Open Book Baseball: An Interview with Alyson Footer, the Houston Astros’ Sr. Director of Social Media

Footer: "We want to be as much of an open book as we can."

Baseball is known for clinging to old paradigms, and hugging out-moded–ahem, traditional–viewpoints on media, culture, technology, and copyright. Some figures in the baseball media even pride themselves on their vintage-inspired view of the game.

Alyson Footer is no such figure. The Houston Astros’ Senior Director of Social Media has embraced the creative power of new media with enviable depth and enthusiasm, transitioning from veteran MLB.com/Astros.com beat reporter to full-fledged social media specialist as smoothly as Craig Biggio shed his catcher’s gear and took up the middle infield.

Footer’s blog, Alyson’s Footnotes, is equal parts access and analysis, with a panoply of in-depth posts that are as likely to spotlight a backup catcher’s favorite flavor of ice cream as analyze the task ahead of a new GM or owner. With an interdisciplinary sphere of influence that expands to Twitter and Facebook, she is the voice of the Astros in those spaces that we, our readers, and our baseball blogging friends happily frequent.

Footer was nice enough to take time out of her busy schedule to discuss her role in the baseball multiverse, and to talk about talking about baseball.

(Ed. note: any links added below were added by me.)

TED

Your title is Senior Director of Social Media of the Houston Astros, and the tagline on the header of your blog, Alyson’s Footnotes, is “Your behind-the-scenes, all-access pass to all things Astros.” Could you describe your role with the Astros?

ALYSON

Several years ago, the Astros saw that major corporations were creating Social Media departments, designed solely for the purpose of marketing their brand to the younger generation. With the decline of newspapers and the emergence of Facebook and Twitter, the Astros realized they could better utilize their time and money by steering away from traditional advertising and shifting the focus to new media.

The role of Social Media Director spans in a lot of different directions. We have two main Twitter accounts: @astros and @alysonfooter. The Astros handle is more for marketing and promotional purposes, whereas my personal Twitter handle is interactive. I communicate directly with the fans and answer as many questions as possible. I also offer a behind the scenes look at the team through comments, photos (TwitPics) and videos (TwitVids).

Basically, we want the fans to feel that they are part of the process.

I also blog regularly. The blogs serve a few purposes: they offer insight and analysis to team decisions and transactions, they provide a behind-the-scenes view of the everyday goings-on of the team and they provide info regarding upcoming events and promotional initiatives. We cover off the field and on the field activities on the blog and include pictures and videos to accompany the blogs. Basically, we want the fans to feel that they are part of the process. We want them to feel as if they’re there with us even when they can’t be. We want to show our players and coaching staff in a very real way. We want to be as much of an open book as we can. The Astros are a part of the city of Houston, in good times and bad, and the players are important to our fans. The more we can show them as real people, the more fans feel connected. Social Media allows for fans to get closer to the players than ever before. We have a bunch of players with their own Twitter handles who communicate directly with the public. It’s great for both sides.

TED

How have the players responded to the change in media presence and the sense of increased access? Is there a generation gap between the veterans the younger players?

ALYSON

I would say there is a little bit of a generation gap between the veterans and the younger players, but I think it’s in a good way. The really young players coming up don’t remember a world without the Internet. They don’t remember when newspapers ruled the roost. They don’t know from the old days when media contingents were small and didn’t include web sites, bloggers and 300 cable and radio stations.

Today’s players are tech savvy and online savvy and they like to engage in Social Media. Last Spring Training, we had one player on Twitter. By the end of spring, we had about five. That total has nearly doubled and I expect that by the time the season is over, more than half the roster will be tweeting. I think it’s great. The players really enjoy it and it’s a great way to market themselves. They enjoy the back and forth with the fans and everyone benefits from that.

Last year, I met some of the Texans players and they said the entire team was on Twitter. I find that fascinating.

TED

You spent a lot of time as a reporter for MLB.com. What were the cultural or technological forces that led to your switch to Social Media, and how has your approach to baseball coverage and storytelling changed with the change in roles?

ALYSON

It’s easier from a communication standpoint when the team is doing well and everybody’s happy, but that is not how sports work.

I covered the Astros for eight years for MLB.com and I loved it. When the Astros created a Social Media position in 2009 and approached me about it, it sounded intriguing. I loved reporting but at the same time, I was doing so much with blogging and Facebook and Twitter that it seemed like a natural transition. As much as I liked the Social Media side of things, my reporting duties took up all of my time and that left very little time for anything else. The idea of doing Social Media full-time was intriguing. And I was able to continue blogging, which was important, because I didn’t want to give up writing. I was ready to move into a different genre. It was a nice transition and I’m glad I made the move.

I try to stay away from straight news reporting, because that is now the job of Brian McTaggart, who replaced me at MLB.com. Because my blog lives on the Astros web site, I didn’t want to be covering the same news stories as Brian. That would be counterproductive. So what I try to do is find off-the-field, more human interest stories to write, and I’ll also reference Astros.com stories a lot and provide some insight or analysis. There are times when Brian and I do overlap, but I think over the course of three years it’s been pretty minimal.

TED

The Astros are in a time of major transition right now. What challenges does this present for you, and how have you had to adjust your approach from covering a regular winner to a rebuilding young team with new ownership?

ALYSON

It’s challenging only because when your team isn’t doing well, a lot of the fan base is unhappy. It’s a lot easier from a communication standpoint when the team is doing well and everybody’s happy, but that is not how sports work. So I try my best to explain things in as much detail as I can in terms of the direction the team is headed and what the plan is over the next several years. Fortunately, the new ownership group and front office has a very clear vision as to how to become a contender again, and they have a plan that they will not only implement immediately, but they’ll stick to it as well. That’s hugely important.

It’s easier from a communication standpoint when the team is doing well and everybody’s happy, but that is not how sports work.

Other than that, the challenges are minimal from a big-picture perspective. Teams ebb and flow. I’ve been here 15 years and over the course of that time, the Astros have done a little of everything. They won 102 games in ’98 and two years later ended up losing 90. They’ve won a pennant. They’ve lost 106 games. They’ve taken division and Wild Card races down to the wire. They’ve been eliminated before Sept. 1. It’s been all over the map. I approach my job the same every day and hope for the best for the team.

TED

You are a fantastic storyteller. Was there something about baseball that compelled you to contribute your talents to the game? What have you learned about storytelling as a baseball reporter and social media director?

ALYSON

Well, thanks very much for the nice comment! I do love the storytelling part of this job. Even when I was at MLB.com I’d try to find the weird and wacky every once in a while and report on that. I remember one time, half the team spent an offday playing ping-pong at Orlando Palmeiro’s house. They had a fierce tournament and had plenty to say about it the next day in the clubhouse. I was writing it all down and a colleague said, “You’re writing about this?” I live for that kind of stuff – the off-the-wall, random events that inevitably happen over the course of a six-month season (seven and a half months, if you include Spring Training).

I think it’s important for the fans to know and appreciate the people and stories that will live on forever through storytelling. Why keep that stuff buried?

I’ve always loved baseball, but more than that, I’ve always loved the personalities and characters of the game. I don’t spend much time poring over stats – I find a lot of it boring, to be honest – but there’s so much that goes on around a team, and so many great, smart, funny, polarizing players that have come through Houston and so many fantastic stories that the fans have never heard. I think it’s important for the fans to know and appreciate the people and stories that will live on forever through storytelling. Why keep that stuff buried? My general rule of thumb is, if I find something funny or interesting, it’s likely that others might as well. It sounds pretty primitive but it has served us well. And now that there’s a way to share these items with the world, why wouldn’t we?

TED

With the Astros’ 50th Anniversary celebration going on this year, there must be a font of new and old stories coming down the pipeline….

ALYSON

I certainly hope so! We have a slew of old players we’re inviting back for the season-long celebration this year and I would imagine there will be some interesting tales told! I’ll be listening.

TED

There will be a ton of old school Astros looks rolled out in 2012. Which Astros throwback uniform are you most excited about?

ALYSON

If you mean what throwback uniform would I be most likely to tweet or blog about, it would be the rainbow jerseys. I wasn’t here for that era – I got here in 1997 – but Houston fans absolutely love the rainbow look, especially the orange. That’s what I hear from fans more than anything – bring back the orange!

From a sentimental and personal standpoint, my favorite uniform is the blue and gold shooting star that they wore in the late 1990s. That’s what they were wearing when I first arrived to the team and I have some wonderful memories from my first few years in baseball. No matter what you do in your career or how far you get, there’s nothing more special than when you first started the journey. So I have a soft spot for the uniforms Bagwell, Biggio, Ausmus and Wagner were wearing way back in the day.

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