How Putting Fans First Guides Georgia Athletics Social Media Strategy and the Lessons from That Philosophy

At its heart, sports marketing and fan engagement is about the fans. Putting oneself in the fan’s shoes, serving them what they want, and remembering why fans are fans in the first place. The north star doesn’t need to be overcomplicated.

So while sitting at the helm of a historic, beloved institution like the Georgia Bulldogs, the athletic programs covering 21 teams for the University of Georgia, is a daily challenge, Jen Galas keeps the main things the main things — and that’s the fans and student-athletes. It sounds pretty simple listening to Galas explain the program’s social media philosophy.

“From a strictly social side, I think at the heart of it is we want to make sure that we give our student-athletes the best experience that we can and we want to make sure our fans get the best experience that they can get,” said Galas, the Assistant Athletic Director – Social Media and Digital Strategy for The University of Georgia Athletics. “So a lot of the stuff we do is driven to promote our student-athletes and our coaching staff and also make sure that we provide a top-notch experience for our fans. Not only the fans who come to Athens and come to games and are here in person, but also the ones who aren’t or can’t and making sure they know that they are also important to us because they very much are.”

Fans want to feel valued. Student-athletes expect to earn an education while making lifelong memories. But we are a goals-obsessed professional culture, chasing tangible outcomes. In sports that often means revenue — ticket sales, merchandise, donations (for college athletics), and sponsorship. While those are an important part of any sports business (more on that later), all of those revenue streams are fueled by genuine fandom. Without emotional investment, there is no financial investment.

So, for Galas and her colleagues, they know their first objective is to foster the fans. Everything else stems from that.

“Our job is to give somebody a bit of entertainment, a bit of joy when they’re scrolling through their phone or whatever,” said Galas, who has been at Georgia since 2011. “So I don’t know that you can draw a direct line [of fan ascendance] — I think it’s great to say you want somebody to follow you and then come to a game and then buy a mini plan and then buy a season ticket and think that in a dream world, sure, I think everybody would want that track, but that’s not reality. It’s just not. So I hope that happens sometimes.

“But I also think treating our fans very equally and putting ourselves in [fan’s shoes]. You’re like, ‘Well, what would I like to see? What would entertain me? What would make me happy? What do I want to know?’”

The focus on intuiting what fans want doesn’t mean Georgia Athletics doesn’t establish strategic goals that guide their execution. But it’s that focus that serves as the north star, the one unchanging philosophy; virtually everything else is subject to change, evolve, improve, or adjust in service to that powerful proposition. It’s easy to get sucked into pleasing the platforms, but it shouldn’t be done at the expense of having the fans at the center of it all. Goals that are too rigid can lead to a chilling effect on creativity and the ability to continue focusing on fans.

“Goals can change in the beginning of and throughout the year,” explained Galas. “They can and they should, especially in a medium that’s new and changes all the time — and when I say new like relatively — but that changes every day and something changes and happens every day, so your goals should change.

“Personally speaking, if I set and said this is the one thing we want to accomplish all year and if that’s the only thing I focus on, that means we’re probably slacking off somewhere else. Something else is suffering because of that.”

There are some things at a generationally important institution like Georgia Athletics for which change and evolution must be treated with care. And the growth of social media, with each of those 21 teams having its own Instagram or Twitter or Facebook, only made looking after the history and brand more challenging and important. Because while the fans and the feel of Georgia baseball, for example, may be different from that of Georgia women’s basketball or Georgia football, they are all their own entity but part of a powerful collective whole that is the Georgia Bulldogs.

If that all sounds a bit complex or even convoluted, that’s because it’s not easy. Fans are multi-generational. Platforms evolve. Programs evolve. And for Galas and her colleagues, the responsibility of keeping Georgia looking like Georgia while allowing for necessary evolution is a tough job.

The big puzzle is the identity of Georgia Athletics, and each one of our sports is a piece of that puzzle. So we have 21 sports, so there are 21 pieces to this puzzle that makes up everything,” said Galas, who oversees the Bulldogs’ ‘digital identity,’ among her other remits. “In an ideal situation, all of those fit perfectly together. So when you look at it as a whole, you’re like, ‘Oh shit, yeah, that’s Georgia.’

“Especially on social graphics, it’s the square with the G in it and that’s pretty much on every single thing that we do, and making sure that we don’t go nuts with every team having 27 fonts that they use…making sure that when we go into a process it’s number one, what’s the reasoning? And number two, how can we make this as Georgia as it can be? And I think especially in the last couple of years we’ve done a really nice job of giving people some identities but also saying we know how far to push it and then we know how to bring it back and I think we’ve done [that]

“I think for a while it was very one size fits all, which I think can work, but I also think there’s a couple of different approaches you can take to it. And we just sort of said ‘Wait a second, let’s have some fun with it, and let’s play around with some things.’”

The way the puzzle pieces, across the board, is starting to become clear, isn’t it? When the north star stays in place, everything else is easier to decipher and execute. That includes the increasingly integral way that sponsorships get activated on digital and social media. Georgia Athletics ensures the fan experience and value prop is at the center of sponsored social, too. It makes sense for all parties — the fans get a great experience (always the primary objective) and the partners see a better performance of their activation.

It all sounds good to say out loud, but what separates the best ideas from the most successful are thoughtful, laid-out plans. For the Bulldogs, that takes the form of a consistent, reliable ‘menu’ of activations — content they can be confident their fans want and will enjoy that can be tailored for sponsors. Galas was articulate in describing their sponsored social strategy, which aligns with the overarching philosophy that has been the motif of this article.

“I think we try to do kind of the menu of [sponsorship opportunities on social] saying, ‘Hey, these are the things that are tried and true that work. Sell these first.’ If somebody has an idea, let’s talk about it. Let’s not just blindly agree to it because sometimes it may not be possible, but I think we try to say like, here’s the menu, pick from the menu, this is available inventory,” Galas explained. “We have an inventory sheet for season-wide things, we save some things for one-offs that we oftentimes don’t sell for like a season-long campaign in case somebody wants to jump in the middle of the year we kind of hold some back for a couple of different reasons.

“But if there’s really great ideas — I mean we’re not opposed to any great idea, but we also want to make sure that — nobody wants to see a million ads on a channel that you like. Nobody wants to see it. 

“So how can we incorporate our partners in something that’s going to resonate with our fans and make them click or make them watch through for the whole thing or make them engage in some way.” 

When every idea starts with the fan at the center, everything else just falls correctly into place. There are often competing incentives and a lot of noise in devising and executing social media strategy, but even as one gazes up at a sky crowded with lights, there’s always that one shines a bit brighter, that always guides the way — that’s the north star, and in sports the north star is the fan.


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