3 Ways Social Listening Aligns Athletics and Central Marcom

Athletics and central marcom rarely join in strategic cohesion on campus. Fragmentation and political territorialism have frequently led institutions to detach athletics from the central brand, freeing teams for more flexibility and creativity, but often at the expense of collaboration and consistency. It’s a key reason we see so many bland higher ed ads promoting undergraduate enrollment during high-profile games. Yet there are signs more forward-thinking marketing leaders are unlocking the full power of their brands’ potential using common data-led decision-making.

Our recent social listening research highlights how athletics can become a major source of student referrals and supercharge brand awareness for many institutions. Here are several ways your institution can align athletics and marcom strategies.

Get the strategies!

Student-Athletes as a Referral Path to New Students

In 2022, we observed that institutions saw a 315% increase in online conversation from admitted students due to athletics-related content. Athletes give back to their communities. They excel academically while maintaining hectic schedules. They graduate and go on to use the experiences and education they received at your campus to succeed in the world.

Personal announcements and praise by athletes are one of the most popular forms of admissions-related conversations to find reposted across social media. Search #agtg (“All glory to God”) across any social media channel and you’ll find endless examples of athletes praising their new coaches and institutions. These announcements are not only widely reshared but often have a broader reach than other campus-related posts. Forward-thinking enrollment and athletic leaders have the opportunity to build relationships with high-profile athletes from the very start of their connection to your campus, to amplify values and demonstrate student life.

Take advantage of the opportunity.

A student athlete’s offer and commitment have a high likelihood of being shared, presenting an opportunity for marcom teams at small to midsize institutions to distribute institutionally branded graphics to increase their brand awareness. Serge Otiankouya at Benedictine College, Shea Adams at Louisiana Tech, and Cole Noack at Macalester College all signed with pride this year and shared their unique stories with branded visuals.

It even offers an opportunity to identify the right individuals and include their voice in those dry digital and TV ad placements, making them more effective for their target audiences.

Athletics as a Foundation for Institutional Storytelling

Higher ed storytelling traditionally leans into narratives about overcoming personal development challenges or stories of success in industry or craft. Although important, their safe and familiar tone do little to differentiate from competitors or excite and reach new audiences.

Not so with athletics.

Athletics figures offer marcom a gateway to inspiring stories, new audience insights, and enrollment targeting opportunities. Their stories of success and persistence can help humanize a higher ed brand. Balancing brand voice directly with brand-aligned athletes—and engaging authentically in conversations—offers an exciting opportunity to tell a more compelling story. Athletics also touch a larger portion of your student population than you might think. While roughly one in 23 students at NCAA Division I institutions are student athletes, this number increases to one in 10 at the DII level and to one in four at the DIII level. Stories from and about student athletes aren’t just compelling; they provide aspirational content for a segment of your prospective student audience and relatable content for alumni who are also former student athletes.

Connecting Athletics Team Success With Institutional Advancement

The connection between the success or failure of a college brand and the performance of its team on the court, field, or track is inevitable. Athletics success drives social media conversation and engagement more than any other campus topic.

Research we conducted showed that Saint Peter’s University’s conversation volume from October 2021 through their March Madness Cinderella run—highlighted by their Sweet 16 victory over Purdue—included more mentions per minute than their average volume for the prior five months. March’s mentions were 12,380 times more than that monthly average. This wasn’t a one-off anomaly, either; when we looked at mention volume during the 2022 men’s March Madness tournament, the 68 teams who participated saw an average difference of 279% between their in-tournament and non-tournament mention volume.

Whatever your starting point for online conversation happens to be, athletics can and frequently does catalyze substantial increases in applications. One of the most impressive examples was when the University of Maryland Baltimore County, also known as the UMBC Retrievers, achieved a stunning upset over the University of Virginia in the 2018 NCAA men’s basketball tournament. After the tournament ended, UMBC grew its student population by 18%, or just under 2,000 additional students, marking the most significant admissions shift in the school’s history.

These opportunities are few and far between for many institutions, so the ability to plan and react quickly to memorable events is essential.

Brand Alignment for Trust and Authenticity

Creating connection between athletics and marcom requires a common foundation in data and analytics to drive collaborative decision-making. Determining the right brand-aligned personalities and brand advocates to work with and possessing a deep understanding of the fan base of college teams are key considerations. Without this knowledge and close connection, institutions risk linking their central brands to individuals that may not reflect the same values, increasing the potential for brand harm in times of performance dips or scandals.

For institutions to be authentic and develop trust with their audiences, a marcom and athletics reconnection can be the catalyst for changing the way students see their institution’s success and its connection to lifelong opportunities. Expert-led strategic social listening provides that opportunity for marcom and athletics leaders to strategically collaborate across departments, connecting previously disparate goals to serve the broader needs of the institution.

How to Collaborate and Align Your Brand

We gathered insights to explore how athletics drives conversation and visibility for every aspect of your campus. Download the playbook for data and takeaways you can use to leverage this opportunity and create a cohesive brand strategy.


Get our actionable strategies

This article originally appeared on Inside Higher Ed's Call to Action blog and was co-authored by Darron Bunt.