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The Superbowl is fast approaching, and the annual outpouring of fan and advertiser support serves as a source of inspiration and  envy for many other sports brands. Few people ignore the final game of the NFL season just because their team didn't make it past the playodffs. But that's an issue the National Hockey League has long been facing.

The hockey league has many devoted local fans, but getting them to care about the hockey season after their teams get kicked out of the final games has been an ongoing challenge. Last year, in the leadup to the playoffs, the NHL took to Twitter to rectify that situation.

NHL games are a hybrid of both local and national television viewing, so fans don't necessarily have the ability to watch all the games outside of their city. And while the company thought its traditional marketing team had done a good job getting fans to think locally, at the end of the season, the NHL needs them to think bigger.

"No one cancels their Superbowl watching bc their team isn't in it," says Michael DiLorenzo, Director of Social Media Marketing and Strategy at the NHL, who explained the campaign today in New York at the Business Development Institute's Social Integration conference.

To get hockey fans pumped for the playoffs, the NHL launched a PORTAL microsite (PORTAL here stands for "Playoff Obsession Raised To Another Level"). Features included assigning full-time reporters to each of the 16 playoffs clubs, a temporary rebranding of NHL.com’s daily online video feature “The Hockey Show” to the “Cisco All-Access Pre-Game Show,” a partnership with blog network SB Nation to connect various hockey blogs, more video sharing of content on the NHL Network and playoff-themed casual fantasy games.

DiLorenzo was charged with makin the push "larger than life," so he went to Twitter, where he thought the voices of 200 active fans might sound like 2000 or more, and from a fan suggestion the NHL Tweetup was born.

The firs Tweetup was sponsored by the NHL in New York, where the NHL hosted a hockey watching party repleat with hockey giveaways, a beer sponsorships and lunch shuttled over from a nearby McDonald's.

"That cheeseburger thing was a home run — actually — a hat trick" says DiLorenzo.

But as New York fans started tweeting about the event, other cities wanted in too. Soon there were over 2000 people organizing Tweetups and looking for NHL sponsorships.

And it was exactly that cross over — from what DiLorenzo calls the "virtual world" of Twitter to the real world — that the NHL had been looking for.

"The most important thing we do in social media," he says. "Is social inducement, or giving people a reason to get excited about our brand."

And that excitement also bred media attention. The response was largely positive. Kelly Samardak at MediaPost described the first NY Tweetup thusly:

"I was pleasantly surprised to see so many REAL hockey fans in attendance, not just the social media/tech crowd jumping on a Tweetup to promote and network. You could spot the real fans by their jerseys, their uninhibited yelps and grimaces, and their "I don't care what that guy on the mic ... is saying, the freakin' Rangers just scored!"

And the media attention means that when readers or fans go looking for NHL Tweetup information, there is a lot more out there.

"Lucky for us, the whole notion of a Tweetup was a mostly new phenomenon, and  there was interest from the media," says DiLorenzo. "which extended the shelflife of the story."

And there were also real world implications. According to TwitterCounter, NHL mentions on Twitter continued to grow as the season wore on, despite the fact that fewer teams were competing. At the end of the playoffs, the league experienced its highest buzz, even though there were only two teams competing, which they considered achieving their goal of achieving national attention.

But in the meantime, NHL Tweetops have become a self-sustaining phenom. Now people continually throw parties and come to the NHL looking for merchandise.

According to DiLorenzo, the NHL came out of last season with two major findings: listen to your constituents, and get people excited about your brand by giving them stuff.

"Don't think what you have to give is too small," he says. "Every little bit counts."

Meghan Keane

Published 13 January, 2010 by Meghan Keane

Based in New York, Meghan Keane is US Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter: @keanesian.

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