SBJ/Jan. 16-22, 2017/Colleges

How Clemson has nailed it on social media

On the ground during the CFP with the digital group everyone is talking about

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As the buses carrying Clemson’s national championship football team rolled onto campus last week, a member of the school’s social media team sat near the front in a seat normally reserved for a coach. From there, Brian Hennessy shot the scene with his Samsung mobile phone and streamed it on Periscope Live, which fed into Twitter.

Meanwhile, on the ground, Jeff Kallin used an iPhone to stream another angle on Facebook Live.

In a matter of 10 minutes, Clemson’s digital team provided the perspective of the players on the bus and the screaming fans and shared the video with more than 10,000 viewers across the Tigers’ social media channels.

Clemson fans stuck at work on that Tuesday, and even those still sitting in the Tampa airport awaiting their flight home, were able to experience the Tigers’ celebration through the unique view provided by the school’s highly acclaimed digital team, which has earned a national reputation, both inside and outside of college sports, for being among the best in the business.

Coverage of the team’s homecoming capped off a magical week for the Tigers, whose football team knocked off supposedly invincible Alabama, 35-31, in an epic CFP finale.

The digital team staffed the championship game with a crew of 10 people, ranging from full-timers like Jonathan Gantt, Clemson’s director of new and creative media, to students like senior Max Huggins and sophomore Andy Turner, who blanketed the stadium with cameras in hand. At times during the CFP championship in Tampa, Clemson’s social media staff outnumbered the Tigers’ coaches on the field.

“Our job was, and still is, to serve the media,” said Hennessy, who is senior associate director of athletic communications and has worked in Clemson’s communications department since his days as a student in the late 1990s. “But now we’re our own outlet.”

Clemson, like many other schools, has been producing content for some time. But it’s in the area of live coverage and production quality that the Tigers’ digital unit has raised the bar for its peers.

Dan Radakovich, the Tigers’ athletic director, estimated that the school has spent around $200,000 to enhance the digital team over the last two years, mostly to increase and upgrade talent.

For Radakovich, the decision was all about the Clemson brand. Unlike most pro teams and some colleges, Clemson does not sell sponsorship around its sports social media posts, so the return comes in the form of branding, fan engagement and, most importantly, recruiting. Clemson’s social media platform is one of the school’s most important touch points with prospective athletes.

“We go into so many high schools for the first time and the head coach will tell us, ‘Man, y’all put out the best videos, the best social media,’” said Jeff Scott, Clemson’s co-offensive coordinator. “When that’s your first meeting with a coach and he already knows that much about you, your staff and your program, that shows where it’s paying off. It absolutely makes a difference.”

Until a few years ago, Clemson’s most popular social media account originated from the football team’s equipment manager, D.J. Gordon, whose posts generated more Twitter followers than the official Clemson football account. But in 2013, Radakovich and Tim Match, Clemson’s longtime associate AD for external operations, hired Joe Galbraith from Mississippi State to oversee and modernize communications. Two months later, Galbraith hired Gantt, who led the social media efforts for the Tampa Bay Rays.

By the end of last year, Clemson’s official football account on Twitter, @ClemsonFB, had grown its followers more than 400 percent, from 92,000 to 465,000. That gave Clemson, pre-championship, the fourth-most followers in college football. Not bad given that the school’s undergraduate enrollment of 18,000 is significantly smaller than many of its power five peers.

Clemson’s total follower base across all social channels is approaching 2 million, meaning the school has added more than 1.5 million followers to official accounts in the last three years.

Andy Turner (left) and Bradley Moore, both students, check out Moore’s photos.
Photo by: JOCK FISTICK
“I don’t know how much of the growth is the incredible content we’re pushing out or the 28 football games we’ve won the last two years,” Galbraith said. “Let’s be honest, the spotlight is on us because we continue to win, but we’re also putting better content out there than anybody else.”

That is evident by the number of people who want to work with the program and its reputation as a leader in best practices.

During a planning meeting prior to the championship game, Clemson’s digital staff was joined by Facebook’s Nick Marquez, who manages strategic partnerships within college athletics. Marquez effusively praised the group for their social media executions, telling them, “Everyone is looking at your content and your ability to produce digital-first, mobile-first. It’s awesome.”

That’s one of the reasons why, when Facebook has new technology to employ, like a 360 camera that connects to an iPhone, it looks to Clemson to be one of its early adopters.

Clemson had hoped to work with Facebook on a 360 Live broadcast, something the platform introduced just last month, on the day of the championship game. While the connectivity at Raymond James Stadium wasn’t strong enough to pull it off, Facebook’s confidence in Clemson’s digital team was clear. Only twice before has Facebook done a 360 Live broadcast.

“I really push for Clemson to be the first to try new things,” Gantt said. “We want to be cutting edge. We want to be the first to try new features. And in return, hopefully, it gives someone like Facebook a great case study they can show to others.”

From the start of the weekend’s events in Tampa, the mandate from Gantt, who leads the digital team of staffers and students, was clear: “Capture everything.”

The most obvious advantage the digital staff has is its relationships. Because Clemson’s coaches, including head man Dabo Swinney, have developed a trust in Gantt’s team and appreciate how social media influences recruiting, they’re afforded unparalleled access, from the team plane to the buses to the locker room. Clemson’s coaches are convinced that the social media presence has created a recruiting advantage.

Graduate David Platt digitally edits photos he took.
Photo by: JOCK FISTICK
“The way recruits look at Clemson now is different than it was two years ago,” Scott said.

With that trust comes an understanding that Clemson’s digital staff won’t publish any content that might show the football team or the school in a negative light. Gantt or Hennessy is charged with seeing and approving every piece of content before it’s posted. If Clemson had lost the title game, Gantt said he would have personally posted every item, just to make sure it wouldn’t be perceived negatively.

Some questionable items might go all the way up to Swinney for approval, especially if a video contains sensitive practice footage.

That cozy relationship was on display at the CFP media day inside Tampa’s Amalie Arena two days before the game. As they were introduced, Clemson’s players came out of a tunnel and right in the middle of them was David Platt, a recent Clemson graduate who volunteers for the digital team.

During the media session, Platt handed off his iPhone to a Clemson offensive lineman, who walked around interviewing fellow players. It made for the kind of playful and unique content that Clemson’s staff produced into a video across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat.

On the day of the championship game, the crew was out the door of the team hotel, Tampa’s Grand Hyatt, by 10 a.m., a full 10 1/2 hours before kickoff. After a stop at Chick-fil-A, a pregame ritual for the staff, they arrived at the stadium and began setting up. The 10-person team occupied two full tables in the media work room.

Two of the Clemson students, Huggins and Turner, soon began scouring the stadium for unique pregame footage with Nik Conklin, one of the full-timers. Kallin, the graphic designer, worked on different designs that would incorporate the score or photos of big plays.

As the day progressed and the stadium filled, the Wi-Fi speed slowed. More and more, Clemson’s shooters had to return to the work room for a better connection. Posting from the field became nearly impossible.

That’s not unusual, said Gantt, who cited connectivity as the No. 1 challenge at almost every venue.

Some 14 hours after they arrived at the stadium, with the game in its final minute, Kallin sat in the media work room putting the finishing touches on a final score graphic with the words “National Champions.” He had it ready to post within seconds of a Clemson win, even though Alabama actually led up until the final second.

Out on the field, Gantt sprinted from one sideline location to another for a better angle. “We’re going to win,” he predicted as he sped past. Minutes later, quarterback DeShaun Watson hit Hunter Renfrow with the game-winning touchdown pass, confetti poured on the field and the next phase of the plan kicked into gear for Clemson’s digital team.

Someone had to be on the bus ride back to the hotel, the flight home and the bus ride back into Clemson. Every step of the celebration represented new opportunities for content and it all had to be chronicled, as fans now expect it.

“This is the national championship,” Gantt said. “We’ve got to be there.”


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