Clemson gave PCMag an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at how the school uses technology to lure blue chip recruits.
The blast of cannon fire is unnerving — a martial deviation from an otherwise celebratory medley of passion, pride, tradition, and unbridled youth. Tiny cheerleaders tumble in synchronicity through the 90-degree heat and into the arms of muscular counterparts. The unintelligible sound of synchronized voices exits the wide end of megaphones — the noises blending with and lost among the 81,500 voices in the arena. Here, on the western end zone of Clemson University’s Death Valley Memorial Stadium, the explosion commences what is known as “The Most Exciting 25 Seconds in College Football” — when the reigning NCAA College Football Champion Clemson Tigers run from the top of a hill that sits above the field onto the end zone. The game is about to begin. The team is going to win. I close my eyes and see nothing but orange.
As the capacity crowd remains on its feet in anticipation of kickoff, a Clemson student sprints up three flights of steep stairs, hastening to deliver an SD card that holds the footage of the hill run to one of his teammates within the Clemson Tigers Creativity Studio. The Studio, a cramped, shadowy room is managed by Jonathan Gantt, The Clemson Athletic Department’s Director of New and Creative Media. Gantt leads a team of eight creatives — six students, and two professionals — who are responsible for creating all of the social media content that captures the experience of 18 different teams and almost 500 student athletes.
Without the help of a social advertising and marketing agency, Gantt’s team has built Clemson University’s social media following into one of the best in the nation. Armed with a Nikon D5, Nikon D500, Canon 5D Mark III, Sony FS7, Sony A7s ii and Sony A6300 for capturing audio and video, and two Microsoft Surface Studios, two Microsoft Surface Books, and an 84-inch Microsoft Surface Hub, and an Adobe Creative Cloud license, Clemson’s athletic department has become nationally recognized as one of the best social media operations in college sports. The football team’s Twitter account has been named the best Twitter account for college football, according to separate rankings by Twitter and Sports Illustrated. The team has more than 2.5 million followers across all channels (the largest of any college football team), averaging about 19 million impressions across social media each week, and more than 70 million video views in total.
The creative team combines a mix of short-form video, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram stills, and Snapchat stories to try to replicate the experience of being a Clemson Tiger. This content includes behind-the-scenes looks into locker room pep-talks, first person video of practicing with the team, quick-turnaround video of pre-game ceremonies like the aforementioned Hill Run, or the pre-game Tiger Walk. Using its technology arsenal, Gantt’s team is able to create social content that is close to real-time, while still providing expert-level design. For Gannt’s higher ups, the creative team’s main objective isn’t to sell Clemson paraphernalia or amass an army of followers; it’s to show potential athletic recruits what life would be like should they choose to don the orange and white.
PCMag was given exclusive access to Gantt’s team, as well as on-field access to Clemson Tiger pre-game festivities, so that we could see exactly how the small team, and its even smaller suite of technology, has made Clemson one of the most followed and respected social media content producers in sports.
The Clemson Creativity Studio
On Oct. 13th, 2008, Clemson head coach Tommy Bowden, who had been with the team for 9 years, was fired. The same day thirty-eight-year-old wide receivers coach Dabo Swinney was offered the interim job and told he could remain on as head coach if he were capable of turning the team around. He met with the team, told them what had happened, and said that the next six weeks would be extremely difficult for everyone involved, but that he would be “all in” to helping return Clemson Football to a place of respectability. He told his team and his coaches he only wanted people who would be “all in” with him. Anyone who wasn’t committed to the program, he said, should be absent for the next practice, which was scheduled for later that day. The entire team and coaching staff came to the practice.
Today, prior to exiting the locker room before each game, each Clemson football player and Dabo Swinney places a poker chip in a bucket labeled “All In” to re-pledge their commitment to the program. Although Gantt doesn’t run his Creativity Studio with a similar emphasis on tradition, he said he doesn’t choose his staffers and students based on their respective skillsets, but rather on the type of person they are, and whether they’re committed to going all in for the creative team.
“The number one criterion for working for us is you’ve got to be a good person,” said Gantt. “We don’t really care if you can hold a camera or know how to use Photoshop. We can teach you that. Obviously, it helps tremendously if you have some skill and experience, but the number one thing is you’ve got to be a good person, because we can teach you the rest.”
The first thing you notice when you walk into the Creativity Studio is the 84-inch Microsoft Surface Hub. Then you’ll notice the mess; papers strewn about, empty coffee cups, Clemson t-shirts, Clemson hats in no apparent order. You’ll see two Microsoft Surface Studio desktops along the right-side of the room, a square table at the center of the room housing two Microsoft Surface Book laptops, and a coffee bar in the far left corner featuring a wide variety of sweeteners, creams, coffee flavors, and a bottle of water or two. Because the team needs to follow what Clemson football and its rivals are doing on the field, four large-screen LG televisions are positioned alongside one another on the back wall.
As proof of his commitment to his staff, Gantt allows any one of his professional or student workers (and even their friends) to access the $21,999 Microsoft Surface Hub at any point during the day. The Hub, an 84-inch 4K Windows-based collaboration kiosk, is designed to provide businesses and schools the ability to work in large groups, on multiple screens, and in remote locations. Gantt also allows his team to check out one of two Microsoft Surface Books, which start at $1,499, if they’d prefer to use the device over their own personal laptops, which were each in the range of three to four years old, the staffers told me. The same goes for any of the high-end cameras the team uses down on the field. With access to these expensive devices, and with the freedom to use them how and when they want, the students feel like professional creatives, rather than work-study gophers.
“Any of the people that are on the team can access the Hub on their own and do their own thing,” he explained. “For us, we want them to come to after-hours brainstorming sessions with their peers and to use the Hub and to use that room. My goal is that they would never want to go to the library or go to their apartment to work or to hang out. I want them to come and hang out in here. That’s why we’ve got a coffee bar. There are actually a lot of board games in here. We wanted a mix of your favorite restaurant bar and coffee shop and workplace all in one.”
When Gantt and his boss, Deputy Athletic Director, Graham Neff, were approached by Microsoft with an offer to use the Surface suite for content creation, the partnership was a no-brainer, according to Neff. “You talk branding and return-on-investment…when it comes to revenue opportunities and brand exposure it’s really important that we fight above our weight class,” he said. “The Microsoft offerings were comprehensive and allowed us to pull levers in so many different directions [video and image editing, whiteboarding, and presentations].”
For Gantt, Microsoft’s tools solved a variety of problems his team struggled with prior to the partnership. For example, designing motion graphics, adding written text to video, and game-planning content strategies were easier for the team on the Surface suite’s touchscreens. Max Huggins, a fourth-year senior on Gantt’s team, is responsible for taking video captured during the team’s Tiger Walk (when the team walks from its buses into the stadium alongside a school marching band), locker room speeches, game footage, and crowd reactions, and turning it into a one-minute video that goes live five minutes after the game. Gantt’s team uses the Surface Hub’s giant display to brainstorm and short-list the footage the team needs to capture for the video. As footage is taken, it’s crossed off of the Hub’s whiteboard. Footage is transferred via a hand-delivered SD card to Huggins, who puts it onto a Microsoft Surface Studio desktop, and begins to cut the video, which includes adding hand-drawn text as well as audio.
Jordan Salisbury, a sophomore on Gantt’s team, is charged with a similar task. She touches-up and edits photos in order to ensure maximum quality. Simple things like, adjusting the color of the team’s uniform under the harsh South Carolina sun light so that the color is consistent with Clemson’s orange, and not, say, Syracuse’s orange. When asked if she’d be able to do her job without the Surface Studio, she sighed and said, “It would be a drag to go back from a touchscreen now.”
For Gantt, synchronicity between Microsoft devices makes his job as group leader much easier. “There’s lots of times when we’re in a brainstorming session, with me being able to, with one click, look at something I’m looking at on my laptop screen. To be able, with one click, to show it up on the 84-inch screen here and everybody be able to participate, as opposed to, with a MacBook, somebody’s got to walk over here and plug in an HDMI cable and then make sure the resolution is working.”
Ali Kerns, a senior at Clemson, said the Surface Pens are what she most enjoys, especially when she’s tasked with experimenting. Kerns’ job requires capturing compelling Clemson game day content that doesn’t necessarily involve the football team. She captures footage of fans swiping their tickets, security guards guiding attendees into the stadium, the band playing the Clemson fight song, among many other game day activities. She then adds hand-written digital text or drawings to the footage to make it more visually interesting. The Surface Pen lets her switch back and forth between fonts, letter sizes, color schemes, all without having to start from scratch whenever she messes up, or goes too far down an experimental rabbit hole. “I have more control on the Surface Studio than I have on regular paper,” she said. “And when I mess up I don’t need to throw any paper away.”
What is a Touchdown?
For Microsoft, the partnership means one big thing: Trying to get Clemson’s 23,000 students and its approximately 5,000 staffers and administrators to be Microsoft-agnostic. For Clemson, the partnership is a way to help lure the next top recruit to play football for the Tigers. As I mentioned earlier, Clemson’s social efforts don’t provide return-on-investment in a traditional sense: the school doesn’t sell hats or jerseys via an e-commerce site on its Facebook page; it isn’t using a customer relationship management software (CRM) system to capture leads to send brochures and fliers; and it isn’t using a social listening tool to try to drive higher engagement with ads or higher ticket sales.
As a result, what Clemson and Gantt are trying to accomplish is a pure branding play that lets blue-chip prospects see what playing for Clemson would be like before a top recruit ever steps on campus (the video above is a prime example of the type of content Gantt and his team try to create).
“Our job is to try to take campus to the recruit through content and through social media,” said Gantt. “It’s really important for us to try to tell the stories of our programs, of our university, sometimes of our individual student athletes to help explain what it’s like to be a Clemson Tiger. Every piece of content tries to answer that question right there, so through videos, photos, motion graphics, articles, whatever it might be, we’re trying to help you understand what’s it like to be a Clemson football player, Clemson volleyball player, whatever. You can feel what it’s like to be a student athlete on those teams by looking at our social channels and watching our content.”
Gantt and Neff agree that follower numbers and engagement metrics won’t necessarily determine whether their efforts have been successful, and having all of the nicest Microsoft toys won’t necessarily automatically create the best content; however, the content has to live up to the success of the football team, which, as of publication, is arguably the best in the nation.
“Success on the field is the only real driver of significant growth on social channels for a sports team,” said Gantt. “There’s a lot of people who are making great content across the country, but they don’t have a team winning National Championships, and so they’re not seeing the same growth. Now, what I will say is that when our team did reach those levels in making it to a National Championship and then winning one last year, the staff and students who were doing the work didn’t miss that moment. Those numbers certainly would’ve grown no matter what, but I think they grew more because of the work that the staff and students were doing.”
That all sounds well and good, but when I ask Gantt, if and when Neff calls him into his office and asks him to show-and-prove the Creativity Studio’s value, what will he point to as his proof of ROI?
Gantt laughed like a poker play who’d read his opponent’s hand. “I’ve got one for you,” he said, “Shaq Smith.”
Smith, a Clemson inside linebacker, was a five star recruit out of Maryland, where he was ranked the state’s top prospect. A second-team All American in High School, Smith received scholarship offers from all of the major football programs in the country, including top schools such as Alabama, Penn State, and Ohio State. He visited Clemson in November of 2015, on a night when the team won a crucial victory over powerhouse Florida State, and won the Atlantic Division of the ACC, and secured a berth in the conference championship game.
After the game, Gantt said he and his team were working in the press box into “the wee hours of the night, as we usually do for home games,” when he got a call on his cell phone from Clemson’s recruiting coordinator for football. “Hey, I want you to talk to somebody real quick,” the coordinator said.
“Shaq Smith gets on the line,” Gantt said. “I never met Shaq, and I’m going to do a poor impression of him, but he said, ‘Hey, is this Jonathan?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said ‘Hey, I just wanted to tell you, you’re doing a great job on social media.’”
Gantt acknowledges that Smith probably didn’t choose Clemson based on the greatness of the school’s social content. But might it have had an impact, however small, on his recruiting process? “Yes,” said Gantt. “We’re just trying to package all the special things that are happening here and make sure that those people who are trying to make a decision about where to go to college understand exactly what Clemson has to offer, and it’s important for us to make sure we’re telling that story really well.”
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Originally published at www.pcmag.com.