Last spring, John Sherman, Indiana State senior assistant athletic director for marketing, spoke about making the Hulman Center the cool place to be for ISU students.
For ISU men’s basketball, the Sycamores were drawing only about 250 students per home game last season, Sherman said.
Last week’s game against Missouri State drew 2,126 students, which is the largest student turnout in many years.
The Sycamores’ game was a battle for first place in the Missouri Valley Conference, which surely helped create the buzz, but the turnout couldn’t have happened without social media tools like Facebook and Twitter, Indiana State director of new media Megan McKenna said.
The game was Wednesday, and McKenna came up with the idea for a “Black Out” promotion that she put into place Monday, posting more than 1,500 fliers around campus.
McKenna and ISU video coordinator Jack Lavey also created a promotion video that received more than 1,000 hits in 24 hours.
“They’re being aggressive, they’re telling their story where people are already talking and are more prone to listen,” said Kathleen Hessert, a social media expert.
Hessert created her own companies, Buzz Manager and Sports Media Challenge. Her clients have included Shaquille O’Neal, and Peyton and Eli Manning. She represents multiple universities.
The “Indiana State Sycamores” page on Facebook has more than 5,000 followers, but ISU is doing more than creating an online buzz.
McKenna’s Black Out campaign included fliers with all the men’s basketball players on them. The players had speech balloons above them inviting students to attend the game.
“Something as silly as, ‘Hey, aren’t you in my science class, want to come to my game?’ ” McKenna said. “These kids are in class with them, they see them on campus. I think it was important to point out that they are fellow classmates of these guys.”
While the fliers certainly helped, the buzz on Facebook about wearing black united the students. Students waited in line for 90 minutes for prime seats in the student section — and they got creative, wearing black suits with black sunglasses.
“The social network part of it is, not only can you wear black, make it your [Facebook] status,” McKenna said.
Communicating with the entire student body has made marketing ISU athletics much more enjoyable and fun for McKenna, who is the daughter of former men’s basketball coach Kevin McKenna.
During football season, McKenna began to communicate with senior Jaden Brown, the vice president of the Student Government Association.
“We actually met through Facebook just a couple weeks ago,” McKenna added.
Both Brown and McKenna have the same goal: To create an environment in Hulman Center and Memorial Stadium which attracts students and makes it fun for them to be at the game.
“He was looking for somebody with athletics to make something happen, and I was looking for someone with students to help make it happen,” McKenna said.
Through SGA, Brown can e-mail the entire student body with a reminder of an upcoming home game and with information of another promotion similar to the black out.
“Our goal with SGA was to do more with Blue Crew,” he said of the ISU student section. “It had been called Blue Crew in the past, but nothing was kind of ever done with it.”
While student turnout was low much of the season, it exploded for Wednesday’s game.
“I think the students showed Wednesday night they are willing and ready to be part of the program,” McKenna said, adding that an influx of new students this season should help maintain student turnout. “They’re fresh students. They haven’t had an impression of past students’ opinions of how things were run. Freshman are impressionable.”
The atmosphere at ISU men’s and women’s basketball games is leaps and bounds better than it was about five years ago.
The center-hung scoreboard, and its video screens, have allowed the athletic department to get much more creative than in the past. Pre-game videos were developed for both teams last season, and the response from fans continues to be enthusiastic.
“When they added Larry [Bird] to the men’s [video], it gets people talking,” Sherman said. “People around the Valley were asking us last year, I’ve heard about your ‘tonight is gonna be a good night’ video [which features the Black-Eyed Peas’ song ‘I’ve got a Feeling’].”
McKenna’s graphic design on game programs and posters has also been effective at getting people talking. The programs showing ISU players as super heroes have been popular, she said.
“That was Dwayne [Lathan]. He’s got all the ideas,” McKenna chuckled.
Hessert, who advises university athletic departments at Notre Dame and Michigan State on social media strategy and buzz building, said combining new technology with traditional media is essential.
“Social media is not a standalone,” Hessert said. “To be integrated, it needs to be in conjunction with traditional media. It’s to engage your fans.”
Brown has attempted to engage ISU students during the game on his Twitter account with trivia questions. Correct responders would receive prizes such as T-shirts.
Hessert recommends taking that to another level by using the video screen in the arena to communicate with the fans during the game.
“If the team puts on their scoreboard, follow us on Twitter and Facebook and gives incentives, then more people are going to see it, it’s going to become more of a fun environment,” Hessert said. “In the Notre Dame football stadium, I’m tweeting what I think is fun about what’s happening in that game and I’m interacting with people in the stadium — and those that are watching it on TV, so now you’re cross pollinating all your fans.”
Hessert said geographical check-in applications could be the next big thing.
“The use of check-in applications like Foursquare … and SCVNGR [pronounced scavenger] are creating really fun social games that are getting fans involved,” Hessert said.
“Anything that’s mobile and has a check-in capability has a lot of upside to it. You can offer discounts on the food or simply customer service and making their experience more enjoyable. Tweeting out that they’re out of beer or out of something at x-merchandise stand, but there’s no line over at Gate X, Y and Z.”
The Sycamores’ fans who live on campus have grown up with a computer in front of them. They could definitely respond to such communication inside Hulman Center. Yes, fans should be focused on the court, but there’s plenty of down time to check in with Twitter.
While administrators can provide large-scale marketing efforts, players and coaches can do so as well.
Twitter has given fans direct access to players, coaches and even owners — Jim Irsay is probably tweeting as you read this. Many of the ISU men’s players tweet.
ISU coach Greg Lansing responded to the ISU students’ turnout with a letter that was distributed via e-mail to the student body.
“He wrote an e-mail to the student body, saying basically we won the game because of the students,” Brown said.
Indiana University marketing director Pat Kraft said last March that a coach with an outgoing personality can go a long way to helping students feel they’re a part of the success.
While IU is still waiting on that success under coach Tom Crean, it’s a school that students know going into it that attending basketball games is a big part of the collegiate experience.
“Coach Crean did a great job of letting our fans know this is a building process but we’re getting there, [attend games] is what you do when you come to Indiana, and that you’re a major part of this success. You’re a part of the turnaround,” Kraft said. “We constantly communicate with the students in a myriad of ways, whether it’s the student paper, e-mails, posters. We pushed the fact that we needed them there.”
IU and ISU are different animals because of IU’s huge student population and the program’s tradition.
But ISU students may just now be realizing the Sycamores have a better team than the Hoosiers.
With five home games remaining, ISU hopes to build on the momentum of the crowd at Wednesday’s game. Brown publicized through Facebook the fact that the Ballyhoo Tavern was showing a broadcast of the Sycamores’ game Saturday at Wichita State.
Based on the photos on Facebook, the turnout was tremendous.
Based on ISU’s play at Wichita, the Sycamores are going to stay in the race for first place.
While staying in first place every single year would be impossible, a new tradition of a mob of ISU students having fun in the stands can be accomplished.