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They say opposites attract, and nowhere is that better illustrated than the oddball relationship between the National Hockey League and Pinterest. One is known for its aggressive, fast-paced, "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 slap shots, power plays, and penalties for high sticking.
Yet the NHL uses Pinterest better than any other sports organization. The league boasts almost 1.2 million followers on Pinterest — roughly 50 times the followers of the NFL, MLB, and NBA combined. With that kind of success, it is clear that the NHL has figured out how to use the site to its advantage.
So, what makes the NHL so great at Pinterest?
First, they understand their audience and the medium. While this recommendation seems trite and generic, the NHL takes it to the next level.
Women make up 73 percent of Pinterest users, whom the NHL understands and caters to by creating boards in the most popular categories on Pinterest. There is a "Hockey Treats" board in the Food & Drink category. The "Future NHLers" board features young children sporting their favorite team's apparel. "Fanicures and Hockey Style" lets fans show off manicures featuring the colors of their favorite teams.
And, of course, no Pinterest presence is complete without an entry in the "Wedding" section. The NHL has created an " 'I Do' . . . hockey style" section full of wedding ideas for the avid hockey fan.
Second, the NHL doesn't use Pinterest as a sales channel. Pinterest users aren't there to shop, and they don't want to have products pushed at them. This means Pinterest is best used as a venue where organizations can build themselves as lifestyle brands.
Third, the NHL uses Pinterest as one part of a social media strategy aimed at cultivating fan engagement. 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, 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).
Finally, the NHL recognizes that fans have interests beyond the league and uses Pinterest accordingly to build community. For example, hockey fans take enormous pride in creating outdoor hockey rinks and playing "pond hockey'' come winter. The NHL capitalized on this by encouraging fans to share images of their outdoor hockey rinks and favorite ponds through Twitter. Then the league created an album on their board "Outdoor hockey ponds FTW [for the win]."
Similarly, the NHL participated in the #Movember campaign to generate awareness of prostate cancer. Fans and NHL players shared images of their growing facial hair on Twitter, and the league published these images to a board entitled "November #Movember." By posting submissions both from star players and fans, the NHL showed fans the league values them and their engagement.
Sometimes, you can look to unlikely places for effective strategies. While Pinterest might not seem to be a natural place for the NHL to engage 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 "odd couple" partnerships in social media where their companies and brands might reach customers in unique ways.
This article draws from "Thinking Outside the [Penalty] Box," by Erin Hughes, who recently graduated from Boston College, and Gerald C. (Jerry) Kane, an associate professor of information systems at BC's Carroll School of Management. Copyright 2015 MIT Sloan Management Review. All Rights Reserved.