Social media directors and sports referees don’t have much in common on the surface, but there’s one big similarity: the best of both do their job quietly and let their work do the talking. It takes a real superstar to break out of the anonymity of either line of work, but a few officials - Ed Hochuli, Kerry Fraser, maybe Wes McCauley - have managed to do so.
On the social media side of the ledger, Dan LaTorraca certainly qualifies.
Once the creative engine behind the Carolina Panthers’ social media outlets, LaTorraca left the NFL in 2017 for a position with the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets. But less than a year later, the 31-year-old LaTorraca jumped at the opportunity to do what so many others have done: raise his family in North Carolina. He began a new role as the Carolina Hurricanes’ director of digital marketing in June, and he has big ideas brewing to make the Canes’ social media a unique spot in the NHL landscape.
Canes Country recently chatted with Dan about his new role, where social media fits in the wider sports universe, what to expect from the Hurricanes in the future, and much more.
Canes Country: What’s your philosophy on managing social media? Do you see it as an extension of PR and marketing, a conduit through which news is delivered, or something in between?
Dan LaTorraca: All of the above, and then some.
Social media has evolved to become a unique marketing/PR communication platform, a revenue driver and customer service tool. The real-time nature of both sports and social media complement one another nicely. If you do it right, social can be that excitable friend who watches the game alongside you. Unlike television, print and radio, social is a two-way communication platform - it gives brands and customers the chance to interact directly with one another. If a brand is not using social media to build that relationship, they are really missing a big opportunity.
From a content and information sharing standpoint, I do think that teams should work to create value for their audience by keeping them informed. Being among the first wave of those reporting breaking news can help earn trust. Providing behind the scenes access builds authenticity. The ultimate goal is to both inform and yield an emotional response via high-quality content.
On the sports side, the digital team needs to work with just about every department in the organization: ticketing, community outreach, entertainment, sponsorships, hockey operations, etc. A sound strategy can help elevate an organization on multiple levels.
@Redskins Good luck with getting a trademark on that— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) November 22, 2015
CC: When you headed the Panthers’ social media, the team’s social media presence, particularly Twitter, was recognized for its creativity and outside-the-box thinking. How did you settle on the approach that you used for those accounts? Did you encounter any pushback from elsewhere in the organization that may have been in favor of a more by-the-book approach, and how did you deal with that if so?
DL: I joined the Panthers in 2011, right after a pretty difficult 2-14 season, so the fan base was not nearly as developed and established as it is today. I knew the Panthers would never be able to compete with teams like the Cowboys, Patriots and Packers with their rich history and vast resources, but I was confident that we could build a very strong community and make the fans feel loved and appreciated. This meant taking an extremely responsive approach and identifying opportunities to reward and engage fans. Too many teams and brands use social media to speak at fans rather than with them. If you want fans to invest in you, you have to invest in them first.
In terms of some of the Panthers’ more snarky tweets that gained media attention, it was never really part of the planned strategy; it sort of just evolved naturally. I always wanted to show more personality with our copy, and we began doing so in 2014 after making leadership more comfortable with the approach. Once they saw the value, it was an easy sell - within reason. When the team made the Super Bowl run in 2015 it was like playing a video game on easy mode and things sort of exploded from there. Winning makes everything easier, especially telling jokes on Twitter. This can never be the crux of your strategy, however. We have many different types of fans to serve and we want to do so in the best way possible.
CC: What lessons did you learn from your time with the Panthers that you will port over to the Hurricanes? What are the differences, if any, between running social media for an NFL team and handling it for an NHL club? What, if anything, is the same?
DL: I think the most valuable lesson I was learned while with the Panthers is the importance of building relationships. At its core, this is a people business, so showing appreciation and respect for everyone you interact with, both internally and externally, is essential for success.
From a strategy standpoint, many of the core fundamentals and best practices will translate nicely from the NFL to the NHL, especially an investment in high-quality content for both social and our website. Taking a responsive approach across all platforms, not just Twitter, will also play a big role. Ultimately, it is about establishing and building a positive culture that prioritizes communication and creativity in an open setting. We want to value different perspectives and ideas when determining how we will best tell a story or engage our audience. It sounds cliché, but good content is the key to connecting with your audience in a meaningful way.
The NHL and NBA are challenging given the number of games. In the NFL, you have one game per week, so you structure the majority of your content strategy to point at that one game. This makes it easier to build a very linear and manageable narrative. In the NHL, you have to be more proactive in your planning, but also aware of how and when to turn the page.
CC: How much of your content is pre-produced and how much is spur of the moment? What differences are there between the approaches you use on various social media platforms? Thinking back to the emoji art a couple of weeks ago, how long did it take to put those together?
The more proactive and strategic we are with pre-produced content, the more flexible and successful we can be when something unexpected happens. Certain platforms require a significant investment in high-production value content, but Instagram Stories and Snapchat thrive as tools to give fans a more authentic and less polished behind the scenes look at the action.
Full confession: The emoji art actually only took a few minutes to produce. It’s just a website that allows you to upload a photo and it spits out the emoji image. I had stumbled upon it a few years ago and was waiting for the right opportunity to use it.
CC: When there’s something that is going to happen but is embargoed until the release goes out (a trade or a signing, for example), how much lead time do you get to put something together for release on social media? Do you ever start working on stuff based on a tweet that something is coming, or does the in-house team usually beat the Twitter news breakers (even if it isn’t public yet)?
DL: It all depends on the situation. We can have anywhere from five minutes to five days to prepare for an announcement. At every stop in my career, the process has been different and far from perfect – and that is not the fault of anyone, it just seems to be the current norm in the industry as the concept of an internal media team is still relatively new. Because it can be unpredictable, it means we need to have an established process. Fortunately we have some great people internally that provide us with a ton of help.
The world of sports journalism is competitive, so we’re probably not going to be first every time (and I do think external coverage is very important) [ed. note: the man certainly is aware of who’s asking the questions here] so if we cannot break the story, I would love at least give our fans something valuable that other outlets cannot provide.
CC: Five years down the road, where will social media be? Will it be at the point where it’s a fundamental part of an organizational strategy, or is it always going to have a bit of an “edge” to it that keeps it at arm’s length from more traditional marketing and delivery channels?
DL: Right now, I think the basic foundation of social media is set, but I do think we’ll begin seeing some pretty cool enhancements to cause the platforms to have a bigger impact on our daily lives. It will probably be easier and more acceptable to make larger purchases via social. Social is also becoming more international, and with translation software improving, I think we’ll have an easier time connecting with fans in other parts of the world. That could be huge for the NHL and NBA. We’re also seeing more sports broadcasts on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and that investment will only continue to grow.
In its most basic form, social media is a marketing communication tool, so I think it will always have a place within any business strategy. It all depends on how brands invest in staffing and resources in order to yield the best possible return.
CC: What big plans do you have for Canes social media, both short and long-term?
Right now, the short-term focus is to build upon the foundation that is already in place while determining some ways we can quickly take a step forward in terms of fan engagement and content quality. There are so many stories we can tell that will resonate with fans, but they have to be told the right way and in a format that aligns with the medium. Fortunately, we have an extremely talented group of people in multiple departments.
The ultimate goal for every digital team is to build a fully-integrated content strategy that informs fans and evokes a strong emotional response via strong creative, engaging editorial and high-quality photos and video. We also want to make sure we’re aligned with every other department the right way so we can maximize every marketing, revenue and fan engagement opportunity.
I’d personally love to see our players take a more active approach on social media too. There is so much personality on this team and we can showcase that in engaging and interesting ways. That’s on us to help educate and put everyone in a position to succeed, from Stormy to Svechnikov.
Bottom line, we want to build something that Canes fans can appreciate and be proud of.
CC: A couple of weeks ago, you tweeted:
Driving around Raleigh makes me realize just how much I missed living in North Carolina over the last year. Proud to be from jersey, but NC is truly home now - and that feels great.— Dan LaTorraca (@TweetsByDanno) July 20, 2018
Why did returning here hold such an appeal to you?
DL: Time for a long rambling answer.
When my family and I moved to Charlotte, we fell in love with the region. It was a difficult decision to leave because of the friendships I had within the Panthers organization and in the area, but our family was growing and we wanted to get a bit closer to home for the birth of our daughter. We always intended to come back to North Carolina, and a great opportunity opened up a little sooner than expected. Living in Brooklyn was so much fun, but as many wise people have said, Raleigh is a great place to raise a family. I certainly feel that way.
There is so much I admire about this area, the people, the weather, the food. The sports fandom and culture here is tremendous. It’s a peaceful and happy part of this country and I’m proud to call it home.
I’m so honored to be part of the pro team in this region and I hope to see the Canes continue to become a strong part of this community. I want “being a Caniac” to be part of the fabric of living in the Carolinas. I see a lot of similarities in where the Hurricanes are now and where the Panthers were in 2011. Our fans are so hungry for a winner and I think the window is wide open. There is so much potential with this team and fan base. On the digital side, I want to make sure we capitalize on every positive thing that happens for this organization and do everything we can to help the fan base grow.
We certainly appreciate Dan taking the time to chat with us. You can follow his personal Twitter at @TweetsByDanno and, of course, follow the Canes on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat @nhlcanes.