Hurricanes revamped social media team part of a magical 2019 season

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Two rather large hockey players collide loudly with the tempered glass just in front of her at full speed, one of the only noises loud enough to penetrate the steady roar of the PNC Arena playoff hockey crowd in what would be the Hurricanes’ final game of their magical run to the Eastern Conference Finals.

But Nikki Stoudt does not even flinch.

“You get used to it,” the Carolina Hurricanes director of marketing said.

Stoudt is part of a social media team that has, along with the actual on-ice product of course, helped change the way this team is perceived locally and nationally.

And sure, the Carolina Hurricanes ending an almost 10-year playoff drought certainly helped. Yes, the viral celebrations in postgame that came to be known as the Storm Surge gave them a lot of content. And hockey analyst Don Cherry calling the team a “bunch of jerks” put a viral marketing campaign on a T-shirt for them.

But they don’t get here without a lot of hard work and foresight.

“The more planning you do in advance, the easier it is to adjust on the fly,” Dan LaTorraca, director of digital marketing, said. “and we do a lot of planning in advance.”

LaTorraca is in his first year with the team after coming over from the Brooklyn Nets, but North Carolinians will know him best from his stint with the Carolina Panthers. During the team’s Super Bowl run, LaTorraca had a nice run of his own running the team’s Twitter account.

LaTorraca, though, is quick to deflect credit back to his team. He can do that a bit more effectively in his current position as Derrick Holt is the Hurricanes’ social media coordinator – meaning, he’s usually the one pressing send on the tweets themselves.

But even that in and of itself is a collaborative process.

“When Dan started, we kind of identified some of the traits we did or didn’t want the account to have. The first thing that I said was, ‘I don’t know what we want to be, but I don’t want to be mean.’ So we never start anything. We’re never going to attack anybody. But if it’s appropriate, I guess we’ll dish it back. But we’re not going to come out and start a fight because that’s not who the brand is. That’s not who the account is,” Holt said.

“I think from a personality standpoint, I think it’s a little bit of all of us in there that we kind of bounce things off of each other, very collaborative process. There will be points where we’ll have a tweet idea and Dan will be like, ‘Is that too us? Is that something you would say or is that something the Hurricanes would say?’ And you have to identify it as that.”

While the Hurricanes have become known for their Twitter snark, they do try to stay true to that brand. Some of their most viral tweets in the playoffs came in response to other team’s tweets.

And even the Hurricanes’ social media team couldn’t have dreamed that the ideal scenario would fall right into their laps at the perfect time.

As of Valentine’s Day, the Hurricanes were 29-22-6 and playoff contention, while possible, didn’t seem likely. They’d go 17-7-1 the rest of the way, starting that Friday night and into Saturday and beyond. Before that push, though, the Hurricanes had already started to go viral with their Storm Surge celebrations. The Friday night win that started the push saw them do a walk-off home run and Saturday night, it was the limbo.

Before they could even do the limbo, though, longtime hockey analyst Don Cherry – known mostly for his crazy suit jackets – called the team a “bunch of jerks” during Hockey Night in Canada.

The social media team immediately knew they had something.

“In a situation like that, we obviously huddled up a little bit during the game when we saw the video come out. We knew how we wanted to hit that from a strategy standpoint,” LaTorraca said.

Step 1: change their Twitter bio to incorporate “bunch of jerks”.

Step 2: like other people’s tweets about Cherry’s comments rather than tweet about it themselves. People would click on the tweets and see the bio change, and it would become something where the Twitter community at large would notice the subtle reference to Cherry’s comments rather than the team’s account having to do anything.

Step 3: Turn it into a marketing opportunity.

“After the game, we were able to huddle up, talk to our head of marketing as well, say ‘We want to do a shirt here. We think it’s a really good opportunity.’ We got approval from the highest level within like five minutes. … The next morning, we had a T-shirt design ready to go. We had the infrastructure in place. A half a million dollars later, we capitalized off something very special.

“But the most important thing there is that nothing galvanizes a fanbase like when the team is playing well and the national media comes down on you. So that is something that really, really became a battle cry for our fans and something that we were able to capitalize on in a fun way that made us a lot of money.”

And understanding their fans is what’s led to their success.

They change the Hurricanes’ Twitter bio a lot – it’s something LaTorraca identified as an area of emphasis when he took over – to, as he put it, “give the fans a little message.” And right now, the postseason bio says: “That bunch of jerks with the amazing fans.”

They’re not like other accounts either in the sense that they will follow fans back from time to time, and they almost always answer tweets – and not just with clever quips or Twitter burns.

“Social media is about speaking with rather than speaking at,” LaTorraca said. “To cultivate a relationship with your fans, you have to actually listen to them and respond with them and engage them. That’s what builds a community, and I think that’s something that we’ve seen on the ice here with the Storm Surge celebrations. That’s very much focused at the community and strengthening that relationship.

“Responding to a fan on Twitter is the same kind of thing. It’s so important. If you expect somebody to invest in you, you have to invest in them first. That’s a very easy way to do it, is to acknowledge that we hear you and we’re having fun with you and we’re in this with you, too.”

The result has been leading the league in growth.

Michael Smith is the team’s senior writer and web editor, and he’s been with the team since 2011. On a typical gameday, Smith is the one who lays the groundwork in the morning with a preview story for the website, then updating things later when lineups come out.

Smith will also write in the postgame and pull out relevant quotes to tweet from there.

He’s seen a lot change since he first started with the team as social media has gotten bigger and bigger.

“Things have changed tremendously since I’ve been here, since 2011. Even when I was in school at UNC-Chapel Hill, people were kind of struggling on what to do with social and what to make of it and now there are classes about it,” Smith said.

“To watch that change and to kind of be a part of that change and try to adapt with that change has been a fun process. I think we’ve settled into a nice rhythm of editorial strategy being a larger part of our social strategy and our communication strategy with the fans. And being a part of that and watching how it’s changed over the years, how it’s gone from just trying to fill in spots and then changing to really drive the narrative has been a lot of fun.”

Smith and Stoudt are the native North Carolinians in the bunch. Stoudt still remembers her first Carolina Hurricanes game – a November 2005 loss to Ottawa – and she and her family used to drive up from Charlotte to watch the team play. She stood up the whole time, she said, and the energy that had returned to the building reminded her of those days.

While LaTorraca and Holt usually sit up in the press box, Stoudt is on ice level for most of the game, hand poised on her phone, waiting for something to happen or already putting something on social media.

“It’s a lot of hurry up and wait,” she said.

After she takes pictures or video of warmups to put on social media, she’ll stand by and wait for a goal – if it happens on her end, she’ll get a video of the celebration and post it.

On the night the Hurricanes’ season ended, there were no goals by the team, and no celebrations to post.

She kept her phone ready, though, just in case, poised.

A puck goes flying high up on the glass, but it thankfully catches the top and falls back to the ice.

“When you hear ‘heads up!’,” she says, “put your head down.”

Rams running back and North Carolina native Todd Gurley sounded the siren that night, and she took a video and posted it, she’s looking up his Instagram account so that she can tag him. “We’ll go ahead and follow him,” she says, meaning from the Hurricanes’ official account.

A few nights before, Stoudt had been up in the suite when the Carolina Panthers were there, busily taking photos of the players enjoying the game.

After the game, she becomes a de facto web editor to help out Smith, who’s creating content and doing some of the same. And after the team has thanked the fans, she goes to the hallway and leans against the wall, cold air rushing in around her from the tunnel as she works feverishly on her laptop.

When the locker room opens, the barely-5-foot-Stoudt is in the back of every postgame player scrum, hand holding her phone stretched as high as she can as she stands on her tiptoes.

The players don’t entertain media as long as they do in some other sports, and she doesn’t have much time.

Once head coach Rod Brind’Amour’s postgame press conference is over, she and the rest of the team go to their office on the second floor.

“Time to transcribe,” Smith says, referring to all the postgame audio he’s collected.

Stoudt sits down at her computer – with a background that says “get it girl” in pretty cursive lettering – and opens a program called Opendorse, something they’ve started this year to help the players with their own social media.

Back when Brind’Amour was a player – and even now, frankly – being on Twitter or even Instagram (which didn’t yet exist) would have seemed like a waste of time.

Now, players increasingly understand that social media can be important tools for them to relate to fans.

The team understands that too. So Opendorse is a program that creates social media posts for athletes – graphics, photos and the like that Stoudt (or the Hurricanes’ design team) make and offer up for them to post. If the players approve it, it’ll post on their social media pages.

Stoudt was scheduled to be off the next day, and the team decided to take a step back for a few days in terms of social media, since the season had just ended.

But not even 24 hours had passed before she had players asking her if she could send them some content that would let them thank the fans.

“By Friday afternoon, I had requests from players for photos and content and messages that they could send to fans as a thank you for the season. I think that comes from the 1-on-1 engagement that we’ve had with them and conversation about their own social this year,” Stoudt said.

“Players in and of themselves, athletes in and of themselves, are a brand, whether they like it or not. The more that they are able to feel comfortable asking questions of us, the more comfortable they’ll be asking questions of themselves as their own brand.”

And thanks in part to the Hurricanes’ social media team, the brand the players are associated with is pretty strong, too.