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August 16, 2017

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Social intelligence: How the Golden Knights are winning Twitter and Facebook

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Glenn Pinkerton/Las Vegas News Bureau

Vegas Golden Knights players, from left, Jason Garrison, Deryk Engelland, Brayden McNabb and Marc-Andre Fleury at the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign. Thursday, June 22, 2017.

Dan Marrazza learned through many trials that the golden hour begins at 4 p.m. Monday.

Outside Las Vegas, the magical time could occur on any weeknight after the family finishes dinner and retreats to their cellphones, or even on a Saturday morning while parents zone out as the kids play at the park.

Marrazza, the 30-year-old New Jersey native behind the cheeky social media presence of the Vegas Golden Knights, discovered over the past eight months that what works elsewhere might not fit the nonstop Las Vegas lifestyle. As he readies the next funny video or insider interview for the team’s Facebook audience of more than 112,000 friends, Marrazza knows from research the most ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ will roll in if he posts right before quitting time on Monday.

While analytics drive his posting times, little else about Marrazza follows a script. Colorful ideas and one-liners flow from him at an East Coast pace as he discusses his job, each pulling at the next like tissues from a box.

“Being here allows for so much creativity just because there’s no template to follow,” Marrazza said. “Not only is there no template for an expansion team in the digital era — there’s no template for a team in Las Vegas at all on the major league level.”

Despite not having played an NHL game, the Golden Knights attract attention from fans throughout the league for Marrazza’s nimble Twitter responses to more than 155,000 followers.

The value of the tweets stretches beyond goodwill as the team develops its nascent brand, and begins leveraging its social channels to drive revenue through sponsorships and ticket sales as well.

“It’s hard to directly connect that revenue, but I know that it works,” Golden Knights President Kerry Bubolz said.

Team executives rarely commit resources without understanding how to target their return on a spreadsheet, but social media lives between the columns in its relative infancy. In a 2016 survey sponsored by the American Marketing Association and Deloitte, 80 percent of chief marketing officers (CMO) said they are unable to quantify the value of their social media efforts. A separate study showed 87 percent of Fortune 500 CMOs cannot prove that social media creates new customers, per the Harvard Business Review.

Yet from 13 years with helping guide the Cleveland Cavaliers from doormat to destiny, Bubolz grasped the power to create emotional connection with fans via social media — especially with the star wattage of LeBron James — and brought that emphasis to Las Vegas. Golden Knights executives presented owner Bill Foley with an aggressive and costly plan to build a social media presence last year. Foley bought in, allowing the team to purchase top-shelf video and computer equipment, as well as approving the hires of Marrazza, video producer Tyler Pico and hockey journalist Gary Lawless.

“He made investments to do that at a very high level,” Bubolz said of Foley. “Not every organization views it that way.”

Bubolz directed his staff to create an “authentic and fun” voice through its social channels, but not to feel constrained by how other NHL teams run their accounts. Eric Tosi came to Las Vegas to develop that voice after running the communications shop of the Boston Bruins for the past 10 years.

Tosi, the Golden Knights vice president of communications and content, oversees social media, including Marrazza and Alyssa Girardi, a team spokesperson who handles Instagram and Snapchat. Tosi recalls joining Facebook around 2006 — “on the outside looking in when that really started to take off” — but adopted Twitter early on as a 13-year sports PR pro.

Marrazza and Tosi sit next to each other in the tight confines of the Golden Knights’ temporary cube farm in an office park across from TPC Summerlin. While they schedule certain content weeks in advance, much of what they post sprouts from bouncing off each other the news of the day or the latest meme enjoying a few seconds of internet glory. Some ideas fail a simple test of getting a smirk or causing a cringe, but most end up online.

“With the way social is, you never know and that’s what makes it fun,” Tosi said. “What’s been successful for us is to be able to adapt and be able to jump into the conversation in a fun way. It’s not the wild wild West here and we're able to do whatever we want. There is a plan and strategy in place, but we aren't married to it so much that we can’t adjust and adapt.”

Fans can banter on Twitter about the Bruins game on their phone while they track the Blackhawks game on their TV. Content becomes both ubiquitous and amorphous at once, forcing sports franchises to focus on their best proprietary asset: behind-the-scenes access to players and coaches in real time throughout the year.

“(It’s about) giving a personality to the franchise and showcasing the athletes in a different light,” said Matt Kovacs, a California PR firm president who has worked with hockey equipment manufacturer Easton and ESPN. “Utilize the social media platforms to create opportunities for players to connect with the fans beyond what they see during the game. Be honest and open about performance, as well as the overall preparation that it takes to perform at such a high level.”

The unique challenge for the Golden Knights staff came from the team only being assembled in June and training camp not starting until September, meaning many players have not yet arrived in Las Vegas or met the social media crew.

“Once the season goes and you're doing this for games and not just summer, if you don’t have the trust of your players and the players aren't comfortable with you, you don’t have the ability to get the great access to get them to do these fun things,” Marrazza said.

Those fun pieces, like re-creating a scene from “The Hangover” with players in town after being selected in the expansion draft, get the most attention via Facebook, where the team posts once or twice each day.

Tosi views Facebook as the home of the best Golden Knights content, as its 2 billion monthly users outpace any other platform. He approaches Twitter as both a news distribution and fan engagement outlet, with team aiming for seven to eight posts per day. Marrazza calls Snapchat “reality TV” for the team and both see Instagram as a place for photos you cannot find elsewhere.

The Golden Knights strive to provide that access while extending their brand and Marrazza stands at the intersection of the two. He responds to hundreds of tweets and roughly 50 private Facebook messages each day. Marrazza’s operates on a philosophy that growing Golden Knights fans requires that every tweet should get a reply or a like unless it is indecent.

“It’s almost like a modern-day autograph or a selfie because the team acknowledges me,” Marrazza said.

He also tries to avoid Twitter fights, killing trolls with kindness while sidestepping potential brawls with other teams.

“It’s such a fine line,” Marrazza said. “It’s not about building ourselves up at the expense of someone else. If we see another team do something questionable, we’re not just going to throw a 98-mile-per-hour fastball at their head when we could, because we’re the new team. We haven’t even played a game yet. We haven’t established ourselves on the ice.”

The team’s Twitter feed will provide content 365 days a year, while Facebook will offer something almost every day. Even though the new franchise ranks last in the league in Twitter followers, fans tweet at the team daily about the strength of their Twitter game — an impressive show of their reach in the hockey community and beyond it.

“The best compliment that I received was from my 15-year-old daughter,” Bubolz said. “‘Hey dad, your Twitter guy is outstanding.’ From a 15-year-old voice who is not as connected to hockey yet, that just tells me that we’re making real progress.”

Real progress for the team president likely comes from stories like one Marrazza relayed from a few weeks back, when a sales staffer came to his desk and offered a fist bump. He had just gotten off the phone with a customer who said he saw a Golden Knights tweet and called five minutes later to buy tickets.

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