As Manager of Photography for the Boston Red Sox for the past seven years, Billie Weiss is a seasoned visual storyteller always looking for ways to create the most engaging content in the shortest amount of time.
Speaking with Hashtag Sports for a quick chat, Weiss discusses Alex Cora and the Red Sox’s photography strategy as an organization, the role visual storytelling plays in building a narrative about the team, why he must build durable relationships with the athletes, and how the club utilizes visual mementos as a motivator. For clarity, this interview has been condensed and edited.
It’s no secret that sports fans love consuming content about their favorite teams and players. As a result, the key to creating a compelling narrative for fans can be summed in one word: access. In what ways has the organization—and specifically Alex Cora’s—emphasis on embracing imagery helped the Red Sox better engage fans?
We are always trying to push behind the scenes content as much as we possibly can when it comes to our photo coverage. That’s really our number one priority as far as what we’re trying to show. We have really found that behind-the-scenes content performance is the best number-wise and engagement-wise. People really want to see it so we’re trying to push that whenever we can.
Our mentality is that we are the voice of the team, and given our position as the team photographers, we have this unique ability to go where other photographers can’t go. We can go to the locker room, the clubhouse, the weight room… We could do things away from the field that a newspaper or a news wire who doesn’t have those relationships can’t necessarily do. We try and take advantage of that relationship and that access as much as possible, and that shapes our content strategy or our visual strategy.
Right now, we’re in a particularly good place given that we have Alex Cora at the helm. He’s a manager who is completely on board with social media and marketing our players and our team—that’s pretty rare. I think coming from a top level of a sports team or a baseball team, it’s rare to have somebody who allows you in and allows you to document the team on that kind of level.
In turn, how can photography play a role in motivating and engaging players on a club like the Red Sox?
This concept of using photography as a motivator is something that I personally never really thought about, and even as a marketing team or creative services team, I don’t think it’s ever something we thought about to be honest, before last year when Alex Cora [introduced] his Wall of Wins and really opened our eyes. This was his kind of larger concept of using photography as a motivator with an organization or within a team. When you think about ways to celebrate a group accomplishment or celebrate a team’s accomplishment, your mind doesn’t go to photography as a tool to do that, but Alex recognized that images could tell the story of this team and could also be physically displayed in a space where everyone on the team would see those images and use that as a motivator.
It’s a really fresh take. I don’t feel like we can take a whole lot of credit for it rather than just executing the wall and getting the photos of course. It’s definitely an idea that he spearheaded and we executed. But I think the concept can be applied to anywhere, not just sports—any sort of business. Hanging up images on the walls was a simple concept, but it’s a great way to display the achievements or the successes of any sort of group or team.
How are the Red Sox pushing the envelope of fan engagement through other photo projects? How are these initiatives helping to set a new benchmark for fan engagement?
Obviously, in our day to day work, our goal is to take pictures and document the storylines of the team and what the team’s doing both on and off the field. But on a larger scale, we looked at not just creating images that are going to scan well as pictures, but how can we use pictures to create larger pieces of content or larger narratives with photography as the base and expand it to other mediums.
We have a series called Top Shots, which is done at the end of every homestand during the season, and it’s basically a 60-second highlight reel of our best images from that previous homestand. It’s set together in a montage with a video with clips and time-lapses, parallax images and moving images and set to some fast-paced music. It’s a cool way that we integrate photography into a video format that makes the images come to life and give them a little bit of movement.
We keep a blog going pretty much every game called Fenway Frames where we’re posting our best photos from each game or each event into a series of blog posts—and then last year, of course, the Wall of Wins. We also had a special project for the playoffs, which involved projections. Basically we projected some of our best images from the season onto different landmark buildings or high profile areas within Boston. It really brought these images to a physical set, to a physical space. People were able to see them, larger than life, on the side of the building or the side of the street. Obviously, we had a lot of momentum last year with the playoffs and pushing towards the World Series, but those are the type of things that we’re trying to think about regardless, where it’s not just a single image that you see on your feed; it’s a larger piece of content that may have photography as the base, but it’s a more all-encompassing way to tell a story.
How can teams & sports properties monetize image-based content to create direct lines between photography and revenue?
This is something we’re always thinking about. When you think about making money, photography isn’t something that is generally thought of, and we’re trying to change that. Now are we going to equal the revenue that our sponsorship team is bringing in each year for signage and everything else? No, of course not. But we do feel like photography can play a part in bringing in revenue for this club, so we’re always trying to think of creative ways to make that happen.
We have a couple of things that we do. The top shot series that I mentioned, it’s sponsored by LLBean. So we have their logo appear on the front end bumper of that series of each week, and then we tag LLBean when we post it to Twitter and Instagram. We’re trying to expand and do more of those kinds of things.
We also have lineup graphics or different things that we’ll tweet out, during the game or before the game that are image-based which have the logo of a sponsor or brand. I also file most of my images, not all of them, but most of them to Getty images throughout the course of the year. So media companies like ESPN, The New York Times, etc. are able to license those images and the team sees a cut of that licensing revenue over the course of the season. Put those all together, and you start to see how images can play a small part in the overall broader financial goals of this club.
We have a partnership with New Balance, a partnership with Franklin Sports who do the batting gloves for a lot of our players. Those are brands that naturally align with the type of content that we’re making so anytime we can capitalize on opportunities with them, that’s the type of content that we feel has the potential to raise revenue for our club.
The sports teams providing fans unique, thumb-stopping content right when they want it are the ones providing the greatest ROI to sponsors.
How has technology been integrated into your workflow to more efficiently produce content in real-time?
These days it’s all about speed. So we are always operating under the assumption that these images that we’re taking need to get out there as quickly as possible so that our fans can engage with them as quickly as possible. That’s where technology really plays a huge part. We have a couple tools that we use to make that happen. Our primary tool is Libris — we use Libris every day in our workflow during games and during events. We’re able to use a wireless transmitter on our camera and wirelessly ping images that we’re taking in real time to our FTP through Libris. Then on the back end of the FTP, our graphic designers and our social media team are able to pull those images down immediately and use them for whatever they need to use them for.
This whole process takes maybe two minutes max. So we are down there on the field with a wireless transmitter on our camera, and we’re getting the images right to our social team, right to our graphics team, and then they’re putting them right out for people to see who are following along. As a team we want to be the first voice that’s out there and the first thing you see when you go to Twitter and you’re searching for that Mookie Betts walk-off.
It isn’t often that team photographers are discussed publicly as members of the social media department or the digital media team, but it’s clear that you’re playing a critical role in the team’s ability to publish content to social in digital. Can you share a bit about how the Red Sox are structured and what your day to day is like in the organization in terms of the inner play with other roles?
We have a large marketing department which covers a lot of different areas within this organization. But within the marketing department there is a subgroup or a subdivision called Creative Services that houses graphic design, social media and photography. So we fall within this kind of specialized subunit. Day to day, our photography staff, our graphic design staff and our social staff are always talking back and forth about what we need to do for each day to tell the story of this team. As the photography staff, we lean on our social team to tell us what’s working, what’s not? What do people want to see? What’s trending right now? Because they’re the ones who are really paying attention to the metrics. We’re just out there making the art.
As photographers within an organization like the Red Sox, which has so many different areas of interest in so many specialties, we cross over into really every department within the Boston Red Sox organization. Every department here has needs for photography and good imagery. A lot of social media teams are on their own and don’t work as closely with photographers as we do—we’re really proud of the fact that we have this close-knit group that is always talking and always communicating about what our goals are and what we’re trying to accomplish. Anytime you can have that relationship, you know, it’s going to show through the content. We’re really lucky to have that great relationship.
What role does the Red Sox photographer typically play in the team’s broader marketing and fan engagement strategy?
Touched on that a little bit earlier, but basically we’re involved in every aspect of the company. While our primary goal is our social media and player marketing, we’re trying to track ticket sales and working with our fan and youth engagement department on their initiatives to grow the game for new fans and younger fans. We work with our group sales department so when they have specialty groups on the field, we’re shooting all of their events and initiatives. We just view ourselves as a tool or a resource that people can use to help further promote whatever it is that they’re working on here.
Measuring success of video content on social media is an oft-debated topic. Not discussed as much is the measuring stick of success for imagery. How do you measure and define success as a team photographer? Are there any engagement metrics that the Red Sox can point to that showcases this mark of success?
As far as measuring success, I think our definition of success is our ability to provide fans with an exclusive, unique view of this team that they can’t find anywhere else—providing that behind the scenes access, that real-time content, and giving our fans an insider’s look at the personalities that make up this team, the players, and their interests off the field as well as on the field.
I think the thing about what we do is that while it may look all polished and perfect on the outside, getting ourselves to the point where we’re able to do that seamlessly is really hard work, and it takes a lot of time and a lot of effort. We have to [create] those relationships with our players, with our leadership, our ownership, our managers. That’s something that takes time and establishing a level of trust. This is something that we’ve kind of built over the past five or six years. It’s not something that we can just walk in cold and start riding in the car with Mookie Betts or walking around New York City with all of our players. That’s all part of what makes us successful is our ability to cultivate those relationships and make sure that we could use them in a way that’s beneficial to our marketing strategies.
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We’re at the point now where the players have shoots that they need to do for either sponsors or a magazine, and they’ll tell us, “Look, the only way I’m doing this shoot is if you’re the one who’s executing it. I don’t want to do it with anybody else.” We’ve gotten to that point where our players are very familiar with us and they are comfortable working around us. So the results that you see out on the front end on Instagram and Twitter look great, but I think it’s just interesting to note that there’s a lot of work that goes into getting it to that point where it looks so polished, organic, and natural.
Brands marketers face an increasingly difficult challenge of standing out from the competition with young, fragmented audiences. What are some of the most creative ways you’ve seen brands outside of sports utilize photography to build relationships and engage consumers?
I always look at A-Rod and J-Lo as the gold standard now. My personal opinion as far as what they’re doing on social, is that they’re doing exactly what we’re trying to do: give fans a unique all-access look at their day-to-day. The way that they let viewers into their lives is incredible, and that’s something that we’re trying to model ourselves off. I think athletes and sports teams can take a lot from them—they’ve got a camera on them pretty much at all times showing us this unbelievable footage, unbelievable photos from behind the scenes of the concerts and the business meetings to whatever else it is that they are doing; otherwise, there’s no way you’re going to ever see that stuff. That’s amazing, amazing stuff.
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