Auburn digital aims to “win the press box” with versatility, organization

auburn social digital media interview

Running a successful social media campaign is a complex operation. There’s planning, management, editing and timing. Staying on top of trends in an ever-changing industry is a full-time job in itself. Execution of a digital campaign is truly a team effort.

For the Auburn Tigers’ digital team, it’s Mike McGrory’s job to manage the social media and web activity along with his “digital co-pilot” Austin Penny. Mike took the job in December and didn’t miss a beat, helping retain Auburn’s reputation as a leader in the college-property digital space as one of the most followed properties across all social media channels.

At Auburn, each team has a sports information director (SID) responsible for the social media activity for that team account, with Mike and Austin serving as the “digital pros,” managing, overseeing and providing assistance when needed. Last season, in addition to being the digital pro, Mike served as the SID for Auburn’s softball team.

We caught up with Mike and Austin to hear a little about the structure of their team and what goes into making their social media presence great.

Every team at Auburn has its own SID who’s in charge of that particular account. Where do you and Austin fit in?

MM: Austin and I are the digital pros. There’s so many media relations and sports information duties that the SIDs will never be able to get away from it. We’re able to step in and assist them with more time-sensitive, bigger picture, more engaging and that type of stuff. They can focus on the day-to-day and minute-to-minute jobs and we can help them thrive. That’s what we’re here for.

As the overseers, what’s the challenge of overseeing so many different accounts and so many different people like? Do you guys have rules and stated practices for voice and strategies on social?

MM: We definitely encourage everyone to have their own voice. Different sports are gonna have different audiences. We don’t want to make everyone the same. We really want to target our target demographics.

Softball has a much different reach than football does so that gives me some liberties to take more personality and inject that into softball. Where maybe in football or the main athletics account you want to be a little more conservative. I enjoy that freedom, that we don’t restrict our voices. We let whoever they want to be shine in however they want to. I don’t see it as a problem. I want people to know it’s individuals behind the Twitter accounts. I don’t want them to think we’re just a monolithic brand.

How do you determine the target audience for each account? Is there research that you do or do you just get a feel for it from being on the accounts and around the teams.

AP: I went to school and I graduated here. I know the traditions and what everyone is looking for when it comes to social media. Each program has their own niche and their own pockets that they’re going after.

For the most part, you’ve got two groups. You’ve got the Auburn lifers that are ride or die with the Auburn Tigers. You could almost put anything out there traditionally and they’re gonna absolutely love it.

On the other hand, you’ve got the younger generation. You’ve got the recruits. You’ve got the younger guys and girls that are potentially gonna come to your university or even have interest in becoming a fan. You’ve really got to play to them too. That’s when you get into some of the new digital media such as GIFs and videos and short things that you can do on Instagram and Twitter that you can do to cultivate a little more interest from that group of folks too.

Multimedia content is so important to what you guys do, taking videos and graphics very seriously. How are you able to manage the volume of multimedia content that you guys are pushing out?

AP: First and foremost, we have an incredible graphic design team. They understand the brand. They know where we’re headed. They’re pros. Our team is amazing from that standpoint. Also, everyone that needs to be in a position to make graphics or make GIFs or videos can do it. We have a lot of people that are versatile in that sense.

MM: We have a really strong video department with the SEC network coming to town, we had to really beef up our video department and we’ve shifted strategies there. They’re all kind of social media connoisseurs as well so they understand what we’re going for. They’re really helpful in cutting up videos. The resources we have here are just incredible. It blows me away. Not just the physical resources, but the personal resources. The people here are very very skilled and we haven’t run into many challenges where we can’t get something done.

We’ve just got to get started. The manpower here is just incredible.

Fired up for football! #WarEagle

A video posted by Auburn Tigers Official (@auburntigers) on

How big is the graphic design team?

MM: Right now we have four members, we’re currently in the process of hiring the overseer, the director of creative services. Our previous guy just left to join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

We work heavily with templates too. We’ll get some templates from those designers and that’s where me and Austin can just drop stuff in on the fly and really make it quick. Once you’re in a live event, it’s really hard to do something creative at that point. You have to have it ready to go.

So we have four graphic designers. Me and Austin have graphic design skills. We can drop in when necessary and a few of the SIDs are pretty handy with photoshop as well.

If you had to define the brand of Auburn, Auburn’s Digital Media brand, how would you do that?

AP: I haven’t been here very long but I’ve followed for a very long time and I’ve seen the brand grow through the development and evolution of social media. To me, it’s a very clean and a very professional brand with spices of tradition and that added new flavor. Trying to bring a little bit something new to the table. That’s really what I’m here to do with Mike is to keep it going consistently but add a little bit more flavor to it.

MM: For me, my motto has always been to win the press box. I’m pretty competitive but am not gonna be able to get on the playing field anymore. I’ve always looked at Auburn as a team that wins the press box. From afar, I used to use them as inspiration.

“Winning the press box is what Auburn Digital Media is about.”

It’s a clean look. It’s sharp. There’s tradition and history. They don’t get away from that. Winning the press box is what Auburn Digital Media is about. When we’re playing another team on the field, we’ll often keep an eye out on the opposing team to see what they’re doing on social. We want to beat them in every single way we possibly can. We want to bring the best possible content to the fans through as many possible avenues as is responsible. We’re not gonna be doing every single social media out there but we really want to bring as much content as possible to the fans. It’s a very connected fan base, it’s very passionate.

Do you have a hallmark moment while working for Auburn Digital Media, when you said, ‘yes, this is why we do it.’ ?

MM: The Hop video went viral on Facebook and Twitter. At last count, we had over 50 million views on it. Our Facebook numbers dramatically increased over night. The analytics blew my mind; that was the first taste of Auburn softball fanaticism that I saw. It makes the job really great when you have engaged, passionate fans that are very willing and desperate to see your content.

There are so many different ways to measure success on social media. How do you guys measure success for your department?

AP: One big success is always being recognized as a school that others want to look at and want  to copy. That’s a huge point that we want to be. When I’m at a restaurant or around town and someone says, “Did you see the video Auburn put out?” that’s really gratifying.

On top of that, it’s looking at the numbers and seeing your rank go up a little higher for followers or engagements. That puts things in perspective and really motivates you to make your next graphic or your next video even better.

Editor’s note: They publish the 25 most-followed college-property accounts across multiple social media on their webpage. See the list here.

MM: You can get lost all day long in analytics. You can sit there and study them and there’s great value to finding them but at the end of the day you know what works and what doesn’t work. You can tell right away when something you tweeted or posted is gonna stick because you get instant reaction.

Feedback from fans is always fun too. We got a lot of messages, replies saying, “You guys are doing a great job. Keep it up. We really appreciate what you’re doing.” I think that’s one of the most valuable factors to gauge if you’re doing really well, if the fans are telling you.

Normally, feedback is negative so any positive feedback you’re getting is a very good indicator.

AP: Last week, we were tweeting a lot about what to expect on the SEC Network takeover and we had a lot of graphics that the fans were engaging with and tracking the replies where people were saying, “I remember that, I was with my grandfather at that game.” You’re getting them to relive memories and get excited for the upcoming season. Overall, you’re generating even more interest in your program. I look at that as a very high benchmark on success.

What qualities does your team have or the individuals on your team have that make you successful?

MM: You’ve gotta look at your own strategies constantly and evolve them. What we’ve always done shouldn’t be the main directive. You should always been looking to push the envelope, try new things. Sports media is a competitive industry. It’s a copycat industry. Look around and see what everyone else is doing and take inspiration from others. There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel but don’t be afraid to fail and to try new ideas.

I think our team does a great job of giving stuff a try and seeing if it will work before we say no to things.

AP: Another big thing is versatility. It’s really important that you don’t tunnel your skillset – that you don’t try to be good at one thing. Willingness to learn new things or pick up something that somebody in your office is doing and trying to learn as much as you can, having that drive and versatility can really go a long way in helping your brand get to the place where you want it to be.

MM: Austin and I are both former SIDs and SIDs bring a very strong skillset to this digital world because we’re used to handling multiple things at once. We’re used to having a very wide skill set so we can jump in and do a number of different things.

What are your thoughts on the next six months – year for social media? Do you have goals or strategies to identify the next big thing or next trend in your industry?

MM: GIFs to me are very important. I think GIFs bring viewers to the action. It’s a great way to engage and get people involved while still informing them of what’s going on. I’m talking about highlight GIFs and in-game GIFs, not so much reaction GIFs. I do think those have their place but I don’t try to get too deep into that, you can get too much blowback and negative response if you use the wrong reaction gif.

Bringing quicker, shorter highlights to fans quicker is gonna be a strong emphasis of mine, not just on social media but using the website as a hub to aggregate everything. We used to use the website as a driver to make people go to social media. It’s reversed in the last five years where we’re directing people back to the website through social media. Using the website as a place to gather, harness and collect everything that we try to do for gamedays and special events so fans can have a place to go back and relive those memories.

AP: It truly is trending toward a motion-graphic world. GIFs and shorter videos, not three minutes, we’re looking :15, :30, maybe minute videos where your user can get in and get out, but they stop when they get in and get out. That’s really what people are more interested in now. It grabs their attention rather than a really cool graphic. It’s going toward more and more what can you do for me in a moving visual sense.

Related Content

The State of Sponsored Social

Get the full breakdown on 36,000 branded Instagram posts published on behalf of more than 3,200 sponsors in sports