The NCAA Goes Full-Court Press On Its Social Strategy

ChrisDionNCAAThe National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has no trouble getting people interested in March Madness, when the fans are rabid. It’s the rest of the year that poses a challenge.

“The hardest thing is that we have a brand everyone wants to be a part of – but only at the end,” said Chris Dion, the NCAA’s assistant director of digital and social media for championships and alliances.

The championships and alliances department puts on 90 national championships in 24 sports across three divisions. Dion and his group manage 57 social accounts.

But when March rolls around, it’s all about basketball. “Things go to a whole other level during the Final Four,” Dion said.

In addition to the championship games, the NCAA also hosts a three-day music festival, dribble clinic for kids, autograph signings and giveaways, all of which people can attend without buying tickets to a game.

The social chatter ramps up exponentially, making it hard to pinpoint signals in the noise, especially when fans don’t use the NCAA’s official handle or hashtags.

That’s why the NCAA started working with Geofeedia, a location-based social insights company that tracks geotagged social posts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

For the 2015 men’s Final Four event in Indianapolis, the NCAA used Geofeedia to draw geofences around the perimeter of the main stadium, the convention center, two airports, a number of area hotels and other event-related locations.

“That let us serve up-to-date information to people who were actually at the Final Four, not just talking about the Final Four,” said Dion.

AdExchanger caught up with Dion to talk about the NCAA’s growing focus on social.

AdExchanger: What is the NCAA trying to achieve with its social strategy?

CHRIS DION: The NCAA made a commitment about four or five years ago to enter the social space, not necessarily to control or moderate the conversation, but to advocate for our student-athletes and tell stories about what our brand means to the world. We focus on the games and athlete stories while weaving in some brand communications.

Why did you guys gets interested in location-based tech?

It’s not something that interests us so much as something that’s required.

Three years ago we were trying to listen to the firehouse that is the conversation around the Final Four. But figuring out if a customer is at your event, in your arena or even in the US is actually really difficult. You can sift through it manually, but when the conversation is trending for three full days, it’s pretty much impossible to manage.

We use Geofeedia to try and solve for that by letting us literally draw a fence around the event spaces and monitor what’s going on socially with fans, whether that’s a ticketing problem, a customer service issue or security concerns.

The other benefit is that the marketing side is starting to capture these people so we can alert them to other events going on or use it as an opportunity to get them to download our app. We’re creating a hard audience of people we know attended our event, rather than just targeting off the fact they they used the Final Four hashtag.

Do you use social data for targeting in other channels?

For us, it’s mainly a brand play, but a portion of our social and digital strategy does revolve around ticketing for the championship events. Ticketing is a major part of our marketing strategy.

Starting last year, our marketing team really started to see the value in leveraging digital assets to assist them in selling tickets. We did quite a bit of retargeting, especially using Facebook Ads and Google AdWords. In other words, taking a warm lead – someone who visited our website – and trying to convert them to a ticket buy.

But our fan profiles aren’t what I would call super-complete. If someone visited the site but didn’t attend a game, we don’t know why. We try to glean as much as we can but, quite frankly, we don’t have very rich fan profiles at this time.

How is the NCAA evolving its customer database?

It’s mainly held in our marketing department, and the social and digital teams sit outside of that. We’re collecting a lot of data onsite, like name, address, phone number and email, but we would love to get to the point where we can start attaching things like fandom information, social profiles and team assignments.

We’re also trying to create a singular data repository. Last year a big project of ours was merging a few databases together. This year we’re going to look into how we can make our profiles more robust.

How do you home in on the right social conversations?

We have 335 member schools just in Division I, so it’s hard to tell a complete story. We use a tool called CrowdTangle to locate hot conversations and social buzz. Geofeedia is another layer of social isolation that we can use to pull out the right people in certain locations.

Will you be feeding that into into your customer profiles?

That is clearly the next step. We’re admittedly behind the ball on this, but we are thinking about how to match those people and use social as a way to connect the dots. But what’s the most useful is that it allows us to take a national conversation down to a one-on-one level.

A few years ago we had what I would call a blast strategy. We might post something like, “Here’s how to handle the problems we’re having with security” – but it’s not necessary for people who aren’t at the event to see that message. Clearly, some things need to be broadcast to the larger group, but we don’t need to air our dirty laundry to everyone via social.

Most of your teams have Twitter and/or Facebook accounts. What about other platforms?

We use Instagram and we’re also dabbling in Snapchat. We know Snapchat is the future as far as youth goes. But the biggest problem is resources because we’re not in the physical locations where the sports are happening. We’ve done a pilot with our women’s basketball program where we gave them shared access to our Snapchat account to let our membership help tell the story.

What sort of content do you produce?

It would be great if we were ESPN and had access to all of the live TV and highlights our athletes produce, but we don’t have regular season rights to any of the TV broadcasts until the championship.

I work with my team to create a sports conversation out of nothing mainly using social graphics in order to move traffic from social onto our dot-com website. And then when the championship rolls around, it’s our job is to become the authority in the space.

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