One of the most important annual sports events in America just got under way. An event you may not recognise by its official title - the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament - but will certainly know from its more common nickname: March Madness.
Featuring 68 men’s basketball teams from colleges across the US, March Madness will determine the national champion. Every aspect of it has been written into US sports lore - Selection Sunday, the First Four, the Final Four and of course the brackets which fans fill in with their predictions.
While the NBA teams will watch keenly to make decisions on future talent, digital media professionals will pay close attention off the court: at the social media content produced by each college’s in-house team.
For as long as social media has existed, US college sports teams have been at the forefront of how to use it effectively.
In one of my previous roles, leading global sports for Twitter, if you had asked anyone on our team which team was most creative in its use of the products we offered at that time, eg Vine (God rest its soul), more often than not the answer you would have heard would have been: Clemson Tigers. Often specifically Clemson Football, but it shows how NCAA teams can create a global reputation on social media and basketball is no different.
How come college teams are seen as leading lights on digital?
NCAA football is big business but the success of all athletic programs is taken seriously by colleges and therefore heavily invested in. It has to be - college sports is a fiercely competitive environment with ticket and merchandise sales and TV contracts all in play. Men’s basketball is second only to football for the revenue it generates for colleges. To win you need the best players which means recruiting top talent from high schools and college teams have found the most effective tactic for making themselves attractive to that talent is: social media.
All of which means the 68 teams competing at March Madness will be generating plenty of social media content and the smart observers from the digital sports industry will be watching.
However 68 teams is a lot to monitor, so your ever-loving digital sports consultants at Seven League reviewed all of them in the build-up to the tournament to see which ones we think are especially worthy of your attention. We reduced it to our very own Elite Eight but we'd be interested to know which ones you rate the highest on social media.
*For fans of British English v American English, I've referred to the teams below as plural (ie their use of social media) rather than singular (its use of social media). Either is perfectly fine and no further correspondence will be entered into on the subject. Let's focus on the content, fellow grammar geeks.
Very good, unique and stylised use of graphics including on Instagram hype videos. The one here is a thing of beauty.
All social media posts should include one of the big four of rich media: video, photos, gifs and graphics. Duke's social media shows a perfect understanding of this with both their Instagram and Twitter bios linking to their own channel on Giphy. Additionally they have an authentic, exclusive series called Blue Planet, published on Facebook, YouTube and IGTV. This has seen 21 episodes within 6 months with 1.3M views on YouTube and 2.4M views on Instagram.
The Wildcats have a series called Beyond the Bench and the team is also the subject of This is Kentucky Basketball. Social media is used effectively to trail these and also to showcase the players and their stories.
The Terrapins make good use of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook including Facebook Live with nice interaction. Their use of graphics stands out in timeline and remember - social media is an attention economy where standing out from the crowd is a must. This Twitter thread does just that. - clear messaging in vibrant, interactive infographics.
"One Fly / We All Fly" is a nice call-to-action which players can also engage with. The Volunteers make use of Instagram including takeovers, IGTV and Highlight Stories.
One of the things Seven League preaches to our clients is Building to Brilliance, where you build a world-class social media presence from the ground up, starting with basics such as bios. It's good to see last year's buzzer-beating champions Villanova reflect their 2018 achievement in their bios. Elsewhere it's a good roster of social media accounts all of which link to a live audio station within TuneIn known as Villanova Sports Network. Merchandise is promoted well, Twitter is used for polling, and there is a basketball-specific podcast.
The Cavaliers have a good presence on Instagram - almost the same number of followers there as on Facebook which hints at a younger audience. The majority of their Instagram posts are video which makes for an engaging channel. There is also a focus on live video over on Facebook.
The Badgers have a mini-site for statistics coverage - easier to view when events are in-progress but linked to from here. On social, there is a nice mix of rich media's big four (photos, video, graphics and gifs). The university has unique accounts on social for 'give back'.