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The Reinvention of @Phillies

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A story about the team spearheading the effort that has reshaped the voice and reputation of the Phillies on the Internet

Jeff Skversky / 6 ABC

“We didn’t know whether we’d talk into a total vacuum or whether somebody would hear us.”

- Harold Arlin

On August 5, 1921, 25-year-old Harold Arlin held a telephone to his ear. Into the mouthpiece, he relayed the outcome of each pitch of a game between the Phillies and Pittsburgh Pirates. The phone was rigged so that Arlin’s voice would reach not just one intended audience member on the other side of the line, but some thousands of listeners tuned to KDKA, the nation’s first commercial radio station, in Pittsburgh. This was the sport’s first broadcast, and Arlin was its first baseball play-by-play announcer.

“We didn’t know whether we’d talk into a total vacuum or whether somebody would hear us,” Arlin later wrote in his book, Play-by-Play: Radio, Television, and Big-Time College Sport. If you’ve heard a radio broadcast of a baseball game at some point over the past 97 years, you’ll know it was the latter.

For a time, radio broadcasts were the only real-time substitute for actually being at the ballpark. Red Barber and television broadcasts arrived in 1939, and that would be the last major media revolution in baseball for nearly 60 years. Then, in August 1995, the first Internet baseball broadcast took place on what was then known as “ESPN SportsZone,” and streaming video of the league’s televised broadcasts wouldn’t be far behind.

The options for following baseball through the medium of your choice have only continued to expand. Chief among those expansion efforts is, of course, the Internet, the seemingly boundless platform with the potential to enhance baseball coverage as much as anything else you can dream up.

Now, with platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook providing engagement avenues for fans across the world, both Major League Baseball and the teams within the league have greater opportunities to expand and cater to their fanbases.

After years of providing rote, matter-of-fact updates to the fans who had subscribed, liked, or followed their way onto the digital Phillies bandwagon, the organization has spent the past two-and-a-half years retooling, reshaping, and reinventing how the Phillies are presented across the web. The result is a vibrant, charismatic, lively, and (dare we say it?) bold new voice, thanks to a small group of employees within the Phillies marketing and media departments. The @Phillies crew have turned themselves into a social media destination, a must-follow no matter your true allegiance, and they only want to get better.

“I would like to think the sky’s the limit,” Michael Harris, VP of Marketing & New Media for the Phillies, says. “And the potential is beyond enormous.”

The Beginning

The Phillies joined Facebook and Twitter in 2009, riding the wave of the team’s World Series title the year before to try and give fans easier access to articles and updates about the team. There were even two separate Twitter accounts for the team: The initial conceit of @Phillies was to link to articles about the club, while @philaphillies tried to add a bit more fan engagement and color to the news of the day.

Establishing an official social media presence was a necessary step in order to keep pace with the ever-evolving needs of fans in the Internet age. But a staid approach, incorporating only small pieces of personality, could only keep fans invested for so long.

A snapshot of the Phillies’ Facebook page from May 2009

Even after the team finally ditched the split Twitter account strategy and consolidated to just @Phillies in 2014, something was still missing.

“Everything we tried was well-intentioned,” Harris says. “But there was no long-term plan, and those that were involved did so on the side or part-time.

“The end result was a voice that was way too straightforward, oversaturated with sales and PR, and too little personality and engagement. That’s the cold, hard, honest truth, and we felt it internally.”

With a team caught in a tortured rebuild and a social presence stuck in neutral, it was clear the momentum from the 2008 championship run had dried up by the time the 2014 season wrapped. Other team accounts, like the Cubs and Indians, had taken on new voices and strategies, interacting more with fans and bringing humor and charisma to the table, lapping the field and putting the Phillies behind the 8-ball.

“We had to re-approach our thinking from top to bottom. We needed to think big picture,” Harris says. “Whatever changes were going to be made couldn’t be reactionary.

“Ultimately, we decided to blow everything up and start from scratch.”

The Rebuilding

Enter Meaghan Tullis, Coordinator of Digital Media and the longest-tenured member of the social media tribe within the Phillies’ marketing department. Tullis, who joined the Phillies in 2014, initially joined the marketing department as a sales intern, working her way up the ranks to become full-time for the 2015 season. Midway through that season, another in which the Phils were comfortably out of playoff contention by the time the summer really got cooking, something started to click.

“I didn’t pay that much attention to what our social presence was until I joined the department,” Tullis says. “But I would send Mike articles that I would read about how other teams were doing what with social, and what was cool. And Mike saw a need for my role to grow in that way.”

It didn’t take long before a plan was hatched and put in place. In early 2016, as Spring Training neared, @Phillies tweeted something unlike anything it had really tweeted before.

Jumping on the social trend of making relatable statements with a gif or video or picture that captures a mood is an easy way for people to express themselves these days, but the Phillies’ Twitter had never really crossed that bridge before. There, with one gif of Freddy Galvis crossing himself after a hit paired with a tweet about leaving work on a Friday, a new voice began speaking.

The Voice

There are a number of fine lines bordering the territory where earnest, funny, and engaging content on social media converge. It’s incredibly easy to veer “too far” into an area that convolutes the message, or alienates your audience. And there exists an inexhaustible amount of memes, catchphrases, and other things that, without proper understanding, can lead to an embarrassing moment or two. These are tricky waters to navigate, but ones the Phillies feel equipped to sail across.

“A lot of thought goes into what we say, how we say it, and in what manner. We want our voice to be energetic, playful, substantive, honest, and respectful,” Harris says. “We can be all those things in a fun, engaging way and still stay true to who we are as brand.”

That’s what @Phillies is, after all: A brand. At the core of the operation, the Phillies are marketing to fans through these social media channels, advertising the experience by presenting it in a way the modern fan can relate to. Sometimes, that relation can even take the form of letting a dog “take over” tweeting duties during a Bark at the Park promotion.

The best way to make that happen regularly? Compose your staff with those modern fans.

“This is a job that didn’t even exist five or six years ago, probably,” Missy Perez, one of the team’s full-time Social Media Representatives, who joined the @Phillies team in early 2017, says. “There are moments when it hits you, like, ‘this is nuts, I’m tweeting for a baseball team.’”

Being able to reach so many people - to be the eyes (if not also the ears) of those who don’t have a ticket to the game - is a power held by a select few. Perez is one of those few, and knows there’s significant gravity in the position.

“There’s a line you don’t want to cross,” Perez says. “But by keeping it light, conversational, fun, it almost feels like I’m talking to my friends when I send a tweet or interact with people.”

The mix of fandom and business is what makes platforms like these so unique, and the lines of communication these channels have opened - from fan to team, and vice versa - seem to grow wider by the month. And with the volume of platforms and the amount of attention and interaction needed for each, running these accounts can’t be a one-person show.

“It’s great. It’s fun. When you work together as much as Missy and I do, you get to know each other well,” Tim Stoeckle, Perez’s fellow Social Media Representative for the club, says. “And we definitely feed off fan interaction.”

Stoeckle, who’s been with the team since 2016 after working as a remote coordinator during the 2015 season, has seen the club’s methods and means of interacting with fans evolve from the start of this new movement. And though progress is evident, he knows the job isn’t done.

“I think we’ve come a long way when it comes to engaging with fans,” Stoeckle says. “I see teams like the Cubs and the Astros and Indians and Dodgers who’ve made the World Series, and I see how their [engagement] numbers are doing. And as this Phillies team gets better and more people pay attention, I think what we can do is take this excitement, nationwide, to another level.”

The Team

One thing the Phillies don’t have that the likes of the Cubs, Astros, Indians, and Dodgers do, at least in recent years, is a postseason berth. Each of those four other clubs, World Series contenders and winners, experienced massive gains to their social media following by making it to baseball’s ultimate series.

  • The Cubs gained nearly 50,000 followers on Twitter within 24 hours of winning the 2016 World Series
  • The Astros picked up more than 20,000 new followers within a day of capturing their 2017 title
  • The Indians and Dodgers, despite falling short winning it all, gained roughly 20,000 and 50,000 followers of their own during their respective World Series trips in 2016 and 2017

Simply enough, a team being good usually results in more attention, and a greater social following. It certainly hasn’t been lost on @Phillies that the reinvented tone and voice of the club through social media has rather neatly coincided with a better, more interesting team.

“I’m not sure it was a complete coincidence,” Harris says. “But there’s no question the timing is kind of ideal. It’s almost a perfect storm.”

It’s difficult to imagine Charlie Manuel coordinating efforts to get Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Jimmy Rollins involved in a social media contest in 2008, even if all of the above are active on their own accounts today. Now, in 2018, a generation of players that grew up following the sport and its players through these channels is the one taking the field, and there’s a level of acceptance and integration that simply could not have existed in the early days of baseball and social media’s coexistence.

“Younger players active on social changed the equation,” Harris says. “The vast majority of our young guys are on Twitter. All of a sudden, there’s a pool of players who are active. The players and @Phillies are obviously tethered, and that’s something that all of us understand, appreciate, and value.”

The Phillies started the year with 1.42 million Twitter followers and 329,000 Instagram followers, and those numbers have since ballooned to more than 1.8 million and 400,000 by late May, as the Phillies assumed first place in the NL East in May for the first time in seven seasons. There’s a sense of optimism growing around the Phillies, and even if the season is barely one-third complete, there’s reason to consider this newly competitive squad as legitimate.

Back when the Phillies were last competitive, Twitter and Instagram were not nearly the baseball fixtures that they are now. Twitter, especially, existed as a fan-to-fan portal far more than one in which teams and players and staff could share and interact with their fanbases.

“The Phillies were the ‘it’ team when Twitter was just created,” Perez says. “I think about this all the time, but when the Phillies won the World Series, Twitter was barely around.”

Through this lens, it’s almost as if the Phillies were good too early for the social media revolution. Twitter, as a service, has exploded in usage since 2008, going from six million users to nearly 350 million in those 10 years. With the team’s success moving in a diametrically opposite way, the organization found itself playing from behind, especially as the team was still stuck in neutral as the mid-2010s progressed.

“I feel like we have, as an organization and social team, had to play catch-up,” Perez says.

The next logical step, then, would be a return to the playoffs. Much like the bulk of the Phillies roster, the social team is light on postseason experience. But that doesn’t make them want the spotlight any less.

“A playoff run puts these teams on the map,” Perez says. “There’s a direct correlation to their on-field success. Once this team becomes a perennial contender, we’ll have a hell of a lot of fun.”

The Manager

A new focus and attitude toward social media could accomplish some things on its own, but one thing that’s allowed @Phillies to take their presence to a new height has been the added support from those who take the field every day: The players themselves, and manager Gabe Kapler.

“It was pretty evident from the beginning that Gabe was going to be a different kind of manager,” Harris says. “His desire and commitment to work with us at a very early phase to create this collaborative atmosphere presented us with an opportunity to rethink some things, and approach strategy through a different prism.”

Kapler even held a contest this past spring, encouraging the clubhouse to challenge one other to up their social following and engage with fans while building a sense of kinship and camaraderie. It was something you never would have seen from the Phillies of 10 years ago.

“Gabe is incredibly creative and forward-thinking, and he coordinated with our department so we could provide feedback and ultimately make sure @Phillies was supporting his goal,” Harris says. “It was 100 percent his idea, but we were hoping to amplify the results.”

Spring Training proved to be fertile ground for all sorts of foundation-building. While 90 percent (or more) of all fan attention is directed toward player performance and health, there are efforts behind the scenes to continue reshaping what it means to be a member of the Phillies, and the visibility that comes with it.

Part of that approach involved Kapler reaching out to a long-time member of the organization, official team photographer Miles Kennedy, to make it known that Kennedy wasn’t simply going to be a presence around the team; he was a teammate.

Miles Kennedy

“I got a text at 9 o’clock one morning [during Spring Training] saying, ‘hey, can you come to players-only meeting at 9:30? By the way, this is Gabe,’” Kennedy says. Now in his 16th season with the Phillies, Kennedy is no stranger to most of the folks around the complex in Florida. But this team had a number of rookies and minor league invitees who may not have known Kennedy. Either way, Kapler wanted to be sure everyone had a chance to be introduced to the man who’d be responsible for capturing them in games and around the park.

“He starts off the meeting by introducing me to players who didn’t know me already and showing an iPad of pictures I’d taken,” Kennedy says. “He told everyone, ‘he’s here to make us look good.’ That was totally different.”

Kennedy, for his part, appreciated the thought and the assist. “For me, it makes my job easier,” he says. “It helped me out incredibly, so players see me and know who I’m with.”

“It’s a microcosm of why Gabe’s special,” Harris says. “The manager gets it, the coaches get it, the players get it, everyone is now on board.

“He deserves a lot of credit.”

The Signing

Kennedy wasn’t the only teammate to be introduced to the Phillies clubhouse this spring. In March, buzz had grown louder surrounding a potential match between the Phils and free agent starting pitcher Jake Arrieta. For a time, the link was all speculation, theories that only held merit as far as a distant connection between Arrieta and members of the Phillies front office who shared time in Baltimore with the Orioles organization.

Then, quickly, things began to materialize. With the Cubs turning their attention elsewhere, the Phillies became serious players, and were able to craft a deal that suited worked for both sides.

“That was a whirlwind,” Perez says. “My mom had come up that prior weekend. I was moving and we were looking at apartments in Philly. It was a Sunday evening, and Mike [Harris] texted me saying ‘hey, I need to talk to you. Call me when you get a chance.’ So I got to wondering.”

Perez, Stoeckle, and Tullis had reached a point in their schedule when the trio had begun taking turns being present in Florida for the final weeks of Spring Training, staggering their trips to ensure both the activities in Florida and the preparations in Philadelphia were on-track for the rapidly approaching season.

“I was scheduled to take my shift that coming Wednesday,” Perez says. “So I call Mike back, and he says, ‘We’re signing Arrieta, there’ll be a press conference, can you fly down tomorrow?’”

“I had just gotten home from Clearwater,” Tullis says. “I was enjoying a Sunday afternoon with my dog. Then I saw a [FanRag Sports Network writer Jon] Heyman report, and thought, ‘tomorrow at the office will be fun.’”

“The planning starts pretty much immediately,” Stoeckle says. “We can’t say anything [on the accounts] until it’s official, so we can use that time to start our planning. That goes beyond social, to marketing and digital and advertising.

“We just promoted the heck out of him the whole week. That was a big deal.”

Without a picture of Arrieta in Phillies gear during a game, Tullis knew the group had a gap in their graphics library. Somebody had to come up with a way to incorporate the Cy Young Award-winner, decked out in his new red pinstripes, to really make the announcement sizzle.

“Here we have a marquee free agent, this is a 9-1-1 situation,” Tullis says. “And we didn’t have [graphics] yet.”

The hunt was on. Who, on such short notice, would be available to create and turn around a graphic featuring Arrieta in a uniform and colors he had not yet worn, one that would stand out and help broadcast the importance of this deal to the Internet?

As it turns out, there was already a plan in motion. The team had been working with a creative agency out in San Diego, looking to make their graphics snazzier (and more stylistically consistent) across all platforms for the coming season. A few phone calls later, Tullis and staff had helped knock down the final hurdles between the team and a new, fresh graphic to attach to the tweet that would introduce Arrieta to Philadelphia.

“So I went from a plane that morning to finalizing a graphics deal by the end of that night,” Tullis says. “It was total madness.

“That’s why you work in sports.”

The Fans

Philadelphia prides itself on being a tough crowd, one unafraid - for better or worse - to speak its mind and dole out criticism. That fanbase having a direct line to your inbox is a surefire way to fray some nerves, but the @Phillies group keeps a healthy perspective on fan interaction from top to bottom.

“We call it ‘winning while losing,’” Stoeckle says. “If we’re down by 15, we’ll sarcastically tweet something, but if you do that all the time, fans will get annoyed. I just try to read the fans and don’t take the mean comments personally.”

“Why would you not want to engage with your fans? They’re the people supporting you,” Perez says. “Shoot, we could go 6-22 in May and fans are still there. And they’re still gonna be Phillies fans no matter what.

“We can’t control what happens on the field. We’ll have to tell the fans what happens, no matter what. But we have 25 guys who are doing cool things, and we’ll showcase that even if we’re getting swept this weekend. We’ll still show you something awesome the team did in the community.”

“Honesty is critical, because fans are smart. But there are limitations to how far we’ll go,” Harris says. “It should be crystal clear at this stage that we won’t shy away from topics.”

In truth, it’s difficult to imagine @Phillies in its infancy responding to a jab from former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. But when Christie took a largely unprovoked shot at the Phillies and their fans during a guest appearance on Mets flagship network SNY in February 2017, calling the team’s fans “angry” and “bitter,” (among other things) the team was ready.

In good times and bad, it’s apparent that this organization is going to use its platform to be the best representation of the collective fan’s voice it can be. That’s a tall task for a fanbase as notoriously fickle as this one, but it’s been handled deftly in recent years.

“Frankly, it’s a tribute to our staff, to ultimately turn them loose to do their jobs,” Harris says. “That doesn’t mean things aren’t approved or are done carte blanche, but our staff has really developed a great barometer for asking permission and approval. The result is an enormous amount of trust. I’m extremely proud of our group and how much they’ve grown.”

The Future

The Phillies’ rise in the standings and the @Phillies social revamping has been timed to perfection. Teams and their social media outfits can survive and prosper in different ways, but there’s little doubt that a better team often means better opportunities for those running the accounts. The longer the team stays in contention, the more they garner attention. And that’s the sweet spot for Harris, Tullis, Stoeckle, Perez, Kennedy, and everyone else with a hand in the crafting of this new voice.

“It’s crazy how far a comment or reply back from the @Phillies account can go to make someone’s day,” Perez says. “We’re still establishing ourselves as a team that’s both informational and fun. I think people take things way too seriously sometimes, so why not be light and positive?”

“I went into camp and I saw the talent on this team. There’s real talent. And the clubhouse dynamic seems different in a good way,” Stoeckle says. “We want to give the team a voice to take that to another level. I can’t wait for that to happen.”

In the meantime, as that next postseason moment approaches, the team continues to refine its voice and strategy by employing a simple tactic: Having fun and working well together.

“Ultimately, this really is a team effort. A group effort,” Harris says. “The collective energy that goes into everything has resulted in all the positive changes.”

“We feel comfortable letting each other know what we think about posts,” Stoeckle concurs. “I’ll bring up an idea, and if Missy doesn’t like it, she’ll let me know, and we’ll think of ways to make it better.”

He continues, “really, it’s exciting that we have this group that can interact with the Phillies, and we help by promoting them.”

“It’s just a matter of America noticing the Phils as much, and us doing our part to make sure America notices the Phillies more,” Perez notes. “The possibilities are endless.”

“It’s about keeping an eye on the future,” Tullis agrees. “We only want to get better, but we’re not there yet.”

Harris, though, senses that that next level is close.

“Everything is coming together. Our players, coaches and manager all understand the importance and power of what we’re trying to do,” he says. “We’re working together more than ever before, and expanding our footprint will only further intensify the connection for years to come.”

“It’s not a matter of us being prepared or ready for the big stage,” Perez adds. “We’re ready for the big stage, it’s just a matter of whether the big stage is ready for us. Once we’re there and ready to hit send on the fire tweets, we’ll have even more fun.”