Head to NHL.com after a game, and the experience is already "beyond the box score." There are copious amounts of game notes, photos right off the wire, videos of every goal and key moments. It succinctly captures the game experience. What the NHL is hoping to do through its social media initiatives is to capture the fan experience in the same way.
Imagine a button next to "video" and "photos" that says, for example, "fan views." It's not just a collection of game-related fan blogs and tweets; it's original photos and video captured by fans in the arena that gives someone not occupying one of the 17,000 seats that night the feeling of having roamed the concourses, consumed the concessions and slapped the hands of strangers after a goal.
This scenario is a big-picture objective for the League's social media efforts, which have aggressively boomed on blogs, Twitter and recently on a revamped Facebook home page. The goal is simple: Make it more fun to be an NHL fan, which in turn will make more sports fans want to become one.
"Social networks aren't about Web sites. They're about experiences," said Mike DiLorenzo, director of social media marketing and strategy for the NHL.
The NHL believes that bringing fans together socially online, and bringing fans closer to their favorite teams and players, is a fundamental way to grow the game in a changing media culture. But will these "fan experiences" happen organically enough to not feel like a corporate marketing campaign; and will the ongoing debate about how teams and players use Twitter result in too much control over their messages to fans?
DiLorenzo is the man behind the NHL Fans microsite, a massive collection of social media that ties together blogs, videos, tweets, user pages and message boards -- which have always been the leading attraction for many hockey fans using the NHL's official team sites.
"Blogs are the original social networking tool. They bring a voice and perspective to the NHL media property that may not currently exist," he said. "We're trying to encourage more of our users to write about their favorite team and inspire more dialogue."
(Ed. Note: At the time of our interview with DiLorenzo, the Bleacher Report was also a content provider. Scanning the site today, only SB Nation currently appears on the blog roll.)
In other words, the NHL wants to activate their fans into content providers and marketing foot soldiers, something evident by the League's approach to both Twitter and Facebook in recent months. NHL Fans encourages users to bring the NHL to their favorite social media sites and to their personal blogs through widgets.
That effort is even more evident on the League's new Facebook site, which includes a custom tag for NHL content:
The original NHL Facebook page was actually started by a fan and has grown organically over the years. The NHL is just now beefing up that page with some innovations.
"People are spending a finite amount of time online every day, and increasingly that time is being eaten up on the social networks," said DiLorenzo. "We need to increase our share of people's time when they're on Facebook."
To that end, the NHL has created some quirky viral ways for fans to engage each other and reach out to non-hockey fans. For example: If you have a dinner date that ends up cancelling at the last minute, why not send over an NHL-approved "2 minute minor" or a smack to the face as a Facebook gift?
The NHL is also trying to engage its fans on Twitter, sometimes through unique concepts like supporting "Tweetups" around North America and the League's "Super Saturday Pick 15" contest, in which fans tweeted winners for a full slate of games in an attempt to win a trip for two to any NHL game this regular season.
DiLorenzo said it's a way to bring more attention to games outside of a fan's viewing area. "One of the marketing challenges that we have is that fans activate locally but not necessarily nationally," he said.
Twitter is an interesting concept for the NHL. As a League, it's used the social network well; but it's still trying to figure out the "proper" way for its teams and players to use it. The NHL made news earlier this month with a Twitter policy that seemed fairly restrictive for a League that had embraced social media. From Reuters:
Following the lead of the NFL and NBA, the NHL said it was close to making recommendations that will prohibit players from using communicational devices for social media activity -- including Twitter and Facebook -- 30 minutes before and after games, practices, meetings and media access periods. The ban would extend to coaches, trainers and all game-related personnel.
While some assumed this was the NHL's official policy, DiLorenzo stressed that it's still a work in progress. "I think it's most accurate to say that we have guidelines," he said. "We don't want to be restrictive, because we understand the great potential of the teams and the players being involved. But we acknowledge there's a right way to get involved."
Compounding the issue is that players are using Twitter independent of their teams, like Martin Havlat's(notes) groundbreaking rebuking of the Chicago Blackhawks' decisions this summer and players like Mike Green(notes) of the Washington Capitals using social media to increase their profiles; and, in Green's case, drop an F-bomb about the Swine Flu on occasion.
DiLorenzo sees these outspoken players as exceptions to the rule. "It's not in the NHL player's DNA to be self promotional. It's foolish to think that we'll never have a problem, but it's just not who our players are."
He said he isn't sure where the policy for Twitter is headed. Loose guidelines to the teams? A formal, League-wide policy handed down by Gary Bettman about when and what to tweet? The only certainty is that the NHL won't allow this aspect of its social media movement to get out of hand. "I think we see a need for there to be some areas of black and white for what's appropriate," said DiLorenzo.
Like so many other businesses, the NHL is attempting to catch a runaway train when it comes to social media, through policies and applications. Take the League's mobile apps, which are still being developed. DiLorenzo sees them as part of the game-going experience, not only in chronicling the action for NHL.com one day but in making it part of the fan fun during the game.
"[The question is] how can I use existing social platform and integrate a Jumbotron campaign that inspires people to participate in a contest and amplify the experience of being at the game?" he said, mentioning contests like the chance to ride the Zamboni between periods as one possibility.
All of this leads to one question: Can social media efforts grow the game beyond the cult of puckheads dedicated to hockey in the U.S.?
If nothing else, all of these efforts open up on avenues of communication with non-hockey fans in an attempt to find whatever it is that might spark their interest in the NHL.
"We know that 92 percent of NHL fans also like the NFL. These fans [don't behave] differently than how NFL fans behave," said DiLorenzo. "There's something in their DNA that's common. We have to tap into that."