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It’s hard to imagine that not long ago social media was largely texts and links. It was easy – a big announcement, a trade, a milestone – throw out a link and the job was done. Later, you dropped in a photograph from Getty and it felt fine.
Then came increasingly sophisticated graphics, GIFs, short-form video, long-form video, Photoshopped pics, and combinations of all of the above. For digital and social media, it has become just as much about creative chops as it is about community management, engagement, and brand. Even if that graphic or GIF that took a creative specialist hours to create is viewed by fans for just a second as they scroll, it’s expected and it’s a part of conveying the brand, the look, the feel, and the, well, coolness factor a bit.
Every team and organization has adapted a bit differently, depending on size, resources, and the direction upon which leadership has steered the evolution of roles in production, design, digital, and social. It is more siloed for some – wanting to maintain a certain standard of graphics and videos; while others have split the duties a bit more whether by finding versatile individuals that can do social and creative, or leaving the bigger jobs to the creative team and the day-to-day content to the digital crew.
Regardless of the setup, however, the sheer tonnage of content has certainly added a great of strategy when it comes to creative.
It’s not always an agency-like process of: project, design brief, specs, description, deadline. Sure, if you’re planning a campaign or promotion weeks in advance, that process still works, but it’s more about continuing to add to the arsenal and getting more efficient each and every time the design team hits export.
Unless a team has endless staff and resources (huh?), the design team now must think about a) How can this graphic or GIF be designed so that it can be re-used and repurposed, for another play or player?, b) What treatments or elements can be saved for future use on other designs?, and c) How can this awesome design be created so that someone lacking the proficiency of a design pro change out text or an image or add a video, so that the standard of quality of the team’s output remains high without the design team needing to lift a finger?
The more time you spend in digital and social, in sports or otherwise, the more you start to notice those efficiencies. Maybe a GIF used for the draft can be tweaked to be used for big plays or scoring plays next season, let alone constructing the GIF in the first place in a manner such that it can be easily repurposed for other players (sounds simple, but not all practice this). Heck, maybe you’re an under-resourced team where there is no full-time design team and it falls on the digital, the marketing, the broadcast, the CR staff to do the best they can. This is where a solid template or app can go a long way in making a team look much bigger and feistier than it really is.
Whats the takeaway here? It’s to inject a strategic mindset into the design and production team. Let them know it can be okay for someone that doesn’t have a degree in a creative field to produce something, especially if it’s just tweaking or changing out something the professional producers did create.
The demand for content is only growing and it’s important to establish what kind of content the digital and social team should be able to produce (i.e. just about anyone can create a slo-mo, black and white video with music of players arriving for the game), what kind of content can and should be templated, and make sure the creative team keeps this all in mind before they hit export.
No team will tell you they have enough staff, enough time, enough resources – but it’s the ones that are efficient and strategic that look like they have an army in there. The prefix ‘strategic’ is becoming almost a prerequisite for every position these days, and perhaps no part of a team is that more important than in creative production.
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We can never have enough content. We always want another sick graphic, a GIF, a video, and we need it in specs for this platform and that platform. And we need it all ASAP.
But producing content takes time and it takes talent. Whether an organization is all in-house, all outsourced, or a combination, content needs must be thoughtfully determined. Because if you try to grind a creative team into the ground, the work will suffer and the dreaded ‘B’ word in social media and sports will rear its ugly head – you know it: burnout.
Strategy and planning are the keys to maintaining the sanity of the creative team while still having an effective, engaging, and impressive digital presence. This is the mindset that Josh Wetzel, Digital Media Specialist for Auburn Athletics, has learned and practiced in his role with the Tigers. It’s not about content for content’s sake – it’s thoughtfully figuring out the best solution for every content need in Athletics. Don’t ask for a graphic if a photo will be better, don’t write a brief for a bunch of new GIFs when you have templates that can be put to use. Starting out in Sports Information, where more stats, nuggets, articles, and game notes were always better, Wetzel had to learn the economy that comes with content in college athletics, and digital/social, in general.
“Figuring out a way to balance the content to where it doesn’t burn them out – that was a big learning curve for me because, coming as a SID, I just wanted content, content, content,” said Wetzel, who served in the military before attending Auburn first as a student before later coming back to work there full-time. “And I wasn’t taking into account what it was doing to my creators. That can create a lot of burnout really fast…I really had to learn that lesson…”
It’s further complicated by the sheer tonnage of sports in which Auburn competes – all with varying scale, schedules, and needs. They all compete for the singular Auburn Tigers brand (War Eagle!) and they all want to be churning out content constantly. Every school manages their content in their own way – some will centralized content creators, some with armies of students to help, some in which SIDs or student athletes have talents to help out, and many more variations.
But wait, there’s more. Throw in the marketing elements – selling tickets to revenue sports and driving attendance at all sports, driving donations, media relations, putting on the events/games themselves, running digital marketing, managing operations, and, yes, creating and managing content. Before your head explodes, hear how Wetzel and Auburn keeps track of it all and assures every sport is firing on all cylinders. They use what Wetzel called a ‘pod’ system. Let him explain:
“Every team has a pod and in that pod there’s a graphic designer, a videographer, a digital media representative…a marketing representative, a team representative – we all have meetings weekly and we discuss what’s going to happen,” Wetzel described.
“Specifically with basketball (for which Josh serves as the digital media rep), we’ll get together (and discuss) things coming up, things we want to highlight throughout the week…how do we best visually represent that? I have a really good relationship with my graphic designer and videographer – I’ll bounce ideas off them…’What’s going to best tell the story in this situation’? Every team kind of has that.”
It’s an understatement to say digital and social media now have a place at the table. Everyone from the recruits of tomorrow to the Athletic Director to the President of the University have a stake in what goes out on the Auburn Tigers social media channels. Particularly sport-by-sport, the head coach often leads the way, however, at many schools. It remains not too uncommon for some coaches to completely (and naively) eschew social media, deeming it more trouble than it’s worth.
That’s not the case for Auburn and the teams with which Wetzel works. Talking specifically about Men’s Basketball, one of the most competitively successful of Auburn’s revenue sports in 2018-19, Wetzel described a dream situation – one in which the head coach gives them leeway to tell a positive story of the team, and appreciates the value of what they produce. When the coaches buy in, when they recognize the power of the platforms – well, that’s music to the ears of the digital and social media teams.
“With social media being a big part of recruiting – we’re involved with the staff…they kind of give us some leeway for what we need do, and they may give us some things they’d like us to push to drive the narrative,” explained Wetzel, who was right in the trenches on the digital side as Pearl and the men’s basketball team made a run to the Final Four. “It’s just been awesome to work for [head coach] Bruce Pearl…He really appreciates everything everybody does… A little thankfulness goes a long way and Bruce Pearl does a great job of showing his appreciation for his support staff.”
Sure, it’s easy to welcome the video and content team with open arms when you’re having perhaps the best season in the history of the program. But it’s the access and trust permitted by Pearl that helps Auburn’s digital team make magic, and drives deep connections with fans. If they avoided the melancholy moments and only captured and shared the wins, if they didn’t share the emotion and desire of the players, it diminishes how much the fans feel and how much they ultimately care. By the end of their magical March Madness run, Wetzel could look back knowing fans went on that emotional roller coaster ride with them, and that’s what kept those ties stronger than ever and will create an everlasting bond to the Tigers. Wetzel gives an example to underscore this mindset:
“Like, when we lost by 30-something points at Kentucky, Coach Pearl let us in the locker room postgame, and we put out a video from that moment,” Wetzel recounted to me. “We want to show those hard moments – that’s something a lot of teams don’t do, they don’t show the hard moments, so their fans kind of rise and fall with the momentum.
“If you can bring in those hard moments, it humanizes everybody and everybody feels like they’re actually on a ride. We established that relationship through the season, so when we were in the locker room postgame after (the SEC Championship), that was normal and that’s great.”
In the end, it’s all about making your fans feel like they’re part of the story, getting them to buy in and invest emotionally. That’s the North Star that can guide the economy necessary in content strategies and lead to the ultimate goal, as Wetzel stated, to ‘visually represent’ the brand, the team, the story, the moment.
Every piece of content that fills your feeds takes preparation, thought, strategy, and planning. All of that content is created for a reason and the way it looks and feels, and the message it conveys – that’s all done intentionally, too. Wetzel is living these decisions every day, guiding strategy by that guiding beacon – to expand and strengthen the Auburn brand, to widen and deepen the connection with fans and keep them screaming ‘War Eagle’ with all their heart.
It’s always easier when the team is winning. The engagement rate goes up, the growth surges, and it seems like every post and piece of content performs.
But, as anyone that works in sports business knows, counting on a winning is not a strategy. Brandon Naidus knows this all too well. Naidus led social media for the Arizona Cardinals and Jacksonville Jaguars of the NFL, but ignominiously never experienced a season with a team better than .500. So, yeah, he knows a thing or two about social media strategy without the benefit of a winning team. It’s the challenging times, however, that reveal the roots of why fans care for the team, and how social strategy ultimately comes to down stories.
Naidus learned quickly as he got going in Jacksonville. The Jags weren’t winning a lot, but Naidus knew there were things happening on the field every game giving fans reason to cheer, and the team was in a good position to use social media to augment and frame the story they wanted to tell about a young, talented team on the rise.
“When you have those disappointing seasons, the focus then becomes what are your storylines?,” said Naidus, who noted the Jags had exciting players like wide receivers Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson to go with just-drafted 1st round quarterback Blake Bortles. “It was the story of telling the story of this young team…It was an exciting time in the sense that those guys were putting up big numbers.”
It was a much different story when Naidus got to Arizona – the Cardinals were perennial contenders and weren’t far removed from coming oh-so-close to winning a Super Bowl. They were poised, and picked by many, to make another deep playoff run the season Naidus arrived. But seasons don’t always go as predicted. Losses and injuries piled up, and Naidus and the social media team had to scramble a bit out of the pocket.
“So people were kind of (saying) their window is closed, so the optimism was definitely down,” he said as the team began to fall short of the preseason positive expectations. “It’s – ‘What are people talking about that we can talk about?’ 2016 it was [running back] David Johnson, 2017 it was [linebacker] Chandler Jones.
Most sports biz pros will agree that even the angriest, loudest fan base is better than a silent one. And Naidus noted that the fans were indeed vocal, but not all positive. So, he had to be savvy when activating storylines on social. You still work for the team and want to portray your players and team in the best light possible, because those are the players you work with every day on content, too.
“Obviously, there are other things they’re talking about that we’re not going to talk about” he explained. “…I always try to lean toward being as positive as possible, because you always have to have those relationships within the organization…”
Every season will have its winning teams and its losing teams, its pleasant surprise teams and those that disappoint. The playing field is further affected by varying sizes, budget, and overall resources for social media teams. But most coaches will tell you that you have to worry about your own team first, to get the most out of your players, resources, and stories. And that’s how Naidus approached social media strategy with his clubs, executing a successful game plan that fit their teams, their goals, and their fans. It’s your team’s story to own, to tell, and to craft the best way you can.
“I think the best thing you can use analytics for is how to implement in your own strategy rather than comparing yourself to everybody else…” said Naidus. “I think every team has different objectives and different resources [which can skew comparing with other teams, even more so when team performance is accounted for].”
Every team enters the season with plans to go 16-0 and then make a run to the Super Bowl, right? But, for the love of David Tyree, no team has yet completed that goal. So the only thing we can count on is our ability to find and craft stories worth telling. That transcends wins and losses.