It’s time for another installment of Leadership Huddle, a new series on the blog where leaders in sport and beyond offer perspective on digital today. Some of the guests work directly in digital while others will be leaders outside of the space (but get the work and advocate for it).
This post features a conversation with Eric SanInocencio, the Senior Director of Digital Media and Strategy for the Houston Texans. Eric has been with the Texans for more than five years now. In his role he oversees and manages digital for the entire organize. Prior to the Texans, he spent time at the Southeastern Conference and Gulf South Conference.
Eric is someone whose career has “grown up” in digital. And, it was clear in our conversation that he gets it. We talked for nearly an hour about everything ranging from getting buy-in across the organization to career growth. One of the biggest things that stood out to me about Eric’s leadership style is his ability to understand other people’s perspective. He doesn’t make assumptions about what people do and do not know. Instead, he takes the time to understand, listen and build bridges, all while advocating for the work of his team. There’s a lot to learn from his approach.
Below is the transcript of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for space and clarity. I hope you enjoy.
You’ve been at the Houston Texans for five years now. Can you talk about the overall focus and vision for digital?
We really focus on two things when it comes to digital. First, what can we do to over-index? We are a very young franchise (just over 15 fifteen years old) so name recognition and expanding our brand is still very important to us. That’s one of the main things for us; what is the sheer volume of how many people can we reach on all these different platforms?
I think we do a great job in Houston of owning this market. But for us, it’s about figuring out how we can expand our reach so people know about our organization, our players and what we’re about outside of that.
Secondarily, we’re focused on how we can leverage content to tell our story in the smartest and most efficient way possible. We are all in this space creating content and trying to connect with fans. But for us, we are trying to do that differently than everyone else. How can we find our niche?
I love your point about the franchise still being young. And, I think there is a real opportunity within that. How have you all gone about defining your voice and content pillars you want to hit to reach and attract new fans?
For us, we go in assuming that people don’t know a ton about our organization outside of its biggest stars. People may know about JJ Watt, but they may not know about the rest of the organization and other key players. If they don’t know about our organization and our other players, social might be the only touchpoint people have with us.
We ask the question, what can our content do to connect with people so they want to engage with us again? That’s our foundation. If social is the first interaction they have with us (outside of seeing JJ Watt in a commercial), what can we do to bring them into our brand? How can our content play a key role in inciting some kind of emotion that makes them want to come back?
That’s awesome. The top-level funnel piece (awareness) is a fun challenge to have. It lends itself to pushing your thinking a little more.
Without a doubt. And from a measurement standpoint, we all determine our own success. I try to caution people with ranking other teams and how they are doing because all of our imperatives are so different. It’s never really a level playing field. For example, access can be different or tone of voice from the organization can be different.
You have to hone in on what matters to the organization. We measure ourselves against what we feel is important to the org — and that’s not necessarily against other teams. What we are trying to shoot for is different than, let’s say the Cowboys, because we are a young franchise. That’s something we always wrestle with as we continue to tell our story.
It’s always interesting to hear how digital plays a role in so many facets of the business. Aside from the general awareness piece, can you talk about how your department works across the organization?
We are in a truly unique role in that we interact with every piece of the organization. That’s good for us because it allows us to have a ground-level view of what everyone is trying to accomplish. The goal for our team is to offer our expertise so that social and digital don’t become an afterthought in the planning process.
The challenge we continue to work through is to make sure everyone understands it’s not a one-size-fits-all answer for every social or digital campaign. Sometimes we have to try and change the thinking a little bit. So “hey, that’s a great idea, but maybe we do it this way”. It’s about interjecting expertise when we can. For teammates, the big project they are working on is the most important thing they are doing at the moment. But for you (in digital), you might be helping with 20 other projects. You have to learn to prioritize and communicate what else is happening and if a message might get lost. That’s not always an easy conversation to have.
No, it’s not. And that’s something I’ve learned as I’ve matured in my career is that it’s not about saying “no” but saying “yes, and” or “yes, but”. If you say no all the time people will stop coming to you. It’s a fine balancing.
Elaborating on that a little more. How did you start getting buy-in with these other departments to give you a seat at the table? And then, as someone who leads a team, how do you help the team prioritize with all the different touchpoints you all are working through?
That’s probably the foundation of my job at this point. I think we got to the table by continuing to communicate the value of what we do and how important the value of what we do in this space.
For those of us who live and work in this industry, one of the issues we face is we don’t always communicate the work properly to others. We can’t assume that just because we are involved in digital/social 24-7 that others understand the nuances of what we are having to deal with. What we can really work on is to speak a more plain language in a way that other departments can understand. You have to focus on getting the point across.
If you continue to show that you’re willing to work and be a team player that’s helpful. But also, if you have some successes under your belt from working with teams, they’ll come back to you and your ability to influence the conversation only gets bigger. That’s really what we’re trying to work on from a communication standpoint.
It’s easy to get frustrated in the digital space because people don’t understand, but sometimes you have to take that extra step and make a correlation to something people are used to in their day-to-day. It helps make it click. Again, it all goes back to how we communicate.
Absolutely. And even for someone who is on social, using it personally is very different than using it from a business standpoint.
Shifting gears a bit. We desperately need true digital leadership leading teams. And what I mean by that, is people who have grown up in the space (like you) that understand how to structure the team and what
So for us in the industry who are looking to move up and eventually get a seat at the executive table (eventually), what advice do you have?
You have to be comfortable being uncomfortable. I read a great quote about digital once: It’s like building a plane while flying it. So I think for a lot of people, and myself included, we’re used to having a task list, completing it and feeling that I’ve accomplished something today. That’s tough with digital because it’s a 24-7 beast. There isn’t going to be an opportunity for us to be on top of everything. There’s a lack of control when it comes to digital, so we have to be comfortable with that.
Also, I think part of it is the culture in general. Sports is pretty slow moving when you compare it to other areas of business. I think that’s because it has never had to be a ton innovative. I mean, we’re really lucky with the Texans. We have sold out every game in the history of our franchise and have a wait list of over 20,000 people. If I don’t post a single thing on digital, our gameday experience has been enough to keep people engaged with us. I think that’s where the hesitancy has been, right? Sports, for the most part, are successful companies by just putting out a product. Executives probably ask if we really need to disrupt at the speed in which you and I would maybe like to.
You mentioned the speed at which teams move, and I find it really interesting. Sometimes the thought process is if it’s not broken, why fix it? The one thing I always go back to, is it short-sighted of us to not be thinking about the future? The way that younger generations are consuming entertainment is going to change, especially with all the choices they have. We need to be prepared for that.
Talking about the future of digital, what excites you about digital and the role you see it playing?
It’s very interesting because part of our job is to have one foot in the future, but also have one foot in the present. I may not know specifically what is next, but I think whatever is going to be popular in digital is what is going to make us lazier.
Think about how far we’ve come. We don’t even have to go the grocery store or Blockbuster anymore. The ability for this generation to have everything on demand is crazy. And that behavior, attitude is not going away. I have two kids (7 and 5) and they literally get upset when they have to watch commercials. This is the learned behavior that we have.
When you look at how digital is going to be part of that and sport piggybacks off of that, a good rule of thumb is to always look at what makes us lazier. The more that technology can take care of consumers seems to be what it is all about. Mobile seat ordering is a small but good example of this in sport.
I love this and have never thought of it like that (the lazy angle). You’re spot on. People like and expect things in an instant today.
Going back to your point earlier in our conversation about focus. You’ve grown up in digital so you understand the evolution. Can you talk about what you’ve learned in managing teams and in hiring people?
What I have learned is how important it is to give the full 360 view of what’s going on in the department to everyone involved. I have to over communicate so our team understands the decision and the reason for it.
It’s important to talk through how the decision ladders back to the bigger picture. Sometimes that can be really hard because you are challenged
Even when I disagree with something, I try to sit down and explain why to the team. When I first started in this industry, people had a knee jerk reaction and would just say “take it down”. There was no discussion. But I try really hard to put myself in their shoes because I know what it feels like.
I can always do better and get to know them as people and what’s going on in their lives. I want them to know I value them and what they do as a person that’s part of our team. And that’s another thing that really annoys me is people that say “my staff”. You don’t own anybody. It’s not my staff; it’s our staff. It minimizes somebody’s career into a piece of ownership over somebody. That’s never how I want to communicate. This is our staff. If we are going to build togetherness, I try to be in trenches as much as I can. Do you need my help? Can I jump in here?
I also think that mentality translates well to running a team account. It’s not about one person. It’s about the brand and the team that you work. And when you have that mentality that it’s our team and not one individual it builds a more cohesive environment and becomes about the brand and not one single person. That is sometimes hard to do.
Without a doubt. And I may disagree with 99% of the ideas that the team brings to me, but I want them to keep bringing them to me because the 1% may be something that’s a game changer.
As we get older, it’s hard for us to stay connected to what younger people are into it. We have to give them the freedom to try different things. I’m almost completely removed from the posting now. The process is important so we have a social voice template that we work off of so the team has an idea and understanding of what we’re trying to go for, but then they have the keys to go. If there is something that needs to involve me I’ll jump in and help. I think that’s important to give them the trust.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. As digital gets more visibility within organizations and as it becomes a more collective effort, how do we balance you autonomy with mapping back to the bigger picture?
On top of that, you also want to try to carve out some kind of life for yourself. If we are going to add a piece of work, I’m going to try and take something off. Nike has a great way of brainstorming in that they don’t start with the ideas themselves they start with the challenges. That is super smart because you spend all this time and create all this work, but in the end, if you are so bogged down with the amount you have to create, your productivity and creativity are going to go down. And then, you are going to just start doing things to get it done.
Switching to personal growth. And then, on a more personal level, what advice do you have for someone looking to move up?
You have to be comfortable putting the processes in place. It’s hard. I was a one-man band at the SEC and everything posted was by me. I got to the Texans and I was essentially a one-man team for a year and a half and now we have started to build this department up. And it’s really hard because there is a sense of pride when you send the tweet, but you have to take a step back from the tactical piece to grow as an individual.
You had a great tweet about what are people’s goals. And so many people in social/digital wanted to “do this” or “create this content series”. My answer was that I don’t want to be the person that pushes the button anymore. I want to be the person that oversees the entire setup.
Your mindset changes when you get removed from the community management/execution piece. As you hand off the reigns, what you’re actually responsible for and how you view things is different. Being a little removed from the day-to-day has allowed me to see the bigger picture and how digital fits within that. And sometimes, that doesn’t equate to the perfect tweet. That’s a big piece to moving up.
YES. And again, I think that’s why it’s so important to have that leader who has been there and understand what growth looks like. Marketing is moving towards a trend where the CMO should have a digital-first mindset.
I always think about growth too. If there’s a community manager that’s been part of the team for two to three years and I don’t have a role that’s going to offer them upward mobility, I’m going to sit down and have a hard conversation that it’s time to move on. That’s out of respect for their career. The tactical piece is fun, but you eventually have to take on other things. It’s a really big challenge I’ve seen. There’s a lot of disgruntled voices about pay, growth, etc. but an organization is not going to keep you in the same role and just keep raising your salary. At some point, you have to take your career into your own hands.
I think too, we crave so much that admiration from our peers. If we aren’t featured in something or that top 100 list it’s such a personal thing to a lot of people that work in the business. That’s why we have to understand it’s bigger than that. It’s tough.
You are responsible as an individual for how your career grows. How do you prioritize promoting yourself or networking? It is going to become more valuable than ever, especially in the digital space. If people are going to give digital a seat at the table, they are going to need to feel comfortable with who that person is and that’s not happening on a resume. That’s happening with a conversation they have had with you or with a recommendation they got from someone they trust. It’s on us to continue to meet people and explain what we do.
Finally, for people who are looking to break into the industry, what advice do you have?
Make yourself more than a piece of paper. Take the extra step to make yourself known. Making yourself a person with goals and aspirations is important.
And secondly, you can get experience now. If you want to work in sports and you are in college, walk over to the SID office and ask if they need help. You could get the opportunity to run a team account. That’s tremendous because then you can show people that you’ve done the work. College is a great opportunity to learn.
If you enjoyed this conversation, be sure to read the others from this series: Graham Neff and Brendan Hannan2