It’s a social thing; The man behind @Redblacks, Mat Smith

Having a social media presence is pretty well a requirement for all modern businesses. Few, however, use it to its full potential, actively engaging with fans and customers. In less than a year, Ottawa Sports & Entertainment Group’s social media coordinator Mat Smith and the Ottawa Redblacks have established themselves as a model for social media presence in pro sports. Mat was good enough to sit down with us to discuss the job, his path to OSEG and some thoughts on the Redblacks inaugural season.

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@OTTRoughRiders: What is your background? Hometown, school, career?

MS: I come from a military family, so I moved around a lot as kid. Our stops included Israel, Barrie, Virginia, Winnipeg, and we finally ended up in the place I’m proud to call my hometown – Kingston, ON. I grew up playing soccer and football as my two main sports.

I graduated with a degree in Sport Management from Brock University in St. Catharines.

In the first semester of my fourth year, I completed an internship with Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment in their community relations department. I was responsible for scheduling, tracking, and attending Raptors player appearances, and assisted in the launch of MLSE’s “Shape Up” – a program that leverages the MLSE athletes to help provide teachers with daily physical activity resources.

After completing my degree, I held positions in Alberta with the Edmonton Oilers/Edmonton Oil Kings and BMO Team of the Week.

How did you end up with OSEG?

Upon returning to Ontario from Alberta, I e-introduced myself to every team in the Ontario Hockey League. Within two weeks, I accepted a position as Project Coordinator with the Ottawa 67’s, where I wore several different hats including social media, media relations, community relations, and sponsorship activation. When the 67’s organization transitioned to OSEG, I was promoted to Digital Media Coordinator.

Biggest surprise working for a professional sports franchise?

The amount of moving parts that go on behind the scenes to make everything run smoothly. I wasn’t exposed to it as much when I worked for the Oilers, so I’ve really learned a lot this season.

Give us a couple of your highlights from this inaugural season.

Too many to count, but here are some notable ones:

First mini-camp in Richmond, Virginia; winning our home opener; selling out seven straight home games (UPDATE: all nine); the nail-biter vs. Saskatchewan; getting to visit every stadium in the CFL; interacting with our players, coaches, staff, and fans on a daily basis.

It’s been a fun ride.

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Mat gives Henry Burris the #ALSIceBucketChallenge treatment

Other than the losses, any lowlights you want to mention?

One lowlight that sticks out to me would be the amount of injuries we’ve had. It was tough to watch guys like Justin Phillips, Thomas DeMarco, and Chevon Walker suffer season-ending injuries.

Tell us about the OSEG social media strategy

The OSEG social media strategy is based around the following five principles:

• Being human
• Engaging
• Accessible
• Establishing relationships
• Being timely

We’re focused on creating a strong sense of community on our social channels. We want our channels to be a place where fans feel appreciated, involved, and excited to be a part of.

How do you personally approach it?

As the one who designed our strategy, I try ensure that we hit all five points as much as possible. I like to add a bit of my own personality to our channels (Seinfeld references, friendly back-and-forth with other teams, etc.), while also trying to take our fans behind-the-scenes as much as possible. I’m also a strong advocate of incorporating fan-generated content into social media because it gives a unique perspective that I wouldn’t necessarily otherwise be able to provide. Following a game or big event, sometimes I’ll stay on Twitter for an hour or two just to engage with fans that I missed.

23,400 Twitter followers, 16,000 Facebook likes, 4,800 Instagram followers. Impressive numbers for a young franchise. What do you like about each of these formats? How are fans/followers different on each?

The numbers are a really accurate representation of how strong our fan base is. What I love about social media is that it’s a two-way conversation. I also get to see and hear the different range of emotions felt by our fans.

For me, Twitter is the best platform – you can share videos, images, gifs, and articles – all in 140 characters. It’s the platform that gives me the chance to reach the largest possible audience AND it’s the best medium to engage with fans. Since information is digested (and lost) so quickly on Twitter, it really forces me to get creative with content, which is the best part! It’s also the platform where I see the broadest range of demographics amongst our followers.

Instagram is definitely the platform that reaches the youngest fan base. I think images, especially in sport, are incredibly powerful. Instagram is a great way to showcase the best moments throughout the year.

Facebook tends to skew to an older demographic, so it’s an effective way of reaching long-time Ottawa football fans who might not be on the previous two platforms. Content tends to last longer on Facebook, so it may warrant one or two posts a day, rather than that 10-15 daily pieces of content that Twitter commands.

What are the things that have really worked so far?

Behind-the-scenes content, engaging with fans about football and non-football related topics, and making our players accessible to fans on all platforms. We’ve also established a team of volunteers that gather fan content on game days. This helps me be in seven or eight different places at once and showcase all aspects of our game day experience. The OSEG staff has also been very helpful all year – a lot of them are on Twitter and share experiences from all different areas of the organization.

Who at OSEG gets the credit for the #RNation hashtag?

To be honest, I believe I first saw the #RNation hashtag used by either @RedblackGade or @OTTRoughRiders.

(According to @RedblackGade, the #RNation term originated on the RenegadeNation.ca forums, but he may have been one of the first to use it on Twitter. All credit to the Redblacks for running with it the way they have, though. Very well executed.)

I thought it was a great way to capture Ottawa’s football history (Rough Riders, Renegades, and now, REDBLACKS). It was also fitting for Ottawa as the Nation’s Capital, “#RNation” = “#OurNation”.

Without giving away too many secrets, what are some of the future plans/strategies for increasing fan interaction on social media?

We’re looking into some cool ways to showcase fan-generated content in-game next season; video board, social wall, interactive fan voting, etc. We’ve provided high-density wireless at TD Place to help facilitate our social community and our bandwith is built to handle future innovations. We’re also further establishing our relationship with Twitter to ensure we have the ability to launch new applications as soon as possible.

Any suggestions?

Any favourite CFL moments growing up?

When I lived in Virginia, I attended a Baltimore Stallions home game at Memorial Stadium – not too many people can say that.

Favourite on-field moment of the season?

Winning our home opener. Everything about that day was perfect – the weather, sold-out crowd, and comeback capped with a game-winning field goal by Brett Maher. I’ll never forget it.

Favourite off-field moment?

The most memorable moment for me was at our pre-season game in Saskatchewan. My parents, Laurie and Bruce (both long-time Southsiders), drove to Regina from Kingston, ON to witness the first REDBLACKS game live. This was also my first time working a professional football game, so spending time with them before the game was really special.

Biggest surprise being around the players and/or on the sidelines?

Our players are really down to earth. I’ve been around some prima donnas in the NHL/NBA and our guys are the complete opposite.

Biggest sideline surprise: It is LOUD down at field level. If anyone tries to say that crowd noise doesn’t affect the game – they’re wrong. I sometimes find it difficult to talk to the person next to me, so I can’t imagine how tough it is to keep 12 players on the same page.

Your favourite element/area of TD Place?

Location – there’s nothing else like it in Canada. It’s a unique arena/stadium combination that’s situated next to one of our country’s most beautiful landmarks. I’m also partial to the Frank Clair statue on the south side. I think it’s cool that he’s always watching over the field.

If you had to choose, which Redblacks jersey would you buy – red, black or white?

My favorite jersey is the black home look, but I’ve already purchased a white road jersey with “Ottawa” and the number 14 on the back.

And since I’m the resident jersey geek, I have to ask: how long before we see a Rough Rider-style throwback jersey?

It’s an idea that’s been discussed internally, but honestly, I’m not sure. I’d also like to see a throwback jersey at some point.

Can you fill us in on what happened with the plaid helmets?

The manufacturer couldn’t design the helmets to the specs we wanted.

Tell us something that totally surprised you about a member of the Redblacks team or coaching staff.

I was completely surprised to find out that Henry Burris is a wine connoisseur. He also owns a restaurant in Calgary called Brooklyn Pizzeria & Taps.

Coolest story you’ve heard from a former Rough Riders or Renegades fan/ticket holder.

My parents said that a fan ran out onto the field at a Rough Riders game, climbed the uprights, and wouldn’t get down until he could speak with Jo-Ann Polak. She actually came down, negotiated with him, and finally got him to climb down from the uprights.

Favourite visiting stadium you’ve been to?

Tough choice, but I have to go with Investors Group Field in Winnipeg. BC Place in Vancouver is a close second.

Advice to anyone wanting to get into pro sports?

Here are the pieces of advice that have really helped me:

• Don’t think any job is below you
• Volunteer and network as much as possible
• Make a list of teams you want to work for and apply to those organizations, regardless of whether or not they’re hiring. You’ll be pleasantly surprised with the response.

Anything else you want to share with Redblacks fans?

More than anything, I just want to say thank you. #RNation has been supportive, loud, and so engaged on social media. It makes my job a lot easier when I get to work with such a great fan base on daily basis.

If there’s anything you’d like to see more of on social media, feel free to let me know at @REDBLACKS or @smith_mat.

Thanks again for your time, Mat.

@OTTRoughRiders

(Photos courtesy of Mat Smith)

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