Now, more than ever before, connecting with your constituents can happen with the push of a button--as long as you embrace the brave new world of social media.
By Dr. Karen Weaver
Karen Weaver, EdD, is Director of Athletics, Recreation, and Intramurals at Penn State University-Abington, which is currently transitioning to NCAA Division III. She twitters regularly at www.twitter.com/abingtonsports and about college recruiting at www.twitter.com/collegeathlete. You can connect with her on LinkedIn, Facebook, and through old-fashioned e-mail at: email@example.com.
Ten years ago you may have thought it would never happen, but now you're surfing the Web with ease, using e-mail without a second thought, and even texting now and then. Maybe you've considered creating a Facebook or LinkedIn account. And you've heard of Twitter--but would never spend time on it.
If the above description fits you, I have some important news: It's time for an upgrade. The latest buzz phrase in American culture is social media, and if you're not using it, you're behind the times.
What exactly is social media? In general, it's about interacting with people electronically. For us in athletic administration, it's a strategy to connect folks to our athletic programs in ways that engage them.
Social media entails things like posting your profile on Facebook or LinkedIn, blogging about your program, and keeping your followers informed on Twitter. It may seem daunting and time consuming, but it is becoming critical to make these technological tools part of your repertoire.
Because technology is changing so fast, many people wonder how they can keep up with it all. In reality, you can't. The viral nature of the Internet (yes, just like a cold) allows for thousands of new applications to enter the market every day.
Fortunately, you don't need to know about the plethora of ideas popping up daily since most die due to neglect or quirkiness. But you do need to be in tune with those that show staying power. Right now, that includes three social media platforms: networking sites, blogs, and Twitter.
Why should you care about these things? For one, this is how today's young people communicate. As I tell my coaches, "E-mail is so 20th century!" The technologies we are comfortable with are not the same ones 18-24 year olds are using. In order to stay competitive, we must communicate where our constituents are.
In addition, social media offers an amazing opportunity to interact with a lot of people in one fell swoop. As athletic directors, we are always looking to engage with fans, student-athletes, alumni, the media, the campus community, and the local community. Social media sites do this in a very effective and efficient way.
And when stakeholders feel engaged in your program, it usually translates to a higher level of loyalty and commitment. If fans can read your thoughts on a blog, communicate with each other through a social networking site, or keep up with a team through Twitter, they feel a part of the program.
Another reason to give social media a try is that it can help you reach your career goals. Networking has always been important in our profession, and now much of it happens online. If you're not part of it, you're increasingly being left out of the loop.
There is debate about which social networking platform is better, Facebook or MySpace, but the important thing to know is that both of these sites are immensely popular. Very similar to each other, they are clearly part of the social fabric of today's younger generation and gaining steam with older folks.
"See you on Facebook" has come to mean that friends will keep each other up to date with the daily minutiae of their lives. Anyone can create a page where they are able to post photos, share links to news stories they like, send each other virtual "gifts" and "hugs," and generally follow the patter of their friends' lives.
Most relevant to athletic departments is Facebook's ability to create groups of people who share common interests. Being a native Philadelphian, I am a member of the Philadelphia Phillies and Philadelphia Eagles groups, and I get updates from other fans about what is going on with my teams. Another group, SIDs United, was created by sports information directors to dialogue with their colleagues around the country and share ideas.
A number of athletic departments have started using Facebook or MySpace pages as a way to create school spirit and drive fans to their events. By being on sites that have hundreds of millions of users, an athletic program gains access to a world where many fans already exist, telling them of upcoming games and special events. It can also be used to gain feedback on a specific initiative, such as a new mascot or promotion. Some schools have a page just for season ticket holders. One example of an effective Facebook page belongs to Ohio State University: www.facebook.com/buckeyes.
Here at Penn State-Abington, we've successfully used a MySpace page to bolster our intramurals program. As a commuter campus, we constantly battle to find ways to communicate with students and get them involved, but our previous promotional efforts weren't working. In focus groups, we found that students were ignoring the two pieces of technology we were using--the student e-mail list serve and the campus Web site. Posters also weren't working. So how could we get the word out?
We decided to launch a MySpace page that was designed and maintained by students (with staff oversight) who were working within the intramurals program. On it, all students could find out about upcoming leagues, playoffs, and team registration. We could post photos and even play the Nittany Lion fight song. Since we went on MySpace in September, our intramural participation has grown threefold.
Many schools now have a Facebook page for their entire campus, and if yours does, make sure athletics is included in it. The pages that seem to work best use a multiple stream approach, drawing information from a number of campus entities. Public relations, alumni affairs, career services, and athletic media relations all feed information to the page, making it interesting to many different users. It is also easy to provide links directly to the institution's home pages for more detailed information.
Facebook and MySpace pages are fairly easy to set up. A user creates an account, logs in, and builds a profile. Once a posting has been made, other users can comment, indicate they "like" this information, share the information, or even RSVP to an event. The interactivity on the site is key.
Another important aspect is the privacy settings, which have come a long way in the last few years. They allow you, as the owner of the page, to determine who has access to various parts of your profile. If you don't use any privacy settings, a "friend" could potentially post pictures or comments on your "wall" that would not reflect well on your program.
Launched only a few years ago, LinkedIn has often been described as "Facebook for professionals." It has become the number one destination for business, corporate, higher education, and other professionals to get introduced or re-connect to one another.
To join, you simply create an online professional profile, which is kind of like transferring information from your resume to a Web site. You can also include a photo. What happens next is the interesting part. Say you worked at Blueberry State from 1995-1997. LinkedIn searches its extensive data systems to find others who worked at Blueberry State during the same period you did. It then prompts you to visit profiles of some "people you may know"--those who also worked at Blueberry State and are on Linked In.
You can do this with all your professional and educational affiliations. If you went to school at Orange U and graduated in 1985, you can search through a list of alumni who were there when you were. This might be the most fun part of LinkedIn--connecting with people you have lost touch with.
One of the most valuable aspects of LinkedIn is all the professional groups you can join. For example, I created a group for alumni of the Sports Management Institute so we can send messages, post articles, and keep in touch with each other. As the group's manager, I get an e-mail when someone wants to join. Once they are verified as an alum of SMI, their profile is added to the group instantly.
As a member of the group, I can post questions to others in areas that I might need help in. Readers can answer these questions or rate responses from other users. It really is a great way to get a wide range of information in a very short period of time, mostly from well-connected people within the industry.
Many groups allow members to post jobs available and jobs wanted, upcoming seminars and events, and ways to partner in like-minded projects or business ideas. Through LinkedIn, I found a group looking for a fourth panelist to present at the National Communication Association's annual convention. Although we had never met in person, we are working on a joint proposal for that conference.
Another important characteristic of LinkedIn is the ability to "get introduced" through your connections to someone you don't know. Say your friend Michael knows someone you have been trying to meet, but your professional paths have not crossed. You can ask Michael to introduce you over the LinkedIn network. Michael's friend then has a chance to review your profile before deciding to accept the introduction. It nicely avoids those awkward in-person encounters at trade shows!
Even if you don't want to reconnect with others or develop a professional network, the site has neat capabilities for improving communication in any type of group. For example, athletic directors in a conference can use LinkedIn to schedule contests and exchange ideas. In the short time I have been on LinkedIn, I've joined groups related to the sports industry, social media networks, professional affiliations, alumni groups, and higher education groups.
One of the things I really enjoy about LinkedIn is the ability to choose how information from the site is delivered to me. I can get it each time someone posts something, daily, or weekly. Or I can choose to access it only when I visit my LinkedIn page.
How many blogs are there today? Some estimate that there are over 70 million worldwide. That is an incredible amount of information written by folks who are not journalists.
Blogs are a catch-all term that can apply to most any kind of written items on the Web. They provide the opportunity to share your thoughts with the world, which can be really helpful when you are leading a program with many stakeholders. As an athletic director, you have a lot of information that student-athletes, fans, alumni, and community members would like to know. Constituents are also interested in your thoughts and opinions. Or maybe someone asked you a question you're sure others have. These are all things that can go in a blog.
The best place for your blog is usually your athletic department Web site. But you can also use a blog Web site. You simply register with an e-mail address and a password, and you're free to start typing. Once you have recorded and edited your thoughts, you can post them immediately. The two most popular sites that let you create your own blog are: www.blogspot.com and www.wordpress.com.
The most important thing about starting a blog is committing to write in it frequently. Ideally, you post daily blog items, although even weekly can work. But you can't let it sit idle. Many of those 70 million blogs are dying a slow death because someone was excited to begin blogging but lost their enthusiasm after awhile. Good blogging takes commitment.
It seems like the whole media universe is "atwitter" about Twitter. ESPN basketball analyst Rebecca Lobo was "tweeting" from the Women's Final Four, an NBA player was fined because he sent a "tweet" during halftime of a game, and college coaches are experimenting with Twitter for recruiting. What is all the buzz about Twitter?
Twitter is an interactive Web site that allows you to answer the question "What are you doing?" in 140 characters or less. Also called micro-blogging, it is a much shorter version of the Web blog. Another way to describe it is as a form of texting that can be done on a cell phone or computer, using any of hundreds of applications to upload your tweets (messages). There are ways to tweet links to Web sites, pictures you took, and videos.
Who does someone tweet to? Your "followers," of course! That includes anyone who uses the search mechanism to find the topics you are tweeting about and wants to follow along. To follow you, they go to your Twitter home page and click on a button that says "follow." Once someone decides to follow you, you are notified. You can choose to follow them, or follow others. At any point, you can choose to "unfollow" someone.
A seminal moment in the development of Twitter occurred when a US Airways flight crash-landed in the Hudson River in February. Passengers both inside the plane and on the ferries on the river were tweeting about what they were experiencing in real time. Immediately, those journalists who were using Twitter flooded the site asking the passengers to give them an exclusive interview of the crash. Since February, over 10,000 journalists worldwide have created Twitter accounts to catch both breaking news and story ideas.
To set up an account on Twitter, you go to Twitter.com and log in with an e-mail address and password. You can also add personal information, such as your hometown, a brief description of your interests and expertise, and a thumbnail picture of yourself or something that represents you.
Currently, I have two Twitter accounts--one for my job at Penn State-Abington and one for my consulting business about college athletic recruiting. When I first set them up, I only had one or two followers. As time went on, others found me through searching key words in my tweets or even in my interests. Some people have an amazing number of followers--as of this writing, President Barack Obama has 948,433 followers and Lance Armstrong has 684,879 followers.
We are now implementing a plan at Penn State-Abington athletics to integrate Twitter into our operations. I began a Twitter feed under "abingtonsports" in early January, and while still in its infancy, I can see tremendous potential in using the site to benefit our teams and athletes. I have since broken it into a number of levels to promote a variety of teams and keep the information fresh:
Sports Information Director: Her job is to keep the scores coming, and she posts them as soon as games are over. She may also tweet great performances and upcoming games. Since tweets are limited to 140 characters, they are short, sweet, and to the point.
Head Coaches: Part of each coach's job is to create an account, such as "abingtonsoftball" or "abingtonlacrosse," and tweet about their student-athletes. They might mention a player who had a particularly good game or a nugget of news that personalizes the fan's experience with the team. Some of our coaches have been more willing to jump on board than others, but I see great potential here for program promotion.
And that includes recruiting. High school student-athletes can follow a college coach's Twitter feed for free and get inside information about a school and team they are considering playing for. Head Football Coaches Pete Carroll at USC (twitter.com/PeteCarroll), Rich Rodriguez at Michigan (twitter.com/UM_CoachRod), and Tim Brewster at Minnesota (twitter.com/Play4brew) are a few big names using it.
Athletics Director: My tweets take on a different tone. I try to talk about the overall program and the direction I see a team or a coach going. Generally, I am very positive and upbeat. I will give a major shout out to a team with a string of victories and try to encourage a squad going through a tough stretch. I also will occasionally write about our transition as a historically non-affiliated athletics program to an NCAA member, which is really a big deal for our campus.
Even if I've convinced you of the importance of social media, I know many of you are wondering where you might find the time for it. I've found it doesn't take that much time if I weave it into my other duties.
For example, as long as I'm carrying a cell phone with text messaging capabilities, I can quickly tweet while standing at a game or waiting for a meeting to start. It can even be a great way to get your morning going or for unwinding at the end of the day. And the social and business networking sites are really very fun once you get the hang of them--much better than watching television!
In addition, all of these sites now allow you to link your sites to each other, so you can post information in one place and have it appear in the others. For example, I can tweet about the latest softball game, and it will appear on my Twitter feed, Facebook page, blog, and LinkedIn page.
Regardless of how you feel about the rise of social media, it's not going away. This generation of student-athletes and coaches are using it all the time, so you need to be on board. And in an era where people are craving feedback and personal attention, this could be one of the best ways to distinguish yourself from the pack.
Sidebar: IN A CRISIS
When something goes wrong in your department, the old adage of "bad news travels fast" really applies today. Rumors of impending budget cuts, internal meetings about a difficult issue, or a visit from the local police force can all be transmitted quickly to journalists and others via Twitter.
What I have noticed on the various Twitter feeds I follow is that journalists are using Twitter to get a jump on news stories, and they will follow those who have provided them pertinent information before. If someone in your department is unhappy, and has a following on Twitter, chances are they will share their thoughts.
That's why, more than ever, you and your staff need to be on the same page when it comes to talking points and what message to communicate during difficult times. By the same token, an active crisis communications plan should include using Twitter, Facebook, and other applications, especially if your key stakeholders are using it. Using e-mail to communicate when your constituents aren't is asking for trouble and confusion.