As the NBA gets set to release its 2018-19 schedule this week, I find it fascinating that the “emoji schedule” we published when I was at the Hawks in 2016 is still being talked about. An executive from the organization recently referenced the unique adaptation of the schedule in an interview, nearly two years after it was published. Below is a brief overview of how it came to be.
I was lying in bed one night in early August of 2016, wide awake. It was probably 4 a.m. or so, I can’t remember exactly. I can remember that I couldn’t sleep. That happened frequently during my time with the Hawks, as my mind was often racing thinking about everything I had to do the next day. I have no idea how, but I started thinking about emojis and NBA teams (who doesn’t at 4 a.m.?). After lying there for an hour or so, realizing that I couldn’t get back to sleep, I grabbed my phone.
My mission was to correlate one emoji for every NBA team. At the time, I had no idea this would turn into a usable content piece. My goal wasn’t to create something I could use professionally; instead I was just curious if it could be done easily and hopefully help me grab one last hour of sleep before the day began. I opened a Note on my phone and went to work, knocking off the first 23 or so pretty easily.
Then it got tough.
“Do I use the crystal ball for the Magic or the Wizards?”
“How far can I stretch ‘Nets’?”
“What could possibly be used for the Spurs?”
I finally settled on 30 that could at least give me peace of mind. I got that last hour of sleep.
A few days later, i dawned on me that I could connect these emojis as a way to introduce our schedule. I grabbed my boss and a few other co-workers and we went through my list. There were a couple that didn’t make sense, so we modified them. The 76ers, Spurs, Nets, Bucks and Bulls were ones where we could have gone a completely different direction but instead chose more literal emojis. Once I was confident in my list, my attention turned to presentation and timing.
I decided I wanted to keep it simple. Just the text “Our Schedule” followed by the 82 emojis, and on Twitter only. It didn’t feel authentic on any other platform. Back then, Twitter’s character limit was still 140, so there wasn’t much room for additional context or formatting. As it turned out, that ended up being good.
One complication we had was that we were introducing a Facebook Live series the night of the schedule release in which a few media members and some of our players would discuss the schedule. The “show” was scheduled to begin right at 6 p.m. ET, the exact time the NBA released the schedule publicly. Higher-level Marketing folks were asking for a social plan to help drive viewers to the show, but I knew I wanted my emoji tweet to be one of the first to go out once it was time. As is the case with many things that go “viral”, it’s often unexpected. I’ll be honest, I never saw this one as a sure viral hit. I thought it was creative, sure, but I’m just one person. I thought it may get a few retweets, fans may think it’s fun and that would be the end of it. As a result, I prioritized the promotion of the show and figured I’d hold my emoji tweet.
The show was taking place on the old Hawks practice court at Philips Arena. A co-worker and I walked across the street from the business office to the arena together, and I built the emoji tweet on my phone and saved it as a draft while she stopped at the Starbucks in CNN Center. The reason I bring this up is because that damn tweet took FOREVER to draft (looking at the schedule line by line and finding the corresponding emoji to line up is no joke), and I’m very grateful for the detour. I severely underestimated the time it took to draft that, and had we walked directly to the court and started show prep, I likely wouldn’t have gotten it sent until much later. Why was it a big deal that I tweeted it when I did? More on that later in this post.
I was working behind the scenes as a secondary “producer” for the Facebook show. The heavy lifting was being done by our Video Services team and our VP of Marketing, which allowed me to focus on setting everything up socially.
Most people don’t realize this, but once the schedule was officially released at 6:00 that night, the emoji tweet was actually the fourth one sent from the @ATLHawks Twitter account. Most people assumed it was the first because of how quickly it blew up, and I wish it would have been, but we catered to other priorities first.
At exactly 6:00 ET, I tweeted that the schedule had been released, with a link to the schedule page on Hawks.com. This was pretty boilerplate for NBA teams at the time, and most teams followed suit. I then immediately fired off another tweet to promote the show. We had just gone live with two media members and Mike Muscala, so I snapped a quick photo and threw out the Facebook link for those interested in hearing them break down the schedule. Jarrett Jack was also supposed to be on the show that night but got caught in traffic around the arena as the Falcons were hosting a preseason game at the neighboring Georgia Dome. When Jack finally arrived 25 minutes later, I fired off a third tweet letting our followers know that he was now part of the show, again with a link to watch.
To the surprise of no one who understands social media, the tweets received nominal engagement. No one actually cares about the NBA schedule because you’re going to play everybody in your conference 3 or 4 times and everybody in the opposite conference twice. Internally, teams care because it’s their Marketing calendar for the year and the moment they can start putting plans together, but fans don’t care. What they do care about are unique ways to present mundane items like an 82-game schedule.
I finally published the emoji tweet at 7:14, 74 minutes after the schedule had been released. I wanted to let the tweets about the show breathe before I spammed our followers again.
The tweet immediately blew up. Within 20 minutes, it had been retweeted thousands of times and by nearly every major sports media outlet & writer. Articles praising the creativity were being published, all touting the Hawks for an “innovative way to release the schedule.” The funny thing was, it wasn’t a release at all, just a follow-up after a couple of boring tweets about a show no one watched. But because it had never been done before, people loved it. I never expected it to take off the way it did.
In the months that followed, everyone from college athletic departments to minor league baseball teams to NFL teams were releasing schedules in emoji form. Most were crediting us for the idea (though I’m sure Bleacher Report wasn’t).
That tweet helped define my career and earn me the reputation as an innovator. I do think I have some creative chops, though I don’t think I’m nearly as good as everyone made me out to be in the weeks and months that followed. I promised a follow-up story on the timing and here it is (and this is something I’ve never told anyone): I wasn’t the only one with that specific idea that night. 2,500 miles away in Oakland, Golden State Warriors social guru Julie Phayer was working on something similar. She tweeted me shortly after I published saying she had been working on the same tweet. I can’t remember if hers ever went out, but it wouldn’t have mattered. The @ATLHawks were first, which is what often works in social media. As a result, we were basking in earned media glory. Julie is terrific and one of the most well-respected thought leaders in our industry, so I’m not surprised that our minds were thinking alike that night. I haven’t talked to her about this, but my guess is she started drafting the tweet without realizing what a beast it would be to make. I certainly made that mistake, but luckily my co-worker needed some caffeine, which gave me time to draft it. Had I not had that time, I probably wouldn’t have published before Julie. She would have added another impressive piece of content to an already outstanding resumé, and who knows where I’d be. Life works in mysterious ways.
The next day, the flood of mentions, comments and articles centered around decoding the emojis. That was something I never expected. I would have thought people would just find the schedule and compare, but it became a game of sorts. As a result, I saw an opportunity for follow-up content. We released a quiz asking fans to match the emoji to the team, and then later revealed an answer key on Facebook, along with an explanation of why we chose each one. Last year as a follow-up, we created a thread to the original with the 2017 version of the schedule.
As the 2018-19 schedule gets released this week, I’m looking forward to what all of the teams, including the Hawks, do socially to make it unique and compelling. Hopefully one team’s content stands out.