If you were to look into the hypothetical social media bible of Kris Koivisto, former Portland Trail Blazers digital content guru, you’d find the quote “different is better than better” printed in a big, bold, unique font.
Koivisto and his digital team turned @trailblazers into one of most recognizable Twitter accounts in all of professional sports by following those five words.
“Different is better than better.”
Different is what landed the Portland Trail Blazers atop the Complex NBA Twitter Rankings for multiple years.
Different is what earned Koivisto’s talented team back-to-back NBA Digital of the Year awards.
Different is what made Koivisto, Cody Sharrett, Casey Holdahl, and Bruce Ely the most lethal combo in the sports world of social media.
How exactly did Koivisto do things differently? What set Koivisto’s social team apart from the other 29 in the NBA? What really went on behind the scenes when @trailblazers threw some shade at @LAClippers?
Koivisto provided answers for those questions, and so much more, for Oregon Sports News.
Darby Marioth, Oregon Sports News (OSN): From my understanding, all of the social media account managers from the individual NBA teams frequently chat with each other?
Kris Koivisto (KK): Yeah, yeah—So I want to say about two and a half years ago, TJ [Ainsley], who was my boss at the time, brought up an idea of something I think they did in the MLS. He used to work with the Columbus Crew, where they shared a Facebook group that was private where you could all collaborate; so I implemented that on the NBA side. So we have an NBA social Facebook group where there’s at least one person from every team. I think the Blazers have four guys in there, but it’s just a nice community of people, a place to kind of share ideas, highlight each other’s work, ask questions, complain about the NBA—that type of thing. It’s all of the frontline people, you know—boots on the ground, not the suits that are out there making budget decisions and stuff like that—having all of these executive meetings. It’s the actual people who are executing, so it’s really cool to all have a place to chat there whereas the NBA has a digital conference call every week, but that’s with VPs, NBA reps, and all that stuff; you have to be pretty muzzled.
But yeah, we all stay pretty close and even since I left there have been a few people who have left too and we keep them in the group. It’s kind of like an alumni of the family—the NBA family. It’s really cool because the industry is so small that once you make those connections you never know when something could come up where somebody brings up something you did or somebody you know and it’s just really cool to have everything in one place. From there you can grow relationships; I have a pretty close relationship with Julie [Phayer] from the [Golden State] Warriors and Chris Serafino who used to do social for the [Los Angeles] Clippers….and then there’s Max [Rappaport] who used to do social for the [Philadelphia] Sixers—you create these bonds with people that have been in the trenches with you and you can kinda speak the same language. It’s really cool.
OSN: I think it’s pretty cool that you’re able to have that connection with the other social staff members. It’s gotta be nice to have a space to chat that doesn’t involve VPs and all of that just because of that fact that you’re able to be more creative, able to get out there a little more rather than just being straight edge, fine-cut professional. I could see how you could have a little more fun.
KK: Yeah, you can be a little less PC. You can let your hair down a little bit and b—h about ‘Oh, SportsCenter stole my picture and tweeted it without giving credit’ or something like that—that was really big last year where these big brands, ESPN, TNT, the NBA sometimes, would instead of retweeting a team account they would take the picture or the idea and tweet it themselves and maybe give credit, maybe not. That was a perfect example of somewhere to come and sort of vent a little bit to people who understand your pain.
OSN: Did you or your team ever run into controversy with the NBA or with another team?
KK: I don’t think we ever ran into controversy with another team. It’s funny when we were playing the Clippers in the playoffs the season before last, you know it was that series where ‘there’s no f—ing way the Blazers are gonna win, the Clippers are gonna dominate’ whatever and then oh s–t two players go down and it’s a series. From the team accounts we’re tweeting back and forth and kinda throwing shots at each other, whether it’s hack-a-DeAndre or what have you, and publically it looks like the teams are beefing but I’m literally sitting right next to the guy who’s doing it for the Clippers and we’re sitting there laughing. It’s kinda fun to pull those puppet strings and watch everybody react when you’re just sitting there behind the scenes and it’s not as serious as everyone thinks it is.
OSN: Oh, definitely. I think people just assume that you guys are in different cities or something, just talking smack to each other.
KK: You can set things up in advance where we were playing the [Phoenix] Suns on like a Friday or Thursday and Lauren [Sokol], who runs their social, would reach out and she had some idea where, some stunt she wanted to pull where it looked like the Blazers and the Suns were texting each other about, I can’t even remember, something about the game, and then we’d screenshot it and tweet it. That stuff can be set up in advance.
I remember there was a game against—a preseason game; I think we played the [Utah] Jazz like two or three times in the preseason and it was Sunday and there was football on and no one was paying attention so I went back and forth with their social guy and we’re trying to think of ‘what should we do to kinda spice this up’ and it ended up being a game where both teams tweeted the entire game in haiku.
All of a sudden
Moda Center is alive
Jazz lead is shrinking
— Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) October 19, 2015
Tweeting only in haiku
Way back in ‘15
OSN: Oh, I remember that. I definitely remember seeing that live.
KK: It was dope, man. And it ended up being a f—ing close game so we’re coming down to the wire and you’re trying to tweet updates, trying to count how many syllables and stuff; that was fun, that was real fun.
OSN: Oh yeah, that was great.
KK: Yeah, everybody is a good sport.
It’s a good community of folks where everybody means well and nobody—we’re not making the big bucks we’re just here trying to make a big impact.
There’s a lot of support. As far as the NBA, we would always—our philosophy, or our school of thought, would be to ask for forgiveness, not permission. So it wasn’t unexpected when we’d do something, whether it’s livestreaming something when we weren’t supposed to or kind of taking a tone or a play and highlighting it. In the back of the mind it’s kinda like ‘okay, I’m probably going to get my hand slapped for this. I’m probably gonna get an email or call from the NBA’ but those are kinda the things you gotta do to keep yourself fresh, keep yourself on your toes. Clearly a lot of those things paid off based on those last three years of Twitter rankings.
OSN: Do you think that played a big part in what sets you guys apart from other teams or is there a little more to it?
KK: You know, I think there’s kinda three pillars that set you up for success. The first one is definitely the staffing. You gotta have the right people in place. From city A to city B you may have two people that are contributing to social on a game night and then the opponent. Their squad could be seven or eight people; one guy taking photos, one guy doing video clips, one guy doing motion graphics, one guy doing still graphics, one live-tweeting the game. From team to team it varies but I think as long as you have the resources and the talent in place, you’re going to be successful no matter what your voice is or what your tone is.
That plays into the trust and the empowerment from leadership. In Portland, Dewayne Hankins is [their]CMO … he’s the guy who changed Twitter for the LA Kings, he’s the one who started jabbing other teams from a team account back in 2012. Obviously him and then [Chris] McGowan; they understand the significance or the impact that you can have on social by doing things a little bit different. That was one of my philosophies—I heard a quote one time that was pretty powerful—pretty basic but if you think about it it’s pretty powerful: ‘Different is better than better.’ Everyone is trying to outdo the dopest graphic or the best meme or the best highlight reel but you’re barely going to outdo the next guy even if you do it better so if you can twist it and do things different, you can draw attention that way both positively and negatively. For the most part it was positive; the negativity can come around when you’re tweeting at Chandler Parsons or something like that.
So those two things and then obviously I think you need to have someone who’s at the wheel that is in charge of that social team that just gets social. It was kind of the perfect storm where we had the team in place, the talent that could do just about anything per request as far as creating stuff for social, and then we had the long leash from leadership. I was kind of at the wheel making those calls and taking a few risks….you gotta think three steps ahead rather than just right in front of you like ‘oh, let’s tweet a picture of a guy signing a contract.’ Well that f—ed up in Orlando because they had a bunch of s–t on the whiteboard behind him so… I think having the experience—I came in with seven years of PR experience where in PR you’re the police, you’re the bad guy, you’re the parent that has to say no all the time to the digital and creative teams just because you’re always thinking worse case scenario. That’s where I cut my teeth in the league is in PR so having that background and then bringing it to social, there was a little bit of an adjustment period where, as far as loosening up and being more free-flowing and creative—I think when I started I was just doing play-by-play tweets and I remember going out to lunch with Dewayne and he’s like ‘just loosen it up and have some fun.’ I think since then it was ‘go as far as you can to not distract from the team but almost keep the team relevant when things aren’t going well.’ I think Philadelphia does a really good job of that. They’ve had a s—-ty season the last, f–k, five or six seasons, but they do such a good job on social that it keeps the Sixers on the top of mind for Philly fans when they have all those other teams. Sometimes the social account can be what the fans follow like ‘oh, who cares, they’re gonna lose, but I wanna follow them on social because they’re gonna do some dope stuff.’
OSN: Exactly, I totally agree with that. I actually follow Max because he always has some great Sixers commentary. Social definitely has a big impact on the fan experience. Have you ever had one of those moments where you’re thinking ‘oh, maybe I shouldn’t have done that’ or something like that?
KK: Ahhh, yeah [laughter]. Yes, definitely. I can’t even—there’s so many! I think if you sit there and you have to think ‘should I do this or not?’ the answer is always not, don’t do it. If you think there’s a chance that you’re going to get in trouble, don’t do it. 99 times out of 100, a lot of that stuff I’d never go public with. Every once in awhile, though, I’d get stuck on an idea and convince myself in my head that it’s worth the risk to do this.
We were playing Sacramento a couple years ago and DeMarcus Cousins and Darren Collison ran into each other and fell down and they were both kinda acting like they got hurt and it was a pretty close game. The Kings fans—there was no foul call or something and Kings fans were tripping; so I took a gif of them running into each other and falling down and tweeted a bowling ball pin. Fans in Sacramento went apesh–t, they were pissed; ‘how could you do this? Those guys got hurt!’ But the thing is I waited to make sure both guys were cleared and checked back into the game and there was no serious injury. That one came back to bite me a little bit because some Sacramento fans figured out who I was….and attacked me personally.
But yeah, there was a few times—I would drive home from work, 11, midnight, 1 a.m., whatever time it was, and kinda scroll through the tweets while I was driving, which is illegal but there’s nobody on the road at that time, and kinda look back and debrief on how things went and, for the most part, 99.5 percent of the time I was happy with it. But there were a few times where I’d tweet something and immediately text Dewayne and be like ‘yo, I just put this out here, you could catch some flack from basketball operations or the league, just letting you know so you’re prepared,’ and if you do that and you’re transparent and you communicate—I never got fired, so it worked out pretty well. They just don’t want to be blindsided, get a call from the league: ‘what’s your social team doing with this,’ and they have no idea what they’re talking about. Just having that open communication with leadership was huge.
OSN: Whether it involved you or somebody else, what’s your favorite Twitter beef of all-time?
KK: Oh man. Umm—from a team account?
OSN: Let’s go either team or player.
KK: Well, player it had to be CJ [McCollum] going at Chandler Parsons. When Chandler replied I was walking to my car and I was like ‘oh s–t, that sucks,’ and then it started to blow up and I was kinda feelin’ the heat a little bit. That’s when I started texting Dewayne like ‘yo, something might come down,’ and then CJ tweeted that ‘We won the lottery by not signing you,’ and the f—in’ roof blew off. I remember just glued to my phone refreshing Twitter as that thing grew and grew and grew. I texted CJ right away like ‘thank you, man. I couldn’t respond from the team account,’ and he was just like ‘I gotchu.’ CJ loves to talk s–t. I think that was one of my favorites.
We hit the lottery by not signing you https://t.co/eSiBaNT061
— CJ McCollum (@CJMcCollum) January 28, 2017
One of CJ’s best performances of the season.
I think overall—See, I’m a big fan of the sneak disses where it’s not on the surface, you really kinda gotta know the culture to understand the beef or the diss. Like how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers responded to some s–t that the [Atlanta] Falcons were talkin’ about with a photo of a guy wearing the number 28 and a guy wearing the number 3 like ‘yo, you blew a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl.’ So those type of sneak disses, those are the s–t, man. I wouldn’t necessarily call those beefs but those are those ones that you smile at and if someone picks up on it they do and if not, who cares, you still got some kicks out of it.
OSN: Do you have a favorite memory with the Trail Blazers organization?
KK: Oh man. Yeah, I think my favorite memory—phew. Off the court, would probably be the 2012 [NBA] Draft where I was in PR, kind of the third man on the totem pole. Our VP had a vacation planned and couldn’t make it to the draft and then the guy above me, I think his wife was having a baby, so I was the next man up. So I knew I was going to the draft and we had the 6th and the 11th picks and I was going there to not only be a PR representative for whoever we draft and coordinate interviews and whatnot, but then also gather content because we didn’t send a social person. I was acting as the social content person and PR guy for two lottery picks all on my lonesome.
Damian [Lillard] was drafted and walked off the stage; I remember me and him—he was giving daps to everybody and I was the first person from the Blazers that shook his hand like ‘hey, I’m Kris from the Blazers,’ I had him say something on the camera and went about our business. Same thing with Meyers [Leonard]. Those were really cool moments.
I think the same year, 2012, Dame went to the All-Star Weekend in Houston for the rookie-sophomore game and I think the skills competition. It was myself and Jim Taylor, who was our VP of basketball communications and then Casey Holdahl who, you know, does everything. Me and Casey—Casey was doing a Twitter takeover with Dame and me and Casey went to his hotel room. After the Twitter takeover, we were about to leave and Dame was like ‘where are y’all going? Let’s kick it.’ So we just hung out in his hotel room with me, Casey, I think Jim popped in there, and Dame’s girlfriend, and we were just kinda shootin’ the s–t, like regular dudes. It was pretty cool—I think there’s some pictures floating around, but he had to go to an appearance and he pulled his shirt out of his bag and ironed it himself made sure all of the creases were there and it was kinda cool to see the human element like ‘oh, this dude has to do laundry himself just like everybody else.’
Some might say that Damian Lillard’s suit has a 1977 vibe to it.
Those two moments off the court for sure. On the court, I think it has to be the Brandon Roy game winner against Houston. More so than the Dame .9 because my Dame .9 story is a little jumbled; I didn’t get to see it the same way everybody else did. But when Brandon hit that game winner against Houston, I couldn’t contain myself. It was unbelievable how he just lofted it up there and it just splashed and he had such a terrible game leading up to that. He made that dumbass foul on Yao Ming, he got the and-one, but then Brandon hit that shot. On the court, that was my favorite memory but off the court those two moments in 2012 were pretty cool.
Shortly before making his departure from the Portland Trail Blazers organization for San Diego-based digital marketing agency STN Digital in April of 2017, Koivisto published his own sending off of sorts titled ‘It’s Not Goodbye, It’s See You Later.’
As technology makes its next move, so does our way of staying connected to the game we love.
In Portland, Bill Schonely was the legend of radio, who created vivid pictures in our minds when all we had was audio.
Mike Rice and Mike Barrett were the superstars of television; two men who entertained with bias commentary fueled by a true love for the team.
Kris Koivisto and his team of digital aces were the pioneers of Trail Blazers social, offering innovative processes, ideas, and methods that have forever changed the way the NBA community utilizes social media.
It’s not that Kris Koivisto was necessarily better than the other digital media contributors in the NBA.
He was just different.