NFL teams recognize the opportunity social allows to turn their fans’ passion for the team into massive online engagement. For a young team like the Houston Texans, social is a chance to take their brand worldwide and spark conversations that turn casual fans into lifelong team supporters.

I chatted with Nick Schenck, Director of Integrated Media for the Texans, to learn how his team is using social to turn fans into advocates.

What is the Texans organization’s main goal in your social efforts?

One of the organization’s main goals is to create memorable experiences for our fans. That begins Sundays at Reliant Stadium, but it extends to off the field, as well as online through our social media. But the best way to explain our social media goals is through our emphasis on brand, fan, and revenue.

Relative to our brand, we’re the youngest team in the NFL, so we don’t have the national and international following that many NFL teams have. To grow our brand, we need to have a strong presence where people spend the most time online. Right now, users spend more than 20% of their time online engaging on social media channels.

We’ve made efforts to be active on the most popular social networks (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, Foursquare, and Pinterest) to grow our footprint and provide fans with memorable experiences. People are talking about the Houston Texans brand on social media, and we want to join the conversation. Also, we use social media to raise awareness of our other web properties (i.e. HoustonTexans.com, message boards, etc.) to encourage fans to engage with us across all of our media platforms.

In terms of fans, the majority of fans will interact with us first on social media before coming to a game or even visiting HoustonTexans.com. So we want to make sure that our interactions with fans on social media are authentic and memorable. One example is our Friday Facebook Mailbag, where we solicit fan questions via Facebook and have our team reporters answer them in a video on HoustonTexans.com. Additionally, we want to make our fans feel special for following us on social media, so we often make exclusive offers to our fans on social, such as offers for training camp tickets or sponsor discount offers.

Finally, in terms of revenue, we try to facilitate purchase decisions on social media. This could be related to tickets, merchandise, team events, or even the Houston Texans Grille.

Does Houston use social to give fans deeper access to the program? If so, in what ways?

Definitely, our access to the team and its facilities is unmatched, so we feel an obligation to our fans to bring them behind the scenes as much as possible. Here are some examples of the exclusive content we produce:

  • Exclusive Google+ Hangout with first-round OLB Whitney Mercilus before his opening presser.
  • Photos of players boarding the plane for road trips and entering the stadium, the team cafeteria, office, weight room, press box, equipment room, etc. We shared a cool photo of the space shuttle Endeavour flying past Reliant Stadium.
  • Videos of postgame locker room speeches.
  • Breaking news (i.e. personnel moves, injury updates, player/team awards, etc.).
  • Photos of players signing their contracts, especially during the offseason.

Does your team use social in the stadium during games? If so, how do you use it to get the crowd involved?

Through the Texans Mobile app, fans can send their photos to appear on the videoboard during pregame. Also, fans can use the mobile app to superimpose their photos on the videoboard for a digital keepsake that they can share on social. And if fans tag their tweets with #TexansMobile, their posts will appear inside the app.

Last year during our inaugural playoff game vs. Cincinnati, we took a 360-degree photo of the crowd in HD and then allowed fans to tag themselves in the stands using their Facebook profiles. More than 2,000 fans tagged themselves, helping the Texans Cam grow virally. In first 4 days after we launched the Texans Cam, 1,000+ people “liked” the page on Facebook, 340+ people tweeted the page, the site received 49,758 visits and 73,209 page views, and the #TexansCam hashtag generated 614,000 impressions.

Between games and during the offseason, how does the Texans organization keep fans engaged with social?

We were the first team in the NFL to debut a comprehensive social rewards program to give fans points/prizes for interacting with us on various social media channels: Houston Texans Social Media Rewards. This has been really valuable in understanding our key influencers who interact with our social channels most.

During the season and offseason we host tweet ups with prizing and Google+ hangouts with players and team staff. We also use Storify to post players’ Twitter reactions on HoustonTexans.com both after games and during offseason events like the NFL draft, OTAs, mini-camp, etc. And we encourage fans to send in questions with the #TexansRadio hashtag that we answer during our weekly shows in-season and during the offseason show “Texans All Access.”

How do you measure the value of your team’s social efforts?

Our main measuring sticks on social media are growth in followers, growth in engagement (i.e. People Talking About This [PTAT] on Faceboook), growth rate relative to peers, impressions, overall reach, and innovation relative to peers. We track these metrics using tools like Facebook Insights, Hashtracking, TwitterCounter, and Statigram, and use Mobivity and FanChatter to curate content. We’re proud that we’re among the Top 3 teams in the NFL this year in terms of our growth rate on Facebook (67.6%) and Twitter (102.8%).

Does the Texans organization partner with sponsors in any social efforts? If so, could you share a few examples?

Given our large following, there are many opportunities to involve sponsors. By rule, we integrate sponsors only when there is a direct benefit to our fans (i.e. giveaways, discounts, player autographic signings, etc.) to avoid over-commercializing our social media channels, which would backfire. So we look for innovative ways to integrate sponsors. For example, Sonic offers a free Texans Slush on Tuesdays after Houston Texans win. This is something we promoted almost primarily through social media. The response was overwhelming.

We’ve also partnered with H-E-B, State Farm, Coke Zero, Ford, USAA, Bud Light, and others on social contests that ask users to contribute their social photos, caption our own photos, answer Houston Texans trivia, etc. for Texans prizes. We use these sponsorships to get fans to talk with and about the Texans – encouraging and rewarding their passion.