The S.F. Giants School of Social Media: 3 Tips to Drive Nonprofit Fan Engagement

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Here’s a charming tale about customers becoming part of the story for the San Francisco Giants. Since I’m a huge Giants fan, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by this video interview conducted by one of the top thought leaders  in social media, Brian Solis. It’s with Bryan Srabian, first social media director for the Giants, who’s been on the job just two years. From the Giants’ foray into social media come three take-aways that should inform all businesses, for profit or non profit, who wish to (1) contribute to the evolution of social media so that it becomes a truly social experience; (2) connect in a meaningful way with their constituents, and (3) galvanize their communities to take important actions.


What’s going on that’s got you excited? The Giants embraced social media during a time of magic for the team in 2010.  The franchise hadn’t won a World Series in 54 years. But, finally, it was all coming together in an exhilarating way.  And social media was there to share the thrilling tale with fans all over the world.  But for media to be truly ‘social’ requires that marketers design shareability into their content. And what’s more shareable than a great yarn?

In 2010 the Giants, together with their fans, built a story.  They became social producers, building something akin to a round robin, with everyone adding in. It had great characters. An underlying motto of ‘torture’. And, as they made their push for the playoffs, the unofficial slogan became “Fear the Beard”. The Giants succeeded big time in crafting a story they wanted people to talk about and share.  Brian Wilson and Sergio Romo grew out their facial hair, many fans followed suit, AT&T Park filled with “Fear the Beard” signs and the official slogan “There’s Magic Inside” created an aura of enchantment.  Fans adored the story and engaged big time. It was, in effect, one gigantic book group that had many dynamic discussions.

When fans become a part of your story it creates a community.  Like-minded folks connect with a cause they believe in, and with other folks who share their interests and values. Major league sports were a bit slow to adopt social media.  They had big t.v. and radio contracts.  And a very traditional business model. But the world has changed and the trend was clear. And, really, spectator sports are so inherently social that one wonders why it took so long. Today’s savvy marketers understand that building social into marketing offers a significant competitive advantage. The social media-enabled 2010 Giants season became a bonding experience.  A love fest. And the Giants never looked back.  After all, who doesn’t want love?


Good social media directors are all about sharing the love with their fans.  They are directors of customer experiences.  They think about what will excite… intrigue… engage their fans.  They create opportunities for sharing. Perhaps it’s a contest.  Or helpful tips. Or a really cool video. It’s not about getting X number of ‘likes’ so a box can be checked off on a strategic plan. That’s a waste of time, both for you and your fans.  It’s about figuring out what the fans like; then translating this into something that will be a win/win for both fans and organization.

And sharing these days is different because our customers are connected.  Amazingly connected. As Brian Solis observes in Are you connecting with your new generation of customers…Generation C?technology is becoming an extension of humanity.  Perhaps not everyone is on board yet, but enough folks are that we can’t ignore what’s happening.

Still, we must never forget that social media was made for people.  In Social Media Marketers: Are You Getting Social Media Wrong? we are reminded that social media marketers need “to be cognizant at every step of the way that they are invading the “turf” of consumers when they launch campaigns.”  If we don’t draw folks into the experience by providing something exciting and unique and relevant, they will simply ignore us. We’ve got to search for the points of commonality.

What are the common sharing points for you and your fans? One example from the Giants this season: The team wanted to get more players into the All Star game.  The fans wanted to see their favorites there because, heck it’s bragging rights.  And it’s more fun to watch the game when your own players are in it. So the Giants successfully rallied their fans to vote local favorites onto the team through social media. And this is just one example of a natural alignment between franchise and fan desires.

When you align empathically with your customers it’s a game changer. Businesses and organizations must earn relevance by understanding their constituents, providing meaningful content and engaging with their tribes.  This requires much more than adoption of the latest technologies or chasing the newest shiny object. Social media – not as a tool, but as an attitude — provides social meaning in a chaotic world. Social media and empathy can align to change the world.


Social media is a great branding vehicle if you know where you want to go, and if you’re aligned with where your fans are going.  With a newish stadium and lots of new young fans, the Giants wanted to position themselves as young, energetic and hip. Even though they’re a venerable and historic franchise, they didn’t want to appear stuffy or moribund.  The very cool and sticky “Fear the Beard” campaign was a huge hit with fans of all generations.

To brand effectively, you have to know your ‘social media ‘voice’.  What’s yours?  It’s really important to give this some thought, and not just so that you’re consistent in your messaging.  Your voice must harmonize with the voices of your constituents. There are a variety of elements to consider. Often ‘corporate speak’ is dull. Most effective social media I’ve experienced is somewhat ‘sassy’. But this for sure isn’t the only successful mode [see Sephora (educational; informational); Reforest Patagonia (educational; inspirational); Feeding America (relatable updates; health-focused)]. You must be true to your own culture and not try to copy someone else. Above all else, you have to know your audience, connect with them on their terms, and make beautiful music together.

Voices are a two-way street; good branding today is a conversational experience. It’s not just a one-way broadcast anymore. In The Conversation Company: Managing the 4 C’s strategic marketing expert, Steven Van Belleghem, lets us in on the secret that there are four pillars that “allow you to fully use the power of the people” to take advantage of the opportunities social media has to offer.  The Giants do this exceedingly well, giving their fans a real voice. Giants fans are participants and not just spectators. They attend a wifi enabled facility where fans can be on their ipad and iphone at all times.  Fans can create their own stories and post photos to Facebook, tweet their experience live, share Instagram photos and so on.  In 2011 the Giants let fans create commercials by fans, for fans, including fans.  They really gave the fans something to talk about! The result? The Giants have had a sell out streak ever since beginning with social media.

It’s a big ‘wish you were here.’ The Giants have succeeded in steering the brand and the experience.  They and the fans co-create the experience.  Fans see something at the ballpark.  Then they share it.  In fact 40,000 shared photos on Instagram in the past two months! Then other fans comment and share their own perspective.  You learn a lot this way about your constituents and what moves them. Often Giants fans share the ‘setting’ of the experience in one of the most beautiful ballparks in the majors (remember, I’m a big fan).  It’s an experience people feel compelled to share.  And it reminds other fans they need to be there to really experience it.  The fans do this for the Giants, and for each other. Because they want others to be a part of it too.

 If your supporters were to write a “wish you were here” postcard about some amazing experience they were having through your organization, about what would they be writing?

What shareable, photographable opportunities do you have that might drive conversations? 

Claire Axelrad
Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE contributes a monthly column on Social Media and Nonprofits. Claire brings 30 years of frontline development and marketing leadership experience to her work as principal of her social benefit consulting firm, Clairification. Named Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Claire teaches the CFRE course that certifies professional fundraisers, is a web and audio presenter for Good Done Great Nonprofits and was recently honored as “Best Fundraising Blog” by FundRaising Success' 2013 Fundraising Professionals of the Year Awards. Her passion is instilling an institution-wide culture of philanthropy to help organizations build constituencies and drive increased income to sustain and expand missions. +Claire Axelrad
Claire Axelrad
Great articles (honored to be included!) in The #Nonprofit Wrap-Up: August 2015 via @BloomerangTech - 7 hours ago
Claire Axelrad


  1. says

    Claire, I love the passion and intelligence by which you approach the subject. Indeed, that same “passion” that some have for professional sports is similar in ways that many of us are passionate about causes that are important to us.  How can nonprofits bring out the passion in us? You have given us very good advice in which to do so.  It’s funny because organizations, whether for profit or not-for-profit, always try to think of ways to “create” content or “control” a conversation when sometimes all they need to do is to “curate” the content of others and “join” the conversation.  I think more and more organizations are catching on, but your post is an excellent reminder to those who haven’t.

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