Story URL:
Story Retrieval Date: 4/17/2015 11:23:15 AM CST

Top Stories

Michael Tomko/MEDILL

Ohio State University is the leader in the Big Ten Conference when it comes to "likes" on Facebook.


College athletic departments use social media to increase fan engagement

by Michael Tomko
Oct 19, 2011


Michael Tomko/MEDILL

Northwestern University hopes its presence on social media platforms will lead to greater attendance at home sporting events.



Michael Tomko/MEDILL

Fans of Louisiana State University can interact with Mike the Tiger, the school’s mascot, on Twitter. LSU’s mascot also has his own website and Facebook account.


For fans, college athletics is all about the experience of cheering on their schools, yelling at referees and feeling a connection with players and coaches on and off the playing field.

Social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are expanding the bonding process to the virtual realm.

Duke University has 22 Facebook pages associated with its athletic department, connecting fans with everything from the basketball team to the Iron Dukes fundraising campaign.

At Louisiana State University, the athletic department has built an online brand around the school’s mascot Mike the Tiger. The LSU mascot has his own website, Twitter and Facebook accounts.

On a recent Monday morning, Mike tweeted: “Mike is at McDonalds on Essen. Better hurry up and get here before Mike eats all the fries. Come win some fb tickets!” Mike’s Twitter profile claims he is the, “baddest cat in the Twitterverse!”

Boston College University has a regularly updated YouTube channel titled EagleMarketing, which has more than 230,000 upload views.

“I think the biggest thing with social media is that fans want unique, behind-the-scenes, exclusive access,” said Brian Gainor, a sports marketer and founder of Partnership Activation Inc. Partnership Activation consults with sports business professionals on industry best practices and innovative marketing concepts.

Derek Rucker, an associate professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management, said that while traditional advertising may still be the best way to reach a broad audience, the use of social media allows marketers the ability to form an intimate relationship with consumers.

“The advantage of social media efforts is that it is not just the brand talking to the consumer, but the consumer has an opportunity to talk to the brand or talk to others about the brand,” Rucker said in an email.

Gainor notes that athletic departments such as LSU, the University of South Florida, the University of South Carolina and Gonzaga University took the lead in building Facebook and social media platforms as a way to interact with fans.

This experimentation with social media led athletic departments to find success, “not from a monetization standpoint, but from a fan engagement standpoint,” Gainor said. “They found that more fans were craving more content, and they saw it as a channel that they could promote a lot of the things that they were doing on their website, but at the same time offer new and exclusive content to fans.”

While many fans appreciate the increased connection with their schools, athletic departments love the fact that social media is an inexpensive approach to marketing and a great way to gather information on its fan base.

Jamie DiLoreto, president of the National Association of Collegiate Marketing Administration and associate athletics director for external operations at Boston College, has seen firsthand the benefits of the new strategies.

“Schools are using technology to get aggressive in terms of their campaigns, really finding that it is cost effective, seeing that there is a quick rate of return in terms of folks’ interest, feedback and responses,” DiLoreto said.

In the end, the amount of time put into social media comes down to the resources at an athletic department’s disposal.

“Every school, I think, is trying to look at different ways that they can grow their number of followers,” DiLoreto said. “Then beyond that how do they engage them? Everyone is at different levels too.”

To put the discrepancies into perspective, LSU’s athletic Facebook page has more than 170,000 “likes”, while Vanderbilt University’s athletics page has only 12,000.

Some schools have devoted full-time staff members to manage their social media platforms, while others rely on interns or students to oversee social media.

For instance, Northwestern University recently hired two new people to free up time for Doug Meffley, associate director of athletics communications at Northwestern. Meffley will now focus primarily on overseeing all the school’s social media content and acting as a bridge between the communications staff and the marketing staff.

“That is sort of where I come in, and why I lobbied to take over this as a primary responsibility is because the interactivity you can achieve with fans gives you a lot of power and a lot more reach because you create advocates that way,” Meffley said.

The surge hasn’t necessarily been accompanied by an increase in athletic departments’ marketing budgets.

“I think its just reallocating time, resources, both physically and monetarily, to support their social media efforts,” Gainor said.

Many factors play into how active and effective each individual athletic department’s efforts have been implementing social media.

For Boston College or Northwestern, both professional-sports markets, social media is another way they can be aggressive and engage fans cheaply, while current fans essentially do the marketing for the school.

Northwestern partners with the student-run Wildside initiative, which functions as a link between students and the athletic department by organizing and promoting athletic events on and off campus.

“Our goal is to engage,” Meffley said. “By engaging, we keep those fans that we have, that then also create advocates who will then recruit their friends.”

Northwestern entered into the social media game early, Meffley recalls. He said the Wildcats set up a Facebook page for head football coach Pat Fitzgerald back in 06’ or 07’. The head coach immediately took to the idea of maintaining the information on the page himself, which, as Meffley adds, “is absolutely different than a lot of places.”

While giving coaches more access to fans can seem like a good thing, the potential exists for coaches to make inappropriate or embarrassing comments. However, as Rucker points out, “This is not unique to social media.” The same risk exists when a head coach gives an interview after the game.

Even with the latest increase in social media, marketing experts say athletic departments have only just begun to scratch the surface with a marketing platform that won’t be going away anytime soon. Facebook recently announced it has more than 800 million active users, while Twitter is estimated to have more than 200 million.

Overall as an industry, Gainor says, college athletics probably lags behind a lot of others, but he thinks “athletic departments are getting smarter with how they are using their resources.”

The next step will be for athletic departments to make money with social media, selling sponsorships.

“I think primarily across the board in college athletics it has just been seen as an engagement tool,” Gainor said. “That has been the main focus, which is probably the right focus to have to start off, but pretty soon you will start to see more of them monetize their efforts, whether that is incorporating a sponsor to their Twitter profile or creating promotions that integrate sponsors.”

Some have already taken the first step.

At Arizona State University, “liking” the Sun Devil Athletics page on Facebook gives fans the opportunity to win eight tickets and on-field passes to the Nov. 19 football game between Arizona State and the University of Arizona. The promotion is sponsored by the National Automotive Parts Association and is part of State Farm’s Territorial Cup Series.

“The prospects are endless really,” Meffley said.