Each July cycling fans from around the world watch the Tour de France, a three-week cycling competition featuring the sports very best riders. While many of the team names sound foreign to many U.S viewers, one in particular really stands out: the Astana Pro Team. The team is sponsored largely by the country of Kazakhstan and was set up to provide a home for professional cyclists and to advertise a positive international image of the country.
Chris Baldwin runs Astana’s social media and public relations efforts. (No, I’m not making this up. We really do share the same first and last name). Chris speaks Russian and a few other languages and got into cycling after working as a journalist at Reuters. I traded emails with Chris to learn more about cycling and the role social media plays in connecting the team with its fans. Chris shared with me that Astana is much more than a cycling team. It’s also about how the world views Kazakhstan and Astana, its capital city.
Chris puts it very bluntly, “When I say the name of the country, you will likely imagine Sacha Baron Cohen in a green bathing suit. Eventually we want you to see bike riders on the podium at a race and ultimately the capital of Kazakhstan and all of its modern skyscrapers and luxury automobiles.”
Chris utilizes social media to keep fans from around the world connected with the team and its riders. The social media goal is to make sure the cycling world knows where the Astana Pro Team is and what they are doing on any given day. He believes the most effective social media channels are Facebook and Twitter with YouTube being a close third. Chris does all of the social media for the team, but his message goes well beyond cycling.
“The team is aware that Tweeting and Facebook exist and they all have accounts,” Chris says, “But they are passive users at best. The people who are really behind our push are the sponsors. They love our social media program because they can send everything we have to clients with one button and know the message is being received.”
Chris works just as hard as his team on race days. He says, “On race days it’s a lot of photos for Facebook and Tweets that gently point out our participation. With television coverage, there is not much we can add to a live race Tweet session. After a race, I try to get the pictures up and tagged as quickly as possible, and edit a short video on my iPad for YouTube that will accompany an official race report.”
Chris has many responsibilities but he never loses focus on the team’s goals to promote Kazakhstan while helping sponsors sell bikes and components. Just like his team, he is always trying to get ahead. “Good ideas for social media campaigns come from all kinds of different people not just the marketing or tech folks. I recommend that brands be committed to social media experimentation, but remember important business concepts like deadlines and chains of command.”
Chris knows what he is talking about. In May, Astana team rider Vincenzo Nibali won the Giro d’Italia, one of the sports’ premiere events. Chris described it as intense as the Super Bowl, except it goes on for three weeks. Regardless of how the team does in the Tour de France , Astana is grabbing news headlines, Facebook posts and Twitter followers every day.