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Giro d'Italia

Giro d’Italia: How the world’s top teams have taken the battle to social media

From memes to movie parodies, teams are upping the ante in how they engage fans and reward sponsors, and building friendly rivalry along the way.

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The news that Vincenzo Nibali would be racing at the Giro d’Italia was a pretty big deal.

The “Shark of Messina” was back and ready to hunt in home waters, just weeks after sustaining a broken wrist nearly sank his Giro hopes before they’d even gotten started.

The way that team Trek-Segafredo made the announcement was equally big.

The U.S-registered squad unleashed a social media image that parodied the poster from cult film “Jaws,” and it immediately made waves in the cycling social-sphere. The image – and the news of Nibali’s return – was everywhere.

The surge of comments, retweets, and “likes” seemed a more-than-fitting way to mark the return of the enduring Sicilian veteran.

“Things like that Nibali announcement, it’s such a big event, and you want to reach quite far with that,” said Trek-Segafredo press officer Jacob Kennison. “But if you do it in a traditional way, you get a traditional amount of response and reach from that. But with the shark poster, we got 3,000 ‘likes’ on Twitter and, and hundreds of retweets – which is good for cycling world Twitter. So, certainly, it spread our message a lot more than if we would have done something basic.”

Partner placement and fan engagement

Trek-Segafredo’s eye-grabbing media masterstroke was no one-off flash of marketing magic, but a sign of the times.

The team was not the only top squad purposely seeking new and innovative ways to communicate on social media ahead of this month’s Giro. Not long before the shark spoof had gone viral, Team DSM had posted an Italian Job parody to a similarly rapturous reception.

Also read: Tweets de France: Social media’s impact on cycling’s biggest race

Ineos Grenadiers and Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux led a pack of creative social media roster announcements in the following days.

It made for the culmination of a long-developing move of teams pushing toward the use of more innovative graphics, videos, and memes on Twitter and Instagram, and producing behind-the-scenes blogs and videos pioneered five years ago by Orica-GreeEdge with its “Backstage Pass” series.

“Last year, when racing stopped, social media was all we had, and so we started really looking for ways to give our partners visibility and keep fans engaged, said Team DSM communications officer, Emily Brammeier.

“Right at the beginning of lockdown we got our communications and commerce teams together and worked out what we could do and what we could change now our usual flow of content – race coverage – was stopped.”

Also read: Inside the bubble at the Tour de France: How Trek-Segafredo is adapting in the COVID era

With the coronavirus race pause stymying the sport’s very purpose,  Team DSM and squads across the pro peloton were forced to adapt to find new ways to engage and entertain fans while keeping sponsors in the spotlight. A flurry of blogs, vlogs, and Zwift rides followed.

Over one year later, online communications have come down to an art form. Team DSM’s Giro d’Italia roster announcement makes for a good example of how to quietly combine commercial interests and communication goals.

“The Italian Job post – the whole process to get to that was asking which partners do we want to focus on for this announcement,” Brammeier explained. “We thought we could replicate the Italian Job poster first then we were like, ‘Here we can give some visibility to Volvo …  Is Scott also in there? Is DSM also in there?'”

“So it’s not just a simply making a poster – there’s a lot of other considerations.”

For the fans, not the sponsors

The memification of cycling teams’ marketing methods may sound like just another way for big businesses to sell big units.

Kennison and Brammeier insist it’s all about the fans, however, and both Trek-Segafredo and Team DSM are part of the Velon group, an 11-team collective with a mission to promote fan engagement.

“Cycling teams and cyclists are entertainers, so the more people we can entertain with our sport, the better,” Kennison said. “If we can bring more people into the sport of course it’s always a good thing.”

Of course, it does all circle back to the bank balance, with Trek bicycles’ huge stake in the Trek-Segafredo team as an obvious example. But without wanting to dive into a rabbit-hole pondering the purpose of sport, even the most ambivalent of passers-by can’t help be interested in the underdog stories and scenes of suffering in pro cycling.

“Before social media, all fans really saw of a team was what they could watch on on the TV,” Brammeier said. “The behind-the-scenes look into who they are, what they stand for, their personalities were a lot harder to communicate or for fans to get access to. The sport is about the fans and the riders and, of course, we want to do what we can to build on that audience, and engage with the community that we have.”

Just Tuesday this week, Taco van der Hoorn melted hearts with his against-all-odds breakaway win at the Giro. Days later, the gifs, bad jokes, and insider grabs continue to circulate through social media.

Also read: Taco van der Hoorn’s underdog win is what makes cycling great

Van der Hoorn’s win was huge for the Dutch stalwart, and social media has helped to elevate it to cycling lore.

A growing struggle for social supremacy

Were the Giro’s film parody posts the pinnacle of the sport’s creative minds?

Far from it.

While the peloton races through Italy this month, there’s a similar – if lower stakes – battle for supremacy behind the Macs of content-creators through the professional sport.

“Cycling can be quite serious, and I’ve spoken with press officers from other teams quite a lot over the last few years about how we should all take it a bit less seriously on our side,” Kennison said. “Once some teams started doing different things, others follow and try to one-up a bit. It’s a bit of a friendly rivalry to make the most creative things.”

Scroll through the comments of some of the best Tweets and Instagram posts pumped out by the WorldTour’s most innovative thinkers and you’re likely to see a rival team landing a bantering rebuke. Team communications is a small world, and none of the close-knit community of press people want to be the ones dropped at the group ride.

“Now the racing is back on, I think to some extent we all want to just be the best at it,” Brammeier said. “We’re always looking at what each other is doing and we all want to ‘beat’ the other.”

What next? Fans actually at the side of the road, cheering on their heroes?

We sure hope so.