In today’s information friendly world, everyone is a sportscaster, sideline photographer, analyst, and coach. Fans today have the ability to share their praise, critiques and favorite plays in the same environment as an ESPN or Sportscenter host. And, the communities that form around these public opinions are possible because of a simple idea thought of by Chris Messina: the hashtag.

Hashtags unify the endless noise that is expressed on social media. They allow fans from around the world to not only receive real-time updates and opinions on what’s going on, on the court, field or in the arena, but they also empower the every-day fan to be heard. Not only is Twitter making it easier to follow conversations, but they have also invested in creating new ways to discover and follow content.

The recent NBA Finals are a perfect example of social media’s ability to unify people across platforms, cultures, and countries. With 835 million social followers, the NBA has one of the largest social communities in the world. When phenoms like Lebron James and Stephen Curry are added to the mix, who just happen to make highlight reels every time they step on the court, the only possible outcome is that people will have a lot to say.

Tweets with #NBAFinals were viewed 7.6 billion times on Twitter during the games themselves. Shares peaked during epic events during the Finals, such as any of Stephen Curry’s 7 Three-Pointers in Game 5, Lebron’s Triple-Double performance and of course the final victory of Golden State to clinch their first Championship in 40 years.

Besides the ability to bring fans together and unite the chatter around championships like the NBA Finals, hashtags also provide the unique ability to connect brands to fans. Sport Center uses their hashtag #SCTop10 to encourage fans to vote for their favorite plays and highlights. During 2014 NBA Finals, AT&T received 13.6k mentions on Twitter because of their sponsorship association with the Finals.

All of this may not surprise you, as social media has taken front stage to real-time and live event conversations. The opportunity that brands (and teams) have to recognize and engage with their most loyal and opinionated fans and actually reward them for doing so, is huge.

How does tScreen-Shot-2015-06-29-at-3.55.24-PMhis work?

Sports teams that create digital and social VIP programs enable consumers to engage with a brand in a scalable and loud way- all while getting rewarded. No hashtag or tweet goes unrecognized, because in this day and age- consumers have a remote control in their pocket to engage with the brand at any moment. Hashtags and social chatter is the next best way to pull them in as a loyal customer. It’s time brands turn fans into lifetime loyalists.

Here are a few ways sports brands can get up and running with social loyalty programs that increase fan engagement and brand loyalty:

  • Get your best fans (social fans, followers and newsletter subscribers) to become a “Social VIP” by connecting their social accounts. This will give your brand access to a wealth of data and will enable you to recognize when the customer does something of value for the brand in social. Provide an incentive like a coupon or an invitation to a VIP-online event to connect their accounts if you want to increase your conversion rate
  • Identify a small number of actions you always want to reward customers for–perhaps it’s a Facebook check in at the stadium or an Instagram post from the team store. In Twitter you might want to reward consumers for using a specific hashtag unique to your brand. These actions will create the foundation of an “always-on” social loyalty program
  • Correlate rewards to these social actions (often also called triggers). Rewards can be anything from a coupon redeemable for merchandise, to a promo code for a discounted ticket, to points if the brand happens to have an existing points-based program. To keep it feeling fresh, mix up the rewards over time. Having a variety of rewards will surprise and delight customers and build brand loyalty.
  • Layer in special promotions. Give VIPs the opportunity to get access to something that the average person may not. Seat upgrades during the game? A chance at a meet-and-greet? Get creative when it comes to rewarding your social advocates.
  • Measure and optimize. Make sure to understand what rewards are working best and what social platforms and actions drive the most engagement. Armed with this data the brand can optimize the program, increasing fan lifetime value.

Before the social media bubble pops, brands need to stop talking about moments measured by vanity metrics. To do so, brands need to start rewarding their best consumers. Happy, loyal fans will bring their friends. Now, there’s a business strategy that has direct bottom-line impact.