Electric Blue

The New York Giants are set to defend their Super Bowl title, but the team is already winning at social media

In the mid-2000s, Nilay Shah often heard the same bewildered question from his party-hardy college buddies at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. They’d playfully jaw at him as he jumped into the driver’s seat of his Mitsubishi, yanked the door shut and drove 20 minutes to serve as an uncompensated Web intern for the New York Giants. “They used to say to me, ‘What are you doing? You’re not even getting paid,’” he remembers.

Fast-forward to 2012 and game day with the Super Bowl XLVI champions. Shah roams the team’s home-field turf at MetLife Stadium, wearing a tailored suit and taking iPhone snapshots of the team coming out of the tunnel. With a quick review of his work, he tweets the best shot to thousands of eager fans. Shah then positions himself on the 30-yard line, where star quarterback Eli Manning is warming up, throwing underneath and sideline routes to wide receivers Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. Close enough to intercept those passes, Shah snaps multiple pics, again tweeting the best of the bunch.

“That is what this is all about—giving the fans access they cannot get anywhere else,” he says, exiting the field prior to Big Blue’s Aug. 24 preseason tilt against the Chicago Bears.

Shah is part of a new class of digital executive: the social media manager. Young, tech-savvy go-getters like Shah are increasingly playing an integral role for brands and media companies, serving as a liaison between marketers and consumers, as well as a human face of corporations.

Consider Shah’s role compared to that of sports reporters on the Giants beat. Scribes for The New York Times, the Newark Star-Ledger and other New York area papers are largely barred from watching the team practice each day, limited to a peek at the beginning of practice before being corralled inside an all-things-Giants building that serves as the anchor of a complex including one indoor and four open-air fields. The sports journos are restricted to speaking with players and coaches after the workouts.

Shah, on the other hand, is right in the middle of the action, taking photos of each practice and tweeting the best images in almost real time.

Meanwhile, before the games Shah can be found perched above midfield in the MetLife Stadium press box. Minutes before kickoff, while the TV audience watches a spot for Toyota or Bud Light, Shah tweets the names of team captains (which vary game to game), which team won the coin toss and other information not found on the tube. The Giants’ 327,000 Twitter followers eat it up.

Not too shabby for a guy who had planned for a career in IT and whose first job after college was an entry-level position at DoubleClick. The Giants hired Shah in 2007 when Facebook was just starting to toddle toward critical mass and a few months after the debut of Twitter.

In the years since, he has been instrumental in helping the Giants achieve numerous firsts among NFL teams—among them, plugging tweets into game broadcasts and orchestrating augmented reality campaigns. In an example of the latter, the Giants last winter teamed up with Tiffany’s to allow fans to virtually “try on” a Super Bowl ring via the team’s mobile app. Consumers could also create images of themselves posing (virtually speaking) with the Vince Lombardi Trophy. All told, fans posted 50,000 images to Facebook and Twitter by way of the app.

Shah also directed the team’s social-driven 9/11 tribute last season, inspiring 22,000 Facebook and Twitter messages and creating a mosaic that honored New York’s police and fire departments. When a crowdsourced image of defensive end Justin Tuck wearing a firefighter’s helmet hit the Web, tweets from fans of other NFL teams and places as far-flung as Scotland populated the Twitterverse.

As the digital and social director of a marketing department of fewer than a dozen people, the 28-year-old Shah serves as the team’s community manager. Unlike many of those with a similar role for other brands (see the accompanying story, “Social Anxiety”), Shah has been given great autonomy by his bosses: Giants CMO Mike Stevens and executive producer Don Sperling.

“I’ve been in the right place at the right time,” says Shah.

Indeed, he has had a front-row seat to two historic championship runs and has witnessed—and helped—social media turn football marketing on its face-masked head.

“All the sponsors want in on social now,” Sperling says, sitting with the communications staff in the Giants’ multimedia-studded meeting room. Adds Shah: “The way sponsors used to want in on an email blast, they now want in on Facebook and Twitter.”

The marketing team huddles with a number of brands to foster compelling digital and social game plans.

Party City, one of the Giants’ largest advertisers, is expected to resurrect a promotion that was a huge success last Halloween. The costumes retailer partnered with the Giants on a contest that let fans vote for which Halloween costume linebacker Mark Herzlich would wear to the Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital at Hackensack University Medical Center. The New Jersey hospital visit by Herzlich—a bone cancer survivor prior to his pro football career—was featured on all the Giants’ digital channels, captured with photos and video, and posted on Facebook and Twitter before speedily matriculating around the Web. By the time it was over, the campaign had garnered 1 million impressions, according to the Giants.

Fashion retailer Andrew Marc is another marketer to take advantage of the Giants’ social media savvy. The client receives exclusive mentions during the team’s daily audio/video Webcast, called Big Blue Kickoff Live. Its sponsorship also plays out with copy and images on the Giants’ Facebook and Twitter pages.

“Social media opportunities are very important when we go into discussions with them in regards to the team sponsorship,” says Ernest Bannister, Andrew Marc’s marketing lead. “[If] a fan of the Giants sees our ad running during the Big Blue Kickoff Live show and wants to know which jacket was just broadcast and where they can purchase it, we can respond immediately and have a conversation with that fan that we may or may not have been able to have before them seeing the ad.”

So much of what the Giants offer advertising partners today is tied to the three-year-old MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., a state-of-the-art digital playground for marketers—providing infinitely more opportunities than the old Giants Stadium. “That was an analog stadium—the cost of our communications alone in the new stadium is 20 to 25 percent more than the entire cost of the old stadium was to construct,” says CMO Stevens.

At the recent Bears game, the Giants asked Twitter followers to tweet tailgating photos to #NYGfanPhoto. A promotional tweet read: “Yours could be one of the @Adorama Fan Photos of the Game today!” During a timeout in the second half, fans in the stadium turned their attention to a video promotion for Adorama, a New York-area camera retailer, complete with pictures from tailgaters @CurvyInTheCity, @TheDeuce22 and @Deitch13. When the images posted to Twitter, retweets with the @Adorama handle floated into newsfeeds.

“We don’t want to just slap a sponsor on social media,” as Shah explains. “We want to come up with creative ideas that will get the fans engaged.”

The Giants’ tech and social savvy are far-reaching. The team’s one-year-old mobile phone app boasts 350,000 users who can watch the replay of a touchdown during games. The team has also amassed 2.4 million Facebook fans and 550,000 Google+ followers. The Giants contracts with NFL partner Buddy Media for Facebook management while leaning on Mass Relevance to curate tweets—i.e., to weed out negative messages. After every Giants touchdown, real-time tweets from fans are displayed on ticker-style digital ribbons in the stadium.

After each game, four massive digital pillars outside the stadium encourage fans to vote for the most valuable player of the day via a Twitter hashtag. Jerseys sporting the winning player’s number are then featured at 20 percent off at the team’s online shop.

So while football marketing was once all about suites and seats, one can now add tweets to the mix.

Naturally, social has become key for every brand. But by its nature, a sports franchise presents a whole new range of opportunities.

“We are not a radio station, but we do a lot of radio,” explains Stevens. “We are not a TV company, but we do a lot of TV. We are not an Internet firm, but we have a lot of digital properties. We’re a mini-Disney, plus we do live entertainment.”

Beyond just tweets and posts, social has become an integral part of the Giants business plan, with the team looking to social not merely to build brand affinity but also to grow sales of merchandise and tickets into the future. As Shah puts it, “The next-generation Giants fan isn’t buying a ticket off an email.”