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Experts’ Roundtable: Strategic Marketing

By Eric Nichols, Shelley Binegar, Ayo Taylor-Dixon, Crag Pintens
11 min read

What job responsibility of administrators in your position do you believe requires the most amount of time & bandwidth, but the least amount of return on investment?


Eric Nichols (Senior Assoc. AD for Marketing & Branding / CMO @ South Carolina): I believe game atmosphere would be the broad category that fits the question. Don’t get me wrong, I feel it is critically important to our enterprise, but it is an area that is never complete, never satisfactory. It is virtually impossible to adequately please the wide array of target audiences for a gameday experience. Music selection, commercialism, video, energy creation and traditions all must weave together and appeal to a recruit, a coach, an elderly fan and a child. I enjoy the challenge but there is also a lot of time devoted to something that doesn’t have a clear winning formula (besides winning the game, of course).


Shelley Binegar (Assoc. AD for External Operations / SWA @ East Carolina): Listening to sales pitches from vendors. It’s a hard thing to balance. Keeping up with software, hardware, facility improvements, new technology, etc… is an important component of the position. An organization can’t afford to be too far behind competitors and/or miss an opportunity to be on the cutting edge, but with so many new companies popping up daily and technology changing so quickly, there are a lot of sales people calling and trying to get “time.” I don’t feel like it is an area I can delegate since it requires knowledge of budgets, strategic plans and decision-making authority, but it also sucks up a lot of time.  Rarely do we end up buying any of the products, but for the one time we do, it’s important. Additionally, building relationships with vendors is essential. Situations don’t always allow you to purchase a product where you are currently working. However, it doesn’t mean you won’t be able to at your next job. Having knowledge of what’s out there, who’s using it, and how it can benefit a university is critical to moving any department forward.


Ayo Taylor-Dixon (Senior Assoc. AD for Fan Engagement @ Minnesota):  Personnel. I know that may seem like an odd answer since people, at scale, are essentially the basis for any ROI, but hear me out. Managing, hiring, making staff changes and developing people requires the most amount of time and therefore the front-end processes are so important to get right! Talent identification and selection is an inexact science, but it’s quite the process to conduct a search for an open position, hire that individual, get them relocated and then get them up speed so they can be effective in their new role all while making sure you maintain your other responsibilities.


It can take a while for the process to play out and some time for that person to get settled. Hopefully that individual works out, but if not you could be back at square one. Conducting thorough & intentional searches to secure the right personnel is very important, otherwise you might be doing it all over again.


Craig Pintens (Senior Assoc. AD for Marketing & Public Relations @ Oregon): If you are looking at a ratio of the amount of time and bandwidth spent on a task and focused on the lack of return on investment, you could spend a lot of time arguing for essentially any function in college athletics. Our staff spends a lot of time on social media, yet it is difficult to understand the correlation there is to revenue. We spend a lot of time ensuring that the entire fan experience from ticket purchase to driveway is enjoyable, yet how do we quantify the new paint on the concourse? How do we quantify the adjustment in parking lot attendants to ease entry into the lot? How is the amount of band music versus canned music quantifiable?


In the past year, we have made the 360 degree fan experience at football and men’s basketball a point of emphasis, by regularly surveying our fans. Although this provides some quantifiable data points that has resulted in some changes, we are unsure of what the return on investment ultimately will be. At the end of the day, a happy fan spends more, so we need to do everything we can to make as many people as happy as possible.


Snapchat & Instagram clearly believe the future of communication is visual & given the growth of each, it’s hard to argue their positions. How has your marketing team adjusted to meet this societal shift?


Nichols (South Carolina): First of all, it is a moving target. I firmly believe the most important attribute one must have in today’s marketing administration is the ability to be nimble and adjust to the market shifts as quickly as possible. We have adjusted in two ways. We are currently in the midst of a hiring spree that is solely dedicated to how we communicate in the digital space. In the end we will be doubling our creative staff in an effort to better brand ourselves on social.


We have also begun a strategic change which is a bit difficult for longer term marketing administrators like me. Branding is no longer won in a single spot or campaign but rather for 24/7, 365. With that in mind, we have removed almost all calls to action within our content.


Binegar (East Carolina): There’s no doubt communication is moving quickly and steadily toward less text and more visual content whether it’s graphics, photos or video. Compared to some other schools we may be slightly behind the social media curve, but over the past year we have launched a Snapchat account as well as increased our presence on Instagram. The growth we have seen in followers and post engagements has been tremendous. Without having the benefit of a social/digital media director or dedicated staff, we have found success using our student-athletes to help us populate these accounts and show the behind-the-scenes perspective. For instance, we’ll work with a baseball player prior to an away weekend to give him access to our main account as well as some guidelines on what to post and when. We’ve experienced extremely positive feedback from fans as well as having the added benefit of having one-on-one conversations with some of our more high-profile student-athletes regarding their social media usage.


In addition to increasing photos and graphics on social media we have also “beefed” up our video production. We were able to  move a videographer from our video services department into our marketing department. His sole responsibility is to produce videos, ranging from :30 seconds to five minutes, which engage our fans and tell our story. These include everything from highlight videos after big wins, to features on student-athletes, to a lip sync music video. Through one video we were able to reach over 2 million people in the span of just a few weeks. We were never seeing this type of reach through written word. Prioritizing an increased focus to these areas has certainly added to the responsibilities of our marketing team. We are still working through redefining job descriptions, shifting duties, and trying to figure out the most efficient and effective way to tackle the ever-growing monster that is social media.


Taylor-Dixon (Minnesota): I think we are making some changes, but the landscape as a whole is moving so fast it can be hard to truly evaluate each new feature and/or bell and whistle. You do not really get an extended period of trial and error before things shift so you have to evaluate things quickly and decide to go all in on a particular platform or feature or pass. You really have to be nimble and stay true to your strategy or philosophy and not chase features just because they are new.


Pintens (Oregon): Snapchat and Instagram have become very important in reaching key demographics and can provide instantaneous behind the scenes glimpses into your athletic program. We have an outstanding staff with John Brewer, our Assistant Athletic Director of Marketing and Brandon Barca, our Director of Multimedia Integration. Brandon has set our digital strategy and been extremely focused on remaining native in each social medium.


We want to continue to expand our leadership position on Instagram and have been fortunate to collaborate with Instagram on a few recent stories. Obviously, they are no longer on Instagram as they disappear, but here are two we released on the day of a game that were repurposed on Twitter.


Which professional sports organizations or Fortune 500 brands are executing best on- and off-line? What can collegiate marketers learn from each?


Nichols (South Carolina): I am very intrigued by Bleacher Report and the agency owned by Wasserman called Laundry Service and their content machine Cycle. Many of us in sports haven’t figured out how to best monetize the impressions and influence created in the social space. Both of the above mentioned are really innovating in how they integrate brands into creative sponsored content that doesn’t feel forced or too intrusive. The content adds value.


We are just as guilty as others in the sponsored social space in that we place a logo on a graphic and call it a day, but it’s not through a lack of trying. Not only does a department have to change a mentality of selling social, but the client has to understand as well. Many times there have been very successful content pieces we have produced that were pitched but not closed primarily because the client wasn’t comfortable with the idea or didn’t fully understand.


Binegar (East Carolina): It’s hard for me to admit as I find some of their ads annoying, but Burger King has gotten my attention. What they have done with their social media accounts and advertising dollars over the past few years is impressive. From popping up at the Mayweather fight to being in Bob Baffert’s suite at the Belmont Stakes during American Pharoah’s pursuit of the Triple Crown to proposing the McWhopper, they are proving that if you are creative and fearless the sky truly is the limit. Too often we are victims of paralysis by analysis and miss golden opportunities, especially in higher education. We love to debate and talk things to death. Burger King is capitalizing on social media exactly the way social media is meant to be used… spontaneously. They are spending considerably less money than their competitors (last figure I saw was 4:1 compared to McDonald’s) and growing their market share. The stunt at the Belmont Stakes reportedly only cost $200,000 and netted them ten-fold in media attention. As marketers we can all learn a valuable lesson from them – sometimes you just have to jump (and remember to have fun doing it).


Taylor-Dixon (Minnesota): Starbucks, Starbucks, Starbucks. Starbucks is doing an outstanding job with its mobile app and has been for a number of years. I think we should rip the band aid off in the college space and just fully embrace immersive app experiences, which can bring significant fan experience upgrades. If you hang out in a Starbucks for a couple of hours you’ll see people of all ages utilizing their mobile app to either order in advance and pick up or pay for their order at the counter or reload their apps with more money.


The app is extremely user friendly and I am sure they are collecting a tremendous amount of data that is probably shaping some of their future decision-making. The data collection and analyzation is where I feel most in collegiate athletic departments are not maximizing their potential.


Pintens (Oregon): Given our unique relationship with Nike, we constantly follow their incredible creativity and execution of various campaigns. We have been fortunate to collaborate on a few projects and are always impressed on the thoroughness and execution of a campaign.


Our staff is encouraged to not specifically follow what any one team or organization is doing, but rather finding the best ideas and trying to either enhance or modify into something we could execute. If you are only influenced by one team or organization, you will lose the ability to create your own campaign or voice.


Execution is the key factor in any successful campaign and is often forgotten, as often more time is spent on coming up with the next great idea. The marketing graveyard is full of ideas that lacked execution.


Google’s ad exchange has been under fire over the past week for some brand advertisements appearing alongside extremist or offensive content. Have you had conversations with your digital partners and/or your internal team on how your own campaigns have been handled? Does the overall situation impact how you think about digital advertising in the near future?


Nichols (South Carolina): We don’t do much of any standard display ads anymore so this hasn’t been a huge issue for us. It has come into consideration as we are going deeper into the YouTube :06 placements and it certainly has given us pause. Having your brand on the same page as extremist content is obviously very jarring and needs to be avoided if at all possible.


As for the future, I think this issue has the potential to provide a much needed reboot to the digital ad landscape. Many digital ad placements are still too intrusive and provide a poor user experience.


Binegar (East Carolina): Honestly, we’ve never discussed it.  With what has happened recently with Google the topic has now made its way on my to-do list. The situation definitely impacts how we will think and handle digital advertising in the future. Not to say we will drastically change anything, but I can guarantee a lot more questions will be asked before a purchase is made.


Taylor-Dixon (Minnesota): All of our content is excluded from showing on explicit sites, but does not cover sites like Breitbart that some would find to be offensive. We can manually block these types of sites so our ads no longer appear. The person who found these ads must have fit under one of the above targeting methods in our geo in order for the ad to show to them on a site like Breitbart.


I think going forward we will block more sites in advance regardless of user behavior.


Pintens (Oregon): We are not currently advertising anything digitally, therefore we have not had any issues. We are aware of the situation. I do not think it will have a tremendous impact on digital advertising, as companies in the space will adapt and arguably become better at placement based on market conditions.