The Work Needs to Ladder Back

The start of every season in any sport is always one of my favorite times. There’s no better time for marketers to get inspiration. From stunning graphics packages to hype videos, teams and leagues go all out with their best of the best.

While all the content and creative is always amazing, sometimes it feels like we’re consuming missing pieces vs a puzzle that works together. Too often the content landscape feels like a bunch of one-off ideas combined. We have hashtags to promote teams. We have a hype video here and an emotional video there. We have graphics that stop us in our feeds. But, very rarely, do these things ladder back to a larger narrative and idea.

Think about it. In one single day, a team releases their hashflag for a season that’s focused on one message or something generic like their team name. An hour later, a hype video is released that channels another narrative. Then an epic graphic is dropped promoting 24 hours until game day with no unique message at all (like it could come from any team).

This might sound harsh, and I don’t mean it to. The work from teams every year is incredible. But I keep wondering, what if we approached our content strategy a little more diligently? What if we stopped using our channels as a dumping ground and truly gave ourselves permission to focus on what matters? What if our content mapped back to defining our brand and its values?

Our fans see so many messages today from every corner of the internet. If you work for a team, your channels aren’t the only entity covering it. From the league to the media to the fans themselves, plenty of people are sharing content around your team and its players. Your job isn’t just to cover the team; it’s to bring the brand to life.

What does your team stand for, beyond the scores? If you don’t have a sharp point on what your brand stands for – and a plan that ladders back to it– you are going to muddle the message. And, that does not leave a lasting impression. We must take the time to define our brand strategy, and then, create a plan that rallies around bringing that position to life.

The work can be so much more impactful if we take the time to understand the bigger picture. We should make a more conscious effort to move away from the one-offs. We need to move to a holistic view of our brand, our content, our channels, our communities. In the end, it’s work with a sharp point – and a reason for being — that will leave a lasting impression.

Leadership Huddle With Eric SanInocencio, Houston Texas

It’s time for another installment of Leadership Huddle, a new series on the blog where leaders in sport and beyond offer perspective on digital today. Some of the guests work directly in digital while others will be leaders outside of the space (but get the work and advocate for it).

This post features a conversation with Eric SanInocencio, the Senior Director of Digital Media and Strategy for the Houston Texans. Eric has been with the Texans for more than five years now. In his role he oversees and manages digital for the entire organize. Prior to the Texans, he spent time at the Southeastern Conference and Gulf South Conference.

Eric is someone whose career has “grown up” in digital. And, it was clear in our conversation that he gets it.  We talked for nearly an hour about everything ranging from getting buy-in across the organization to career growth. One of the biggest things that stood out to me about Eric’s leadership style is his ability to understand other people’s perspective. He doesn’t make assumptions about what people do and do not know. Instead, he takes the time to understand, listen and build bridges, all while advocating for the work of his team. There’s a lot to learn from his approach.

Below is the transcript of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for space and clarity. I hope you enjoy.

You’ve been at the Houston Texans for five years now. Can you talk about the overall focus and vision for digital?

We really focus on two things when it comes to digital. First, what can we do to over-index? We are a very young franchise (just over 15 fifteen years old) so name recognition and expanding our brand is still very important to us. That’s one of the main things for us; what is the sheer volume of how many people can we reach on all these different platforms?

I think we do a great job in Houston of owning this market. But for us, it’s about figuring out how we can expand our reach so people know about our organization, our players and what we’re about outside of that.

Secondarily, we’re focused on how we can leverage content to tell our story in the smartest and most efficient way possible. We are all in this space creating content and trying to connect with fans. But for us, we are trying to do that differently than everyone else. How can we find our niche?

I love your point about the franchise still being young. And, I think there is a real opportunity within that. How have you all gone about defining your voice and content pillars you want to hit to reach and attract new fans?

For us, we go in assuming that people don’t know a ton about our organization outside of its biggest stars. People may know about JJ Watt, but they may not know about the rest of the organization and other key players. If they don’t know about our organization and our other players, social might be the only touchpoint people have with us.

We ask the question, what can our content do to connect with people so they want to engage with us again? That’s our foundation. If social is the first interaction they have with us (outside of seeing JJ Watt in a commercial), what can we do to bring them into our brand? How can our content play a key role in inciting some kind of emotion that makes them want to come back?

That’s awesome. The top-level funnel piece (awareness) is a fun challenge to have. It lends itself to pushing your thinking a little more.

Without a doubt. And from a measurement standpoint, we all determine our own success. I try to caution people with ranking other teams and how they are doing because all of our imperatives are so different. It’s never really a level playing field. For example, access can be different or tone of voice from the organization can be different.

You have to hone in on what matters to the organization. We measure ourselves against what we feel is important to the org — and that’s not necessarily against other teams. What we are trying to shoot for is different than, let’s say the Cowboys, because we are a young franchise. That’s something we always wrestle with as we continue to tell our story.

It’s always interesting to hear how digital plays a role in so many facets of the business. Aside from the general awareness piece, can you talk about how your department works across the organization?

We are in a truly unique role in that we interact with every piece of the organization. That’s good for us because it allows us to have a ground-level view of what everyone is trying to accomplish. The goal for our team is to offer our expertise so that social and digital don’t become an afterthought in the planning process. 

The challenge we continue to work through is to make sure everyone understands it’s not a one-size-fits-all answer for every social or digital campaign. Sometimes we have to try and change the thinking a little bit. So “hey, that’s a great idea, but maybe we do it this way”. It’s about interjecting expertise when we can. For teammates, the big project they are working on is the most important thing they are doing at the moment. But for you (in digital), you might be helping with 20 other projects. You have to learn to prioritize and communicate what else is happening and if a message might get lost. That’s not always an easy conversation to have.

No, it’s not. And that’s something I’ve learned as I’ve matured in my career is that it’s not about saying “no” but saying “yes, and” or “yes, but”. If you say no all the time people will stop coming to you. It’s a fine balancing.

Elaborating on that a little more. How did you start getting buy-in with these other departments to give you a seat at the table? And then, as someone who leads a team, how do you help the team prioritize with all the different touchpoints you all are working through?

That’s probably the foundation of my job at this point. I think we got to the table by continuing to communicate the value of what we do and how important the value of what we do in this space.

For those of us who live and work in this industry, one of the issues we face is we don’t always communicate the work properly to others. We can’t assume that just because we are involved in digital/social 24-7 that others understand the nuances of what we are having to deal with. What we can really work on is to speak a more plain language in a way that other departments can understand. You have to focus on getting the point across.

If you continue to show that you’re willing to work and be a team player that’s helpful. But also, if you have some successes under your belt from working with teams, they’ll come back to you and your ability to influence the conversation only gets bigger. That’s really what we’re trying to work on from a communication standpoint.

It’s easy to get frustrated in the digital space because people don’t understand, but sometimes you have to take that extra step and make a correlation to something people are used to in their day-to-day. It helps make it click. Again, it all goes back to how we communicate.

Absolutely. And even for someone who is on social, using it personally is very different than using it from a business standpoint.

Shifting gears a bit. We desperately need true digital leadership leading teams. And what I mean by that, is people who have grown up in the space (like you) that understand how to structure the team and what growth looks like. 

So for us in the industry who are looking to move up and eventually get a seat at the executive table (eventually), what advice do you have?

You have to be comfortable being uncomfortable. I read a great quote about digital once: It’s like building a plane while flying it. So I think for a lot of people, and myself included, we’re used to having a task list, completing it and feeling that I’ve accomplished something today. That’s tough with digital because it’s a 24-7 beast. There isn’t going to be an opportunity for us to be on top of everything. There’s a lack of control when it comes to digital, so we have to be comfortable with that.

Also, I think part of it is the culture in general. Sports is pretty slow moving when you compare it to other areas of business. I think that’s because it has never had to be a ton innovative. I mean, we’re really lucky with the Texans. We have sold out every game in the history of our franchise and have a wait list of over 20,000 people. If I don’t post a single thing on digital, our gameday experience has been enough to keep people engaged with us. I think that’s where the hesitancy has been, right? Sports, for the most part, are successful companies by just putting out a product. Executives probably ask if we really need to disrupt at the speed in which you and I would maybe like to.

You mentioned the speed at which teams move, and I find it really interesting. Sometimes the thought process is if it’s not broken, why fix it? The one thing I always go back to, is it short-sighted of us to not be thinking about the future? The way that younger generations are consuming entertainment is going to change, especially with all the choices they have. We need to be prepared for that.

Talking about the future of digital, what excites you about digital and the role you see it playing?

It’s very interesting because part of our job is to have one foot in the future, but also have one foot in the present. I may not know specifically what is next, but I think whatever is going to be popular in digital is what is going to make us lazier.

Think about how far we’ve come. We don’t even have to go the grocery store or Blockbuster anymore. The ability for this generation to have everything on demand is crazy. And that behavior, attitude is not going away. I have two kids (7 and 5) and they literally get upset when they have to watch commercials. This is the learned behavior that we have.

When you look at how digital is going to be part of that and sport piggybacks off of that, a good rule of thumb is to always look at what makes us lazier. The more that technology can take care of consumers seems to be what it is all about. Mobile seat ordering is a small but good example of this in sport.

I love this and have never thought of it like that (the lazy angle). You’re spot on. People like and expect things in an instant today.

Going back to your point earlier in our conversation about focus. You’ve grown up in digital so you understand the evolution. Can you talk about what you’ve learned in managing teams and in hiring people?

What I have learned is how important it is to give the full 360 view of what’s going on in the department to everyone involved. I have to over communicate so our team understands the decision and the reason for it.

It’s important to talk through how the decision ladders back to the bigger picture. Sometimes that can be really hard because you are challenged in the moment and these decisions need to be made as quickly as possible, but I want the team to feel part of the conversation.

Even when I disagree with something, I try to sit down and explain why to the team. When I first started in this industry, people had a knee jerk reaction and would just say “take it down”. There was no discussion. But I try really hard to put myself in their shoes because I know what it feels like.

I can always do better and get to know them as people and what’s going on in their lives. I want them to know I value them and what they do as a person that’s part of our team. And that’s another thing that really annoys me is people that say “my staff”. You don’t own anybody. It’s not my staff; it’s our staff. It minimizes somebody’s career into a piece of ownership over somebody. That’s never how I want to communicate. This is our staff. If we are going to build togetherness, I try to be in trenches as much as I can. Do you need my help? Can I jump in here?

I also think that mentality translates well to running a team account. It’s not about one person. It’s about the brand and the team that you work. And when you have that mentality that it’s our team and not one individual it builds a more cohesive environment and becomes about the brand and not one single person. That is sometimes hard to do.

Without a doubt. And I may disagree with 99% of the ideas that the team brings to me, but I want them to keep bringing them to me because the 1% may be something that’s a game changer.

As we get older, it’s hard for us to stay connected to what younger people are into it. We have to give them the freedom to try different things. I’m almost completely removed from the posting now. The process is important so we have a social voice template that we work off of so the team has an idea and understanding of what we’re trying to go for, but then they have the keys to go. If there is something that needs to involve me I’ll jump in and help. I think that’s important to give them the trust.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. As digital gets more visibility within organizations and as it becomes a more collective effort, how do we balance you autonomy with mapping back to the bigger picture?

On top of that, you also want to try to carve out some kind of life for yourself. If we are going to add a piece of work, I’m going to try and take something off. Nike has a great way of brainstorming in that they don’t start with the ideas themselves they start with the challenges. That is super smart because you spend all this time and create all this work, but in the end, if you are so bogged down with the amount you have to create, your productivity and creativity are going to go down. And then, you are going to just start doing things to get it done.

Switching to personal growth. And then, on a more personal level, what advice do you have for someone looking to move up?

You have to be comfortable putting the processes in place. It’s hard. I was a one-man band at the SEC and everything posted was by me. I got to the Texans and I was essentially a one-man team for a year and a half and now we have started to build this department up. And it’s really hard because there is a sense of pride when you send the tweet, but you have to take a step back from the tactical piece to grow as an individual.

You had a great tweet about what are people’s goals. And so many people in social/digital wanted to “do this” or “create this content series”. My answer was that I don’t want to be the person that pushes the button anymore. I want to be the person that oversees the entire setup. 

Your mindset changes when you get removed from the community management/execution piece. As you hand off the reigns, what you’re actually responsible for and how you view things is different. Being a little removed from the day-to-day has allowed me to see the bigger picture and how digital fits within that. And sometimes, that doesn’t equate to the perfect tweet. That’s a big piece to moving up.

YES. And again, I think that’s why it’s so important to have that leader who has been there and understand what growth looks like. Marketing is moving towards a trend where the CMO should have a digital-first mindset.

I always think about growth too. If there’s a community manager that’s been part of the team for two to three years and I don’t have a role that’s going to offer them upward mobility, I’m going to sit down and have a hard conversation that it’s time to move on. That’s out of respect for their career. The tactical piece is fun, but you eventually have to take on other things. It’s a really big challenge I’ve seen. There’s a lot of disgruntled voices about pay, growth, etc. but an organization is not going to keep you in the same role and just keep raising your salary. At some point, you have to take your career into your own hands.

I think too, we crave so much that admiration from our peers. If we aren’t featured in something or that top 100 list it’s such a personal thing to a lot of people that work in the business. That’s why we have to understand it’s bigger than that. It’s tough.

You are responsible as an individual for how your career grows. How do you prioritize promoting yourself or networking? It is going to become more valuable than ever, especially in the digital space. If people are going to give digital a seat at the table, they are going to need to feel comfortable with who that person is and that’s not happening on a resume. That’s happening with a conversation they have had with you or with a recommendation they got from someone they trust. It’s on us to continue to meet people and explain what we do.

Finally, for people who are looking to break into the industry, what advice do you have?

Make yourself more than a piece of paper. Take the extra step to make yourself known. Making yourself a person with goals and aspirations is important.

And secondly, you can get experience now. If you want to work in sports and you are in college, walk over to the SID office and ask if they need help. You could get the opportunity to run a team account. That’s tremendous because then you can show people that you’ve done the work. College is a great opportunity to learn.

A big thank you to Eric SanInocencio for you his time and perspective. Connect with him: LinkedIn and Twitter. And, be sure to follow the Houston Texans across digital for some great inspiration.

If you enjoyed this conversation, be sure to read the others from this series: Graham Neff and Brendan Hannan

Social Media Musings

Lately, I’ve found myself obsessing over high-level things about the state of the digital/social industry. It’s less about how to activate on platforms x, y and z (though of course I always think about that) and more about fundamental challenges, issues or opportunities within the industry.  It’s an interesting time to work in digital. It’s starting to get its due. And with that, comes a whole new way in which we have to approach the work.

I decided to curate some of the topics that I’ve been mulling over a lot recently. This isn’t new material, but more of a curated collection of my musings on social lately.  I hope you find a point or two helpful or interesting:

Leaders must actively participate.
I’m a big believer that it’s time for organizations to invest in digital leadership whose careers grew up with it. But that aside, one thing I know for sure is that people leading digital teams must actively participate. Why? Because too often digital leadership is disconnected from the work.

I don’t mean that managers must be managing the accounts or literally tweeting. Nor do I mean that they must micromanage. But, I believe they need to actively participate with their team in conversations about the landscape, brainstorms sessions, best practices, etc. If you lead a digital team there’s an even bigger need for constant learning, constant evolution, constant pushing, constant education. You have to be engaged with the team to understand the changing dynamics, workflow, process, all the internal asks and the hiccups.

Too often digital leadership is disconnected from the work. They don’t know what it takes to do the job, how many hours their team is putting in (or on what) and the struggles that they face.

It’s imperative that digital leaders understand the tools, the work and the day-to-day of their team. We can’t continue to build out and invest in digital teams without leadership who has no idea about the work. Otherwise, we will continue to have leadership who struggles to advocate for it. Digital leaders must be actively present.

Creative talent matters.

The early days of social were a much simpler time in the creative space. Back then a text-only tweet was the main content play. Creative options are endless today from live video, GIFS, vertical video, etc. I look around and I’m blown away by the level of creativity and content out there now. It’s no longer enough to have a presence. It requires creative thinking and the ability to capture attention. Which, as we all know, is a hot commodity today

Because of this, building a strong digital team requires the ability to identify, recruit and retain creative talent. Creative drives so much of what we do now. There’s no ignoring that fact. For strategies to come to life, digital teams need creative people. Special talent, really. People with an energy to push boundaries, see things differently and take chances. But also, people who are open to feedback, understand the strategy and put the brand first.

If you’re leading a digital team, finding creative talent is more than half the battle. Make it a priority to keep up with the trends. Spend time discovering up and coming talent. And always, hire strong creatives & let them work their magic.

Consumer > platform.

We used to obsess constantly with platform changes and new tools in this industry. It was a bit of a frenzy considering the pace at which platforms changed. Every day there was something new in the space.

Today, the platform changes have slowed. Yes, algorithms and platforms are evolving, but the pace is different. And the slowing of pace helps us shift our thinking to the thing that really matters: consumer behavior. Understanding the platforms are key, yes. But understanding consumer behavior (like maybe a shift to more passive engagement) is even more crucial. Why? Because at the end of the daily consumption habits (what consumers want) should dictate our approaches, not “best” practices.

Consumption is more passive.
Speaking of consumer behavior, it’s time we pay serious attention to the actions people actually take on social and how they consume. I think more and more of social media is moving towards passive consumption. Think about it. Scroll, scroll, scroll. Tap, tap, tap. Who is really paying attention? And, we need to give pause to this for two reasons.

First, how do we not lose sight of the “social” part of social media? We have to think strategically about how we bring consumers and fans into the fold or community will dwindle. How do we generate true interactions, without being gimmicky? The “social” piece is what makes these tools so special. And, we can’t lose sight of that. Active > passive.

Second, does this shift to passive consumption mean we look at content success differently (for more top of funnel plays)? Engagement rates are so low for most brands. How do we decipher lack of interest (so broadcasting to an audience that’s not actually captive) vs changing behavior (maybe seeing and reading but not engaging)? We talk a lot about change in this industry, but it’s not just the platforms that change. It’s also consumer behavior. And I said before, it’s critical we obsess over that.

Focus is key.
More than ever we need quality over quantity. Every action brands take online should be about adding value. In order to this, teams need focus, a strategic mindset and permission to not be everything to everyone.

It’s easy to get caught up in the pressures to be everywhere, all the time. The 24-7 nature can be exhausting and daunting. But I believe we’ve created a lot of these false pressures. Consumers don’t expect brands to be everything to them, so we have to stop internalizing false pressure and instead focus on purposeful and meaningful work.

Want your team to have focus? I firmly believe that leaders must set the tone in digital. You can read about my thoughts on it here.

Accountability is critical. 
Social media is no longer the tool handed over to the intern. Thanks to the maturation of ad tools, targeting and analytics, social media has become a lot more visible with organizations. There’s still a lot of work to do as far as getting buy-in within organizations, but I also believe we need to be accountable for how social media maps back to the larger business goals.

If you work in digital, it’s your responsibility to understand the larger organization and its goals, and then, figure out the role that digital/social can play. We can no longer complain about buy-in, advancement and investments if we are using the platforms just to play.

The tactical piece of social is the fun piece. I get it. It’s hard to pull yourself away from that. But if we want organizations to take social seriously, we have to move beyond the “tweeting to tweet” phase. 

Digital should finally have a seat at the big kid’s table. I agree with that. It’s no longer about retweets and likes alone, it’s a channel where brands and teams can drive revenue and true ROI. It’s our jobs to not get caught up in the bright and shiny vanity metrics. Focus on the actual business case.

The real beauty of digital is that it does not have to be a “this or that” when it comes to driving awareness/engagement or revenue. In a sense, you can have it all. Digital allows teams to focus on the full marketing funnel. If teams invest in a sound strategy, community management, creative and paid then they can drive awareness, engage and ultimately convert. For digital to get its due, we have to focus on all of this.

If you want your organization to continue to build out the team, it’s imperative you understand the organizational priorities and the priorities of your boss. Let’s say you report into a brand person who’s really eager about fan engagement, your job is to make sure your work maps back to that. If your boss is a revenue person and they’re focused on how are we driving revenue for the business, you have to focus on that.

Spend your time investing in a strategy that matters to the organization and executing on it. And then, make sure you advocate for the work so people understand how digital is helping to drive organizational success. Our jobs are about a lot more than likes and retweets. Demonstrate that.

Silos and solo ownership must go away.
Early in on social roles were very much a one-man show. I remember my first job. I set the strategy, made the “content”, defined success, managed the communities …. you get the point. And, I very much cringe at the silo nature of the work, but no really knew what social meant for organizations yet. Why put a lot of resources into something if you don’t truly understand the value?

This is no longer the case today. We understand that digital is the front door to organizations. Digital is marketing and marketing is digital. We know that digital can drive organizational results in a multiple of ways from revenue to brand awareness. It’s no longer something we do simply to check the box. It’s a critical component of a marketing org’s success. And as such, the work should be “we” vs “I”. Collaboration on all levels is needed.

Today we have to break down the silos within organizations and do away with the one-man teams (even one-man teams for managing the community). Digital teams must be embedded within the larger strategy. This helps us move away from the tactics and channels and focus on the why and what actually matters.

Additionally, a social presence should never be about one person and their voice. It’s imperative to build a team that contributes to the collective strategy. When you have a team contributing together to the voice of an account it makes it about the brand and not about one person (not to mention it makes the “always on” nature much more manageable).  

Long story short, silos and solo teams must go away to keep moving digital the right way. 

We have to get back to the basics.
If we break down silos and solos, it allows us to get back to the basics of a strong brand foundation. Too often social shifts us away from the overall picture. As digital’s role within an organization matures, we have to focus less on the platforms and more on the big idea. What are we trying to achieve? Believe it or not, social isn’t always the answer and we should be okay with that.

I still believe the core of good advertising is the same, but too many marketers today abuse the tools with no purpose. We must get back to the basics. Solve the challenge. Nail the big idea. Let’s find the solutions, not the tactics (blog on that here).

I’m curious. What’s been on your mind lately about the state of social? I would love to hear your thoughts, so please, leave a comment below!

Leadership Huddle With Graham Neff, Clemson Athletics

Welcome to Leadership Huddle, a new series on the blog where leaders in sport and beyond offer perspective on digital today. Some of the guests will work directly in digital while others will be leaders outside of the space (but get the work and advocate for it).

This series will focus less on the actual day-to-day and curated work examples, and instead, focus more on digital at a high level. The goal is to gain a new perspective on the role digital plays within organizations, how to build teams, etc. How can we advocate for our work, approach things differently and ultimately get buy-in? My hope is this series helps to offer a fresh perspective.

The first guest, Graham Neff, is the Deputy Athletics Director at Clemson University. He is a Georgia Tech graduate who served as Associate AD for Finance and Facilities at Middle Tennessee State before joining Clemson Athletics in 2013. Neff started with the Tigers as chief financial officer and has seen his role expand consistently in the five years since to include supervisory responsibilities in facilities, internal operations and external affairs. While at Clemson, he has been a major advocate for digital within the athletic department.

I’m extremely excited about this conversation for two main reasons. First, Clemson has been widely successful in the digital space. Their content consistently shines. They always innovate through platform partnerships. And, they have a strong focus on branding, fan engagement and recruiting. SB Nation even declared them the “National Champions of Social Media”. It’s clear they have bought into a vision and are working towards a common goal to elevate the brand (a good read on their approach here).

Secondly, the team has a unique structure and way in which they approach the work. The department restructured in the spring, moving digital out of communications to form a Creative Solutions team. Under this structure, the team works with different high-value areas of the athletics department to find creative solutions to problems. While many times it is related to marketing and storytelling, it also opens up doors outside the digital lane. This means the team approaches work by looking at the big picture vs. starting with the channels/tactics. There’s a lot to take away from it.

Leading the newly-formed department is Jonathan Gantt, Associate AD for Creative Solutions. The former MLB PR staffer is responsible for the strategy, structure and priorities of the team, working with senior staff to identify high-value areas of need where Creative Solutions can make a positive impact, such as football recruiting, ticket and licensing revenue and high-priority public communications. Leading those daily efforts in ideation and content creation are Jeff Kallin (Director of Design & Digital Strategy) and Nik Conklin (Director of Feature Video Production) as well as the newly-added Mark Majewski (Associate Director of Design & Publishing) who joined the team in mid-July to fill a new position, another example of the recognized value and resulting support from administration. But the athletic department still has 19 teams plus several other areas to service, so undergraduate and graduate student assistants looking to gain experience and opportunity help fill the gaps. You can read more about Clemson’s unique intern program and its impressive alumni list here and here.

It was evident in my conversation with Neff that the leadership at Clemson not only believes in digital but is also committed to it. And, their team’s stellar work is a testament to their commitment. Below is the transcript of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for space and clarity. I hope you enjoy.

When people talk about the best digital teams in college athletics (and sports in general), Clemson is consistently named. What have been the keys to building such a successful digital department?

Yeah, certainly the people. That’s probably an obvious start, but there’s so much truth to that between Jonathan, Jeff and Nik. Jonathan macro-social perspective, Jeff comes from the digital side of things and Nik through the video. The three of them have been incredibly first class in how they’ve gone about growing their work.

But I’ll take the people answer one step further in the sense of how we’ve been able to maintain and keep the consistency of that team. With their talent, level and recognition nationally, all three of them have had plenty of opportunities elsewhere. We have had to frequently increase our commitment towards them.  Financially yes, but really in terms of how we’re focusing and continuing to grow the level of importance for that department.

So it’s about people yes, but also the consistency of the team. “Keeping the band together” is a phrase we’ve used over the years because of how well each of those guys works together. Each of them has their own focus but blend together well – and that’s been key.

Let’s expand on the retention piece. It seems like lately there has been a lot of turnover in social/digital sports roles. How have you all built a culture that keeps people around, helps them grow and gives them new opportunities within your organization?

If you rewind back five years ago when Jonathon got here and subsequently started to build the team, there was certainly a fresh pallet in terms of our social/digital world. So, there was a lot of yard to mow to start.

Now over the years as we have matured, the question is how are we buying new yard or identifying new real estate for the team to mow? It has been a priority from a leadership perspective that the importance and scope of that team’s role is a focus and communicated internally.

Additionally, we have worked to widen the circle within the university. The team has been engaged across campus form an academic standpoint and with classes. There’s been some really positive reciprocity on how we have recruited and attained students to help with our scope.  We continue to make it a priority to incentivize them with responsibility and growth.

And yeah, innately there’s also the financial piece that we need to make sure we are incentivizing them to stay here too. But I think credit to those guys; the responsibility growth within our department circles and outside of it has been an area of focus and encouragement for them to seek.

You all recently restructured digital within the organization and formed a Creative Solutions team, which I find really interesting. Can you talk about the reason behind the move and the impact/value the team has beyond digital?

The restructure thought was to separate the creative team from the communications vertical and create its own department (Creative Solutions). The separation outside of the communications vertical was done to amplify the scope of what Jonathan, Nik, Jeff and team do.

From an organizational standpoint, we found that sometimes the team became a checklist when there was a communication project or task (again, because they were in the comms vertical). Can they amplify our brand via a tweet or not, in an incredibly rudimentary term?

Moving them outside the communication vertical means the team is not on the communications checklist, so to speak. They are on the solutions checklist. So, let’s say our athletic director needs a project for a presentation to our board of trustees or we’re reviewing how our facility rental usage works – they’re part of the conversation to add value.

How I think about it from a leadership standpoint and the scope of our operations: Having them outside of the communications vertical, allows more exposure for them and solutions to be a part of within our department.

Digital and social are often thought of as so tactical. It’s that “check the box” mentality. It sounds like this new move allows the team to think more holistically and the big picture.

That’s exactly right. It’s really a testament to the leadership of that team. Jonathan now sits around senior staff table. Yes, that means for an hour and a half each week he has to listen to a compliance update that might not be relevant for him. But, maybe there is one thing that is said that causes a spark and a unique spin on a solution or idea.

That vertical or top-level exposure for that team is going to show its value as the scope grows. There is going to be a cool project down the road that will innately be brought into the Creative Solutions world because there’s a different way to think about it. That exposure (and the seat at the table) is important. Jonathan has the gravitas and perspective to sit and listen and add value from a creative solutions perspective – but also, a department leadership standpoint.

There are a lot of people in digital roles that are looking to have a seat at the table and trying to get buy-in from an executive standpoint. What advice do you have for people who have not gotten the same type of buy-in from the executive team that you all have at Clemson?

A lot of it comes down to the ability to have a broad spectrum of input and understanding. I know that’s easy to say but hard to self-create.

My point being, it’s easy to have the connotation as a staff member to say “oh, that’s our social/digital guy, so we’ll hit you when we need a picture, a tweet, etc.”.  So, you have to find opportunities that present themselves to add a unique solution, a unique idea, to a topic, idea or task that is totally outside of that digital realm. And then, link it back to your expertise to demonstrate the more comprehensive nature that could be offered by a digital expert or team within an organization.

I’m thinking back to the growth of our team. We saw that Jonathan just has a good perspective. He is a good solutions person who offers ideas. Innately, that has grown to the team’s perspective is important to have in a much broader scope for the department.

I think college athletics has invested more in digital/creative than other sports properties because of recruiting and the role that organic social plays there. Can you talk how the role digital/social has played in giving the university visibility?

Yeah, it’s been huge. There’s a little bit of a perfect storm and our guys would certainly self-admit to the personalities we have to the success we have had on the field, for sure. But I think that has provided content and exposure for us to further that brand. There have certainly been a lot of digital teams that have lifted their brands and reach without some of those built-in Clemson things we have been fortunate to have.

But, I feel like it’s been augmented. And, I’ll give a great example of how it’s been recognized even locally here on campus. Rewind back a few years ago when we first started to supercharge and move the needle from our reach and that brand elevation. That recognition locally on campus was certainly seen – and is now going through a mimic/mirror image on the campus side from a student recruitment standpoint.

We’re mature from a football-recruiting standpoint with exposure, but I don’t know how much that has been focused on from a student-recruitment standpoint. My anecdote is that as the focus and success were seen athletically, the identification and the utilization of that similar model have been used on campus from an academics area and admissions office. And, they’re hiring talent. It’s been cool to see that brand lift (and there are a lot of factors to that), internal recognition and how the model has been used in admissions.

I’ve been spending time with Enrollment Services to talk about how we have built and focused on digital from a recruitment standpoint. Because yes, we’re trying to recruit a five-star player but they are trying to recruit a five-star physics major. There are a lot of similarities to how we try to educate about the brand. It’s a really intriguing opportunity from a higher standpoint. And, a lot of the interest in it has come from the success and talent of our athletic digital team.

That’s fantastic. I don’t think we always look at digital holistically, and I have to wonder if the work you all are doing within athletics has also helped to recruit students. The work has certainly given the school visibility.

Finally, what excites you about the future?

One of the things that really showed itself to me outside of the direct communications and digital world; a lot of what we’re building organizationally and scope of services is an agency. As we embark on this new creative organization athletically and their scope is going to be broad and deep within athletics, I would tell you that it’s not lost on me that this team could eventually become some university-related agency.

They could be loaned out for a cost recovery or revenue piece. This could be with the chemistry department or alumni services or admissions – you name it. Projects could be a cost recovery back, generate revenue and create an opportunity for increased resources.

That’s not the “why” around the new structure. And, that wasn’t what Jonathan and team offered when we went through this, but that is certainly something that showed itself. And, that could be the path down the road.

This is so good to hear. I think the biggest challenge we have is to think bigger. So while we might not always be able to have a direct tie to revenue or ROI from organic social, we’re building these vast audiences and have insanely talented/creative individuals within digital teams. How do we think about driving value back to the organizations in a way that’s not always so black and white? It’s this big-picture thinking around the agency model that is exciting and needs to be told a lot more.

It’s mutually exciting to see where they are going, their growth and responsibilities and how we retained the team. But also, how we are going to be able to continue to deliver solutions to atypical digital communications answers.

And, I imagine if they are taking on more projects from a high level it also helps you get buy-in from a headcount perspective because their scope has expanded.

That’s a great bow on it. It’s very circular in nature in that sense.

A big thank you to Graham Neff for you his time and perspective. Be sure to follow Clemson Athletics across digital for some great inspiration. 

On Five Years of Blogging

This little blog all started because I didn’t know what a QR code was. I was in one of my first jobs out of college, working for a small organization as a digital marketing & outreach coordinator. Working for a small organization early on was the best thing for me. It meant big projects, no matter your title. I managed our website and its redesign, email marketing, social and the online component of our youth program. I loved the job, learned a ton and knew digital was where I wanted to be.

But working for a small organization also meant I wasn’t part of a robust marketing team. We all wore multiple hats and had crazy workloads, which made it harder to keep up with trends (or to stop, pause and think). This became extremely evident one day I was talking to a friend in the industry and he mentioned QR codes. And, I had no idea what he was talking about. While I was learning a lot in my current role, it wasn’t a priority to keep up with the industry. It was then that I had this “ah-ha” moment that if I wanted to work in digital I had a find a way to hold myself accountable to be in the know.

I’ve always loved writing, analyzing, thinking and thought a blog would be a good vehicle to keep up with the trends. So finally, a couple years after that QR conversation, Social ‘n Sport became a thing. The end of 2017 wraps up my fifth year of writing. As we head into 2018, I wanted to reflect on a few things this blog has taught me.


Do it for you.

Passion projects like this have to come from a place of purpose within. When I started this blog years ago, I was writing for myself. The only intention and purpose was to myself better. There was no pressure to get readership, make money or land a job.

Fast forward to today, and this blog has opened more doors than I could ever have imagined. But, even today, there is no pressure. I write because I enjoy it. I write because it makes me better at my job. And, I happen to be lucky enough that you all enjoy some of my ramblings too. If there ever comes a time when the blog isn’t enjoyable anymore, then I’ll shut it down.

We all are busy. We all have to prioritize or we’ll burn out. If you decide you want to take on something new, do it because you enjoy it first. The opened doors will follow.


Putting yourself out there is scary.

Most of us have some self doubt. Yes, sharing your thoughts is scary. You open yourself up to criticism. But the worst thing that’s ever happened to me is getting trolled by @Four_Pins for a tweet. And, I present it to you for a good laugh:

In work and in life we have to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. Step up to the plate and take on something new. Put yourself out there and open yourself up to feedback. That’s the only way we continue to grow.


People value perspective.

While putting yourself out there is scary, people value perspective. And I have found the more I share perspective AND listen, the more respect is gained. Not everyone will agree with you all the time, but providing a point-of-view gets discussions, debates and dialogues going. That’s critical for teams.

Putting yourself out there grabs people attention, whether it’s in a meeting or online. Sitting back won’t get good work and thinking noticed, so don’t be afraid to push. Bring your voice to the table. Establish yourself as a thought leader.


There will be naysayers.

Inevitably, you are going to meet people throughout your career or in life who don’t like what you do. Plain and simple. It’s not personal, so don’t take it personally. If you put yourself out there, you’re bound to find one or two people who will try to tear you down. Brush it off and move on.


Build bridges.

Doors open, but it’s up to you to build the bridge to turn a contact into a relationship. Your network is only as a strong as the actual relationships you have. It’s about building relationships with people that would truly go to bat for you and vice versa. This idea of building bridges is a constant work in progress for me. It takes time and effort, but in 2018, I hope I get to know a lot more of you personally.

I laugh about about the QR story now, but looking back, that was a pivotal moment for me. It was pivotal because this blog and this community has made me a better employee, teammate, leader and marketer.

I want to say thank you for all your kind words, encouragement and help over the years. I’m thankful to work in this industry with so many talented and gracious people. Thanks for making this passion project 1000x more fun! If there’s anyway I can ever lend a hand to you, please don’t hesitate to reach out:

Thanks as always, for reading.