Sports and all that surround them are the face of any school. A well-known football team or band program can go a long way to building school spirit, keeping the community engaged, and even attracting new students.
However, it’s not getting any cheaper or easier to run an athletic department. Even if you can run a top-notch program in your district, all the benefits come from promoting it, which requires a whole other set of skills. But there’s a secret weapon that many schools have already started using that makes promoting their athletic departments easier than it’s ever been — technology.
The choices for school districts to build their athletics websites are wide and varied. Build it yourself using a designer, use open source or engage a proprietary content management software system (CMS); use an athletics module that’s built-in to a broader CMS or school website hosting package; or use one of the few companies specializing in helping high schools manage their athletics department websites.
Big Teams, 8 to 18, and Varsity News Network are among those that offer an array of online services ranging from rosters and schedules, and rich media and social media. The company I work for, VNN, has built over 1,200 athletic department websites over the past three years, and in that time, we’ve gotten a pretty good idea at what it takes to make the most of your athletic department online.
However you approach using technology to help you, whether you’re the AD, a coach, or school administrator, knowing the tips below cannot only help you build a better athletic department online, but also create a common thread between your school and the local community. But where do you start?
Here’s what I’ve learned:
1. Get people where they need to go
With how many people are known to be watching ESPN’s Sportscenter morning, noon and night, you might think that promoting athletics immediately means dishing out the best of the best highlights from games.
What might surprise you is the most frequented pages on the websites we host are schedules, articles that display tryout information, and game change alerts. At its most basic, it makes sense. A big number of visitors to your athletics page are simply looking for information on where they need to be – whether that’s a schedule, tryout information, or the plans for Friday’s tailgate. We see that posts telling people what they need to know outperform game information over 70% of the time. Start there and then build off that.
2. Tell them what happened last night
Next, you’re going to want to close the loop. As budgets have been cut in the newspaper publishing business, so too has their ability to staff the newsroom, including the local sports desk, where many of your parents, grandparents, and fans previously went to get final scores in the morning. More and more we’re noticing that it’s falling to school athletics departments to close that gap, especially for niche sports like water polo, tennis, golf, and archery.
Whether it’s one person updating your website early in the morning, or coaches posting game recaps from the field with mobile apps, make sure results are easily accessible and online quickly. After making sure people know where they need to be, make your school is the place the community turns to for results.
3. Show, don't tell
Have you heard the expression ‘a photo is worth a thousand words?’ Probably more times than you would like, I’m sure. But it’s true. A photo can capture so much about an event that words can’t.
Let me read about a game winning touchdown and I’ll get excited about it, but show me a photo of the running back, arms in the air, white and blue helmet reflecting the Friday night lights, and the crowd going wild? Well, that’s a whole other thing. There’s a reason why in the office we affectionately call Facebook’s photo galleries a ‘black hole.’
Photos are impactful – and while video content is getting a lot of attention from marketers and advertisers looking to show off an experience, it’s much easier for your community to click through a slideshow of photos from school events than sitting through video content with their headphones on.
When just starting out, this low barrier to entry is why – after the basics – we always advise our clients to start simple and post photo galleries. Getting photos doesn’t have to be hard, either. Most schools have a built-in resource where they could easily get photos from events. That resource might be a professional partner looking for ‘free’ exposure and marketing (and will allow you to post their photos free with a watermark and a link to their site), or a superfan parent who is a photo hobbyist.
Second only to the schedule page overall, photos have always been a huge traffic driver to our school sites. Once you’ve gotten the basic information on your site, show your community why your school, teams, and athletes are so special.
4. Use social media to your advantage
Social media platforms can be a great asset in promoting your department, but not in the way you might think. Yes, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube allow you the ability to reach many people all at once. But because the members of your school community are so diverse (and each have different social media preferences), relying on only one or two platforms doesn’t cover everyone. That can be a problem. If information can’t be found where your people want or expect it to be reliably – one of the seven fatal mistakes of school website design – then they won’t ever see or hear it.
Especially these days, when certain school information requires using the right mix of communications channels, your school needs to offer up a veritable smorgasbord of content channel opportunities to reach its audiences.
Instead of thinking of social media as the be all-end all to getting your information out to the community, leverage those social media networks to draw people to your website instead, through teasing content they can only get on your official channel — then, spend your time concentrating on making those previews something people will want to share to others, which will extend your reach.
It may surprise you, but in our network, we’ve seen that social media followers and page likes have historically mattered less than the articles themselves being shared over and over again.
Ultimately, it’s all about the number of people in the community you can reach.
Once you’ve set up your department online for success, then amp it up to the broader community where they are already using social media.
Knock it out of the park
Sports are the most visible part of your school to the public, and their success can create a buzz that draws the community in with the right promotion. Whether your enrollment is up in the thousands, or closer to the single-hundreds, we’ve consistently seen schools of all sizes make a positive impact with technology tools and smart planning. By following the steps above, it’s easier than you think to use technology to promote your school athletic department online.
Romy Glazer is the marketing director at Varsity News Network, a fast-growing network for high school athletic departments. She’s passionate about bringing school brands to life through careful planning, impactful design, and slam dunks. Currently based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Romy tries to run every morning. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org