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Marketing Gamecock athletics is more than just fun and games for communications staff

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Game day at USC isn’t just fun and games. For the Gamecocks’ marketing and communications team, it’s the culmination of strategy and planning to carry out a detailed communications plan that stays true to the USC message.

On Tuesday, the South Carolina chapter of the Public Relations Society of American hosted its monthly professional development lunch in the press box at Williams Brice Stadium as the backdrop to a panel discussion. More than 70 Midlands-area communications professionals met six members of the Gamecocks Athletics marketing and communications team to learn about strategies they use to target and engage audiences ranging from recruits and game day fans to donors and national news media.

It’s all about the message, said USC Head Football Coach Will Muschamp, as he kicked off the meeting. He explained that marketing a football program is no different than marketing any product, program or service.

“In terms of message and marketing, everyone has to be on the same page,” Muschamp said.

Panel members frequently echoed Muschamp’s emphasis on message and brand. Chief Marketing Officer Eric Nichols said it’s all about focus. And for the USC football program, that focus is aimed solely at “recruiting and selling our program.”

Nichols said thanks to Muschamp’s focus on a single message, “We now have a clean concise focus to do the best we can for USC.” This despite the challenge of balancing many stakeholders and needs – the football program, fans, licensing and endorsements, alumni, the administration and corporate sponsors, to name a few.

“We use everything – video boards, web sites, TV shows, social media – to promote our brand on game day and during the week,” said Paul Danna, director of Gamecock Productions. “We promote student athletes. We support the coaches.”

Danna noted the message and focus about Gamecock Athletics is on all sports, not just football. “We are here to give all our programs the tools they need to be successful.”

And part of that laser focus is on the strategic use of social media.

Digital and Social Media Manager Brittany Lane presented a game day social media plan that sounded more like a complicated wartime assault than the fun posts and videos we’ve come to know and love from the Gamecocks.

“Fan engagement is our primary goal,” Lane said. “Social media is intended for engagement, and that’s what we are seeking.”

The engagement comes from pushing the university’s own content and showcasing content from fans. Lane also explained that the Gamecocks communications team also uses the platforms as a customer service touchpoint to answer questions immediately.

“We may answer the same question many times – what time is the game, how do I find the game on TV, where do I park – but we try to answer every person and answer them quickly,” Lane said.

Carefully scripted game day posts across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat involve using targeted strategies and content to reach their audiences.

As a new addition last season, the Gamecocks communications team began producing video for Instagram stories using quickly delivered 10-second clips from the production cameras throughout games, Lane said. Facebook Live also became an integral part of the strategy last season with the stadium video board broadcasting the live feeds.

Understanding that Facebook’s algorithms favor video, Lane said that short “hype videos” claim a large part of the social media real estate on game days.

“We want to show fans the experience of things you can’t get by watching at home – tailgating, high-fives with Cocky,” Lane explained.

These videos also serve to show recruits one-of-a-kind experiences like being on the field during Sandstorm. Social media is a big piece of recruitment strategy, Lane said.

Making that video magic happen is what Justin King, associate athletic director for new and creative media, does. King said his role is to “make content that is a tool for coaches to help recruit and get strong athletes on campus. We create content that tells the stories that need to be told” to help interest possible recruits in USC.

King’s goal is for people to see the content produced and say “oh this is really good, and I need to share it with others.”

“We want to create good, effective content that has heart,” King said.” When fans watch anything we put out, I hope they will come away proud and excited. When recruits watch it, I want them to think ‘I want to be a part of that.’”

But there’s more to this strategy than the just a digital approach. A strong traditional media relations component is equally as important as what’s being pushed on social media.

As associate athletics director for media relations, Steve Fink is responsible for working with reporters across all media.

“Our game day is the culmination of a weeks-long process of educating folks,” Fink said. “Out-of-town reporters aren’t as educated as our local folks about the university and our program, so part of my week is to educate as much as possible.”

Fink provides reporters with every possible resource to get them up to speed on all things Gamecock – media guides, news clips, a game day package, information about what’s going on across campus, facilities. Often this background information leads to a sports network reporter’s pre-game story on game day.

Later in the week before a game, Fink sits down with the network talent, the coach and a few of the players to talk through game day. He also spends time with the coach to talk through questions to expect during the game day press conference.

“Every day is different,” Fink said.

Among the more than 70 communications professionals attending the SCPRSA meeting, many don’t work for organizations that have the staff and resources to duplicate the wide range of work of the USC Athletics marketing team.

“There were a number of take-aways from these panel members that are relevant to any strong strategic communications program,” said SCPRSA President Kelly Davis

  • Focus on message. Without that commitment at the top to the message, it’s easy to get waylaid with tactics that may not reach your goal.
  • Constantly evaluate. Keep a close eye on what works and what doesn’t.
  • Be there to capture everything. Video is key.
  • Leverage what makes you different. Showcase inside access.
  • Pay attention to pop culture when developing a social media plan.

For more information about SCPRSA and its statewide programming for public relations professionals, visit www.scprsa.org or @SCPRSA.


About Reba Hull Campbell

When not working to promote the interests of SC cities and towns as Deputy Executive Director of the Municipal Association of SC, Reba is passionate about travel, writing, playing the uke and keeping connected with old friends. Reba can be reached at rebahcampbell@gmail.com or through her blog at http://randomconnectpoints.blogspot.com.

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