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: socialnsport@gmail.com.

Thanks as always, for reading.

Inspiration & Lessons From #Ko8e24

There are moments in sports that everyone seems to rally around. Moments where inevitably people will watch and pay attention. From championship games to historic milestones, these moments are worth investing in. And, Kobe Bryant’s Jersey Retirement Ceremony is a good example of that.

The internet went crazy with content the day the Lakers retired his jersey. And, there was inspiration everywhere from the Lakers fantastic digital pieces to Bleacher Report’s array of unique content.

Below are a few highlights and takeaways from Kobe’s big jersey retirement day:

 

1 – Quantity requires diversification.

Bleacher Report pushed out a lot of content around Kobe’s jersey retirement. The difference between their push from others though is how much they vary their content. Bleacher Report has a tone of diversity in their content strategy from illustrations to tribute videos. Below are a few highlights:

Mamba Mentality. #Ko8e24

A post shared by Bleacher Report (@bleacherreport) on

What’s your favorite @KobeBryant shoe? @BR_Kicks

A post shared by Bleacher Report (@bleacherreport) on

The publisher mentality is detrimental to content performance unless pieces offer variety, value. Bleacher Report’s coverage of Kobe’s jersey retirement is a great example of that.

 

2- Dynamic can be simple.

The GIF below was one of the stronger pieces of content from the day. It’s simple, sure, but it’s eye-catching and evokes emotion. Good content doesn’t have to be complicated. This is the perfect example.

 

3 – Split screens are underrated.

There was something powerful about watching the split screen of the jersey’s rising and Kobe’s reaction. And while the split screen is often a broadcast play, it’s underrated as a specific social content piece.

A split screen execution can showcase different perspectives, evolution, comparison, tension. All of which work well in social. It might be time to think about incorporating them into your content arsenal.

 

4- There’s something about tension.

The Utah Jazz created a beautiful tribute video to Kobe. The Jazz did a beautiful job weaving in the story of Kobe, the Jazz and the love / hate. This wasn’t an instance of FOMO; they focused on the role their brand played in the story of Kobe. There’s a bit of tension in the piece and that’s what makes it work.

 

5- Access still wins.

The sports space is crowded now. The competition includes teams, leagues, bloggers, media and even fans. And in this crowded space, one thing most teams or leagues can offer that others can’t is access. No matter what, you always add value if you give a look behind the curtain.

@kobebryant takes the 🚁 in for tonight’s #ko8e24 ceremony!

A post shared by NBA (@nba) on

 

6- Long-form has its place.

The Lakers produced several, beautiful pieces on their site that allowed fans to dig deeper. From the chapters of his career to a unique piece on jerseys, their digital content fed the fans who wanted more Kobe content. Check out the two pieces below.

Social doesn’t always allow for the full story, so during big moments, we can’t neglect long form. If you deliver on the content and the design, fans will spend time consuming.

When it mattered, a lot of brands stepped up their content game yesterday to honor Kobe. What stood out most to you?

Why It’s Time To Abandon “Digital First”

It’s time to make “digital first” no longer a thing and “brand first” the focal point again.

It wasn’t long ago I was guilty of creating decks that had “digital first” plastered everywhere. But this industry evolves and changes. And when you think about the origin of the phrase, it caught fire because companies didn’t quite know how to tackle the space. They didn’t get how to build strategies around it. They didn’t get how to build teams for it. And, they didn’t get how to embed the thinking into their culture.

“Digital first” was a loud statement because there wasn’t enough investment in it. Something radical needed to shift within companies. Brands needed pioneers, renegades and wizards (hope you sense some sarcasm) to shape thinking that digital was the future.

Somewhere along the way, digital became this separate thing. A separate thing that often feels disconnected from a brand’s DNA. There’s this pressure to be everything to everyone or to resort to gimmicks for vanity metrics. “Digital first” became a very slippery slope.

It’s time to throw this thinking out. Digital is no longer new enough for new to be an excuse. It’s 2018. There are more than 3 billion internet users in the world. Digital should be innate to what we do as marketers.

Let’s step away from the gimmicks and get back to building our brands (through a customer-centric lens). We need to break down silos and bring marketing back to a 360 approach. Your digital channels shouldn’t feel separate from everything else.

All great marketing strategies start with a brand strategy. This means having a firm understanding of your mission, your values, your voice, your why. It’s not about gimmicks, retweets or short-lived vanity metrics.

Pivoting back to “brand first” means creating a more cohesive experience. Yes, digital will most likely be a driving force in the strategy, but the execution will reflect the brand through and through. And, that’s the business we’re in.

5 Social Media Lessons From The 2017 World Series Teams

The games during this year’s World Series have been exciting and fun to watch. And, that’s not the only thing. Both the Astros and Dodgers have hit it out of the park (sorry) with their social coverage. Below are five takeaways, strong visual identities to carefully curated feeds.

 

Your visual identity matters.

Creative is a reflection of your team, league or brand through and through. When people see content as they scroll through their feed, they should immediately know who it is coming from.

The Dodgers and Astros are both great examples of what it means to create a visual identity for your team. The creative is sharp, consistent and feels right for their brands.

Social is the front door to your brand. Make sure you’re putting your best foot forward visually.

 

Dry information is about the presentation.

Sometimes you have to plug information that’s simply not sexy. Things like game times and tune in info have to be pushed out, even if it’s not all that bright and shiny.

While the information might be dry, it’s still important to capture attention. Both teams have done a good job creating content around dry information that still catches the eye. The key is to focus on moving image and good design. A few examples below:

Almost game time! Some things to know ahead of first pitch. #EarnHistory

A post shared by Houston Astros (@astrosbaseball) on

Remember, design plays an important role in standing out from the noise. Even with dry information, it’s all about the presentation.

 

Curate, thoughtfully & carefully.

When you work in sports, it’s not about what happens on the field or court alone. It’s also about everything that surrounds it… before, during and after. When a fan glances at your account, it should tell the full story of you team or brand. Think about it as a snapshot.

The Dodgers do a fantastic job selecting photos and videos that tell the full story, from the stadium to the fans to in action. And, they also do a good job of varying the photos in style and angles. Below are a few examples:

#ThisTeam!! #WorldSeries | 📷: @jon.soohoo

A post shared by Los Angeles Dodgers (@dodgers) on

Soon. #WorldSeries #ThisTeam | 📷: @jon.soohoo

A post shared by Los Angeles Dodgers (@dodgers) on

#WorldSeries relationship goals. #ThisTeam | 📷: @jon.soohoo & @jill.weisleder

A post shared by Los Angeles Dodgers (@dodgers) on

@awood45 is DEALING! He's through five no-hit frames. #WorldSeries #ThisTeam | 📷: @jill.weisleder

A post shared by Los Angeles Dodgers (@dodgers) on

The Dodgers’ photography is outstanding. But on top of that, they carefully curate their feeds. They don’t share similar photos back to back to back. Instead, they focus on diversifying what they share both, both in subject and in style.

When you work in social, you play publisher. It’s important to think about the totality of all your posts and the story they tell together, not think of each one as a “one and done”. Curate thoughtfully and carefully to paint the full picture.

 

Hype is real.

Good content is about evoking an emotion or response in fans, especially when it comes to video content. And, nothing gets fans to share more than a good hype video. This below from the Dodgers is a perfect example of it.

World Series. Game 2. Let's go Dodgers!! #ThisTeam

A post shared by Los Angeles Dodgers (@dodgers) on

 

Try new formats.

In the battle for attention, it’s important to try new content formats and creative executions. Mixing up content keeps things fresh and fans interested, especially in this 365 day world where there is no offseason.

If you need an example of what this looks like, the Astros do a good job mixing up their content and creative executions, from the use of stop motion to illustrations.

‪Countless heroes last night, but it was @abreg_1 that delivered the final blow. #EarnHistory ‬

A post shared by Houston Astros (@astrosbaseball) on

‪The last minute miracle. ‬ ‪Here’s a look at @justinverlander’s road to the 2017 #WorldSeries. #EarnHistory‬

A post shared by Houston Astros (@astrosbaseball) on

It’s important to push creative thinking throughout the season so content does not get stale. Take a page from the Astros and leverage all kinds of formats to get your message and story across.

 
When you are on a big stage like the World Series, it’s so important to be prepared. It’s an opportunity to rally your community, earn new fans and elevate your brand. Both the Astros and Dodgers have seized the opportunity and it shines in their work.

The examples and lessons above scratch the surface of takeaways from both of these teams though. What stood out to you in their coverage? Share your thoughts below.