Shib Sibs sharpen their social media skills at UMSI

The week before they left for the Olympic opening ceremonies, brother-and-sister ice dancing team Alex and Maia Shibutani were polishing two of their world-class skills.

On the ice, they were working with coach Oleg Epstein to perfect tiny turns of foot and body and head for their Olympic ice dancing performance, coming up this weekend.

Off the ice, they were working with U-M Associate Professor of Information Cliff Lampe to polish their impressive social media skills, helping them to continue to connect with the fans who have known them from childhood, even during the onslaught of Olympic publicity.

The Shibutanis are known for their world-class control of social media as much as their world-class skating performances, with a relatively huge following on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube compared to other athletes early in their careers. Their YouTube channel has racked up more than a million views in two years, and Alex has a Klout score of 81 –more like previous medalists than a relatively unknown pair attending their first Olympics.

“Our entire career so far has been about sharing our journey,” Alex said. “The whole video thing is a way to share who we are beyond four minutes on the ice.”

“People have watched us grow up together,” Maia added. “It’s working so far, but we want to get better at what we’re doing.”

So even as they pursued perfection on ice with world-class coaching, they also worked to improve their social media presence, and understand the theories of why and how posting works best. Alex and Maia, ages 22 and 19 respectively, are students at the University of Michigan, and approached Lampe at the School of Information, proposing a two-student independent study project on social media.

Lampe was an expert on the subject, with a array of publications, research and national media appearances in the field. They met at a coffee shop, sizing each other up over tea and hot apple cider, and came to an agreement: the pair would take two terms, from fall 2013 to spring 2014, to study everything about social media.

“They’re trying to understand best practices,” Lampe said. “Social media is about building relationships, not just PR. Relationships take mutual reciprocity and engagement.”

The siblings are doing creative things in social media: they do 15-second video previews on Instagram to tease their new YouTube videos, for example, and use Vine creations of super-short video as transitions within their YouTube compositions. But they want to move to the next level, to really help their fans understand what it’s like to be on the ice.

Lampe gave them a number of readings from social media gurus such as danah boyd and Alice Marwick, marketers such as Jonah Berger, and other athletes who have high-profile presences.

He suggested that with the demographics of their audience, they should also launch on blogging platform Tumblr. On the very first day of posting, they were identified by the site as a trending blog. They created joint accounts on Instagram and Twitter to post together, instead of separately.

They’ve examined the demographics and algorithms of the services, the best times to post for different audiences, and as Alex says, “Cliff introduced us to analytics. Reading things from an academic perspective has been really helpful. Everything we’ve done has been self-taught, so adding some method to our madness has been helpful to us.”

But at the end of the day, no matter what the analyses say, the siblings’ priority is presenting an honest picture of themselves and their experiences.

“You have to share enough of who you really are,” Maia said.

“Professor Lampe has been helping us navigate remaining true to our followers,” Alex said. “People like to see behind the scenes. For us, this is just the beginning.”

The “Shib Sibs” on social media and online:
@shibsibs, @maiashibutani, @alexshibutani on Twitter
alexshibutani, maiashibutani, shibsibs on Instagram

The ice dancing teams will compete on Sunday and Monday, February 16 and 17 at 10am (EST).

Posted on Thursday, February 13, 2014