What UMBC Athletics Reminded Us About The Genesis, Growth, and Importance of Voice On Social Media

Think back to the early days of social media. When trade announcements sounded like mini press releases. Compare that to the free agent signing of Michael Crabtree by the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens announced in a tweet with an emoji of a crab and an emoji of a tree.

So, yeah, things have changed.

And this was manifested marvelously by the performance of the @UMBCAthletics Twitter account, led by Zach Seidel, as the Retrivers captured the country’s attention, becoming the first 16-seed to ever defeat a #1 seed in the Men’s Basketball NCAA Tournament, stunning fans of March Madness. Seidel didn’t ignore the haters tweeting skeptically about the UMBC team, didn’t ignore what was playing out in front of him and millions watching, and, most importantly, didn’t speak like a formal press release.

The evolution on Twitter (where voice is most defined on social media for sports teams) from PR to personality has surely been gradual, but most veterans of this space will point to one seminal tweet and one magical title run that started it all. It was the spring of 2012 when the Los Angeles Kings ousted the favored Vancouver Canucks in an opening playoff series. The Kings took the opportunity to sarcastically (snarkily) tweet “To everyone in Canada outside BC, you’re welcome,” addressing fans all over Canada that didn’t feel to fondly about the club in Vancouver. It struck a nerve. It was different. Many didn’t know how to react – was it okay to showcase a bit of tongue-in-cheek personality? Was this befitting of a professional team and its official Twitter presence speaking on the organization’s behalf?

Articles were written, discussions were had, but, as is quite evident today, it only progressed from there. Soon, several team Twitter accounts were trying to elicit laughs and smirks, and trying to create copy that would strike a similar nerve and get fans to feel like their team was cool, and they were cool by association. Over time, more emotion was infused — teams were smartasses when things were going good, they weren’t sugarcoating an awful loss, they exhibited the same ups and downs and jokes of the fans — they were talking and experiencing with them, not at them.

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So what happened when UMBC realized they were doing what no one thought they could or should be doing? When all the attention was on their team and their school? They chose not to ignore the obvious, not to appear oblivious to what madness was clearly happening on the court and all around them, including their website. When CBS College Basketball Analyst Seth Davis tweeted his trademark “Sharpie” (game over) right after tip, they fired back because it’s what their fans would’ve wanted to do – and UMBC doesn’t need to adhere any no-cheering-in-the-press-box like rule when it comes to Twitter.

When TweetDeck started showing a ton of fans mostly saying ‘Who the heck is UMBC?,’ they didn’t shy away from it, trying to act proud enough that people would and should know them. They seized the opportunity to connect, to engage, and to even introduce themselves to the world. And when their website went down, likely as much a source of pride as frustration (too many visitors is a good thing!), they didn’t offer some PR-laden statement like “We are aware of technical difficulties and working to resolve…,” they acknowledged the issue like a human, demonstrating authenticity, playfulness, and even smart messaging reinforcing the long ‘line’ of fans trying to get onto umbc.edu.

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UMBC Athletics suddenly became the life of this March Madness party, on and off the court. More fans followed, more Googled UMBC, more became enamored with a personality that talked to them like a human, that reacted to the madness ensuing in front of them.

It conjures, for me, some of the work I do with teams at Hopscotch who welcome automated score alerts — Final Score: [Team Name] x, [Team Name] x. But others choose to do them manually – they want to convey the epic comeback or sold-out crowd or identify the hero.

As artificial intelligence and increased automation becomes possible, it’s important to appreciate the value of the human voice, and the capacity to express emotion. Some Messenger bots are getting smart, sure, but no bot could’ve reacted to the moments like Seidel and @UMBCAthletics did.

A social media presence can’t be devoid of emotion,

SDSU and USD basketball games: two different fan bases, strategies, and atmospheres

I was lucky enough to attend two games in three days in mid-February 2018: First, a University of San Diego Toreros game at Jenny Craig Pavilion and, 36 hours later, a game at San Diego State University in their home venue – Viejas Arena.

Two Division I teams of different scale, with different resources, and different fan bases. Take a quick trip to each game with me, checking out the sports business and fan engagement elements.

A few quick takeaways

 

  • The atmospheres are night and day. USD felt like a great outing for a young family, where kids could have a good time, get a picture with the mascot and cheerleaders, watch their friends play at halftime, and maybe get a caricature done with mom and dad. Whereas the SDSU game was more like a party atmosphere, with loud music and flashing lights and screaming fans.
    • This difference is not a bad thing, just a reflection in different institutions in different places. SDSU, despite a tough season this year, has now established a culture of winning, which brings in the students and allows/necessitates a more raucous atmosphere. A bigger budget doesn’t hurt, too. USD has struggled on the court, which inevitably affects student attendance, and their marketing and presentation is more amenable to driving those looking for an affordable outing – families – and capturing them en masse, hence the engagement with youth teams, too. USD’s budget is also more tied to wealthy donors, and this atmosphere is more amenable to those attendees, too. (At risk of generalizing)
  • SDSU had much more sponsor-driven content and replays on their video board, while USD’s in-game engagement was more of the ‘cams’ we see so often. Stuff like surf cams and dab cams can appeal to students and families alike (everyone wants to be on the video board) and any school with an arena cam can create these fun opportunities. Get on the video board, and it doesn’t matter who wins or loses.
    • This is not to say USD doesn’t want more sponsor involvement in their games (see the Domino’s Delivery of the Game), they’re looking for ways to drive fan engagement during the game that doesn’t require manpower to create graphics, videos, and animations. Their plan is to grow in this space, but I personally love the idea of the surf cam, and getting a sponsor for it will only allow it to have a little more juice and aesthetic.
  • The disparity in sponsor impressions between the two schools was certainly stark, and this represents an opportunity for USD. Their halftime stats and highlights, their cams, their dearth of digital signage — all this means there is great potential for the Toreros to drive more sponsor revenue, and they’re getting assets in place to do so. It’s easier said than done, however, when they don’t boast the crowds that SDSU gets for their games. It’s why some deals will start as bonuses or throw-ins, before becoming assets that command some more serious coin.
    • Whether the attendance is in the thousands (as for SDSU) or the hundreds (as it is for USD most games), sponsorships can be more than just presented by or than static signage. It was notable how many activations the Aztecs partners had included a text CTA or enter to win or an active element in their app. It doesn’t matter as much if 5,000 fans see something, but there are no results to show for it, if 1,000 fans see something and 100 take some measurable action.
  • It was pretty darn cool when the lights were out, the video board was flashing, and a bunch of fans and students were shouting in unison “I believe that we will win!” while some stomped their feet to rumble the arena (Yeah, I know it’s the USMNT chant, too). It was hard not to get chills. Traditions are a powerful thing and make the game day experience something special that can’t be missed by students, alums, or loyal fans.
    • USD Athletics recently got new leadership and is working on reestablishing their traditions. It’ll be fun to see it happen and come together.

 

There is so much at play for college athletics — driving student attendance, driving non-student attendance, getting donations, fulfilling sponsor deals, producing content for in-game and web and social and traditional platforms, and doing it all when you have a dozen or two dozen or more other sports to worry about, too, some of which are also revenue sports. It’s a fun challenge that so many of us have. And we’re all doing our best to figure it out and to create fan experiences that are special, that will strengthen ties to the school, and do it all while minding the bottom line.

 

Dan Rubenstein on Creating Content that Engages, Informs, and Entertains in College Football

On episode 114 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Dan Rubenstein, co-host of The Solid Verbal podcast, and veteran college football content producer with work at SB Nation, ESPN, SI, and others.

What follows are some snippets from the episode. Click Here to listen to the full episode or check it out and subscribe in iTunes or Stitcher.

Posted by Neil Horowitz

Follow me on Twitter @njh287 Connect on LinkedIn

12 Lessons for College Athletics at PACNet18: Simplicity, Superfans, and Sorting Through Strategy

Think back to your days at college. When weekends meant parties that started at 10 and trips to football games and basketball games with friends. Maybe you snuck in a little booze to pregame. You recognized so many faces there, and nothing beat the feeling of the place going nuts, cheering or chanting in unison as the music or marching band blares.

But then you graduate and get a job. And the allure, and ease, isn’t there anymore. Colleges are seeking to keep the students coming back as alumni and, nowadays, to keep students coming at all. Revenue isn’t as easy as it once was for college athletics departments all around the country, but there is no shortage of ideas and solutions.

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These were among the themes at the annual Paciolan Conference 2018, where thought leaders in college athletics, venues, live events, and digital and tech came together for a few days of learning and mingling. It is put on each year in Newport Beach by the eponymous Paciolan Ticketing company, owned by Learfield. Here are 12 lessons I gleaned from the conference:

Text is tantalizing – 98% open rate, keeping fans within text

It’s the most direct, and intimate, way to reach fans of any age, and it has been for years now — the text message. With the dominance of mobile, and the growth of messaging, those not in WhatsApp, Messenger, Snapchat, and, and even those in the messaging apps, are still texting. Even your mom and your grandma can text, and the 98% open rate on texts means texts are seen.

There are ticket sales and service happening via text message, and presales, event day alerts, and plenty of ‘dark social’ mentioning your game, team, or event. And the goal is to go from a text message to mobile web and signing in and registering pay info and…we want fewer clicks, so whether it’s a text or elsewhere, the goal is frictionless flow.

Keeping fans in the platform, wherever that is. More versatile technologies

Whether it happens on Facebook, your website, your own app, or somewhere else, keeping fans in that comfortable, consistent environment is increasingly important. Fans don’t want to feel like they’re coming in your place and then bouncing between other partner sites, apps, or even visual identities. Native solutions are the name of the day, and what was once a sea of apps is now a river of solutions evolving to exist and execute in a single app or environment. And whether it was technologies for ticket sales, group sales, upgrades, parking, engagement, payment, and more, it was more about how it could align with what you’re already doing and operating on. API and SDK and dynamic are thrown around more and more, and it’s better for fans. But even the best ticket and engagement flows can’t save a sub-par game day experience.

The power of traditions and creating new traditions

College athletics is notorious, in a good way, for its traditions. Traditions that are passed on from generation to generation, lending a sense of comfort and nationality to alumni of the school. The pageantry they bring to games is a powerful, unmatched tool. But that doesn’t mean new traditions can’t come along.

This salient statement came from a great keynote by Jack Swarbrick, Athletic Director for a little school known as Notre Dame. They have a ton of fabulous history and tradition at Notre Dame. But even Swarbrick knows generations evolve and, with them, new traditions can emerge, too. And tradition is properly rated as a tremendous way to drive emotional investment and a reason to come out to a game. This led to another insight from Swarbrick on the promise, but misrepresentation, of tech to help hold up and bring back attendance at games.

Game day experience has to be ‘fundamentally different’ from at-home – community, interaction; not just tech

It’s well-established that technology solutions like WiFi can be an integral and valuable addition to a venue and to fan experience. But it can’t be the only thing. You can have drones delivering beer to your seat that you ordered via your phone while streaming another game and getting your fantasy alerts while plugged in, charging, but even then you’re still short of the La-Z-Boy at home. Swarbrick used the words “fundamentally different’ to describe how the live attendance experience must vary with the stay-at-home option.

What does that mean? That’s for schools to fill in the blank — an experience that simply can’t be matched at home, an experience that inspires the feeling of togetherness, of being surrounded by thousands of others living it with you. And, yes, being the center of attention for thousands for just a fleeting, lifelong story moment, when you can make a cameo on the video board. What can you deliver that makes it so fundamentally different that not attending feels like a lesser option?

No dead time at games

There are going to be timeouts and media timeouts and intermissions at games and events. But this is the generation of mobile — where there is something stimulating literally every waking minute. So to have times when there is nothing but background noise or ad reads or static logos or commercials on the screens – it’s unthinkable and unacceptable to fans these days. Marketers have acknowledged that and have sought to rectify it — with DJ’s and music, constant contests and cams and content, and on-site and mobile engagements and activations that make the game just a fraction of the full fan experience. Fill any dead time or down time, time when fans could possibly think for a second if there is something better they could be doing at the time. This is constantly on the mind of college athletics folks, I learned.

Omni-channel engagement for millennials – and recognizing activity on each

We’re long past the realization that fans are engaging in many places. But we’ve moved on to more – to what fans are doing and want to be doing in those places and on those platforms. It was interesting to hear the marketers there how they approached each platform, knowing the different intent and best uses of each, aligning it with how fans or students used it. Emails got lots of opens, but didn’t get a lot of clicks for one school, so they focused on visuals to disseminate info. Instagram and Snapchat were also visually driven, but more creatively consistent with the platform. And Facebook and search ads drove clicks and conversions, with messaging and creative structured differently.

It’s important to know the behavior of fans on each touch point,and to define goals, success, and ‘conversions’ on each. Then the strategy and creative can be adapted appropriately. It’s not one-size-fits-all, and it never will be.

Let student athletes be at the forefront of donation efforts

Donations remain a vital part of a healthy college athletics institution. But boosting and giving can’t just live on the egos of rich grads, the mandates for season ticket holders, and the endowments of namesakes. Storytelling is at the forefront more than ever, and when fans know the student athletes they’re supporting, the fiscal and emotional investment is so much stronger. It’s why external relations teams are working more and more with content teams, and why the stories of student athletes are being told in higher volume and with beautiful creativity and skill are being told more than ever. Sure, fans will give to an institution, but it’s more powerful when fans are giving for the sake of other people at that institution.

Scale successes – from Olympic sports to revenue sports and vice-versa, especially for giveaways

There smaller, less ‘mainstream’ sports, where getting triple digits of attendance is a big win. But while college athletics marketers understandably spend more time and resources on the big revenue sports, it doesn’t mean they don’t toil and stress over how to increase support for every other sport on campus, too. And it’s often these smaller sports where they’re able to, and have to, get more experimental and creative.

They can be a testing ground where a good idea that can increase attendance by a few dozen at an Olympic sport may drive a thousand or more increase at a bigger sport. Whether it’s giveaways, themed events, on-site activities, ticket deals, music, contests, or any number of creative ideas — scale the successes to other sports, to derivations of ideas that work that can engage even more fans. Because especially younger fans, alumni, and students are a challenging but coveted group…

Efforts to Win Over Young Alumni

The most successful in this challenging but important endeavor are getting them started early, and making it easy. There were several tactics mentioned throughout the days there that helped increase the likelihood that students who attend games and support their school and teams would continue to do so after graduation.

One of the key principles seems to be to get them started early. Make sure they know how life as an alumnus doesn’t have to mean life without going to games. There are young alumni ticket plans that help gradually increase to life as a full-fledged, full-paying/donating season ticket holder. It was important to make students aware of the great options, and to have physical presence at some tent pole events, especially those leading up to graduation. Mississippi State had a clever tactic, too, with having points from their student loyalty program roll over to an alumni/donor program, essentially creating that use-it-or-lose-it feeling for their recent grads.

The messaging around donation for young alums was also a topic of advanced discussion. Treating recent grads, who may or may not have jobs and may or may not have oodles of student loans to pay off, the same as others decades from getting their diploma, is foolhardy and borderline irresponsible. Being vague about giving ‘what you can’ was similarly put down as a less-than-ideal way to craft the message.

My thought is a good move, therefore, is to make specific ask or offer an instant incentive. Just like getting fans to a game, it is so important to get ’em started early. It’s better to ask for a matched $18 donation to celebrate the class of 2018 than to be vague or present packages in the hundreds or thousands. I like the idea of Clemson’s IPTAY – I Pay Ten A Year ($10/year). It’s better to have 90% contributing a small amount than 9% contributing large amounts. But it’s not just the donor database marketers are interested in growing.

Capturing the anonymous fan

This is a consistent concern across all sports, live events, and venues – anyone that sells a ticket for admission. There are so many fans coming to games and events – with friends, with a free ticket, with a secondary market-purchased ticket – and these fans remain mostly anonymous to marketers, disconnected numbers in a database. There was silence, at first, when this question was posed for a panel, followed by a handful of tactics that all had varying degrees of success.

There is the good old-fashioned,but still mildly effective, enter-to-win sweepstakes; and they’re getting more digital, mobile, and even social and engaging. Gated WiFi, where fans enter an email address and perhaps other info, in order to access WiFi. This is often a good way to collect names and emails, but is not always welcome by fans and prone to throwaway email addresses used only for such convenient purposes.

A third tactic, seen even more so in the pros, are on-site activations with tech and/or partners that allow fans to create memorable, shareable mementos that they can then post to social media or have emailed or texted to themselves. Fans get something cool to share from the event, and marketers get the personal info from fans they want and need to get more and more those heretofore anonymous fans identified into their database.

Digital fan journeys – and optimizing everything

We’re long since past the understanding that fans don’t experience or act in a silo. They are coming into contact with the team and brand a number of ways on a number of different platforms. And the better we imagine and understand the mind of the fan, the context of the activity, and the path of these journeys, the better the results.

In action, this translated into putting ticket buying messages in places where fans’ intent to buy was likely stronger [i.e. Schedule pages] rather than making them jump through hoops and hurdles to get there. Along with context comes customization, too, with messaging and creative that reflect a real-time understanding of information and data. Some of the examples seen at the conference show we’re closer to the right offer and right message at the right place and time than ever before.

Target fans at a granular level, engagement > reach

We’re always trying to get bigger, to reach more, to add more rows to the database. But it can’t be at the expense of not fully engaging and maximizing the fans that are already emotionally bought in. It also means being more strategic with fan engagement strategies, and actually planning and executing different strategies for different fans for whom there are different feasible goals.

While it’s not a perfect connection, one point that stood out to me came from a representative for YouTube Sports, who specifically works with their college sports clients. The expectation is that he would have clients post more — to reach more, get more views, and increase the chances of discovery. But, quite the contrary, the advice was to actually consider posting less, to instead focus on quality content.

It’s less about reaching as many fans as possible every day, and instead favoring cultivation of communities, with fans that come back and feel a relationship with their teams and their schools. To extend the example, fan that stumbles upon a YouTube video one day indeed has some value, but the fan that comes back to visit and watch and engage again and again, well, it’s not an apples to apples numbers comparison game. Engagement is increasingly thought to be superior to reach, as we graduate to a more mature mindset for metrics.

Similarly, a marketing manager for Clemson Athletics detailed how they, among other ways, have broken their fans down into cohorts, most simplistically with ‘current’ vs. ‘potential’ fans, particularly prominent coming off a national championship in football when it was harder, but more important, to discern the bandwagon fans from those that have been, and will be, there all along. The cohorts were identified and messaging and marketing strategy was developed differently, while keeping a cohesive brand of showing what it means to be a Tiger at the center of it all.

This was my second trip to PACnet and it was encouraging to see that true progress has been made from year to year. The challenges that were on the minds of many last year have given way to solutions and ideas (and, yes, new challenges) this year. And just about all of it is evolution and change in a positive direction — more empathy and compassion for fans, more personalization, customization, and fewer tricks and less friction. We can envision the future, even as it seems like we’re in a race against time, battling a war we may lose in favor of live attendance. But it’s resulting truly great, communal, memorable, shareable experiences for fans. And if that’s a side effect of doing better business, that’s a winning recipe for all.

Alessandro Gasparro on the Importance of Understanding How Fans Speak and What Engages Them

On episode 113 of the Digital and Social Media Sports Podcast, Neil chatted with Alessandro Gasparro, Director of Social Media Strategy, Endeavor.

What follows are some snippets from the episode. Click Here to listen to the full episode or check it out and subscribe in iTunes or Stitcher.

Posted by Neil Horowitz

Follow me on Twitter @njh287 Connect on LinkedIn

The Making of March Madness: Chris Dion Dishes on Digital and Social for the NCAA Tournament

Welcome to March Madness. The annual NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament has now been a staple on the sports calendar for decades. But only in recent years has digital and social media become an integral part of the tournament – allowing more channels for storytelling and reach than ever before.

Last year, I had the opportunity to discuss digital and social strategy for the NCAA, particularly around March Madness, with NCAA Assistant Director of Championships and Alliances for Digital and Social Media Chris Dion. [listen to the interview here]. Below are excerpts from our conversation, discussing social media voice, content strategy, March Madness prep, analytics, setting goals, and more:

On the content and messaging mindset of the March Madness social media accounts

The March Madness account is probably 80% basketball and 20% off the court brand stories…that is not because we choose to not put (off the court stories) there, it is that there seems to be more of a desire to talk just about basketball…

One of the ways we pride ourselves about the brand is we try to mix as much messaging in there, so that the casual fan starts to consume NCAA branding and messaging without really knowing that they’re doing it…We present them a nice story and, before they know it, they’re consuming NCAA content.”

“We live and die by analytics”

We live and die by analytics…I use analytics to help guide my team [and] guide my choices. If something is not working and the numbers show that, there is no reason we should continue doing it. If it’s a resources discussion…we have to make better choices, based on analytics.”

The fans are part of it, the other part of it is what story are we trying to tell?…We start with goals…and then we build measurable goals. If you can’t measure the success of a good feeling…let’s not put good feelings as goals. Let’s put things that are measurable…Then we’ve got an opportunity to say if we’ve had success or not.”

From goals and assets to platforms

We work on a strategic story for the year…Then we start to talk about a content mix. What is our content going to look like? What are we going to try and find later? Then what are we going to try and innovate? We always try to innovate something new every year…to the best of our ability…

Lastly, our strategy comes down to platform…the last thing we think about is platforms. Goals lead the conversation and platform comes last.”

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Measurable goals that matter

“Our measurable goals are really simple. It comes down to audience growth. It’s important for us to understand that year-over-year, we’re growing…Followers should never be a key goal, but it should be a good barometer of the health of the community…Engagement is number two…What are our video views [and] content engagement, link engagement, standard engagement?…Then, lastly is reach. Reach is something that allows us to compare ourselves to TV or other media. It’s one of the ways that allows us to comparatively have conversations that don’t fall under social…Reach allows us to have a metric that allows us to compare it to print, to out-of-home, TV, to radio…It’s not a true measure, but it’s close enough that we can help people understand what we’re trying to do.”

March Madness prep starts long before March…and a lot of it can get ‘thrown out the window’

“We spend so much time planning…one of the ways we do that is with content calendars..shot lists…and daily production content…We don’t know (daily results)…what we do know is we have to be ready for every single outcome…The way we do that is we go over a game…and we throw it all on a sheet of paper and then make sure we have (all assets and content we need)…our March Madness prep started in…September. We turn that dial up to eight or nine in January…Now (Februrary), we’re at about ten…

We’re planning with our broadcast partners, with all our corporate champions partners…our media coordination and statistics team…We’re not just telling the story from the day the brackets are released, we’re telling the story from the first conference tournament…I think you have to be a planner in social…and you have to be prepared to throw that plan out the window. When you throw that plan out the window, that is when you become a better person in social. Because then at least you have that remembrance of the road you were trying to travel down.”

It all comes back to getting fans emotionally invested

The NCAA is full of awesome stories. Not to mention what happens on the field…There so much emotion…For a lot of student athletes, this is the farthest they’ll achieve in their sport and what they put into it deserves to be (hyped)…(We want to get) people invested in the story.”