Collegiate Content in a World of COVID: "Game Trap" is Catching Too Many
By: Danny Dahms
Now that most of the college sports world has returned to the fields, schools have resumed their focus on games, scores, and results, as they believe this is what creates engagement. Our belief is that it’s about the storytelling of student-athletes, coaches and staff that matter most, along with creating engaging and watchable content outside of highlights.
In September, we saw some semblance of storytelling. Many of the schools I wrote about capitalized on showcasing the people behind the players in order to connect with alumni and the greater campus community. This month, many schools fell into the “game trap.” With an intense focus on previews, game coverage and results, I noticed a big decline in engaging content. Let’s dive into some of the specific posts from 15 schools this month, and see how their content creation teams have navigated their way through the first somewhat normal month since the return of college sports.
Penn State University - BIG 10
Penn State is one of the few schools in college sports that are heralded for being strong in all areas across the board, and their social media team is no exception to the rule.
● The Nittany Lions do an excellent job of connecting to both their campus community and their prospective sponsors. They do this by consistently churning out content and by providing their fans with a concrete schedule of the content to come, such as this post from their Twitter and Facebook athletics page.
● PSU shows an equal amount of love and attention to all of their athletics teams and student-athletes. The main PSU athletics page frequently cross-promotes all teams as seen in this post highlighting their incoming women’s lacrosse team.
● Penn State also makes a concentrated effort to connect to the entirety of their statewide community. An example of this is their “Sack Hunger” campaign in which they work with Pennsylvania pig farmers to donate 50 pounds of pork for every Nittany Lions sack to the less fortunate across Pennsylvania.
Notre Dame University - ACC
The Fighting Irish are and always have been a staple in the world of college athletics and their content creation team has no intention of losing this status anytime soon.
● The very first thing you see when visiting the main Notre Dame athletics Twitter page is a meme with a Notre Dame football player wearing a mask while training. Notre Dame’s social media team repeatedly makes it a point that they are promoting safe practices and that their community should do the same. (Note: this was written before the infamous field storming after the Clemson FB game).
● The Fighting Irish frequently feature their student-athletes in videos promoting social change as a part of their Brave Voices at Notre Dame campaign. This is a brilliant move that showcases the depth of a Notre Dame student-athlete and the importance of an ND education. Take a look at these examples featuring Daelin Hayes of the football team and Hannah Thompson of the volleyball team. This is an excellent way to promote University values while also putting faces to the players that represent the school. A win win!.
● Almost the entire social media feed of the Notre Dame athletics page are either well put together videos or visually appealing images. This is the type of content that will create the most engagement and thus, have the widest reach. These videos also happen to be a healthy blend of all Fighting Irish athletics teams.
Brigham Young University - FBS Independent
With BYU sitting just outside the top ten in the college football rankings, this is one of the best times to be a Cougars fan. The BYU content creation team knows they have more eyes on them than ever and they are capitalizing on the opportunity.
● The most impressive posts on the BYU athletics page come from their My Story Matters initiative. In these posts, different student-athletes from different Cougars teams are interviewed about their life story and how BYU has impacted them. This serves as a perfect example to other schools of how to create empathy towards the faces of campus while also promoting the best aspects of the school itself.
● BYU also creates other opportunities for fans to see and meet their student-athletes. One of the ways they do this is with their Trunk or Treat Drive-Thru that’s being held on campus and will allow all friends and families of the BYU community to safely interact with the Cougars sports teams, while also celebrating the holiday.
● BYU is another school that attempts to connect to their statewide community. Their mascot, Cosmo Cougar, regularly interacts with fans and he also recently took a drive through the Utah Valley while encouraging more people to do the same.
University of Tennessee - SEC
Even while the Tennessee stadiums are mostly vacant, the Vols’ social media team still successfully mitigates the fact that most fans can’t see their team play in-person.
● One of the easiest, yet most effective ways that the Vols connect with their greater community is through their weekly fan-based competitions. The school’s athletic department will announce a challenge for the fans, such as who has the best tailgate, the best Volunteer-themed office, or the most Tennessee representation at their wedding, and they will ask their followers to send in their submissions using the school’s hashtag. This creates both excitement and engagement from fans, and when sponsors see the Tennessee themed submissions flooding in, they’ll know the Vols are still an active community.
● The Volunteers are another school participating in #NCAAInclusion, which consists of student-athletes sitting down for interview-styled videos where the players share their stories while calling for social change.
● While football is certainly the official pastime of the SEC, the Vols don’t use this as an excuse to neglect the others. Here’s an example of the main Volunteers athletics page reposting a TikTok from Bridie Herman promoting the Vols women’s soccer team.
Cal Poly University - Big Sky
Despite being one of the smallest schools on this list, the Mustangs’ social media team is one of the most well-rounded. They prove time and time again that they are aware their student-athletes are their best spokespeople, while also utilizing other innovative means to engage fans.
● For the incoming freshmen student-athletes, Cal Poly has a program called Meet the Mustangs in which they interview the athletes and ask them random facts to let the fans get to know them. This type of content familiarizes fans with the players they’re rooting for and it also gives outsiders a glimpse of what the people inside the Cal Poly community are like.
● Cal Poly heavily showcases the faces of their student-athletes, including in their #NCAAInclusion posts, which serves to add more humanity to the players that fans usually only get to see from the stands.
● The Mustangs regularly create small, 60 second mini-games for their fans to play on their social media feed from home. These posts create direct engagement from the community which is exactly what sponsors crave. Some examples of this are easy fan polls, spot the difference games, and “catch the gif” short videos.
Boise State University - MW
Even though Mountain West football just kicked off last month, Boise State has been long prepared for this moment and their athletics and PR departments have had fans anxious to see the Boise State blue turf being used once again.
● Boise State’s content creation team has come up with the Bronco Buzz, which includes multiple short videos introducing their student-athletes and giving fans some insight into their backgrounds. The most recent Bronco Buzz featured four members of the women’s gymnastics team and new installments will follow every Thursday. This is perfect exposure for these student-athletes and by creating a proper upload schedule for this content, fans and sponsors can know exactly when to expect these posts.
● Another one of my favorite types of promotional material to see from athletics teams are free wallpapers. Boise State is one of the schools that creates this type of content and as I mentioned in my post for last month, it’s simple, free, and repeatable advertising.
● Schools throughout the Mountain West partook in World Teachers Day by shouting out their favorite teachers and professors and telling how these people impacted their lives. Boise State student-athletes were among those featured in the video and by having these players praise their professors, it shows prospective students that BSU provides a healthy learning environment that can benefit them as students.
Stanford University - Pac 12
Stanford represents a perfect example of a school that has had games postponed well into the season, but is still able to create a plethora of entertaining and engaging content for their community to enjoy in the absence of athletics.
● One of my favorite types of content to see from collegiate accounts is “A Day in the Life” posts of student-athletes. Stanford strategically incorporates these posts into their regular flow of content creation, such as this video that follows men’s soccer player, Charlie Wehan. These types of videos give outsiders the perspective of on-campus students and somewhat provides them with a virtual tour of the school and its campus life.
● Stanford does an excellent job of showing that their student-athletes are still working hard and training while following proper safety guidelines. The school regularly posts practice footage of each athletics team, such as this video from the women’s basketball team.
● Stanford has an entire committee of student-athletes that are dedicated to informing the school board about what is best for their student-athletes. This includes how to manage the players’ mental health, providing the players with networking opportunities, creating community service activities and more. The main Stanford athletics page created a high quality video featuring some of the faces of the committee while explaining what they do and why they do it.
Coastal Carolina University - Sun Belt
With the CCU football team currently enjoying an incredible season and a spot in the AP Top 25, this is one of the most exciting times in the history of CCU athletics. But still, even with the Chants’ football team earning the school most of its national attention, the CCU social media team does an excellent job at sharing the wealth.
● Coastal has the solution to the problem that Texas faced in my list from last month: they create tons of amazing football content, but they still know how to give their other athletics teams the attention they deserve. CCU has one of the most well-balanced social media feeds that I’ve come across so far.
● One of the best pieces of content from October was the Chants’ video of their coaches and student-athletes telling people how to pronounce their mascot’s name. Even though it’s a simple video, it still provides enough humor to show the personalities of the players and coaches at CCU.
● CCU also has a recurring trend called “Coasting Campus,” where a student-athlete is interviewed while walking around the campus or practice facilities. This is a great way to naturally showcase the Coastal Carolina environment while also introducing fans to the student-athletes that represent the school.
University of Rhode Island - CAA
The University of Rhode Island is one of the schools that unfortunately had to postpone their fall athletics to the spring, so there’s not much going on in terms of sports at URI. However, just as with every school, the URI content team should continue to create.
● The URI social media teams are able to create a few sleek graphics every week and they do a good job of retweeting and promoting events that are happening on campus, but they still have a very irregular upload schedule and they only end up posting a few times every couple days.
● When they do post, the Rams do a solid job at creating content that can retain fan interest. One of the ways they do this is with their weekly “Rhody Football virtual tailgates,” which includes a full day of virtual activities to stay connected with their fanbase and to prove to sponsors that they are staying active even without physical sports.
● In early October, the Rams produced a great video featuring several student-athletes calling for the community to come together and vote. URI would benefit tremendously if they featured their athletes in videos like this more often.
Dartmouth University - Ivy League
Dartmouth has one of the most consistent upload schedules, but the problem with most of their content is that they simply do not promote enough fan or user engagement.
● Nearly every post that comes from the Big Green social media team is a link to an outside article. While these articles certainly give more information about the student-athletes and the campus as a whole, the fact of the matter is that most people won’t click the link and read the whole thing. These types of posts offer little opportunity for engagement and, therefore, little chance of being spread via social media.
● Dartmouth does a good job at equally promoting each of their athletics teams, but most of this promotion is still in the form of articles. Remember, social engagement is all about video, video, video!
● The main Ivy League Twitter account recently featured a video of student-athletes from across the conference calling for the community to register to vote. If Big Green produced content like this more regularly themselves, it would create a more personal connection between the school and its community.
Butler University - Pioneer
Butler is another university that has the fan base and the potential for compelling content, but they are plagued with an irregular upload schedule. The Bulldogs definitely know what kind of content that they should create, but they need to lay out the plans to execute on it.
● Every month, the Butler social media teams declare “Bulldogs of the Month,” where they highlight the student-athletes that excelled the most on and off the field for that month. My suggestion to improve on this idea would be to include some videos of the winners, instead of just writing articles about them.
● Cute sells, and judging from the frequent posts of Butler’s mascot, The Butler Blue, the Bulldogs know that. If the team posted about the mascot more frequently and showed students interacting with him, it would help Butler create more of a personality for their mascot and would help even more people become invested in him.
● The main area that Butler lacks in, is their upload consistency. They posted relatively very few times throughout October, and most of these posts were only still images. Overall, the school could benefit from creating more content and adding to the variety of their posts. Even a different view a week from Hinkle Fieldhouse would be well received! Gooooo Hickory!
Sacred Heart University - NEC
Sacred Heart often shows that they are capable of creating engaging, new-age content, but they sometimes go long periods of time in between creating it.
● SHU successfully utilizes their student-athletes to promote normal, on-campus living and they also do it in innovative ways, such as through TikTok. Here is an example of the Pioneers promoting freshman Emily Corace’s personal TikTok account to give a tour of a freshman dorm. What a great way to provide prospective students and families with a modern look of what being a Pioneer is like.
● Sacred Heart is another school participating in the #NCAAInclusion. Although this video was very short and simple, it still showcased the people behind the players, which is exactly what you’d ask for from an athletics department.
● The Pioneers are another example of a school that used a video of their student-athletes to promote the call to vote. However, aside from this video and the two I mentioned previously, these are the only forms of engaging content that properly highlighted their student-athletes throughout October. By looking at these videos, you can definitely tell the Pioneers have a grasp on how they should be promoting their brand. Now they need more.
Florida Atlantic University - C-USA
The school is onto something with its great hashtag, but they miss the mark on fully flaunting its huge advantage - location, location, location.
● The best way in which I’ve seen the Owls capitalize on the beauty of their school through social media is with their #WinningInParadise trend. FAU uses this hashtag in every post that shows their athletics teams or the fields that they play on. In most of these posts you can immediately see the allure of attending FAU.
● The Owls also participated in #NCAAInclusion. Aside from this, they also conducted other interviews with student-athletes from a wide variety of sports. If FAU created these videos more regularly, they’d be one of the higher schools on this list.
● Florida Atlantic University is located in Boca Raton. Enough said! It’s warm year-round and palm trees line the roads around campus. These things alone are enough motivation for many prospective students to want to attend FAU, however, the school rarely shows off these aspects through their athletics social media account. If the school’s social media team showed their athletes enjoying the scenery on campus, it would be a great deciding factor for students that are stuck between attending FAU or an alternative.
University of Houston - AAC
Houston falls into the same “football-centric” trap that many other schools also fall into. They regularly create appealing content, but too much of it is focused around one area of athletics. The simplest solution for the Cougs is to create a wider variety of social media content.
● The main Houston athletics Twitter page is flooded with high quality football related photos and videos, like this one. While these are extremely well-put together and engaging pieces of content, too much of it is centered only on football.
● Houston is another school that sees the prospect behind wallpaper Wednesday. Throughout October, the Cougars’ content creation team created multiple Houston and Halloween themed wallpapers for their fans. What makes this even better than normal wallpaper Wednesday posts is that these images included the current holiday season, which makes them even more relevant and gives fans another reason to use them.
● The Cougars’ social media team also put together a video featuring multiple student athletes calling for their peers to register to vote. Even though it’s a basic video and each of the athletes are only able to participate virtually, it still showcases their voices and beliefs outside of sports.
Fresno State University - Mountain West
Fresno State was one of the schools that was barred from having athletics until nearly the end of October, so for a while they were relying on throwback posts or posts about their alumni as the bulk of their feed. Now that they have football again, they’re creating much more content, but even without sports, there are still many forms of media FSU could capitalize on.
● On the same day that Bulldog football kicked off again, Fresno State sent a “Dog Patrol Team” out into their local neighborhoods. This team included a van loaded with Fresno State branding and the FSU mascot, Victor E. Bulldog. This patrol team was an excellent way to connect with the local community and introduce them to the FSU culture, while also reminding fans to be ready for the imminent football season.
● One of the most professional videos I’ve seen throughout the month of October is courtesy of the Bulldog Athletics account. The school put together a nearly three minute long video for homecoming that includes narration about the qualities of going to FSU while the video flew over campus and cut to multiple FSU alumni and student-athletes.
● Before the football season, the FSU social media feed was relatively bland without active sports. In this time, an easy form of content to put out would be to showcase how the athletes are preparing for the upcoming season or by showing the athletes talk about the current situation. Any form of content that still highlights the people behind the players is sufficient to keep the campus community satisfied.
What All This Means
In summary, the schools that ranked higher on this list were the ones that were able to best avoid the “game trap” and that were able to create storytelling for their student-athletes and their campus as a whole. These are the schools that create the most personal connection with their fan base, and therefore, are the schools most likely to generate increased engagement.
The key to reaching sponsors and the campus community isn’t to just provide game updates, but rather, to create a sense of personality and empathy for the brand. The goal is to build a connection between the school and the people at the top – and in – the marketing funnel. Game action and results are not enough. As I said last month, the more human interest, behind-the-scenes, and beyond the game content that a school can provide is what allows for the opportunity to generate revenue through alumni relations and sponsorship.