When Ben Shields arrived at ESPN in 2008, he planned to mine research for marketing insights to share with executives at the multimedia sports company.
Within a year, his job had shifted. In collaboration with his colleagues, he began leading the company’s social media strategy, at a time when new communication tools like Twitter and Facebook were promising, if fledging. Today, ESPN takes a cross-platform approach to social media, integrating social elements across all aspects of the fan experience. The company also found early success connecting hashtag campaigns to advertising and live events.
“That’s a shift in fan behavior,” said Shields, who is about to launch a course on social media in his new role as a lecturer in managerial communication at MIT Sloan. “And that’s what we recognized early on as a company, to say ‘Fans are now consuming sports via social media. As a company, we need to be there enhancing their experience in social where they are spending time, while also using social media to make the experience on ESPN platforms even better.’”
Shields’ course, called Social Media Management: Persuasion in Networked Culture, will ask students to answer the same questions he confronted at ESPN. How can social media help companies meet business goals? What new platforms and technologies should companies be using? What—in the fast-evolving industry—will happen next? How can companies employ social media for competitive advantage?
Students will construct case analyses, undertake an “online identity transformation” to construct a personal brand through social media, and conduct a final project on social media innovation. In the project, students will develop a social media strategy for a small business or startup—their own if they are entrepreneurs—or develop a new social media communication tool from scratch.
“I want our students to think strategically about social media,” Shields said. “There are so many platforms, there’s so much change on a regular basis, and resources are limited. Leaders need a blueprint to navigate the ever-changing landscape.”
Shields is the co-author of two books. The Sports Strategist: Developing Leaders for a High-Performance Industry examines the elements of running a successful sports business without relying on the team always winning. The Elusive Fan: Reinventing Sports in a Crowded Marketplace is a look at marketing strategies to attract, retain, and engage fans.
Shields, who earned his PhD from Northwestern University in 2008, is at work on a new book that will “develop a framework for how leaders and organizations can think strategically about the social media opportunity no matter what the platform is,” he said. At MIT Sloan, he is also teaching Communication for Leaders and Advanced Leadership Communication.
Success, winning, and championships
Though he is no longer at ESPN, Shields hasn’t left sports behind. A Florida native and a lifelong Miami Heat fan, he said joining MIT Sloan was appealing because of its history in leading sports analytics work. He will moderate a panel on Finding the Digital Fan at this year’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and has led a Twitter chat on sports and social media.
And in Massachusetts, where all four major professional sports teams have won championships in recent years, Shields is working in the same area as the Boston Red Sox and the New England Patriots, which he considers leaders in sports business.
“Both teams have enjoyed some success,” he said. “They’ve also had some off-seasons, but no matter what, they are growing as businesses because they realize that it’s more than just wins and losses on the field. It’s about growing a strong brand, it’s about designing a stadium experience that gets people coming back. It’s about building a strong digital and social presence that keeps fans engaged throughout the season. It’s about employing analytics to maximize revenue, ticket sales, and digital consumption and sponsorship.”
“This idea that all you have to do is win to be a successful business,” he said. “That just isn't realistic.”