean for the rest of the industry in the social media world.

So what motivations does ESPN have for this and why is it a bad move on their part?

-ESPN seems to be worried about damaging things that its employees could say, either about their co-workers or about the company. The statement reeks of lawyers and jurisprudence. ESPN is most likely paranoid about a potential P.R. nightmare if Bill Simmons tweets a sarcastic comment about Rick Reilly, or if another personality is unhappy with an editorial decision and decides to write a blog post about it. The Leader, presumably, wants to avoid the situation entirely.

espn devil

-Like any other “brand,” ESPN wants to keep its message consistent. That means that the company wants its  goals and ideals to remain on point, from the leadership at the top down to its employees. This becomes very hard to do when your employees are off tweeting and blogging about a million different things, generally still related to the company’s focus, but not in the same way in which the company would like. For instance, if Tony Kornheiser tweets about a photo shoot with Danica Patrick, while this still relates to sports, it’s not exactly the message ESPN wants to be sending.

-ESPN referenced several times in its memo that the purpose of its employees using the social space should be to constantly promote and enhance ESPN. That tells me that the network is worried its parts could potentially become bigger than the whole. It seems they are worried that a Bill Simmons or Kenny Mayne could become so big in the social space, whether it’s on Twitter or Facebook or a blog, that they are no longer driving people to ESPN, but instead becoming their own entity.

– Because so many athletes now use social media, I think ESPN is worried about the types of interactions its personalities might have with these athletes. The ethical codes of the online world are hazy at best, and people often don’t think before they throw something in a blog post or tweet (which is stupid, because an online trail is easier to track than an offhand remark made on the street). Regardless, there could be some athlete-analyst conversations online that ESPN might not wants its employees to engage in, for whatever reason.

So what’s my problem with ESPN’s stance? A few points:

– The whole point of social media is to engage. For brands, social media engages consumers at the micro-level, developing a sense of brand loyalty and inter-connectedness that traditional means of advertising can only dream of (again, see: Buddy Media, the experts on this new form of targeted advertising). When ESPN’s personalities blog, tweet, message, etc., fans are able to interact with them in a way that is not available through television or writing. So why in the world would ESPN try to limit this? Though I mentioned they might fear their personalities grow bigger than or separate themselves from the ESPN brand, I don’t actually believe that. People know the talent works for ESPN. By engaging with them, they only grow closer to the network, even if it’s indirectly. If Person A likes what Scott Van Pelt is tweeting, and maybe gets a message from him, you better believe they’ll be tuning in to watch Van Pelt on Sportscenter. The same goes for writers and radio hosts. Engage the audience in their living room, and you’ll earn a permanent seat at their dinner table.


– By limiting the content that its personalities can use in the social space, ESPN loses a major edge in the race to deliver instant news. As Deadspin notes, people use Twitter to find out information when it’s happening, rather than waiting for an editor to parse through it. The Leader could fall victim to its own cautiousness if it keeps getting beat to scoops by reporters from other outlets tweeting.Plus, reading about the behind-the-scenes aspect of reporting is really appealing to me and many others, and makes following these personalities worthwhile.

As far as what this means for the rest of media depends on what they think of ESPN’s crackdown. If other outlets think this makes sense, Twitter might start to lose some of its luster. But I think media outlets currently make good use of Twitter, and reporters enjoy the new level of communication they have with their audience.

But all it takes is one bad apple to spoil the bunch (I think that’s the expression). Inevitably, a situation will arise that forces all media outlets to evaluate their use of social media. At that point, media outlets will either continue engaging its audience in the social realm or they’ll move back offline.

If they’re smart, they’ll choose the former.


4 responses to “ESPN’s Foray Into Social Media Quicksand

  1. As a big-time hater of twitter — I’ve already pointed you to a Kid Rock quote on the subject — I’m obviously biased, but I have to back ESPN’s decision.

    Your two main arguments against ESPN’s “twitter smackdown” are, in short, that it limits the brand’s chance to engage consumers, and that it loses out on another opportunity to break news.

    I can’t speak to the first one, because I can’t find it in me to understand how ESPN personalities’ constant 140-character updates fascinate so many people. I understand that Simmons providing an hourly dosage of stupid pop culture references is important to people, but I really don’t care that Marc Stein, “Finally made it to Disneyland for annual Line family visit but missed @mcuban by a few days. Our kids’ favorite ride? The Lego Store, still”, as told in his latest twitter update.

    If Bill Simmons is posting (apparently) desirable material on twitter, ESPN has the right, and should exercise that right, to be the exclusive provider of it. Because rather than paying him to create traffic for twitter, the traffic he generates from stupid pop culture references belongs to ESPN. I’m sure Bristol would be significantly happier if he just posted a day’s worth of 140 character or — wait for it! — LONGER pop culture references on their website.

    Which brings me to my argument against your second point, that of breaking news. Look, ESPN hands out big paychecks to get the best reporters, not to ensure that Twitter gets an extra million hits. Their hard work should be posted on ESPN and if fans want breaking news, check the ESPN website, or ESPN News, or the Bottom Line, or the countless other services ESPN provides, and generates income from, for fans who just can’t get enough sports. And if you think they’re worried about some Deadspin blogger breaking news before they do, they aren’t. Maybe one of those guys will come across a story first once or twice, but ESPN has on its payroll countless reporters from all corners of the country breaking news for it. So chances are, if ESPN limits twitter usage of its employees and only allows it on its website, they’ll still break 90 percent of stories.

    I know you don’t want me to post Kid Rock’s profanity laden tirade against Twitter, but in it I think he makes one good point: “I don’t have anything to say, and what I have to say is not that relevant. Anything that is relevant, I’m going to bottle it up and then squeeze it onto a record somewhere.”

    All ESPN is asking is that any of its employees’ relevant information be included on one of its many platforms, so that the millions of dollars spent it invests in its talent yields income to them – and not to those twits at twitter.

  2. ESPN is a joke. They are all part of the state run state paid for media. They all have the same template. All the same all the time. Original thought is banned at state run media. I am sorry but the only time I watch them is to check a score update or watch a college game or futebol game. Other than that nada. I total waste of my time.

    • State run media? ESPN? I’m not exactly sure what you are talking about. It’s fine if you don’t like ESPN (a lot of people don’t), but to say original thought is banned? I think you’re going a little too far there. Some people at that station think too outside of the box and end up sounding ridiculous.

      As for the same template, it’s a television station. People like things to stay the same. That’s how the game works.

  3. Great post Fuss

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