The social voice of the Capital One Bowl
Dec. 26, 2012
Northwestern might have missed out on the Capital One Bowl this year, but at least one Wildcat will still be in Orlando representing NU. Matt Repchak (BSJ05) is Director of Digital Media for Florida Citrus Sports and helps promote the Capital One Bowl and Russell Athletic Bowl. Part of his job responsibility is managing each bowl’s social media accounts, for which he has developed a uniquely personal voice and received acknowledgements from ESPN.com and Sports Illustrated.
Repchak’s role became more interesting this year as Northwestern was a contender to participate in the Capital One Bowl. Ultimately, Nebraska was chosen over the Wildcats, but Repchak assures the ‘Cats were well regarded by the selection committee.
Read what he has to say about this, his thoughts on being the voice for a brand on social media, his career as “the worst wrestler in Northwestern history,” and much more in our Q&A below.
How close were the Wildcats to making it to the Capital One Bowl?
Speaking as a ‘Cats fan, agonizingly close. Our selection committee had a pair of long discussions about all of our possible options, and Northwestern got a lot of attention. We had committee members at just about every NU game this season and they all reported back positively about their experience (and reiterated that support as Selection Sunday drew closer). Ultimately our selection was down to two teams, Northwestern and Nebraska. I don’t get a vote (sadly!) and I’m not privy to the final tally, but I know the Cornhuskers had potential tiebreakers in their corner – better overall record, better conference record and a head-to-head victory. But based on the conversations that the committee had, Northwestern was given a very fair look. The committee had great regard for what the team had done on the field and the level of support that the administration and fans had shown off the field.
What’s been your reaction to the support Northwestern’s received on social media from its fans?
It’s been so much fun. In the lead-up to Selection Sunday I had an opportunity to speak with some folks in the athletic department (including #B1GCats social guru Doug Meffley) and told them how impressed I was with the excitement level among Northwestern fans. They were responsible for a good 60-70% of our total engagement in the final weeks of the season, and I could see that they were doing the same for our fellow Florida bowls as well. There was some unfortunate cynicism (it’s the Internet, after all) but you could just tell how much they loved this team. I had to show a little restraint and keep personal biases to myself, which is always a challenge when you are injecting your own voice into a brand. Of course, that didn’t stop me from giving frequent updates to the brass about the campaigning by the ‘Cats.
In the days leading up to Selection Sunday, you did a phenomenal job of answering fan questions about various scenarios for potential bowl teams. How important is it to you to use Twitter to respond to and interact with followers?
It’s a key part of our overall communications strategy. When we first got active in social, it was clear that a lot of college football fans were curious about the bowl selection process. We’ve always been forthcoming about it in other media, so it seemed like a good place to continue that trend. We’ve been able to use Twitter to tell our side of the story, give fans a look behind the scenes and also glean their feedback to make more informed decisions in the future.
It certainly seems like you’re having a lot of fun running your respective Twitter feeds. While I’m sure it’s a lot of fun, what are some of the biggest challenges you face?
The biggest challenges are situations like what I faced between Championship Saturday and Selection Sunday and both relate to the pressure to react in real-time. On Saturday, the Big Ten and SEC championship games went down in such unique ways that our situation required further discussion by the committee, but that wouldn’t be happening until the next afternoon. From Saturday night through our actual announcements, I was monitoring Twitter and seeing post after post speculating what those results mean for our selection, but for lack of concrete information I really couldn’t contribute or comment on what was being thrown around. One of the worst things you can do in my position representing a brand is speak out of turn and be wrong about it. I wasn’t at the games and I didn’t have a say in the final selection, so I had to keep commentary at a minimum and ignore what was otherwise a prime opportunity for engagement.
The second came after our selection announcement on Sunday – dealing with reaction from jilted fans without letting focus shift from the game we have to the games we almost had. A lot of fans treat Twitter like it’s a direct line to the CEO, but part of my job is to absorb all this feedback and distill the key sentiment for our leadership. We dealt with it a little bit last year when there was some controversy over our game MVP. The Twitter account becomes an outlet for their anger. In those cases you just have to cover up, lean against the ropes and take the punches.
This time it was particularly torturous for me because it involved Northwestern. We had a blitz of excited NU fans on our social accounts leading up to Selection Sunday, and so when our final announcement was made a vocal minority of those ‘Cats turned nasty. So my favorite team misses out on a big bowl game and I’m the one who has to field the negative feedback. Easily the least-fun night of all my time working here, but that’s the gig.
In your opinion, what does it take to have a successful organizational Twitter account?
Flexibility, respect and patience. First, you can guide the conversation, but you can’t dictate it. You can’t just start the day by scheduling a bunch of posts and be done. I try to make all of our posts live versus scheduled (unless they are time-sensitive in any way) and also budget out some time for immediate reactions with our followers so we can capitalize on that window when they’re interested in what we have to say. Often those flurries of replies lead us to new content ideas or help us communicate other key messages on the fly, so you just have to roll with it and take what they give you rather than trying to shoehorn a sales pitch in every third post. If users sense a disconnect, all of your messages come off like white noise.
Along those same lines, I think it’s important to treat people with individual respect, even though the Internet is often the Kingdom Of Malicious Anonymity. I try to give every earnest question (and a few less-earnest ones) individual attention, because the message is always more effective when someone is speaking directly to you. I keep notifications active on my phone so that if someone replies to us at 9:00 p.m., I’m available to give them an immediate answer. Also, it’s all in the details – you can tell someone “Thanks!” or you can take the extra second to click on their handle and find out their first name to personalize the reply.
Too often brands treat Twitter like it’s a form of broadcast: once we post this, everyone knows it and we can move on. But I think I’m more active than most on the network and I miss things from the people I follow all the time. So during bowl week, I’ll probably be sharing important info (for example, parking/shuttle links) three or four times a day. When someone replies to us at 7:30 at night and asks about parking, I can say “we’ve already answered that” or I can cut and paste the link from one of the earlier posts and send it out for a fifth time.
A lot of organizations feel they need to be formal on Twitter in order to truly represent their brand, but you’ve clearly developed a light-hearted yet informative voice for @FCSports, @CapitalOneBowl and @RussellAthBowl. Did you need to do a lot of convincing to your bosses that this was the right voice to have?
I’m lucky in that our leadership (CEO Steve Hogan, CMO Michael Strickland, Director of Communications Greg Creese) all trust me to represent the organization in a manner that sticks with our mission statement and values. They bought in almost immediately, because I chose a voice that is a representation of our office culture. Florida Citrus Sports has a pretty jovial atmosphere (even during the crush of bowl week), but we always get the work done. Our voice is a manifestation of that; we can crack some jokes at our own expense but quickly pivot and send out an important notification about tickets or whatever.
As far as formality, I think that speaks to another aspect of successful social media for brands – self-awareness. We have two pretty big bowl games, but we’re not hosting the national championship (yet!) so we can afford to dial back the gravitas a little. I don’t think it makes sense for our brands to be buttoned-up, because that’s not who we are and that’s not how fans and followers regard us. Being aware of our place within the world – the Twitter world, the college football world, etc. – helps us better define our content and messaging strategy in a way that connects with people.
How important do you think your experience with Florida Citrus Sports is in making you a reputable voice for the company and its respective bowl games?
I started as an assistant in the communications department and I’ve slowly been building myself into this role. I began my path in media and public relations, then shifted over to a hybrid marketing/communications role as my skill set grew. In addition to picking the technical aspects, I’ve become familiar enough with the organization that I can speak intelligently about any aspect of it. That helps for real-time reactions on social media; if I can’t answer a follower question on the fly, I know who to ask to get the right answer. That’s helped build trust internally, and the great support I get from other departments such as customer service and ticketing has been key to our success. Having a staff that not only appreciates social media but frequently contributes to it has made that part of the job easy.
Most college football fans only pay attention to the bowls for one or two months out of the year. Because of that, what other types of content do you promote on Twitter during the rest of the year?
This goes back to self-awareness: by February, we won’t be relevant to a good number of our followers. Our numbers will probably drop by a quarter or more because there are some people who only care about a bowl when their team is in it; we’re aware that we lack stickiness with a lot of people. I think that battle isn’t worth fighting. We keep a consistent voice and tone and the people who appreciate it will stay, or at least come back when bowls are on their mind again in 2013. If we’re tweeting a lot in the spring, every post ultimately becomes an invitation for someone to say “wait, why am I still following them again?” and that’s not where I want to be. So @CapitalOneBowl and @RussellAthBowl will dial down to only those things that we feel are important to our followers, and @FCSports will ramp up a bit as we shift back to offseason mode as a locally-focused nonprofit. We have a lot of charity initiatives and community events that keep us busy, but when the overall level of college football conversation tapers off, we need to adjust our bowl tweeting accordingly. This year, I’m hoping to add some fun stuff on our other social outlets like video and web to bide the time until next season.
How much of your day would you say you spend on Twitter?
I’d say between one and two hours of total screen time, in short bursts. I keep HootSuite open most of the day and try to click through searches and mentions at random times in case there’s anything worth contributing. Because of the ever-present phone notifications, I’m often answering people during lunch breaks or after hours, too. Whenever we have an event, I’m the guy in the back tapping away on my phone or iPad.
What are your other job responsibilities besides Twitter?
As Director of Digital Media I oversee basically anything to do with our online presence and internal creative production. I manage all company websites and social media accounts and either create content myself or in collaboration with teammates in the marketing department. We recently made a move away from hiring marketing agencies and all the creative projects were brought in-house, including the production of our local commercials. I also work closely with vendors on any special projects related to digital technology or marketing – last year that meant producing a 30-minute documentary special about the Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium, this year it has been working with wireless carriers to boost cell capacity during events and managing a major interactive project to launch in the first quarter of 2013. This year we’re increasing our digital media efforts around the bowls with beat reporters writing for our websites and a video crew capturing all of our official events, so I’m managing that team as well. Besides that, I contribute to our overall marketing strategy and try to pitch in with the communications department where I’m needed.
How did you first find out about the job at Florida Citrus Sports back in 2005?
I owe that to the athletic department at NU, because the position started as part of an internship program with the Big Ten. Now, it’s important to know that I am probably the worst wrestler in Northwestern history. I walked on to the team as a freshman thanks to the patience of then-head coach Tim Cysewski. This was before the superstars like Jake Herbert and Dustin Fox helped Tim build the program into what it is today under Drew Pariano. I spent three years getting thrown around the practice room like a ragdoll, and even when my body finally gave out, Tim never did. I was medically disqualified as a senior (an act of mercy by the training staff, I reckon) but continued to help the coaches in an administrative capacity through the rest of the year. My Medill education helped me get the job but my time as a student-athlete helped get my foot in the door.
How did what you learned at Medill help prepare you to succeed in your current position?
It gave me a foundation from which I could dictate my own path. There were some technical things that translated indirectly – desktop publishing, photojournalism, etc. – but I left Evanston with a fundamental base that made it possible to go out and do the things I wanted to do. Based on the current new media focus, today’s Medill students probably come out more technically savvy and prepared than I was, but most importantly the school improved my capacity to learn and seek out the right information. It’s probably a little silly to say a journalism degree made me better at Twitter (considering the platform launched a year after I graduated), but I entered the social space already prepared for the need to communicate succinctly within your means, whether 500 words or 140 characters.