Dr. Akira Asada tested social media marketing strategies for two MLB teams. The results have implications for any brand, sporting or otherwise.
When people love a brand, they often form a community around that brand. People who love Harley-Davidson may form groups to ride motorcycles on weekends, for example, and people who love Apple may create an online forum to discuss the new iPhone.
The concept of brand community is not new in the sports world. For many decades, sports fans have boasted about their favorite teams, shared unique fan experiences, and developed a sense of belonging. People’s attachment to these sports fan communities often has a significant influence on their behaviors. In fact, research published in the Journal of Sport Management found that a person’s attachment to a sports fan community is a better predictor of consistent game attendance than attachment to the team itself. Therefore, to develop a sustainable fan base, sports teams should create strong connections among their fans.
Social media is, of course, one of the most effective tools for strengthening connections among fans of a team (or any brand). Sports teams often post pictures and videos depicting their fans wearing team jerseys and cheering together. These images make fans feel closer to other fans and promote unity. Sports teams also use hashtags to increase bonding among fans. For example, the Detroit Lions use hashtag #OnePride, which fans use to share their pride in being part of the Lions community. Fans who learn about other fans’ personal stories with the team feel a stronger attachment to the community.
However, this approach may ignore one important market: potential fans. When existing fans create a strong bond, it may create a boundary that alienates potential fans. But if a sports team wants to build a strong fan base, it has to engage both markets, using social media not only for engaging existing fans but also for attracting potential fans.
I was curious about which social media strategies are most effective for speaking to these two groups, so I conducted an experiment in which I tested two approaches. In the first approach, a team emphasizes unity among its fans by showing the fans wearing team apparel and cheering for the team together. In the second approach, a team emphasizes the uniqueness of each fan by showing fans enjoying games in various ways.
I tested the effectiveness of these two approaches for two Major League Baseball teams: the Tampa Bay Rays and the St. Louis Cardinals. The Rays are one of the least popular MLB teams, ranking 29th among 30 teams in average home game attendance, whereas the Cardinals are among the most popular, ranking second place in average home game attendance. I recruited 206 U.S. residents on Amazon Mechanical Turk. Each of the research participants was randomly exposed to one of four types of social media posts:
1. Rays’ posts emphasizing high unity among the fans
2. Rays’ posts emphasizing high uniqueness of each fan
3. Cardinals’ posts emphasizing high unity among the fans
4. Cardinals’ posts emphasizing high uniqueness of each fan
After seeing the posts, the participants indicated their intention to support the team using a 7-point scale from 1 (very unlikely) to 7 (very likely).
The findings revealed an interesting difference. For the less-popular Tampa Bay Rays, the uniqueness approach resulted in greater support intentions (M = 4.12) than the unity approach (M = 3.30). When a team is not very popular, potential fans psychologically put themselves in a different category than the team’s existing fans: “They support the team because they are fans. I am not a fan, so I do not support the team.” In this case, unity among the fans makes that distinction more overt, so potential fans would be more hesitant to support the team when seeing “unity” messages. By contrast, social media posts emphasizing the uniqueness of individual fans of a team like the Rays were more effective.
For the very popular St. Louis Cardinals, I found that the opposite also holds true. For this team, the unity approach resulted in greater support intentions (M = 5.75) than the uniqueness approach (M = 4.87). Why? When a team is very popular, potential fans think that supporting the team is something common in their community of residence, and they perceive supporting the team to be part of social norms shared by residents: “They support the team because they live here. I also live here, so I should support the team.” In this case, unity among fans clarifies and emphasizes the social norm and creates greater social pressure to support the team—resulting in a more effective social media strategy than emphasizing the uniqueness of each fan.
These findings have unique implications for non-sports businesses as well, because many businesses, like sports teams, run social media accounts that speak to a broader brand community. If you own a relatively new company that needs a wider customer base, you may want to take the Rays approach, showing how the company’s product satisfies various individual customers in various ways. By contrast, if you own a large company that focuses on maintaining existing customers, more like the Cardinals, you may want to show how customers share similar experiences and enjoy a sense of belonging.
The bottom line: Unity and uniqueness are both
effective social media messages for fostering brand support. But to harness
them most effectively, choose the message that best fits the current stage of
 Yoshida, M., Heere, B., & Gordon, B. (2015). Predicting behavioral loyalty through community: Why other fans are more important than our own intentions, our satisfaction, and the team itself. Journal of Sport Management, 29, 318–333.
 ESPN, MLB attendance report, 2019. Retrieved from http://www.espn.com/mlb/attendance.