Sports Illustrated Social Media Approach Is Picture Perfect

This post is part of the Social Media Editor Series, featuring interviews with social media editors from news organizations about what they do and where they see social media in journalism going.

Sports Illustrated uses something old to make something new  or at least different — in social media. The media company has been documenting sports history in photos since its first issue 58 years ago this month.

These days SI Special Projects Producer Andy Gray leverages that collection of 30 million photographs in ways its photographers and their contracts could have never predicted  and in ways other social media producers should heed.

“For Sports Illustrated as a brand, we’re not the first choice for lots of fans because we don’t have a TV station you can go to, like ESPN,” Gray, who has been at SI since interning there in 2005, told The Content Strategist.

What SI does have is history.

“I started the SI Vault Twitter feed because SI has so many great pictures,” Gray, who now tweets for the account 10-15 times a day, said. “We’d send someone to the 1984 World Series to take pictures and they’d just sit there in the basement collecting dust.”

Gray’s method is known to content strategists and companies alike. Consider for example how Mint and OkCupid used their own data to provide insights outside of their companies’ main focus. SI is doing so with photos, using historic images to draw insights about today’s sports—and also just to show off its cool old pics.

Gray began the Twitter feed by posting archived stories and photos, but soon realized that images were much more social media friendly.

“Photos resonate a lot more than stories,” Gray said.

Indeed the photos he posts often garner hundreds of retweets. Last month, the photo gallery When Pro Athletes Were In Little League saw 5 million hits.

“It’s just like porn for sports fans,” Gray, who is in charge of SI’s photo blog, the SI Vault Twitter as well as special projects, said. “Who doesn’t want to see Peyton Manning as a 7-year-old?”

Gray attributes this love of photos to readers who divide their attention with hundreds of Twitter posts and don’t necessarily have time to read full-length articles. But he also believes there is something about photos that can speak across time.

“Social media is mostly younger people, and Sports Illustrated doesn’t mean as much to them as someone who is 40,” Gray, 35, said. He said older Twitter users are an “easy sell” because they enjoy the nostalgia of SI’s old photos, photos they might remember seeing in the magazine as kids.

Younger readers are more challenging. To reach people 25 and under, Gray uses a “combination of cool and rare photos” that he accompanies with “a little snark.”

But he added, “A cool Michael Jordan picture is a cool Michael Jordan picture whether you’re 15 or 50.”

Every major publication has a social media strategy. SI has a traditional social media team that consists of eight people. Its main accounts have 257,000 Facebook fans and nearly 400,000 on Twitter, much more than SI Vault’s 65,000 Twitter followers and the accompanying Tumblr‘s 45,000.

What makes SI Vault successful, however, is its ability to provide content that no one else has or expects.

That’s partly because Gray doesn’t know what to expect either.

Gray said he believes he has a “fairly common” taste, giving him an ability to determine what others will like, but he said it’s an imperfect art.

“I put up pictures sometimes that I think everyone will love but nobody cares about” and vice versa, he said. “It’s somewhat of a guessing game for me.”

This guessing game involves searching the archives using key words in a system that is not always  especially for older photos  well-tagged. Gray has to be creative. For example: searching “courtesy of” to find childhood photos of athletes.

He also uses these searches to come up with galleries that are more interesting than the everyday. He’s searched everything from “dinner” to combination searches like “laughing” and “locker room.”

The results are far-reaching, from photos of Ohio cheerleaders in 1960  to Tiger Woods as a kid to a gallery of the best kisses in sports.

These photos can take viewers anywhere in place and time. The only restriction on his posts, Gray said, is being smart. SI doesn’t have a social media policy but Gray follows the advice of his boss:

“If you really have to think about whether or not you should be doing it, you probably shouldn’t be doing it,” Gray said. “It’s the best advice I’ve gotten.”

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