by RGM81 aka Richard McAdam

In the 21st century, the main means any company has to connect to its customers is via the Internet. The World Wide Web brings information and insights to people in real time, allowing people and companies to connect instantaneously to share and distribute their experiences. When the title for Star Wars Episode III was revealed, it was done online at the Star Wars official website. If a celebrity has something to say to the world (in 140 characters or less), they take to their Twitter account. When a US presidential aspirant wants to spread the message, they update their Facebook. In all areas of life, the Internet and social networking are at the forefront of interconnectivity between company and consumer.

It is encouraging, then, to see the rising importance of the Internet and social networking in the sports card industry. For the purposes of this discussion I will only look at the hockey card manufacturers and their websites and social network sites. While all three of In The Game, Panini, and Upper Deck have official presences online and on Facebook, they have yet to truly master the art of social networking. Each has their strong points, each shines is certain areas, yet each of the manufacturers also have weaknesses and highly undeveloped methods of connecting with their fan bases, i.e. us, the collectors. I will take a look at each of the company’s websites and social networking areas, giving them grades for each as well as some recommendations for improvement.

Panini

The new guys in hockey have done a good job winning over hearts and minds with their products, and they have also strived to connect with customers online. Panini has an official website, a Facebook account, a Twitter account, an official blog site, and has senior staff members participating on sports card trading sites such as Sports Card Forum.

The Official Website: http://www.paniniamerica.net
When you visit Panini’s website you are met with a nice and organized main page that features bright colours and a banner image spotlighting some of their recent releases. The different sections of the site are neatly organized on a header tab, directing you to the latest releases, checklists, a member account page, news, and other relevant information. This is good. However, the releases page has not been updated since Certified so there is no official product information for the last several products released by Panini. Accessing checklists can be tedious, having to go through a number of steps to reach the endgame, which is ultimately an Excel spreadsheet. The lists there are organized, making searches for particular players very easy to do. Entering redemptions on the site is a simple process. All of this said, most of the best information coming from Panini originates from their blog, which is linked on the main page but not in the most visible way.
Grade: B

The Official Blog: The Knight’s Lance – http://paniniamerica.wordpress.com
If you want all the latest news, product previews, and behind-the-scenes information from Panini, The Knight’s Lance is your destination. The blog is updated almost daily, and the information is relevant to collectors, who get to see players signing cards, “Panini Peek” previews of upcoming releases, and even product review box breaks starring Tracy Hackler. Panini reps are also interactive on the blog’s comments, and will often respond to questions and concerns made by fans. Did I mention contests? They have lots of contests announced on the blog, and they draw considerable interest from collectors. Panini has done a top-notch job with The Knight’s Lance.
Grade: A+

Facebook
Panini’s Facebook page is a good location for collectors to get the latest news and updates on product releases, share their breaks, and ask questions. While many of Panini’s postings on their Facebook page are simply links to their blog page, there is also some valuable information posted. The Info tab gives a pretty detailed history of the company, while the wall has the usual assortment of questions from collectors. They could do more with the page, for sure, but it is a good resource of information and access to the company.
Grade: B-

In The Game

In The Game has remained a viable participant in the hockey card market despite operating without a license for the past five years. Through their willingness to listen to collectors, excellent products, and top-notch memorabilia, they are a real force and have assured themselves a place in the hobby. ITG maintains an official website, an official blog site, and a Facebook account, and the owner of the company is heavily involved on online trading sites.

The Official Website: www.itgtradingcards.com
The ITG site is very simple, yet to the point, in terms of its layout. Underneath a scrolling banner spotlighting some of the spectacular memorabilia cards in its upcoming releases, there are a series of links to the company’s products, including a complete catalogue of all releases dating back to the 1998-99 season. Each of these releases has a full checklist (often posted well in advance of the actual release!) and a plethora of information about the product. Outside of that, the site is a little lean. The News page has not been updated since March 2010 and the online store has not been updated to include pre-orders for any 2010-11 products. Still, for the meat and potatoes portion of what collectors want—product information and checklists—the site delivers.
Grade: A-

The Official Blog: According to Dr. Price – http://prezsez.wordpress.com/
When Dr. Price launched his blog he posted almost daily with his insights on the hobby and gave collectors some previews of upcoming releases. Then he went on vacation for two weeks and has only recently regained his form. After a lull from October to December, he returned to blogging in January giving sneak peeks for upcoming ITG products, but then took pretty much all of February off. There isn’t a ton of new information if you’re not on the e-mail update list, but it is still a good, if underutilized, resource for collectors.
Grade: C+

Upper Deck

Even though it now shares the hockey landscape, Upper Deck still maintains its place at the centre of the hobby. Their releases feature the most well-known and –loved rookies cards that collectors still clamour for every year. As you would expect of a long-standing successful business, Upper Deck is very much immersed in the technologies brought forward by the Internet. They have an official website, an official blog site, a Facebook account, a Twitter account, and some participation on hobby message boards.

The Official Website: www.upperdeck.com
Upper Deck’s official website has a very slick and professional design, inviting collectors to check out their Authenticated memorabilia, check out the latest news releases, and of course the product information pages. When you get to the actual hockey homepage, however, you see a rookie spotlight on Tyler Myers that has been there since February 2010, a rookie photoshoot session video for the 2009-10 rookie class, and a product promo for 2009-10 Upper Deck Series 2. The annoying clicking sound generated by hovering your mouse over the new product tabs will have you reaching for the mute button pretty quickly, too. Once you reach the product information page you see the set checklist (often not until after the product has been released)…and not a lot else. There was a time that UD posted images along with their checklists but that appears to be a thing of the past. The set breakdowns are accurate and easy to access, but the “Print Checklist” function will yield an average of a 30-page print job. The bare-bones approach and lack of official information leaves much to be desired.
Grade: C

The Official Blog: Upper Deck Blog – http://upperdeckblog.com
Unlike the website, the official UD blog is updated regularly and brings collectors a wide range of interesting stories. In January alone, there was a story about Tyler Seguin at the rookie photoshoot, and many tales about contest winners attending the Winter Classic. February continued that effort level, spotlighting two major contests (including one that featured the author) and other great information. The blogs are usually posted by Chris Carlin, UD’s Social Marketing and Social Media Manager, and it is really cool to have that kind of insight into the hobby and what takes place at Upper Deck. It is often a very fun read at the UD Blog, not least their spotlight on SCF’s very own Karine Hains, who was honoured as the Collector of the Month for June 2010.
Grade: A-

Facebook
Upper Deck has made Facebook its primary resource for distribution of information and product previews. Galleries spotlighting cards from upcoming releases are added regularly, giving their “fans” the inside scoop on all the latest news. There are also contests being run regularly, which is always a great way to connect with new people. The Discussions tab is a wealth of information. Most questions are met with a response in a very reasonable amount of time (some take longer due to the research needed) and are very helpful. I recently made an inquiry about a couple of outstanding redemptions for a player I collect, and UD was able to give me the information that the cards were never produced. While disappointed to hear that, I appreciated the fact that they told me the answer and took me off the hook from having to chase down two very low-numbered cards. Overall, the UD Facebook page is the model that all of the other manufacturers should follow: interactive, contests, information, and lots of pictures.
Grade: A+

Since I do not use Twitter I cannot really comment on how useful that is as a networking tool for the card companies. The blog sites will often have a Twitter feed on their sidebars which often appears to be just a link to the news stories on the blogs and/or other official networking venues. I will leave it to the commentariat to discuss how useful those tools are in bringing them the latest information.

Overall, each company does things well that deserves to be commended. In addition to their own official works, both Panini and ITG are active at SCF, fielding questions about their products, providing product release information, and generally involving themselves in the SCF community. For this participation we are grateful, as it does enhance the site that much more to have an official manufacturers presence. It is not an easy challenge to engage in the new technologies and keep collectors as informed as they would like to be. The information era seemingly requires an endless supply of new information to be provided to the masses, yet this is not a practical way for the card companies to devote all their time and resources. There are still some trade secrets to maintain, which is not easy in the face of demands to have the curtain pulled back to increase transparency.

With so much of the hobby becoming concentrated in online efforts, the card companies are doing a very good job in embracing social networking. While more updates to the official sites would benefit collectors, for the most part they all do a great job of reaching out and connecting with collectors to bring them the latest news and information, which makes the hobby more enjoyable for all involved. When we see something that appears out of the ordinary, and can directly approach an Al Muir, a Brian Price, or a Chris Carlin with our questions and have them answered within hours, everybody wins.