CSVS Recap: Social Media Is Pivotal for Athletic Departments. Then What?

By Carolyn Braff

At SVG’s inaugural College Sports Video Summit last week in Atlanta, social media invaded almost every discussion. The built-in population of tech-savvy 18- to 22-year-olds makes college campuses social-media hubs by default, and college athletic departments are expected to follow suit. Many of them have already done so, embracing platforms like Facebook and Twitter, but many are not sure what exactly their strategy entails or why they are involved. Kathleen Hessert, president of Sports Media Challenge, moderated a panel discussing these issues on the first day of the Summit before going into further detail on the second day, during her keynote address.

Just Do It

“The question of whether social media is a trend doesn’t seem to be relevant anymore,” Hessert said to open the panel discussion. “We cannot rely on traditional media as we know it as the source to reach fans. Traditional marketing and advertising does not have the influence it used to have. Some of the most conservative organizations within college sports — Penn State, the University of Virginia — are embracing social media in general and Twitter in particular.”

But how are those institutions using the platforms, and why? On many campuses, the answer to both of those questions comes with the point of a finger.

“In many athletic departments,” explained Mike Bilbow, executive director of new media for Georgia ISP Sports Network, “the prevailing mentality is, ‘I don’t know what it is, but they have it, so we need it.’”

Said Kunal Gupta, CEO of Polar Mobile, “Because of the success of Facebook, people are jumping onto Twitter without necessarily knowing why. The iPhone is a bad cellphone, but, as a media-consumption device, it’s great, so everyone has one.”

Make a Game Plan

First and foremost, Hessert cautioned, any social-media strategy must fit into the athletic department’s business goals.

“There has been a focus on the technology, with not as much discussion on strategy,” said Leslie Wurzberger, associate athletic director for marketing at the University of Washington. “There is a rush to get into the space, but what is our ultimate objective in getting there?”

Researching where the fans are spending their time and attention is just as important in the social-media space as in the traditional-media space, Wurzberger pointed out. Just as the athletic department spends research dollars deciding which television and radio stations are the best vehicles for reaching fans and alumni, efforts must be put into researching and answering the same questions for social media.

Pick Your Spot(s)

With the cluttered social-media landscape now including innumerable blogs, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Flickr, and an abundance of other options, which application is the most important to an athletic department?

“Having a presence on all of them is important,” said Nate Flannery, COO of the Horizon League Network and VP for content strategy at WebStream Productions. “If you’re not on every single one, I think you’re missing out on attracting at least one segment of fans.”

If Facebook users formed their own nation, Hessert said, it would be the fifth-largest country in the world, so Facebook is an obvious place to start. But listening to the fans on a daily — if not hourly — basis is just as important.

“They’ll tell you where they’re going,” said John Kvatek, director of video services for the University of Central Florida Athletics Association. “But they move. The mass is shifting.”

Added Hessert, “You have to analyze who your fans are and who the influential fans are within that group.”

Let the Fans Get the Word Out

“Social media allows you to engage your most enthusiastic customers,” Wurzberger said. “You can create evangelists. You rely on your most loyal fans, the ones who have credibility.”

One key use of social-media platforms is driving fans back to the athletic department’s Website, where the official content resides. Once the evangelists among a team’s fan base get word of good content (through a Facebook update, tweet, or message-board post), they can spread the word far more quickly — and effectively — than a traditional-media ad campaign.

“[Social media] is great for letting your fans know when new content is up on your site,” Bilbow said.

Said Gupta, “The viral aspect is key. On mobile, it’s really easy to share content, and that can grow your fan base.”

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