Ask Pat Donahue Jr., the man behind the Los Angeles Kings hockey team’s famously snarky Twitter account, to pick a memorable tweet during his team’s amazing three-year run, and you might be surprised that the example lacks bite.
The tweet came after the Kings were knocked out of the 2013 Western Conference finals by the Chicago Blackhawks and was directed at the Pittsburgh Penguins, who had been bounced out of their series the night before:
@penguins you guys wanna grab a drink later?
— LA Kings (@LAKings) June 9, 2013
“At the end of the day, this is still a game and it’s still hockey and it’s still sports and we are all just fans of that,” Donahue told Marketing Land in a phone interview this week. “So I think it’s good for us to show humility. We are able to win and we are able to lose and still have fun and still love hockey.”
Such personality and wit from a professional sports team’s social media account is still a rarity, but as the 31,000 retweets and 19,000 favorites on that tweet show, it’s a winning strategy. The Kings have built a Twitter following of 417,000 by showing extreme loyalty to the team and its fans, tossing aside the post only press releases, player quotes, game photos and videos safety of most major league sports accounts.
“We started out snarky and it was very biased,” Donahue said, “which it should be. We are the best team, according to us.”
That’s easier to say now, after winning a second Stanley Cup in three seasons, but it was a different vibe in 2012 when the Kings’ made their first major social media splash.
The Kings were huge underdogs to the top-seeded Vancouver Canucks in the first round, and Donahue was itching to pick a fight after a King Game 1 victory. And he got it, enraging Vancouver fans with this @LAKings tweet:
To everyone in Canada outside of BC, you’re welcome. — LA Kings (@LAKings) April 12, 2012
That tweet hit like an odd man rush in the normally staid NHL social media scene. It made headlines in Canadian media and some said it was a breach of etiquette, but Donahue’s then-boss Dewayne Hankins called it a hall of fame tweet and Kings’ executives didn’t flinch from the let-it-fly strategy. Case in point, before the Stanley Cup final series against the New Jersey Devils, this tweet: Aside from fist pumping, what else is there do in NJ?
Two Years Later: Few Imitators
By the end of the Kings’ 2012 championship run the account had gained 87,000 followers (a 224% increase) in two months. You might think that such success would breed a host of imitators, but two years later, only a few pro teams, the Columbus Blue Jackets, Dallas Stars and the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks among them, have joined the Kings in bringing more of a human voice to their social accounts, Donahue said.
He understands that many teams are risk averse, but there are also dangers in playing it safe.
“If you are not taking risks you are really going to fall behind,” said Donahue, the Kings’ manager of digital media. “Some of these team’s social media followings are almost nothing, which means less sponsorship dollars, which means a much smaller audience, less ticket sales, less people seeing your banner ads, less people donating money to your foundation, your online fan base is becoming more and more crucial to your business making money.”
He said that he regular hears from followers who say that they became Kings’ fans because of the team’s social media activity.
When One Tweet Went Too Far
Donahue says mistakes made on the Internet aren’t long remembered. They can, however, be found easily with a web search. The Kings’ biggest social media snafu came when they allowed a guest to take over the Twitter account during a playoff game. Kevin Ryder, of KROQ’s Kevin and Bean radio show — unsupervised from home — tweeted a joke making reference to sexual assault.
The team quickly deleted the tweet and apologized. Lesson learned. Donahue hasn’t given up the reins to the account since and if he ever does again, he said, he will be sitting right next to the person.
The Kings haven’t had to walk back any tweets lately, and Donahue said he’s dialed down the snark this season. Not because he’s gun-shy but because the Kings are no longer an upstart, poking at the bullies.
“Before we’d say stuff that I knew was going to upset the opposing fans,” he said. “And we loved it. As long as I’m not offending anyone and I think we have good judgement on what’s offensive and what’s just a joke. But I think it’s changed a lot since we’ve won two Cups.”
He still interjects humor into the account’s game commentary …
bad guys score. pic.twitter.com/pMwm8gB3lR
— LA Kings (@LAKings) June 8, 2014
… but focuses just as much attention on interacting with fans. He said he reads almost all the account’s @mentions and responds to 30 to 40% of them. He also hosts a live Q&A between the first and second period of most games.
It’s a fan-first, be-human formula that Donahue, a 29-year-old California native who studied film, advertising and PR in college, says will work for any business that wants to connect with customers on social media.
“The PC-press-release kind of computer voice just doesn’t work in this internet age,” Donahue said. “People are bored of it, people are tired of it, and especially if you are a smaller brand that you want people to notice you and it doesn’t have to be edgy or pushing any sort of limits but tweeting to put out information that is from a real human which is lost in this corporate internet age.”