How Nicoletta Ruhl Turned the Chargers into a Winning Social Marketing Team in Less Than a Year

November 19, 2013

We had a rare opportunity to chat with Nicoletta Ruhl, director of digital media for the San Diego Chargers, about social marketing. Nicoletta joined the Chargers four years ago working in the corporate sponsorship group before deciding in 2012 to create the digital media department into the powerhouse you see today. In just under a year she has established a multi-media content program, a thriving fan base in social media, and pitched the Chargers Insider page as a TV show on Fox Sports Network San Diego. The show airs Thursdays at 4 p.m. and 10 p.m. Ruhl’s team has also recently launched an iPad and iPhone app.

BWF: How important is digital to your brand?

It’s going to become the main focal point within any organization over the next few years.

NR: Digital now is pretty much everything. It is going to become the main focal point, outside of what’s going on, on the field, within our organization. In fact, it’s going to be like that within any organization in the next two, three, or four years and beyond. My mentality is to look outside the Charger’s bubble and decide what else we should be doing. I constantly discuss digital strategy with other NFL digital teams, which is a cool network we have to bounce ideas off of one another.

BWF: What content and topics are most affective for engagement and traffic? And is there a difference in traffic vs. engagement?

The most popular are behind-the-scenes video content and our photo galleries.

NR: Our video content and photo galleries really drive up our fan engagement. The most popular content is the behind-the-scenes, all-access, exclusive video content and photos that we produce. That’s the beauty of being an internal digital team; we have access no one else does and we can maximize that content for our fans. Chargers.com is absolutely the best place for info and breaking news about the San Diego Chargers. But video content is definitely key and by far the most popular, because we have so much unique, all-access content. We have gotten into a really good rhythm with our video production, as well as social media, which is a great place for us to get fan feedback on our content, because a lot of what we do is trial and error.

BWF: Do you use advocates for your podcasts or produce them internally?

Boltscast has only been around for six months and fans already recognize the hosts when they are out.

NR: No, everything we do here is internal. One of our podcasters is our department’s full-time writer and the other is a full-time producer. They are invaluable. It’s funny; BoltsCast is so popular on our website now, that fans recognize them. When they are out, fans will call out to them and ask for autographs. And they have only been doing the podcast for six months.

BWF: How big is your digital media department?

All our hard work is rewarded with great content.

NR: We have four full-time employees, two seasonal interns and one extra writer that helps on game day. So four to seven, depending on the time of year. We have to wear a lot of hats, but I think all the hard work we do is rewarded with great content and handling of our social outlets.

BWF: What social channels do you utilize? And which social channel drives the most traffic?

I have to decide what’s going to be the most beneficial to us and why.

NR: We use Twitter and Facebook the most. And Twitter is definitely our biggest traffic referral to our website, as well as Facebook. We also have Instagram and have tripled our fan base in the past year. I haven’t really figured out whether Google+ needs to be an integral part of our digital presence and we don’t have a lot of use for Pinterest, so we won’t utilize that until we have more time to spare.

I’ve realized you can always be doing more with social. When I started this department, I felt like we needed to be doing everything, but soon realized that’s literally impossible. I have to pick and choose what’s going to be most beneficial to us and why. Then everything else can trickle down.

BWF: How do the cheerleaders and players fit into your digital strategy?

We let them do what they want to do, but provide guidelines.

NR: Players and cheerleaders increasingly set-up and use their own Twitter pages. Facebook isn’t as prevalent. We let them do what they want to do, but we do provide guidelines for them before the season starts, especially for the rookies. We don’t police their pages, but we do follow them and if we happen to see something profane or inappropriate we will mention it to our coaches or cheer director. Our cheer squad is pretty buttoned up in terms of our cheer director. She does a good job providing social media guidelines for the girls. We haven’t really had any problems with any of them, so far.

BWF: Do player/cheerleader pages benefit your brand in any way and do you encourage them to get on Chargers social media?

At this point, those who want to do it will and those who don’t won’t.

NR: Yes! I definitely think it helps. In terms of encouraging them, I think at this point in time, those who want to do it are going to do it and those who don’t wont. We utilize the ones who like to do it. Often times they come to us and ask us to retweet them. We have 300,000 plus Twitter followers, which is more than any of the players or cheerleaders. They’ll ask us to help them promote their charity events, or things like that. We can’t help them with everything obviously, but if it’s a charity or a tweet about the game, we’re happy to integrate them into our Twitter stream. We pick and choose when it’s the right time and when it’s not. We just had three guys on the team who had babies, so we retweeted a few of the baby pictures along with a “congratulations.” Those are always really popular with fans.

BWF: How do you stay current on social trends?

We focus on content as the driver.

NR: All of our content is being produced for our website. We don’t really have to come up with much promotion or hoopla to draw in more fans. If you’re a Chargers fan, chances are you’re going to follow us. We focus on our content as the driver. Is our website content compelling? Is it being viewed and liked? We also look for the most popular content and use it for most of our promotion on our social media channels. Things like the Game Day Preview or a coach doing a pregame interview tend to be very popular, according to data, so that’s the content we put out on social media. Tracking data and following analytics enables us to see what fans are consuming the most.

BWF: With SO many fans, what listening tool are you using to filter comments and respond to the most important conversations?

We let comments happen and we don’t filter the responses.

NR: We allow comments on our social channels and website. Facebook has a tool that will automatically filter profanity, so we utilize that, but we decided in the beginning we were either going to let comments happen or we weren’t. And we decided not to filter those conversations. I felt like it wouldn’t be authentic to filter out negative comments, barring they weren’t profane. I think your social outlets lose credibility when you only allow positive commenting.

BWF: Internet wide, how do you monitor that volume of conversation?

We look for trends in comments.

NR: When you have a database our size, you cannot follow every single comment. My digital team is constantly reading through comments. You don’t need to read all of them to get the trend. By reading through a few comments, we can grasp what the fans are looking for. And we don’t respond to really negative comments, because we don’t like to promote that.

BWF: How do you utilize social and does it help build your fan base?

Social channels are our number one traffic drivers to our websites.

NR: Social referrals to our website content are our number one traffic drivers, meaning those people following us on Twitter or Facebook see a tweet, or post promoting our website content, and will go check it out. We tweet out almost every piece of content we create, editorial or video, and some, but not all, of it to Facebook. And we always include a link leading directly back to Chargers.com. Driving traffic back to our website is our main goal with social media. Many people, especially the older generation, think of social media as “just for fun,” but there really is a growing business need for it. It creates and drives revenue, and viewership value to the brand and content.

Ruhl’s main goals are integrating and improving the quality of content by increasing efforts. She really wants to bridge the gap between corporate sponsorship and digital assets, and increase revenue stream.

Everything you see from Chargers.com to the Chargers social outlets and email marketing video content is handled by her digital department. She has also recently created a TV show, Chargers Insider, for Fox Sports Network San Diego that will connect fans in a way no one else can.

Meet Expert: Nicoletta Ruhl

Nicoletta RuhlNicoletta Ruhl (@Chargers) is the director of digital media for the San Diego Chargers. She created the department in 2012 and this will be her second season as the director. Ruhl joined the Chargers in 2009 as manager of business development after spending the previous seven months as the web/marketing coordinator at MakingOf, Inc. in San Francisco. Prior to that, she spent six years working in New York for the NFL Network as a production coordinator, and Red Line Films as a production/assistant coordinator. Ruhl attended Yale University where she earned a degree in American Studies in 2006. While at Yale, she worked for the school’s radio and TV network as a broadcaster and sideline reporter.

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