Thinking Outside the [Penalty] Box

The NHL is all-time champion among sports leagues using Pinterest.

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They say opposites attract, and nowhere is that better illustrated than the oddball relationship between the National Hockey League (NHL) and Pinterest. The two seem to have little in common: One is known for its aggressive, fast-paced, stereotypically “manly-man” sport; the other is a female-dominated social media site commonly used for sharing images of crafts, food, and other items not generally associated with a slap shots, power plays and penalties for high sticking.

Yet the NHL is able to leverage Pinterest for advantage better than any other sports organization. The league boasts almost 1.2 million followers on Pinterest — roughly 50 times the total followers of the NFL, MLB, and NBA combined. With that kind of success, it is clear that the NHL has figured out how to leverage the fast-growing social media site to their advantage.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman recognizes the importance of social media for the NHL. He recently told USA Today Sports, “Historically, we were a league that was under-served by traditional media. So the ability to use digital platforms and connect with our fans more than ever before … has been vitally important to us.”1

So what makes the NHL so great at Pinterest?

First, they understand their audience and the medium. While this recommendation is often used as a trite and generic social media marketing advice, the NHL takes it to the next level when it comes to Pinterest.

Women make up 73% of Pinterest users, a fact that the NHL understands and caters to by creating boards in the most popular categories on Pinterest. There is a “Hockey Treats” board for hockey-inspired food in the Food & Drink category. The “Future NHLers” board features young children sporting their favorite team’s apparel. Additionally, “Fanicures and Hockey Style” lets fans show off manicures featuring the colors of their favorite teams; “The Ultimate Hockey Home(s)” showcases home décor ideas; and “Player Fashion: Off-the-Ice” likely needs no explanation — or if it does, just call it the “eye candy” category.

And of, course, no Pinterest presence is likely complete without an entry in the perennially popular “Wedding” section. The NHL has created an “‘I Do’ … hockey style” section full of wedding ideas for the avid hockey fan, including hockey-themed engagement photos, wedding cakes and invitations.

Second, they don’t use Pinterest as a sales channel. While merchandise may occasionally pop up within certain boards, there are no boards dedicated solely to promoting NHL products. The NHL does have a separate Pinterest account,, just for this purpose, but it has only accumulated 2,500 followers. The reason for this low-key approach is simple: Pinterest users aren’t there to shop, and they don’t want to have products pushed at them. This means that Pinterest is best used as a venue where organizations can build themselves as a lifestyle brand. The NHL clearly understands this and has built its strategy accordingly.

Third, the NHL uses Pinterest as one part of a diverse, multichannel social media strategy. For example, actress and LA Kings fan Alyssa Milano took over the @NHL Twitter handle in 2012 to live-tweet Game 3 of the Kings-Coyotes series in the Stanley Cup playoffs. In anticipation of the game and to generate awareness of Milano’s role, the NHL created an Alyssa Milano board on Pinterest. The board let her pin her favorite Kings gear, game-time snacks, pictures of her baby in Kings apparel, and pictures of her favorite NHL player (Kings goalie Jonathan Quick). This crossover strategy is not limited to celebrities, but it is also used to cultivate fan engagement across multiple platforms. Many of the NHL’s Pinterest boards have crossover with their Twitter campaigns, like “September: Back to #NHLSchool” or “#SistersDay.”

Finally, the NHL also recognizes that their fans have interests beyond the NHL and uses their Pinterest page accordingly to build community. For example, hockey fans take enormous pride in creating their own outdoor hockey rinks and in playing ‘pond hockey’ come wintertime. The NHL capitalized on this by encouraging fans to share images of their outdoor hockey rinks or their favorite ponds to skate on through Twitter. They then created an album of the best images on their board “Outdoor hockey ponds FTW [for the win].” The Twitter user was mentioned in the caption to receive recognition for their rink or pond.

Similarly, the NHL participated in the #Movember campaign to generate awareness of prostate cancer. Fans and NHL players alike shared images of their growing beards and facial hair on Twitter, and the league published these images to a board entitled “November #Movember.” Fans got to show their moustaches alongside NHL stars like Alexander Ovechkin. While many fans and customers get excited when an organization responds to you on social media, this feeling is multiplied when the organization actually shares your image across its social media platforms. By showing submissions both from stars as well as fans on their boards, the NHL showed fans that how much the league values them and their engagement.

Sometimes you can look to unlikely places for effective social media strategies. While the female-dominated social media platform Pinterest may not seem to be a natural place for the NHL to engage with their fans, it’s easy to see what they are doing right.

These lessons extend to other companies and other digital platforms. The NHL’s example should prompt managers to ask if there are similar “odd couple” partnerships in the social media sphere where their companies and brands might reach desirable customers in unique ways.


Social Business

Social business research and more recent thought leadership explore the challenges and opportunities presented by social media.
See All Articles in This Section

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