I believe in engagement over followers. A small community of highly engaged die-hard fans is much better than a huge group of uninterested masses. That said, follower count is still a highly relevant indicator of how you’re performing on social media. If your content is good and your strategy is solid, you’ll gain visibility, which leads to follower growth. This is why I believe building the largest social media following in all of NCAA basketball is a noteworthy achievement. For that reason, and in an effort to assist those striving for the same, I want to share a bit of the philosophy behind how this was done.
For all of you like me with short attention spans, I’ll put the TLDR at the beginning. Here’s how you build the largest social media following in NCAA Basketball: Build and reinforce the brand image in the public mind with consistent, high quality, bite-size content.
That’s really it, but here’s some detail.

Quality over Quantity.
In each of my three years with Kansas Basketball, the quantity of social content dropped. Read that again, because it might be the opposite of what you’d expect. Consequently, quality increased, and so did engagement. Most dramatically, in the 2014-15 season, I decreased overall social output by 47% on gamedays. We completely stopped play-by-play in addition to other content that wasn’t performing. By doing so, I was able to increase graphic and video elements and focus on creating content of the highest quality. This strategy increased engagement 94%. 

Brand over Everything.
In the Kansas Basketball community there’s a phrase that’s often used to convey how important the concept of team is to the Jayhawks. “Family Over Everything.” I loved this phrase, and created a lot content around the idea…but in my social media domain, my motto was BRAND OVER EVERYTHING. As I mentioned above, I believe social media is best used for building and reinforcing a brand image in the public mind with consistent, high-quality, bite-size content. Anything other than that is largely a waste of time. Too many athletic departments treat their social media accounts like newspapers. They report on everything they see. Losses and airballs are treated the same as victories and dunks. This doesn’t do anybody any good. Let the reporters and the columnists spend their time on the negative stuff. You should be building the brand. Is your social content reporting, or brand building?

Telling a complete story.
You’ve heard it said before: to be successful, you have to tell stories on social media. What you might not have heard is that you need to tell a complete story in each post. It mustn’t be a long story, but it needs to be complete. Each post is like an episode in the season of a TV show. It stands alone, yet also as part of the whole. Ideally, a fan should be able to join the conversation in the middle of a game, at any point in the season, and understand. Don’t neglect the basics. The challenge is to tell that complete story as simply as possible. Find the middle ground of complete yet brief. Use all of the elements of social to flesh out the story. Use the photo as the beginning and the copy as the end, or vice versa.  

One of the best things about the advancement of digital media is how it allows brands the opportunity to speak directly to their audiences. No media filter required. To that end, it was essential that I travel with the team to document the journey on social media. This kind of behind-the-scenes access in close-to-real time was content that could not be captured or distributed by anyone else. It’s this kind of content that makes a team account a “must follow.” 

Ammunition. (Facts Only)
Sports teams are unique as brands because they connect deeper in people’s lives than most anything else. It’s more than something you like; it’s a part of and a representation of yourself. If you’re a Kansas fan, Kansas represents you. If Kansas wins, you win. If Kansas loses, you lose.  And so socially what I tried to do was provide the community immediate confirmation that the decision to be a Kansas Basketball fan was a good one. And not only that but to remind them why they love KU and provide them “ammunition” to convince others it’s true. It’s this “ammunition” perhaps more than anything else that grew the community. When you enable your fans to become an army of content distributors, that’s when you win. 

The most important word in the last paragraph is “immediate.” You should be able to take one glance at the content and immediately realize that it’s something that supports your belief in Kansas. It should be immediately apparent that this is something you’d like to share. Something that you share as a means of self-definition. If your goal is to make a lasting impression on social, and achieve amplification from your audience, simplicity is essential. 

Serious. Not Silly.
One of the most unfortunate trends in social media has been the pervasiveness of “silly” that has dominated the voices of brands and teams. Too many marketers are happy to accept short-term engagement from funny GIF reactions, teenage slang, and ridiculous emoji use. Long-term branding beats short-term engagement every time. In my opinion, the Kansas Basketball accounts stood out from the crowd with a mostly serious tone of voice. The voice was intended to reflect a balance of the program’s tradition and history and yet the focus, energy and hip-hop influenced language of today’s team. We used GIFs and emojis as well, but in a way that built the brand.

Building a large social media community is the same as building a community of any kind. You gather your current group of supporters around a clearly defined idea they’re passionate about; you engage them with a highly relevant and entertaining message; and you provide them with the tools necessary for them to spread the word for you. That’s it. It’s simple, but it’s not easy.

Note: The claim of “largest social following” comes from the research of RivalIQ on March 15th, 2015.
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