"Game Trap" Still Very Prominent
Collegiate Content in a World of COVID
By: Danny Dahms
After evaluating the social media effectiveness of over 50 schools these past few months, there’s been some clear themes that have begun to stand out regarding the actual strategy behind these accounts.
The more effective schools in our past lists have primarily relied on some combination of promoting their brand through personifying their student-athletes, appealing to the public through charitable causes, or by highlighting the school’s involvement in past and present social issues. There are certainly more ways that these schools are able to resonate with their supporters, however these are the most recurring across all of the accounts we’ve looked at so far.
The schools on the other side of the coin are the ones that make you fumble through dozens of box scores, highlights, or other clear indicators of a “game trap” victim. Remember, this “game trap” affliction is when schools let wins, losses and highlights dominate their content.
As we do each month, here’s another 15 schools and the strategies that they implement to successfully (or unsuccessfully) promote their brand.
University of Louisville - ACC
The Cards are one of the biggest faces across all of college sports and the way they handle their social media accounts ensures that they’ll stay that way.
● For Martin Luther King Jr. day, Louisville put together one of the best series of posts out of any school that I’ve come across. They featured several athletes in multiple posts reciting some of MLK’s most famous quotes. After these posts, the school posted one longer video featuring all of the athletes together speaking about unity over some of the school’s athletics highlights and recent footage from the Black Lives Matter protests. The video itself was extremely well done and it showed the school’s grasp on relevant issues in today’s society.
● A key aspect of Louisville’s marketing strategy revolves around retaining connection to former students and alumni. They do this by frequently featuring their “Pro Cards” who are succeeding at the professional level for their respective sport and by also featuring throwback videos of major events in the school’s history. This can help to renew the allegiance of former students and potential benefactors by showing that the school still honors and remembers some of the biggest events from when they attended the school in the past.
● Louisville also makes sure to feature a “Student-Athlete of the Week” where they compile a video of the student’s highlights over the past week. This is a great way to create exposure for the athlete’s name but they could take this one step further by including an actual interview with the student-athlete or by featuring anything they might have done outside of sports.
UCLA - Pac 12
UCLA is another major face in the world of college athletics. Across the board they put out a wide range of strong athletics teams year after year and their respective social media channels are almost as good.
● Similar to Louisville, UCLA also regularly showcases a Student-Athlete of the Week. They write a short article that summarizes the player’s stats thus far into the season. I’d rather they use video. Again, they could take this one step further and make the student-athlete of the week resonate with the community more by highlighting their off-the-field personality.
● UCLA also did a great job to celebrate MLK Day. They posted a video featuring MLK speaking on the UCLA campus in 1965 to show how important the university is in the overall history of our nation. This post doubled as a great way to show that the university is celebrating the holiday while also showing fans and potential donors how important UCLA has been in the past and how important they strive to be going forward.
● The Bruins are one of several teams with their own respective radio show, however they also feature their student-athletes themselves. While this helps to provide the actual perspectives of the school’s athletes, they could still benefit further from having their student-athletes talk about non-sports related topics. This would be the perfect opportunity for the school’s to receive free publicity from their best representatives.
Marquette University - Big East
The Golden Eagles do an excellent job at connecting to their greater campus community through their multiple charitable causes, their direct fan involvement, and their interactions with local communities.
● One of the ways that Marquette shows the character of their student-athletes and introduces local youth to their brand at a young age is through their “Reading with the Golden Eagles” initiative. This initiative has Marquette’s student-athletes visit local elementary schools and read to the classes there. This is a great way to subtly get the local kids invested in Marquette while also showing alumni and potential donors just how much Marquette cares about the community around them.
● Marquette also showed their emphasis on charity through their “Free Throws for Charity” fund, which had the school donate $5 to their local community center for every free throw the Golden Eagles made. This small act can speak volumes to someone looking for a reason to support Marquette, as it shows the Golden Eagles have a vested interest in paying it forward.
● Direct fan involvement is another great strength for Marquette. The school has several programs which provide fans and alumni with opportunities to receive free gear, appear on the school’s social media feed, and even be featured in on-court programming. While many other schools have similar marketing strategies, Marquette goes above and beyond and has significantly more accessible fan opportunities than I’ve seen in most other instances.
University of Iowa - BIG10
With the Hawkeyes currently sitting near the top of the college basketball world with arguably the best player in the country leading the way, you’d think the Hawkeyes would be content just relying on their box scores and their schedule to carry the load of their social media work. However, you’d be mistaken as Iowa employs one of the most strategically well-balanced social media feeds that you’ll come across.
● Military tradition is deeply rooted in the culture of Iowa and the Hawkeyes successfully incorporate this into their regularly scheduled social media uploads. Every week, the Hawkeyes feature alumni and Iowa residents that are currently serving in the armed forces and they honor them as their “Military Heroes of the Week.” This small gesture goes a long way in showing that Iowa supports the residents of Iowa, and more importantly the ones who are currently serving our country.
● The Hawkeyes have also been lending their support to local businesses since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The school has recognized that most small businesses are struggling due to limited commerce right now, so the school has pledged to select four businesses to send money to, to feature in commercials during Hawkeye games, and to be listed as official sponsors in any upcoming Iowa programs. This charity along with the promotion of Iowa residents in the military shows people across the state, and even the nation, that the Hawkeyes truly care about the well-being of those around them which will resonate very positively with anyone evaluating the school.
University of Delaware - Colonial
The Blue Hens do a great job at connecting to a wide audience and virtually introducing people to their campus community. They successfully highlight the entire profile of their student-athletes instead of just their on-field performance, they rely on charity to connect with their prospective fan base, and they implement some extremely innovative virtual strategies.
● Like some other schools on this list, Delaware also periodically highlights certain student-athletes and promotes them on their timeline. In contrast to most other schools though, the school actually highlights the GPA of the athlete while also giving a brief description of their other accolades and their aspirations. This successfully paints a more complete picture of how well-rounded the student-athletes at Delaware are and why they deserve your support.
● The Blue Hens have also been promoting their charity fund, “Reps for Kids.” The event had each of the school’s athletics teams compete to raise the most money for local children battling cancer and the Blue Hens also hosted a trivia event that helped determine which team “won” the contest. Each team had the amount they raised proudly displayed on the Delaware main website and this is a great incentive to show donors exactly where their money was going.
● Due to COVID, every school around the country is experiencing some difficulty in providing prospective students with a tour of their campus. Delaware has come up with an extremely innovative workaround for this issue; recreating their entire campus virtually in Minecraft. A team of students completely recreated the Delaware campus and the school’s social media team promoted it via all of their main channels, while also providing a link that allows anyone to tour the world for themselves. The link no longer works but in the time that it was up, it was an extremely innovative and entertaining way to provide a glimpse of UD to anyone who was interested.
Utah State University - Mountain West
Aggies basketball started the men’s college basketball season on fire so they’ve had plenty of eyes on them for their athletics. The Aggies’ social media team recognized this and capitalized on that coverage to the best of their ability.
● USU has been supporting their local businesses throughout COVID, similar to the Hawkeyes’ program. The school’s main athletics page has posted a form that allows anyone to register a small business of their choosing for them to have a chance to receive $10,000 in marketing opportunities from Utah State. This money goes a long way both physically and emotionally for any business that is lucky enough to receive the support and for any person that is able to witness the difference it makes firsthand.
● The USU social media team is also one of the best when it comes to how they feature their Student-Athlete of the Week. For every athlete that is selected, they have their picture, a short bio, their GPA, their hometown, and more featured prominently on the main athletics hub. The more information that a school can provide for their players, the better, and USU happens to present all of this information in an aesthetically pleasing, easy-to-read format.
Belmont University - Ohio Valley
Even though the Belmont Bruins are the much less well-known Bruin team on this list, their promotional strategy is just as good, if not better, than their UCLA Bruin counterparts.
● Belmont has a regular feature on their timeline called, “Bruin Untold Stories,” which is a short series of videos narrated by a student-athlete who talks about a recent worthwhile experience that they’ve had. One recent post is narrated by a member of Belmont’s track and cross country team who recently visited Belize on a sports ministry mission sponsored by the school. The video shows several Belmont student-athletes happily interacting with, and helping, the members of the less fortunate community in the country, while the narrator explains what it meant to them to be able to lend their support. This is one of the most charitable and kind-hearted acts that I’ve come across in my research so far and it does a fantastic job at selling both the importance of Belmont’s drive to benefit communities around the world and the type of character that the school’s student-athletes embody.
● The Bruins also have a regular “This Week in Belmont Athletics” feature, which is very common for most schools’ athletic departments. Belmont handles their version of the program in a much better way than their competitors. Most schools feature a bland article that just has the week’s box scores and lists the upcoming games on the schedule. Belmont on the other hand, produces a short all-in-one place video hosted by an actual student-athlete who talks about everything that happened over in-game and behind-the-scenes clips of their teams from during the week. Even though the bulk of these videos are simply surrounding the actual performances of the school’s teams, it’s still executed much better than most schools and it allows the school’s audience to quickly and easily keep up with the latest in Bruin athletics without needing to read a lengthy article.
University of Central Florida - AAC
UCF may not be the most innovative school out there, but they still have a good grasp on how to strategically promote themselves through their social media accounts.
● The Knights are another athletic department that’s able to appeal to their greater campus community through their emphasis on fundraising. They’ve recently promoted their own “Keep Charging On” fund which provides their student-athletes with the adequate equipment and facilities while the school struggles to cover the expenses on their own due to COVID. This fund provides an outlet for their fans and alumni to directly support their school and it allows these donors to see some of the direct benefits that come from their money.
● UCF also has their own “Knightro’s Kids Club” which selects a young fan every week and allows them to share their favorite things about UCF on their social media account. Even though this program is aimed at a very young audience, it can incentivize fans to want to get involved with UCF at a very young age which can lead to a deeper bond with the school as they grow up.
● The main area that UCF could improve upon is their frequency of posting to social media. When they do post, the content strategically reaches a broad audience and helps grow the brand, however the Knights sometimes only post once or twice every day or two. Compared to most other big schools, this leaves the Knights with a relatively thin resume of content for each month.
Santa Clara University - West Coast Conference
SCU has no shortage of content or topics to cover on their main athletics page. They’ve shown some innovation which helps to promote the Broncos culture and the school itself, but they could take their pre-existing ideas and expand them for even greater benefit.
● Basketball is a staple and the Broncos heavily rely on their own pregame radio show to discuss the strengths of their student-athletes. While this is great exposure for their athletics teams, they could benefit even more if they discussed the players themselves, instead of just focusing on their in-game performance. It’s much easier to become attached to a student-athlete’s personality than their style of play.
● Members of the SCU athletics teams are featured regularly in interviews conducted outside of the direct SCU community. This is an excellent way to promote the players individually, however the school could benefit even further by pushing their student-athletes to “sell” their school in these interviews. As we’ve said before, a school’s student athletes are high profile ambassadors of the university.
● Aside from the posts promoting the SCU radio show and the student-athlete interviews, almost the entire Bronco social media feed are either box scores or highlights. Some diversification could go a long way for the promotion strategy of the school.
Saint Louis University - Atlantic 10
The Billikens are one of the smaller schools on this list so they have to work extra hard to earn similar exposure to what the bigger schools. Unfortunately, for the most part SLU has difficulty creating content that could drive engagement and revenue.
● SLU’s social media feed is in the “game trap” filled with highlights and schedule updates.
● The Billikens do a good job at showing the academic success of their student-athletes by posting about their teams’ high GPAs. This shows fans, alumni, and potential benefactors that their school’s players are more than just athletes, but SLU could still do a better job at showcasing the faces that are earning the highest grades. Right now, the Billikens only post an image showing the GPA value, and they never post about the actual students earning those grades which is a chance at free personification for the athletes that earn the school’s exposure.
● There have already been several postponements in the Billikens’ athletics schedule and these gaps in play could be filled in by other forms of media or entertainment. Simple videos showcasing how the student-athletes are filling these holes in their schedule or other posts highlighting events or charitable causes involving SLU would be enough to reach the greater SLU community.
Iowa State University - Big 12
The Cyclones are coming off of a fantastic football season (and a so far not so good basketball season) and their recent success on the field has been the focus of their social media strategy, however they also sometimes generate other types of content as well.
● The Cyclones are another victim of the “game trap”, as almost all of their content is game-related. When they do occasionally move away from this content, it resonates much more than their regularly scheduled posts.
● Iowa State has a fantastic “Cyclone Kid Captain” program where they select a young child from their local children’s hospital and they allow him or her to be an honorary captain for their football team for the day. The child receives free Cyclones gear, is featured prominently on the Iowa State social media feed, and the school promotes their Kid Captain’s uniquely customized pediatric hospital page that allows fans to directly help the captain’s family. This is a great example of a school paying it forward the right way and demonstrating to their supporters that their support goes beyond the confines of campus.
● The Cyclone football team also had their own “Sack Hunger” charity which saw the university donate $29,000 and 10,150 pounds of food to the hungry. Even though several other schools do something similar, this does not take away from the impact that these programs have on their communities.
Northern Illinois University - MAC
Northern Illinois is another that seemingly has the right intentions in regards to their promotional strategy, but their content often fails to hit the mark.
● The Huskies are no exception to the “game trap.” Almost their entire social media feed throughout the month of January was solely related to their teams’ on-court performances.
● NIU does a decent job at showcasing their actual campus, which is a simple yet effective marketing chip that many schools overlook. The main NIU athletics page retweeted multiple images of the campus covered in snow to show the beauty and the allure of attending the school. While this might not mean much to someone currently attending NIU, it could be a great persuasive tool for someone considering their attendance or any former alumni that want to be reminded of their college experience.
● The Huskies also sometimes feature their athletes in articles that highlight their journey at NIU and provide adequate insight into the life of the athlete. The only drawback to these feature articles is the medium that they are presented through; static, faceless editorials. As we’ve said countless times before, video and imagery is the ideal way to convey information and drive engagement through social media channels.
University of Hawai’i - Big West
Without knowing anything about the actual university itself, you could already assume that Hawai’i has one of the most beautiful campuses in the world, and you’d be right in assuming so. Hawaii's primary strategic sell for their university is all about location, location, location.
● Almost daily, the university uses the natural beauty of their state to sell themselves to any prospective student and their family who are considering attending and supporting Hawai’i. After a quick browse through their social media feed, I wouldn’t blame you for confusing it with a tropical travel magazine.
● Hawai’i also dubs every Friday as #HDay, where they invite everyone across Hawai’i to participate in small fan-oriented contests for a chance to win merchandise and be featured on the school’s social media feed. This doubles as a way to drive people to participate in the school’s activities and also as a way to use the island’s residents as another way of showcasing the beauty of the campus’ location. By seeing so many different people using the hashtag all across the island with beautiful scenery no matter where the picture is taken, it further incentivizes people to want to look into visiting the campus.
● Hawai’i could consider creating much more video content surrounding their student-athletes, why they love competing at the school, why natives love it and why those from the mainland do too. This would be the next step in capitalizing on their location based approach.
Auburn University - SEC
The Tigers boast one of the most loyal fan bases in the SEC. But I didn’t feel their social media strategy was doing much to inspire new fans or benefactors to flock to the school.
● There isn’t much to look at on the Tigers’ social media feed outside of highlights or score updates. They do sometimes incorporate player interviews into their programming which can help generate interest in the school and its student-athletes, however they could still improve upon their current model.
● An interesting way that the Tigers use their in-game success to drive engagement is through the trivia feature on their “Auburn Tigers” app. The feature allows fans and alumni to participate in live trivia contests during in-game breaks which rewards winners with free Auburn merchandise. Even though this requires a prior interest or knowledge about Auburn to be able to properly participate, it still helps facilitate that interest in anyone who wants to consume as much Auburn-based content as possible.
Lehigh University - Patriot League
The Mountain Hawks have something in common with Auburn. I am not a fan of their social channels.
● Similar to Auburn, there’s not much on the Lehigh social media feed besides score updates and faceless articles discussing their teams’ most recent performances. Even though these updates or articles might be a nice compliment to most other schools’ feeds, they can’t really be effectively used as a main supplement like they are for the Mountain Hawks.
● The most well-designed post throughout the month of January for Lehigh was their post on MLK day. The post was a video featuring members of their “Student-Athlete of Color Leadership Council,” which had them reciting some of Dr. King’s most famous quotes. After the student-athletes were done reciting his quotes, they discussed how impactful his words are on today’s society and what they mean to the men and women at Lehigh. This is a solid example of how a school can show that they are up to date in the current state of society.
After reading through our evaluations for these 15 schools, you can see for yourself which strategies are used over and over again across the board. While I understand athletics is about wins and losses, the beauty of college sports is really the young people who participate.
While COVID has been hard on everyone, I really wish we would see more teams incorporate videos, features, connectivity to their schools and follow what some of the more successful schools do. Going forward, the wiser and more successful of these schools will continue to innovate while also remembering “not to fix what ain’t broke” in their existing promotional strategy – if it’s good.