Highlights From The Knicks This Offseason

The offseason presents an interesting opportunity for teams to try new things. It’s a time where the scores don’t impact the approach. Teams can let personalities shine, show a different side to the organization and push the boundaries a little more. And, there’s something freeing about that.

The Knicks are one of the NBA teams whose offseason coverage has been strong. They haven’t been afraid to mix it up. From a fresh new graphics package to tapping into the NYC lifestyle, they’ve made the most of the offseason. Below are a few highlights that have stood out:

Lifestyle content.

Sports teams are lucky. They have a product that consumers want to identify with. It’s not just transactional. It’s emotional. And, as such, teams should tap into the opportunity.

This offseason, the Knicks created a “Knicks Summer” content series that shows how their brand is part of the fabric of their fans’ lives. In the series, they showcase fans doing NYC summer things and in Knicks gear of course. The creative feels like a lifestyle shoot that you would see from the likes of a Nike, Under Armour or adidas. Check out a few examples below:

All the feels. #KnicksSummer

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Summer Fridays. #KnicksSummer

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Summertime vibes. #KnicksSummer

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The content is relatable for their fans and effortlessly cool. If someone was scrolling through their feed it would be easy to think the content was coming from an IG style influencer. More teams should start thinking about all the ways their brand seeps into fans beyond the game. Content like this not only deepens the relationship with fans — but it also, for example, can help sell merchandise.

A look BTS.

From offseason training to watching the World Cup, the Knicks have done a good job of giving their fans a glimpse of what their players are up to this offseason. The content is simple but engaging, proving that behind-the-scenes content does not need to be a labor-intensive piece.


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6am call time ⏳

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🇫🇷🇫🇷🇫🇷 MOOD 🇫🇷🇫🇷🇫🇷 #WorldCup 🏆

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Rise Up.

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Behind-the-scenes content keeps the upcoming season top of mind for fans, while also, showing another side of the players and team. We could use a lot more of this type of content from teams. It adds a human element, is uniquely ownable for teams and helps develop a closer connection between fans and players.

Fresh Graphics Package.

The Knicks have experimented with a graphics package this offseason that is unbelievably fresh. It’s vibrant, at times gritty, and is able to manifest in many different ways. Below are some of their swipes for inspiration:

A strong visual identity should be a major focus for teams today. It helps set your content apart from the rest. And, this from the Knicks is a great example of how it’s done.

NYC Roots

Finally, the Knicks have done a good job tapping into the city they call home beyond the “Knicks Summer” series. First, they had an interesting series around the NBA Draft that compared player stats to NYC-centric stats. The result was an interesting and unique spin to typical stats that made them more relevant for their audience:

Secondly, their schedule release also had local flavor by tapping into local basketball courts and fans for their creative. 

If teams want to find a way to make their content more relatable, tapping into local flavor and insights is always good start. Not only does it help to build a stronger connection with your community, but it’s also an angle that teams can truly own.

If the Knicks’ social is not on your radar, it’s time to put them there. From their strong visual identity to their lifestyle angle, they’ve raised the bar this offseason. Follow them here: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. 

What other NBA teams have been doing good work this offseason? I would love to hear your thoughts below!

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Leadership Huddle With Brendan Hannan, LA Galaxy

Welcome to the second 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 Brendan Hannan, the VP of Marketing, Communications and Digital at the LA Galaxy and StubHub Center. Brendan has been with the club for more than five years, overseeing all facets of marketing for both the team and the StubHub Center. Prior to the LA Galaxy, he worked for the Chicago Fire.

During my conversation with Brendan, there were several things that stood out. First, their team is structured in a way that allows them to approach their work holistically. Every consumer touchpoint sits under one roof, so each channel works together to tackle what they’re trying to achieve. And second, their work is centered on doing what’s best for the brand, their team and the business. Their team has done the work needed to lay a strategic foundation on who they are as a brand and what they’re trying to achieve. And, because everyone understands the vision, it empowers their team to run with ideas as long as it maps back to the larger needs. It’s a perfect balance, allowing focus but also giving room to push and innovate.

It was evident in my conversation with Brendan that he’s a fantastic leader who understands the big picture. Below is the transcript of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for space and clarity. I hope you enjoy.

To start, can you give insight into your role and the team at the LA Galaxy?

What we have is sort of unique across sports in that we have everything sitting under one roof. So, marketing, communication, digital, game presentation, broadcast, video, operations, events and our supporter relations sits with me in a big team of around 28 people.

What it has allowed us to do is eliminate the silos you see at some other organizations. We try to make our collective decisions based on a couple key things. Is it good for our fans? Is it good for our players? And is it good for the city of Los Angeles?

Once we can answer those questions, everyone has the autonomy within the structure and the group to proceed. Obviously, we have checks and balances and we work as a group, but there is a lot of strong collaboration that goes across the board. We are able to make sure everything we do is aligned with one over-arching vision.

In essence, we act as a mini-agency for the club and the facility. So any story that needs to be amplified comes through us whether that is driving revenue through ticket sales, creating content for global partners, creating programming and content for the foundation – we work cross-functionally across the board to make it happen.

I love this. And, I think it’s a challenge I’ve had in roles throughout my career: How are we holistically telling our story across consumer touchpoints?

There’s always a challenge for that. I think we’re all sort of beholden to the revenue and the all mighty idea of ROI. I probably consider myself a creative and have focused on storytelling and brand building, but I learned early on that you have to translate that storytelling to be able to sell what you are doing and show that ROI.

It’s taking the numbers that you get and making sure you are telling those stories as well. Often times, those stories are just as important. I mean, we all want more money or more headcount (more money to do these creative things), but a lot of times you want to make sure you’re not always beholden to ROI but that you are ahead of the game.

That’s one thing that I’ve learned.  At the end of the day, we have to look at everything holistically and how it maps back to the bigger picture. With that said, can you talk about the role digital and creative plays within the organization with the larger business needs?

Yeah, for sure. People are our biggest resource. With the team we have here at the LA Galaxy, everyone understands that showing revenue is important. You have to think about the brand, but we also have a direction where we can show the results. We try to utilize the creative and storytelling as a vehicle for us to drive that revenue. And then, we make sure we are merchandising those things across our organization. I think we are able to do that. 

We think that creative content, well designed social and good digital strategy will always lead to more revenue – we just make sure the storytelling we are investing in applies to our brand as we’re trying to show that ROI.

For people that are looking to advocate more for their work, especially as it relates to decision makers within their organization, what the biggest piece of advice you have?

The budget challenges or the silos that can exist within organizations can frustrate a lot of people. But, I would push everyone to keep on pushing. There is always a way to find an opportunity to get something done. I think being creative does not always just apply to the stories that you are telling; it also applies to the method that you are ensuing and building the brand with the budget that you have.

Communication is key when trying to eliminate a silo or getting something done. You have to vocalize what’s important to the brand and why it’s relevant to the business as a whole. Whether you start small or whether you have a seat at the table with the president or chairman, articulating why it’s important is crucial to getting anything accomplished.

How has the role evolved over the years?

It’s evolved slightly. When I first got here, I was doing the communications, digital and broadcast. After about two years, I took over the marketing pieces of it and we have been able to continue to grow and finesse that. It’s trying to have a level head and putting together strategic plans.

Planning is key for us. Being able to come up with a creative idea is one thing, but being able to put all the planning together is another. Making sure that everything is detailed and aligned across the entire business is really important to us.

That’s (the planning) something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, especially as it relates to burnout and the frenzy within. There’s this internal pressure to be everywhere and everything to everyone. And, I feel like having a strong leadership voice because you can’t do it all. Can you talk about how you have set the team?

Things start at the top. Our leadership trusts us and believes in what we’re doing. We try to present very detailed plans and ways in which we want to do it. At the end of the day, they trust us to get the job done. And when you have that level of trust at the top you can emulate that across the organization.

We try to understand the stresses that can go on, so we make sure that we have a collective group that can contribute. Everyone knows the tone and voice and everyone understands the way in which we want to be represented, so it does not need to be one sole person handling that social and digital. The tone and voice are pervasive across everything we are trying to do.

We understand that work-life balance is important. People need to take breaks and go on vacation, so having a group that can fill in is in crucial.

Can you dive into how many people you have working on digital/social and what your creative arm looks like?

When you say everyone can pick up and do everything, that’s pretty literal. We have three people dedicated to digital/social every day. Chris Thomas, Vanessa Alexander and I come up with the direction and overarching strategy across all of our business units. On the digital side Andrew Schwepfinger, Chris Hybl and Adam Serrano serve as the digital hub while Christian Delarosa handles the email. Content is a little different. We have a video team of 2.5 and a creative team of 2.5 people led by Brad Saiki. That team puts together a lot of the day-to-day, but I would not say that anyone is working on “just digital”. 

For example, right now our creative director (Brad Saiki) is working on a mural for our garden, ticket sales templates and creative visual communication for social. Everyone is multi-faceted. In MLS it’s crucial because of how nimble you have to be with our business and our budget.

I also think it’s interesting from a growth perspective to have to have that type of structure. It’s important for people, especially early in their career, to be exposed to a holistic view of marketing. Your structure allows them to understand all pieces of the business (from a marketing perspective).  

Yeah, I think everyone needs to have an understanding of all the different things. From my perspective, it’s always a challenge to put labels on something. I think communications is marketing. I think digital is marketing. I think digital is a communications tool. At the end of the day, throw out the label. Everyone is going to have a certain level of expertise, but the broad understanding of how to grow brand relevance is something that everyone within the organization has to have.

I love that. I always say that digital is marketing and marketing is digital. We almost need to rid with titles. We get too caught up in the tactics and not enough in the big picture. 

You know, we talked about planning. For me, that is so important. The day-to-day stuff can become a grind, but it is certainly essential to the business. As you become more experienced in your role you have to force yourself to think conceptually. And you have to think about the future — what does one year look like, three years, 10 years? That type of conceptual thinking is challenging, but I think the more that you can start that type of thinking with your younger staff and instill in them the conceptual idealism it helps them grow and helps them see the bigger picture. 

You nailed it when you said it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day, especially in sports. What advice do you have for teams trying to shift the thinking and engraining strategic thinking into their roles?

You have to have a little bit of a sense of humor. We work in a business where you can control some of the results, but we can’t control what happens with the game of play. We can prepare when the key moment hits, but you can’t control a lot of the other stuff. You have to understand that fans are passionate and they love their team. If you are working in the day-to-day social, you have to understand that not every day is going to be easy. 

With the right planning and the right team around you, you can get through the challenging part with the understanding that we are all working in sport. We are trying to bring joy and excitement to people’s lives. So when times are tough and people are all up in your mentions, being able to respond playfully if the moment requires it or take it on the chin and figure out what the best message is next is usually the best advice. 

What do you see as the biggest challenge and how teams offset that challenge?

I think the biggest challenge is always budget – but again, if you have the idea and the proper planning, I think most organizations will provide you the budget that you need. And if it’s not the exact budget you were hoping for, that’s when you have to get creative to make sure you’re able to make something happen with the budget you have negotiated for. That challenge exists everywhere. No one is naive that the goal is to grow revenue and try to reduce the expenses. As a marketer, digital person, or anyone that works within a business, you have to recognize that and recognize the best way to tell the story.

Last question. What excites you most about the future of digital?

I’m always excited about what’s next. I think the most exciting thing is that people are always trying to innovate in the space and that pushes others to innovate. Being able to be challenged by others and try to be competitive and be the best in your field is always exciting to me. Production value and the time and energy that is put into social now is constantly asking others to be challenged and see where they can improve.

Also, there’s an opportunity to invent and reinvent. This year, Zlatan Ibrahimovic announced his signing with the LA Galaxy with a full-page newspaper ad in the LA Times. It’s such an old form of media compared to the digital space, but it got picked up, people shared it on social and people talked about it. Trying to reinvent and play with all the mediums is exciting.

A big thank you to Brendan Hannan for you his time and perspective. Connect with him: LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram.  And, be sure to follow the LA Galaxy across digital for some great inspiration. 

And, if you enjoyed his conversation, be sure to read the conversation with Graham Neff

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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!

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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. 

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Bringing Fans Into the Fold

During Hashtag Sports several weeks ago, I listened in on a panel about B/R’s House of Highlights. And, there was one point made that stuck out to me:

We have to meet fans where they are. It’s not about control, but making content accessible. See the big picture and don’t operate in fear.

Bleacher Report’s acquisition of House of Highlights was a smart move because they understood their audience was there. Instead of trying to shift where fans are consuming (which is hard to do) they went to them. For B/R, House of Highlights was a strong touch point to reach their core consumer.

This idea got me thinking. Teams, leagues, etc. spend a lot of time focusing on their own social channels, distribution and growth. These things are important, but there’s another layer to ALSO think about. And, it’s how can we lift conversation around our brand and get more eyes on our content?

Instead of trying to shift how and where people consume our content, we need to start thinking about how to make our content accessible. We need to start asking some hard questions and think about distribution differently, especially with the rise of algorithms and clutter online.

Athletes are an obvious choice to help distribute content. Most teams and leagues understand they should be thinking about that, but we don’t really talk about the fan’s role in content distribution. And I wonder, is this something we should consider?

Think about it. PGC brands pay a lot of money for influencers and even micro-influencers to share on behalf of the brand. They lean on them for product launches, brand campaigns and pulling in a new audience.

In sports, we don’t have to find people to pay to share on behalf of our brand. In sports thousands, even millions,of fans, would consider it an honor to be share something from the brand. We’re extremely lucky in that respect. And, it’s something we should not take for granted. Fans can help us reach a new audience while also adding a level of credibility. Yes, word of mouth still matters.

“Wallpaper Wednesday” is a small example of an appetite to align themselves with their favorite team. Fans love them, ask for them, expect them. And, it’s a small example of how teams have thought about catering to their fans and their own channels (or devices).

Let’s take it a step further though. Is there an opportunity for teams to create a bigger mechanism for fans to spread the word about games, initiatives, milestones, etc. on a consistent basis? I keep going back to the idea of creating a “VIP virtual fan club” where fans are granted access to an exclusive group. This would be about making fans active participants vs passive participants, encouraging and empowering them to share their passion for the team.

What could this “VIP, virtual fan club” be about or include? While this is in no way a flushed out plan or concept, here are some general ideas (simply to get the wheels turning).

What’s the general idea of a VIP virtual fan club?
It’s a virtual group of people who love the team and want to advocate on behalf of the brand. The team should help empower (and thank) this group to share their passion for the team, and also, help generate conversation and community.

What it needs to be successful.
The virtual fan club needs to feel exclusive enough where people feel part of something special, but also, large enough to make an impact.

The group needs a community manager from the team and a “meeting” channel for them to feel part of something bigger. For example, a closed Facebook group could work for this or even a Slack channel. The channel should feel community driven. It’s a place where the team can help curate conversation and also distribute content for the fans to use on their own channels easily.

What could the “virtual club” provide to teams?
From a digital perspective, these people become another avenue to distribute content. The content can range from video series to things like All-Star Vote or reminders about tickets going on sale. Teams would have to focus on content that people actually want to share — like hype graphics — that connects on an emotional level and gets people excited. By empowering and encouraging fans to share content created by the team on their own channels, you’ll reach a new audience and add a level of credibility (people still trust peers more than brands).

Additionally, this group can become a focus group for your team. They can give insight into what they look for in content, feedback on the game experience, etc. It’s an opportunity for the organization to connect with fans on a personal level outside of season ticket holders.

What do they get it in return?
Exclusivity and community can go a long way when executed right. Showing appreciation and giving fans a voice is often a reward in itself. Additionally, the group can be surprised with swag throughout the year, discounts and even group meetups hosted by the team.

What’s the evolution?
Maybe, this becomes a larger membership play where teams open it up to anyone who asks to join. This would allow teams to get first-hand data of their fans vs relying so much on social channels (owned vs borrowed). I realize to scale would take a large commitment, but maybe fans feeling like active participants could pay large dividends (and again, you would actually own this data).

And yes, there are things to think through.
As mentioned, this is not a complete plan or even a concept. Teams would need to understand the resources that this would take, how to exactly track results and understand the risks and rewards.

That said, we shouldn’t underestimate how much our fans want to be part of our organizations. There’s something powerful and interesting about the idea of a community where fans feel part of the journey and teams actually own the data. Let’s work on making our fans active participants vs passive participants. If we can crack that code, it could be a really powerful thing.

I would love to hear any ideas you have about bringing fans more into the fold? And, have you seen any teams that have done this particulary well?

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