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Sports Creatives Roundtable: Strategic Digital Communications in Bowl Game Preparation

By Jay F. Hicks, Sports Creatives Podcast

Every FBS football program begins the season with the similar goal of reaching a bowl game. It’s an opportunity to generate more revenue and gain national exposure that the institution could not buy. Earning a bowl game bid provides a significant opportunity for college football programs and the corresponding athletics departments to tell their unique stories on social and digital media.


Strategic digital and social communications best practices play a significant role in bowl game preparations. Bowl games and the College Football Playoff have not quite yet reached the meteoric level of the Super Bowl in terms of advertising revenue, but the social and digital content may be headed that way. The content opportunities are nearly endless. However, without proper planning, it is difficult for athletic departments to maximize the bowl game experience in terms of exposure and brand building.


While there is no such thing as oversharing the news of a bowl bid on social platforms, athletic departments need to develop a comprehensive plan that touches numerous internal departments while developing cohesive messaging, brand identity, and storytelling for the bowl experience.


The Sports Creatives Podcast team sat down with Eric DeSalvo – Assistant AD of #Content at UCF, Victoria McBryde – Integrated Marketing Coordinator at the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl, and Dana Lewin – Social Media Coordinator at Ohio State University to discuss strategic digital and social communications best practices in bowl game preparations.


How does your organization go about bringing everyone together internally to develop a comprehensive social media and digital communications strategy prior to accepting/announcing a bowl bid? 


Eric DeSalvo – Assistant AD – #Content, UCF:


It starts from the top down with open communication and trust being the biggest factors since there are a lot of moving pieces and sensitive information. Our Associate AD of Brand Advancement, Jimmy Skiles, has a master plan that we use as a checklist each time we prepare for a bowl announcement. He communicates each of the items needed to the departments responsible for creating them so that once the bowl and opponent are finalized, we can move forward with the rollout with very few unanswered questions.


Following the announcement is when we sit down with communications, marketing, social and video and come up with our comprehensive content calendar. It features everyone’s responsibilities for bowl coverage for each day, along with when and where it will be posted on our channels.


Victoria McBryde – Integrated Marketing Coordinator, Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl:


Our marketing and communications team meets weekly to discuss potential matchups, strategy based on those matchups, and then execution plans for each possible scenario. A lot of people don’t know that we find our matchup at the same time as everyone else on Selection Sunday. Even in non-semifinal years, the College Football Playoff (CFP) selection committee chooses our matchup, so we have to be prepared for every possible scenario. We have plan A, B, C, D, E, F…etc. in place and then, as soon as it’s announced on the selection show, we know which one we’re running with.


Dana Lewin – Digital Visual Specialist, Ohio State University:


Lots of meetings! Joking, but not really. Our social media team will get together before the Big Ten Championship game and talk about how the bowl announcement will happen and what content we will need. We talk to the athletics department designers/motion designer and plan out what graphics/animations we will need for social media and the website.


Our design team will make sure that the announcement graphics have the same consistency with our look all season and we have multiple team matchups and bowl logos in the Photoshop file. It’s important to have as many options as possible for any bowl scenario, making it easy to simply activate the logos you need rather than track them down at the time of the announcement.


We’ll also work with our ticket office for specific messaging and where to direct our fans for any questions they may have. We’re lucky to have our website manager on our team so he is able to have a bowl hub page prepared and ready to go before the announcement. Our athletics social media department will also communicate with the football creative department through Slack to see if there’s anything happening on their social channels that we should be aware of before the announcement. There are so many moving parts in our organization, communication is definitely key!


How can athletics departments work with bowl games to coordinate social media efforts and capitalize on the bowl game announcement?


DeSalvo (UCF): It starts with reaching out to our counterpart at the bowl and jumping on a call with them to find out what their goals and initiatives are for the game as well as them knowing ours. Prior to the announcement this is tough to do because many bowls are silent up until everything in finalized with the matchup.


For the Peach Bowl in 2017, their team reached out asking for our fonts and logos so that the content they created around our team would match our branding guidelines. They also let us know about events that were happening ahead of time that would be ideal for maximum engagement (ex: Yang Yang the Panda at the Atlanta Zoo picking the game’s winner & our reply).


McBryde (Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl): I typically reach out to potential teams around the second or third CFP rankings to discuss the best ways to collaborate. Our goal isn’t to compete with the teams for content, it’s to share the bowl story and add to the stories they are telling as well.


What helps us the most is when teams give us insight on key messages they’re working to push throughout the bowl season, their plan for the Selection Sunday announcement, audience insights (what type of content their audience engages with most), and then sharing content between us and the teams. We have access at specific events that they might not get and vice versa, so the more content we can share between us, the more we can collaborate to get the story out there.


Lewin (Ohio State): It’s hard to assume what bowl game your team is going to so there is not much pre-coordination you can do. However, we work with the potential bowls to talk through scenarios and have a sketch plan in place for initial distribution. The key is to have constant communication after the announcement and reach out for any needs. By reaching out to the bowl social media coordinator or their communications team after the announcement, you can ask for graphic assets (logos, sponsors, etc.). You can also ask if they have any graphics you’d be able to use for your digital platforms.


We all know the importance of generating excitement and selling tickets for bowl games. What efforts have you found most successful that help to get alumni and other influential individuals involved when telling the brand’s unique story in the social/digital arena?


DeSalvo: For us at UCF it’s about getting content into the hands of our AD Danny White, coaches, players and influential alumni to help shape the narrative. We’re thankful to have a fanbase that’s extremely engaging and helps us know exactly how they’re feeling (for better or worse 😅).


McBryde: Reaching out to the teams to collaborate on messaging is vital to this. People are fans of their teams, not necessarily of the bowl game. Our job is to create an experience so incredibly catered to the fans, that they want their team to come back here every year and that when their team does come back, they’re compelled to buy tickets.


Sharing the fan experience on social during bowl week is a part of that as well. We want other fans to envy the ones that get to come here. We often reach out to local Atlanta alumni that will be influential and we invite them to share in the experience as well. We’re known for our hospitality, so for us it’s just about showing fans what it’s like to be here.


We also use paid media campaigns and organic social promotion as well – but it’s really all about promoting the experience.


Lewin: We find success in the digital space when we create videos, webpage articles, and graphics that visualize the experience fans may have while traveling to the game. When you can creatively show the fans what they might experience if they travel, you’ll create some “FOMO,” which hopefully leads to them buying tickets. We also use our mascot account (Brutus Buckeye) to create fun ways to plug the ticket link. By using the Brutus account, we’re able to capitalize on an additional social outlet besides our main athletics platforms.


After the bowl game is announced, how do you go about telling the brand’s story as it relates to the bowl game, as opposed to generic bowl participation messaging leading up to and during the bowl game?


DeSalvo: You have to look at facets of the bowl you’re going to and how you can apply them to your brand: location, weather, day of game, etc. For all of our bowl games, we’ve created hashtags to help better tie our brand with the game: #Bowlando (’16 Cure Bowl), #Knightlanta (’17/’18 Peach Bowl), #UCFiesta (’13/14 & ‘18/19 Fiesta Bowl) and #TakeoverTampa for this year’s game since we’ve used that each time we’ve played a game in Raymond James Stadium since 2014.


For last year’s Fiesta Bowl, we wanted to show the youthfulness of the UCF brand by having a group of one full-time staffer and three student interns make a cross-country road trip from Orlando to Phoenix and document it along the way on our UCF Knights social channels. Overall the trip generated 1.4+ million impressions with over a half million each coming from Instagram and Twitter.


McBryde: It starts with the collaboration I mentioned earlier. If you don’t know a brand’s story, you can’t help tell it. We do extensive research on social voice and creative style of each of the teams in our game and then develop a content strategy from there. Video content is a big part of that. Are teams using simple editing styles in their videos or do they add a lot of bells and whistles? How long are their videos? What videos have performed well on their platforms? Then you get to copy. Do they use a lot of emojis or do they stick to a standard few? How do they use hashtags? Once we identify trends, we can develop a creative strategy for how we cover each team and how to best get our message across to their audience.


Lewin: Our department will highlight previous bowl games we’ve attended and relive the history attached to those games. Fortunately, we have a lot of good memories at bowl games so it’s easier for us to look back on our successes. We try to incorporate a lot of good memories on our digital platforms to also create some “FOMO” (there’s that word again) instead of generic bowl participation messaging.


Last year, our team came up with the idea to air an entire previous bowl game on our Facebook page to drive engagement. It was so successful that we’re bringing it back again this season.


In previous seasons have you found relationships with some of the social platforms, technology companies, or other vendors to be beneficial to your bowl game digital strategy?


McBryde: We have a good relationship with social platforms that has really been helpful for me. We don’t use many vendors, but the ones we do we have developed strong ties with. When I have questions about what might be the best way to distribute a piece of content on a certain platform, I’ll rely on our contacts there to help us figure that out.


When it comes to external engagement, we will rely on some of our vendors for advice there. Relationships make all of the difference. No one knows everything, but we are all an expert in something. When you can combine certain areas of expertise, it helps you build a cohesive and well-rounded plan.


Lewin: We’ve developed strong relationships with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and the College Football Playoff social committees. With the social platforms, we can reach out to them for best practices and any questions we may have while ramping up our digital strategy before the big game. This has been extremely beneficial. Last week I had a quick question for David Herman at Twitter and he quickly replied with a step-by-step pdf on my question. Moral of the story: get to know the people behind the social platforms because they know their product best!


Looking back at previous bowl games, are there opportunities that your organization missed or could have done better?


McBryde: Absolutely. I think we miss opportunities sometimes because of a lack of resources, but everyone could have more. I’m a one man show and I have a small team of volunteers that help me execute and that’s it. Each year I go through what opportunities we missed and what we could have done to take advantage of the missed opportunity and adjust my strategy for the next year.


We have a very small window of time to capture people’s attention, at most it’s a month at the very least it’s 48 hours. So we have to do everything we possibly can to get our message out there in that short window of time. We don’t get mess ups because where teams might have a game the next week, we only have one. A lot of those missed opportunities come in the form of telling the more detailed stories that we just don’t have the resources to capture yet.


Lewin: It’s always easy to compare your department to other departments. We compare who has the flashiest graphics, the most videos or even who is doing it best. But the fact is, we’re all doing great and we’re all changing the game together.


Here is where I get a little cheesy, we’re going to miss things (lots of things) because social in sports is moving at a speed so fast that sometimes even the elite programs have a hard time keeping up. So, if you are comparing yourself to another school, reach out to that social creative and tell them that you love their work. Let’s build each other up instead of tear them down. I’m sure they think they’re missing something and can do something better too!


How do you evaluate the return on your organization’s investment into digital and social during the bowl season?


DeSalvo: For us we look at the engagement number, specifically the interaction rate, to help us evaluate what content worked for us during that bowl season and what we will either tweak or move on from the following year. As for tickets, we look at return on ad spend and focus on Google paid search, Gmail ads and Facebook/Instagram.


McBryde: Part of it is direct revenue from sponsorships, part of it is analytics and part of it is brand awareness. I’m constantly evaluating how content is performing throughout the week, what is working and what is not. I stay in contact with our sponsors so we can talk about adjusting how we deliver their content if needed.


How teams and players interact with our content is another indicator of its success. They are often going to have a much further reach than we do and I can tell by how they interact with our content whether or not we’re doing a good job telling their story. Are they resistant to share what we’re putting out? If so, that’s not a good sign. Are they asking us to share more with them? That’s great.


Their reaction to what we put out is an easy way for me tell what we’re doing well and what we need to improve upon. If they are interacting, then they are helping us tell the story. If they are here and not engaged with our content, then why should the audience at home be?


Lewin: Overall engagement. Ticket sales are obviously a measurement but in the new age we’re in (especially this year with a bowl game that we have been to eight times this century and a lot of our fans are holding out to see if we make the National Championship) we have to engage with the fans on our digital platforms first. Ticket sales are an important measurement, but engagement is important for the sponsorship side for future long-term benefits.