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SIRC is pleased to be working together with Sport Canada to share current research on topics informing policy and promoting quality sport programming. This week we are sharing highlights of a recent article reviewing a research study examining CANADIAN NATIONAL SPORT ORGANIZATIONS’ USE OF SOCIAL MEDIA.

“Birds of a Feather”: An Institutional Approach to Canadian National Sport Organizations’ Social-Media Use. Naraine, M. L., & Parent, M. M. (2016). International Journal Of Sport Communication, 9(2), 140-162.

SIRC Highlights from the research

Social media has been deemed as a valuable tool for companies and organizations to build relationships with consumers. Previous research has identified that not-for-profit sport organizations primarily use social media as a communication tools rather than as a marketing tool. Recognizing the need for research into the area of communication behaviours of sport organizations, the purpose of this study was to compare and contrast Canadian national sport organizations’ (NSO) social media presence and communication behaviours based on the environmental context in which they operate. The authors use institutional theory – specifically isomorphism – as the framework of their analysis which is a new approach to the social media and sport research sphere. This framework promotes a shift in research beyond examining social media content for marketing or user gratification to examining content to explain the environmental pressures affecting organizational practice. This study specifically looked at Twitter as the social media platform of focus and looks to see if NSO Twitter use differs from organization to organization or whether a ‘one size fits all’ approach is the common strategy.

To contextualize the framework, Isomorphism refers to “the process by which organizations in a similar environment achieve homogeneity in their practices”. In this framework there are three types of pressures within the environment that organizations operate, that cause them to be similar: (1) coercive pressures – where powerful entities (e.g. political structures) apply pressure to adopt specific action or risk potential sanctions (e.g. restricting resources); (2) mimetic pressure – where a survey of the environment by the organization identifies successes of other organizations which promotes adoption of those practices to stay relevant; and (3) normative pressures – where drawing from the same pool of resources for money and knowledge is a consequence of professionalization overseen by educational or regulatory bodies.

The following two research questions were investigated through an exploratory qualitative thematic analysis:

  1. What are the main themes that emanate from NSO social media communication?
  2. What are the similarities and differences in social media use between NSOs?

NSOs were grouped based upon number of Twitter followers and two NSO’s from each of four groupings were randomly chosen respecting representation from both summer and winter sports. The eight NSOs studied were Skate Canada, Tennis Canada, Canadian Freestyle Ski Association, Rowing Canada, Bobsleigh Canada, Sail Canada, Luge Canada, and Fencing Canada.

Highlights from the results:

  • Central themes from NSO Twitter communication included: referencing elite athletes’ Twitter accounts, displaying results, and promoting upcoming competitions.
  • Similarities between NSO communications were fundamental to Twitter communications and included promoting events, reporting results, and informing followers.
  • Little difference was found in Twitter communications between NSOs. Examples of differences included Rowing Canada communicating weather conditions, Tennis Canada retweeting sport media reports, and Luge Canada’s use of connecting with a book on Luge to promote the sport.
  • A significant finding of this study was that communication themes were consistent across NSOs regardless of seasonality of sport, Twitter-follower count, total number of tweets, and whether content of Tweets was original or retweeting.
  • It was expected that the different natures, cultures, subcultures and environments of the individual sports and their followers would have created differences in communication messages and communication tactics/strategies. This was not found.
  • The consistency of the fundamental types of communications from the NSOs confirms previous research indicating that NSOs are not effectively using social media to build relationships with their stakeholders; rather they are using Twitter primarily as an alternate broadcasting medium much like their websites. Contrary to the interactive nature of social media, the communications lack this engagement factor.
  • Reflecting on the framework of the research, the similar themes of NSO social media use revealed isomorphism among the organizations. The authors take a look what pressures create this isomorphism despite the differences in NSO “popularity” and resources.
    • Coercive pressure: Due to primary funding support through the federal government and expectations to engage in online communications, NSOs risk losing government support if they do not make use of social media channels. Thus NSOs are coerced to support social media communication on limited budgets which partially explains the similarities between organizations’ communication strategies.
    • Mimetic pressure: Evidenced by NSO “copying” of successful practices. High Twitter-follower groups tend to be more popular and have more mass media exposure and corporate sponsorship so it is not surprising that other NSOs would copy their messaging tactics and strategies to be seen as legitimate to stakeholders. Similarly, those NSOs in the low and midlow followers groups would attempt to emulate those NSOs in the high and/or midhigh groups.
    • Normative pressure: The sharing of knowledge and best practices makes it inevitable that there will be a high degree of consistency between NSO practices. With the high degree of human resource mobility between Canadian NSOs, knowledge is often transferred between organizations. Without a documented set of best practices for NSO social media use, the pressure to conform to the successful example of other NSOs in the sport environment is high.
  • The authors question why nonsalient NSOs do not try to adopt a unique social media strategy in order to broaden their audience reach and/or gain popularity amongst Twitter users. Adopting a ‘one size fits all’ approach relegates followers to a limited core fan group of the sport. While this may satisfy core stakeholders who desire immediate communication of results and news updates it misses out on capitalizing on the broader communication potential of the social media medium to reach a wider demographic. Using the example of the focus on tagging elite/prominent athletes, while opening initial connections, this practice may have a tendency to backfire for the organization by losing the same followers to the athlete directly.
  • Possible communication strategy suggestions to stimulate followership growth:
    • Supplement current Twitter strategies (promoting, reporting, and informing) with popular-culture references to stimulate social relations between the NSO and its followers.
    • “Poke fun” at or tongue in cheek reference the niche status of the organization by referencing established strategies like #firstworldproblems or #motivationmondays, etc. This also takes the conversation out of the narrow space of sport organizations and engages the non-sport environment as well.
  • Less salient sports and those that don’t have a large mass media exposure should more heavily pursue social media strategies outside of this isomorphic framework as they can’t effectively replicate more salient NSO or professional sport practices to gain exposure and engage followers.

Although NSOs and the sports they represent are by their very nature unique, coercive, mimetic, and normative pressures have combined to create a conforming environment of social media communication and provide reasons for the lack of followership growth by less salient NSOs. As the authors submit “this study offers practitioners of these types of organizations an opportunity to reflect on their own current practices and those of other similar organizations to determine whether their current practices are sufficient or whether change is necessary.” Change could generate followership growth and extend the potential audience and reach for less salient NSOs.

Further research in this area could extend to examining NSOs in other countries, to other levels of sport organizations (club, community, etc.), or to other types of sport organizations (professional sport, sport retailers, sponsors, etc). Future research should also look to broaden the scope of alternative social media communication strategies outside of the “status quo”, take a longitudinal approach in examining the effect of Olympic years on isomorphic behaviours of NSOs, or study the stakeholders in the social media networks of NSOs to determine power and influence of these dynamic networks which could have an impact on NSO communication practices.

The information presented in SIRC blogs and SIRCuit articles is accurate and reliable as of the date of publication. Developments that occur after the date of publication may impact the current accuracy of the information presented in a previously published blog or article.