Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Wisconsin Athletics and Varsity…delivering more to their fans

Every week I get an email from the University of Wisconsin’s Athletic Department.

Inside is a publication I look forward to reading…Varsity magazine.
The magazine is presented in a .pdf format, so it looks and feels like a printed magazine, except it’s online. It includes videos and ads, as well as content on Wisconsin sports. Everything you need to know that week on Wisconsin sports can be found in this publication.

In the past few months I’ve read about Montee Ball (football), Beckie Thompson (women’s swimming), Jordan Taylor (men’s basketball), J.J. Watt (former football player), and Hilary Knight (women’s hockey), among others.
This publication gives me an inside view on Wisconsin sports and the athletes—more than I get from my usual sources.

Recently I sat down with Brian Lucas, Director of Athletic Communications, to learn more about Varsity and Wisconsin’s social media strategy.
PJ: What was your strategy behind developing Varsity?

Brian: Varsity started a little over a year ago in December…after we [the Wisconsin football team] clinched a spot in the Rose Bowl. My boss and I had seen Sporting News Today for two years and enjoyed it. It was an innovative way to deliver this information to someone’s email box every day. While I didn’t read it every day, I did skim it and if I saw something that intrigued me, I’d read it. More often than not, I opened it. I read more Sporting News content than before.
We thought we could capitalize on this. Not daily, but weekly. We have a large email distribution list and we could utilize this base. We have 150,000 email addresses and instead of waiting for them to come to our site, we can deliver this information to them. For a while we had been looking at our website to get our message out. Now, the magazine works hand-in-hand with the website. The content can be replicated and expanded.

We hired Mike Lucas from the Capital Times two years ago to write features for the website and thought he could create the content for the magazine.
In the past we pitched to papers and TV stations and if they wanted to do the story, great. The website is like our own media. If we have a good story we can do it for the site. If media picks it up and wants to expand on it…that’s great.

PJ: So, let’s focus for a moment on the media and how, with social media, and less traditional media, there has been a shift in how stories get out to your fans.
Brian: There is a delicate balance between the Wisconsin State Journal and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and their reach (100,000s) and the thousands that watch the 6pm news and our games are televised on ESPN and CBS. So, we can’t just bury our head in the sand and throw the old rules out. We still need to get our stories out and work through them. This is just another outlet…our own. It’s the same as the State Journal…another way to get it out there.

PJ: So, what do the logistics of the magazine look like and how do you add this into your already packed schedule?
Brian: Hiring Mike Lucas helped a lot. He produces a lot of content…two features and a column. Matt Lepay [the Voice of the Badgers], and Barry Alvarez [the Athletic Director], both have columns. The shorter pieces are done cooperatively throughout the office. Brian Mason, one of our assistants, does the layout and makes sure all the content is in place, along with his duties helping with football and track and field. We are trying to get one person to produce this. There is a lot of technology with the videos and links and we could do a lot more with it, such as more Flash ads with movement…if we had one person dedicated to it.

We are starting to do more planning with our video interviews…like what we did with J.J. Watt recently. We are starting to think about if we do this feature…we should do a video to complement it.
PJ: What’s next for Varsity?

Brian: We want to focus more on the marketing of it. It’s a good product…and I’ve talked to people who agree it’s a good product. We want to find ways to get more people to see it. While we have an extensive email list, the numbers are not what we want. We always think we can do better.
To get it in front of more people and get them to read it week-to-week…we’d like to do more with Twitter and Facebook and tease the articles on the inside. The next step is to get people to look inside it.

PJ: Varsity isn’t the only email I get delivered to my inbox. Can you talk a little about your Insider emails?
Brian: The Insider emails started a number of years ago and they were the pre-cursor to Varsity. It started as a daily media email for basketball and football. It included…what’s going on today, notes of the day, practice schedules, etc. Local media liked having the schedule. National media liked being in-tune with the team without searching for this information. They got the stories to their inbox. And, TV liked it. When ESPN came to cover a game they didn’t have to ask for clips or search for stories. We thought if the media liked it, fans would like it, too. It’s a lot easier if someone delivers this information to you. You don’t have to do a Google search for things.

Now, we do football and basketball daily and others [including wrestling, women’s basketball, and hockey] are once a week.
We are delivering information straight to fans from our website and other stories from SI, Wisconsin State Journal, etc….so they aren’t feeling like they are just getting our PR spin.

PJ: So what does your big picture social media plan look like?
Brian: I’d like to tell you we have a grand plan in place. But it seems to change every day with all that is out there. We are always thinking of ways our fans can feel part of what we do.

We try to help fans sift through all of it—there are a lot of voices out there. People want to feel part of it…we try to draw them in whether it’s comments, retweets, etc. We want to let them know we are listening to the chatter online.
It seems like there are changes every day and I’m not sure we can predict what happens next. We’ve had a focus on mobile versions coming into this year—making Varsity mobile and tablet friendly.