Deconstructing the Student Engagement Challenges College Athletic Departments Face Today

Recapping what we learned from our NAIA convention roundtable discussions


Our team was privileged to attend the NAIA convention last month in West Palm Beach, Florida where we played host to a roundtable session on trends in fan and student engagement. We learned so much from our attendees, and we are grateful for the time they spent with us discussing their work in collegiate athletics — maximizing fan and student engagement. In the first installment of our blog series, FanX On the Road, we recap our learnings from time spent in the field with our current and potential partners.

With every generation comes new opportunities to enhance the approach to engaging college students, sports fans and alumni. For today’s generation, mobile is a key channel for maximizing engagement. Here are the topics that athletic departments are focused on now, as shared by the FanX roundtable attendees.

New business development rep Max Wyrick shows off his booth skills

Connecting the student athlete with the non-student athlete
Based on our conversations at the NAIA convention, it would seem that on college campuses there is an “experience gap” between student athletes and the rest of the student body, and this causes a disconnect that ultimately hurts university-wide marketing efforts. An article published by the New Hampshire Gazette discusses the gap that exists at Amherst College and attributes it in part to the differing experiences that student athletes have on their campuses — from recruitment to graduation.

This is something that needs to change if colleges want to begin to see better attendance at their sporting events. College athletics marketers know that mobile devices are a key to solving this issue, and they are looking to apps, push notification and influencer marketing as ways to connect the two groups. “If you are using your app to market to your students, be sure to explain to them, in detail, how the app will help them — and be intentional about explaining how push notifications will add value and not annoy them,” says Jon Wepking, Assistant Athletic Director for Marketing and Production at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

Creating loyal alumni while students are still on campus
All college administrators know that recruiting a student into the alumni association after they have graduated is usually going to be an uphill battle. That is why this process ideally begins as soon as the student comes to campus their freshman year. “In the world of athletics, we are always going out to recruit people to come be part of our university, but once they're here, recruitment fizzles out,”says David Pillen, Assistant Athletic Director of Marketing at Rice University. “My philosophy is that we're recruiting every demographic or constituent that touches our brand at all times.”

Bringing a student into the fold as a fan of the school and its brand is hugely important, and again, mobile is the channel of the day on this one. If students are connecting with their school via a mobile app or social channel, they are accessible, and so the experience that they have on those platforms is what they will continue to come back for. Making that experience unique and memorable is where the effort needs to be.

Understanding how and why students donate
There are so many ways that students are using mobile technology to spend money nowadays. Venmo is an app of choice for sending money — to friends and businesses — and so this is one clear avenue to building a donation program that serves college students. Finding them on the platforms they already know and love is an essential step to success, so if it’s Venmo they’re using, then it’s Venmo that they’ll want to use to donate.

How to get them to donate, well, that’s another challenge in and of itself. GoFundMe offers advice to college students who are trying to raise funds for their own personal goals. Among the recommended tactics are ‘prepare a social media plan’ and ‘update, update, update.’ Perhaps universities can generate student enthusiasm around raising funds by thinking more like them and meeting them on the platforms they are already using.

Driving fan engagement at college sporting events
Forget convincing students to attend on-campus sporting events, how about engaging them while they’re there? The students who are already attending the games and matches are the ones that can act as influencers for the rest of the student body. So athletics administrators are learning how to double down on in-game marketing through social channels by providing those event attendees with content that is worth sharing.

Many schools are adding loyalty and rewards programs to their marketing toolsets to accomplish this, and we published a guest post on this recently. Loyalty and rewards programs are built to incentivize students to attend events — yes — but let’s not forget that they also require check-ins for point redemptions. This means that other students will know that they’re there, and that creates a marketing tactic of its own — FOMO (fear of missing out) — especially if there is a prize involved. “The more we can integrate our brand into people's daily lives, says Pillen, the more it will make them think that they can't live without it. Once we get to that point, that's when we start to make money.”

Making athletics marketing a university-wide task
Reaching college students is not a job that should be limited to athletics administrators. This role has to extend across the university in order to be maximally effective. Athletic departments are tapping into their resources in student affairs, enrollment and alumni offices to make the message consistent and constant. Defining the school’s brand includes athletics and so this is an all-hands-on-deck kind of campaign.

Student athletes are also part of this marketing mix. Using their social media channels, they are able to create buzz around their team in a place where their peers are constantly present and engaged. Sharing hype videos and participating in on-campus events that promote athletics are some of the ways they can contribute to the effort.

While influencing the behaviors of college students may be an elusive task, it’s clear that athletics administrators are on the right path to meeting the challenge. Leveraging mobile marketing tools and social media channels with compelling content is the first step. Keeping them engaged through ongoing mobile campaigns and loyalty programming is where the next phase begins.

Jeremy Mohr is business development team lead at From Now On. Connect with him on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter @JMohr_FNO for more insights like this!

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