I saw that my favorite player in the Houston Astros organization was going to be in town for a team appearance at a sporting goods store. She graciously agreed to talk to me about her job.
Until last season, when she became Senior Director of Social Media for the Astros, Alyson Footer was the beat writer covering the team for mlb.com, where she was a standout. When you read hundreds of game recaps over eight seasons, you can kinda tell.
Last year, Footer went to work directly for the Astros, as the first dedicated social media manager employed by an MLB team. Most baseball seasons cause Astros fans to tear at least some of their hair out, but the start of last season was especially hard for a lot of us to take. Footer’s smart, frequently funny and always cool-headed updates kept me from beating my head against the wall any more than was absolutely necessary. More than that, her in-season tweets, many documenting the mundane behind the scenes stuff we never see, really brought the team closer to its fans.
Footer accompanied a group of Astros players to Austin as part of the team’s annual winter PR tour. We chatted in the parking lot while they signed autographs inside.
How would you articulate your job description?
I’m basically in charge of all the social media. Through Twitter, Facebook, I have a blog, we do a lot of video. A lot of photos. And basically I’m in charge of communicating to the fans through the same kinds of social media that all companies are using these days.
Do all 32 clubs have a similar position?
As far as creating a position solely dedicated to social media, I think the Astros are the only team. I’m not positive, but last I checked, we were.
Did you have any role in creating the position?
No, they created the position, actually, and came to me with it. I was a reporter for mlb.com. I was doing some Twitter and some Facebook, and when they decided that they really needed to get ahead of things and start social media, they didn’t know what to do with it or where to start. So they thought that I would be good to get them rolling in the right direction.
You were known, you’d been the media relations department, right?
I was in media relations many years ago, and then being a beat writer for eight years, I already had that connection with fans, and my name was already out there. And that’s what they wanted, somebody to represent the team that the fans were already kind of familiar with.
You’re basically in a job that no one had five years ago, because the field didn’t exist. Talk a little bit about how you helped define the role you were hired to do, and how you evaluate whether you’re making an impact.
Well, as far as making an impact, we can look at the raw numbers. The blog is ranked in the top 10 every month among MLB blogs. There really is not a way to gauge it except to look at how many people are following me on Twitter, and that we have over 200,000 people on our Facebook page. Which is kind of low, actually. A lot of the teams have 500,000 or 800,000.
How does it compare to a team in a comparably sized market?
Pretty favorably when you’re talking about the mid- to small-market teams. But certainly the interest is there, the fan base has always been there. I don’t get the raw numbers, but it appears that we are ahead of the curve a little bit, in that we have a position that’s solely focused on social media. So, for instance, I’m able to answer questions immediately, and get back to people right away. Like you contacted me today.
And here we are. It’s very nice of you. In the social realm you’ve got to keep it real or you’re gone. It’s a medium where fake doesn’t play. So when things aren’t going so great for the team, how do you find things to talk about and keep the fans involved?
Things actually get more interesting when the team isn’t doing well. I wish that they would do well all the time, but certainly when the team is struggling there’s a lot to talk about. What do you do, do you make moves? Who’s down in the farm system? What is the issue with a particular pitcher, or why is a hitter slumping? When everything’s rosy and things are motoring along, there’s not as much to talk about. But we do lots of things to keep people interested. We do a lot of behind the scenes stuff, I try to humanize these players, present them as real people, fun people, people with interests outside of baseball, and kind of bring the human element to the fans. It doesn’t matter how good or bad your team is, there are always interesting stories to tell away from the field. That’s largely what we try to do.
What’s your educational background?
I have an undergraduate degree in English Lit from the University of Cincinnati, and I went to graduate school there for journalism.
How did you wind up in the Astros media department?
I was working for the AA Cleveland Indians, and randomly saw an advertisement for a job on the Astros website. At that time, 10 teams had websites. The Astros were one of them. It was a job that I wasn’t qualified for at all, but I sent in my resume and they had a job opening that they hadn’t advertised yet that I was qualified for, so I ended up getting that.
And baseball has always been an abiding love?
Absolutely. I worked in sports information in college, so I had exposure to football, basketball, soccer, swimming and diving, but baseball was always what I loved. It’s what I always wanted to do.
Every business is looking at it and saying what do we do to jump-start our social presence. The other side of that is that there are a lot of people interested in getting into it as a career. What makes a good social media manager?
Well, you have to be a writer, I think. And you have to be very well educated about your topic. You have to be somebody who likes to interact with people and can be available all the time, pretty much.
And how’s that work?
Well, I get up in the morning and I look at my Twitter and I answer questions, so it’s got to be somebody who’s accessible, who is people friendly, and understands how far reaching it is, and where it goes. You have to have a filter. Every once in a while they’re like, “Yeah, could you ease up on the Carlos Lee criticism?”
Yeah, I was gonna ask, does that come up?
Every once in a while I’ll get a friendly reminder.
Do you ever get any guff from the players?
No, no. If I’m critical in a fair way, that is all that is asked of me.
“Sure wish Carlos would’ve run out that grounder.” (me paraphrasing a Footer in-game tweet at the nadir of last season.)
I mean, I’ve had some problems with that. (laughs) But you have to not just make a snap decision right there, think about for it a little bit, because what you put out there is permanent. I mean, you can delete it, but it’s out there. So you really do have to filter yourself. But for the most part, it’s all good.
So, you have to be a writer, you have to work, what, 18 hours a day?
It’s not so much 18 hours a day, it’s 7-and-a-half months in a row. In the corporate world, it’d be much different. But in baseball, we’re in the entertainment business, and people are entertained on evenings and weekends, so that’s when we work. Like Coca-Cola has a huge department dedicated just to social media, but do they really need to be there for people at 10:30 at night? Maybe they do, I have no idea. I suppose if they use it as a customer service mechanism.
What do you tweet on?
I just have my iPhone and my laptop. I tweet mostly on my phone, but during games I’m on my laptop. I have three different ways I can take photos; I can take pictures with my phone, I can take pictures with my still camera, and then I have a Flip cam. I use twitpic and twitvid to post photos and video. And we have very basic blogging software for mlb blogs.
Do you use any social media management software, or any of the social listening tools?
We’ve been approached about it, but, no, we’re not doing anything with it yet.
Have you been approached by other clubs who are interested in emulating what you’re doing with the Astros?
Yeah, I’ve had some conversations with people and shared ideas.
And what do you say to them when they ask if it’s worth it?
Well, anybody who understands what social media is knows that it’s worth it. Because you spend $5000 advertising an event like this in the newspaper, and nobody is going to see it. There have been more people at our caravan stops and our Astroline (live remote radio) shows than there ever have been before. Because they know about it. I mean, if we put something on Facebook, we have 200,000 people on our Facebook page. How many people are going to see it in a newspaper? A fraction of that. So teams need more convincing than that? I don’t know what more I could tell them. Because it’s just the way it’s going, you don’t want to be left behind.
How has the front office reacted to your work in this new role so far?
They seem to be very pleased. When they hired me, they just wanted the information to be correct. They’re not trying to mask over anything or make it sound better than it is. In this day and age, you can’t fool people.
Did they already know that, or was that something you had to tell them?
No, they already knew that, but I told them I’m not going to take this job if you want me to just be Suzy Sunshine and not tell it like it is. And they realized that if you want people reading and going to your site and going to your events, then they need to feel like they’re reading the truth. And that’s how I was at mlb.com and that’s how I’ve continued to be.
Like last year was tough. But I saw what was going on; I saw what was going on at spring training, and I saw Brad Mills and his coaching staff and I said someday when the team is good again, we’re going to look at all these little moves, this pitching coach that they brought in, and the bench coach that they have and the manager that they have. And all these little things. Like that guy you never heard of that we got off waivers, and all these things that nobody pays attention to. Like our short season A team won their league championship last year. Well, nobody really cared in Houston, but those guys are coming up through the system, and those are things we try to expose a little bit, too.
What kind of relationship do you have with the Astros fan sites?
Well, we like them. We are pro fan blogs. We have three main ones in Houston.
I’m a Crawfish Boxes guy.
We like them. Drayton (team owner Drayton McLane) really likes them. So when Drayton likes them, we like them. (laughs)
That’s interesting, because they’re pretty hard on him.
Well, he has a lot of respect for the amount of content they produce and the quality of the analysis. I mean, they’re hard on him, but they’re basing their opinions on factual information, and they’re drawing their conclusions on something more than, “This guy stinks!”
Drayton’s whole philosophy is, he wants people to talk about his team, whatever they’re talking about. So if you get like-minded people that are talking about the team, that’s the goal of any franchise.
But 20 years ago if you would’ve said to a team, “You need to set up a media channel that’s fan-driven and virtually unfiltered,” I think that would’ve scared the shit out of a lot of teams.
And it still does. There’s a lot of paranoia out there in baseball, but you have to get past that.
How’s it paying off for you professionally in terms of what you were hoping to get out of the job?
It’s been great. I mean, I had a great job at MLB, and it was hard to leave it, but to be the grassroots person to make it go and have it be a success, I mean, I have no regrets. Although, I miss the mlb.com Christmas party in New York. Those were some good times. But I’ll live. (laughs)