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As NFL players began reporting to training camp at the end of July, they also took to social media to discuss their concerns and anxieties about returning to work amidst a pandemic. Across Twitter, they used the simple hashtag #WeWantToPlay, followed with their thoughts and concerns on what needed to happen in terms of player safety before the NFL season kicked off. As a result, the NFL quickly introduced the idea of daily COVID-19 testing for all players and announced that there would be no preseason games in August so that the league could finalize its stance on player health and safety. Overall, it was a big win for the NFL players, and showed exactly how to coordinate a social media campaign.
Tip #1: Involve big-name influencers or your brand’s loudest voices
Ok, this isn’t exactly rocket science, but the key to success of any social media campaign is involving your biggest fans, followers, and influencers. In the case of the NFL, the idea for the whole #WeWantToPlay movement came from a relatively unknown player – Miami Dolphins CB Byron Jones – but quickly caught fire with some of the league’s biggest stars, including JJ Watt and Russell Wilson. When you have superstars posting on social media, then you know that these voices are going to be heard. Did you really think the NFL would overlook this?
Tip #2: Make your cause relatable
Maybe this is all just optics, but NFL players have come across as being much more relatable than those from other professional sports during the current pandemic. Not only are they risking a career-ending injury with every violent play once the season resumes, but they are now taking the risk that any contact with a fellow player might give them the coronavirus. Star QB Russell Wilson, for example, noted that his wife (singer Ciara) is pregnant, and that the NFL didn’t have any clear plan on player health and family safety. This automatically made him more relatable – what sane person wouldn’t have the same thoughts if they were also expecting a child?
In contrast, consider how baseball players made a mess of things on social media. There was so much back-and-forth about money issues before the season even started that many fans were inclined to view top MLB stars as greedy and self-interested. It didn’t help matters that some players were opting out of the season or were coming down with mysterious injuries just days into the season, some were coming down with COVID-19 after reportedly partying in casinos and strip clubs, and some guys were clearly disinterested in playing or just plain disappearing from teams. (Yes, Yoenis Cespedes, we’re talking about you).
Tip #3: Choose your hashtags wisely
Finally, the choice of the right hashtag can make all the difference. #WeWantToPlay was brilliant in that it clearly conveyed that the players wanted to return to work, it was really just a matter of resolving a few key issues about health and safety. This hashtag made it very easy for other players to use, since it transcended team rivalries and didn’t differentiate between top stars and guys just lucky to make the final roster. So, you didn’t have a lot of voices going off-message – everyone stuck to the same hashtag, which made it easier to trend. Players might have had a lot of different questions, but they all had the same basic idea in mind.
Overall, the NFL players’ social media tactics were very clever. They even went so far as to send out a surge of tweets on a Sunday, the traditional game day of the NFL and the day that most NFL fans were probably checking their social media feeds for updates from their favorite players and teams. There’s a lot to learn here if you’re thinking about launching a new movement on social media: involve your top voices and influencers, make sure your cause is relatable, and choose your hashtags wisely.