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“Stories” Of Clemson’s Championship Digital Culture

By Juliette Kenny, Jonathan Gantt, Jeff Kallin

Clemson’s football program will chase its second national title in three years at the College Football Playoff National Championship in Santa Clara, California on January 7. With the spotlight shining brightly on Clemson football once again, the college athletics industry is again reminded of the extent to which the Clemson Athletics brand has grown exponentially in recent years. This heightened visibility has placed a welcome yet unrelenting pressure on the Clemson Creative Solutions team to build a championship-caliber digital culture that supports telling the Clemson story in new and exciting ways.


Pursuing new digital practices


Prior to the start of the 2018-19 academic year, we took a step forward in our efforts to remain at the forefront of digital media by launching a new iteration of ClemsonTigers.com through a partnership with creative advertising and development agency WMT. The partnership opened the door to new digital possibilities, encouraging the incubation of new digital practices and production of forward-thinking, innovative content.


In late 2018, for college football’s early signing day period, we capitalized on WMT’s design capabilities by integrating Instagram-like “stories” into ClemsonTigers.com. With “stories” having become part of social media’s lingua franca, we knew our target audience of 13-18 year-old teenagers would understand and appreciate the functionality. The mobile-friendly “stories,” which introduced members of Clemson’s 2019 signing day class through a series of previously-collected images and video clips, helped generate some noise around Tigers recruiting and, perhaps most importantly, effectively welcomed signees into the Clemson family. In the increasingly competitive world of big-time college sports, the “stories” approach to signing day had the added benefit of differentiating Clemson from its peers, many of whom welcomed their incoming classes via more traditional means.


Since the signing day release, we’ve used the “stories” feature to share other noteworthy program highlights, including the football program’s celebration of the holidays and Clemson’s win over Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. In the weeks and months ahead, we’re eager to expand upon its usage to provide gameday information, promote ticket sales, and showcase new Clemson apparel.


Our extensive collection of photos and video footage, made possible with the tremendous support of coaches and student workers, will continue to aid us in producing and releasing these “stories” with a level of immediacy that the top of this industry demands. And, as technology continues to evolve, no doubt with occasionally jarring velocity, we will work to identify other means to relay information, drawing inspiration from the ways in which we access, consume, and respond to athletically related and non-athletically related digital media.


Understanding and engaging with our target audience


Our desire to bring others into the Clemson family fold, be it through “stories” or other digital activities, drives much of what the Creative Solutions team does on a day-to-day basis. This external orientation, one where we are constantly focused on engaging with our target audience, explains a great deal of the success we have been fortunate enough to experience on the digital communications front. After all, the real locus of our digital power is our audience. Alums, current students, prospective student-athletes and their families, and members of the community regularly challenge us to rethink how we use digital technology.


It’s no secret that, given our increasingly digitized existence, our audience’s collective attention span, if not shrinking, is certainly evolving. The considerable amount of clutter in the digital space has meant that we must quickly deliver attention-grabbing, high quality content. As such, we work to tell the best story possible in the smallest package possible, using authentic audiovisual content to make people feel an emotional connection to Clemson.


We’re constantly reminding ourselves of the need to provide our fans with the opportunity to jump into the center of Clemson Athletics with just a few clicks. While reach and frequency are important, the production of content that elevates our brand, conveys a high level of passion and authenticity, and can be easily and quickly viewed strengthens our audience’s interest in and attachment to Clemson.


Ensuring our content aligns with a larger vision


Without a clear sense of direction, it can be easy for individuals in the creative and strategic communications space to get pulled in too many directions. A well-articulated vision can help steer individuals to act appropriately and make choices that advance an organization’s goals and strategy. Without this guiding star, it can be challenging for people to effectively harness the digital platforms and methodologies made available to them. At Clemson, we’re fortunate to have the unyielding support of athletic department leadership, which has made a point of ensuring that all Creative Solutions staff members fully understand Clemson Athletics’ vision, core values and goals.


Consequently, we understand that our web and social media activities, both in terms of process and product, must reflect and reinforce the department’s values, namely family, integrity, innovation, growth, and excellence. In addition to keeping these values top of mind, we strive to produce content that supports the department’s efforts to recruit high-performing prospective student-athletes, provide student-athletes with a top-notch academic, athletic, and personal experience, and create an exciting, fun, and family atmosphere at Clemson athletic events.


Assuming a collaborative and entrepreneurial mindset


Each day, our Creative Solutions team interfaces with a number of offices both within and beyond Clemson Athletics. We make a concerted effort to connect with student-athletes, coaches, and staff members so that our team is well positioned to hear, digest, and share stories of interest. This intentionally regular interaction facilitates the exchange of information, allows us to contribute to conversations and decision-making processes that both directly and indirectly relate to our work, and fosters a vital sense of trust between those who we are heavily reliant on us to execute our day-to-day responsibilities.


With a leadership team that empowers Creative Solutions to act, and a coaching and administrative staff that gives us the latitude to make judgment calls regarding the use of video, photo, and written content, we’ve managed to avoid preserving the status quo out of habit or caution and have instead sought new ways to engage past, present, and future Tigers.


This element of deliberate yet disciplined experimentation is central to our ideation and implementation processes. Additionally, it provides a certain degree of freedom from the unfortunate but commonly felt pressure to match our competitors’ every move. With a digital culture that emphasizes experimentation and innovation, we spend considerably less time trying to do what others have done well and more time thinking about what we can do well. As the digital tempo increases in the lead up to this weekend’s national title game, grounded by Clemson’s vision and core values, we will look to capitalize on our creative impulses and spur new digital connections with the ever-growing Clemson family.


This article  was written by Juliette Kenny, via conversations with Jonathan Gantt & Jeff Kallin of Clemson Athletics.