In 2008, Rupp Arena marketers faced a thorny problem: How could they keep pace with an increasingly sophisticated concert market?
Back then, the nation was in the throes of the golden age of blogging. What would come next? And how would Rupp market itself to the changing social media climate?
In retrospect, the answers seem obvious: Facebook. Twitter. And others, including Pinterest, Instagram, Flickr, Vimeo and Eventful.
But concocting a social media strategy is neither intuitive nor foolproof.
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Rupp Arena's response to the challenge it faced has succeeded to the point that it was recently ranked No. 5 on a list measuring the social media power of venues nationwide. On the list by trade publication Venues Today, Rupp was up in the stratosphere, along with media-savvy giants including Los Angeles' Staples Center and The Roxy.
How did Rupp do it? And how can other organizations build a social media base that can adapt to changing media platforms?
The Rupp Arena marketing team — composed of Sheila Barr Kenny, marketing director; Paul Hooper, graphic design/social media; and Matt Johnson, graphic/Web designer — started with a blog on Rupp's Web site. But Kenny said that soon, it "became apparent that Facebook was where people were spending the most time."
But going from zero to a fully developed social media strategy is more than simply starting a Facebook page and tossing in an occasional Twitter post.
For Rupp, casting a social media net is a finely calibrated combination of Web site, blogging, Facebook and Twitter. The real-time nature of Twitter lets members of the marketing team visit campuses to hide event tickets and give clues to their locations even as students are searching.
"The strategy was to keep it active, but not so active that it was inundating people," Kenny said.
Hooper said that with so many competing distractions for online users' time, Rupp has to provide value to those who follow it on social media.
"You want them to feel that not only are they a fan, but that they are getting a benefit by clicking," he said.
Building from scratch
But it's not only concert venues and convention centers that have learned to tweet with the best of them.
C. Duane Bonifer, director of public relations at Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia, was not originally a social media fan.
Not at all.
"My thinking was that it would be a fad ... that there wasn't any substance to it," Bonifer said.
In 2008, he had a come-to-Twitter moment.
"I totally immersed myself" in social media, Bonifer said. "I'd become convinced that it was a game-changer ... that you needed to take it as a serious new medium."
The brochures that students once received in the mail are now entries on Facebook, Bonifer said.
But he said that it's crucial not to simply toss information at social media and hope it sticks. The information has to be carefully segmented: Flickr images, of which Lindsey Wilson has more than 40,000, are "huge for us," Bonifer said.
The easy availability of such images helps potential students see that the school is dedicated to recording their college experience — and helps current students and parents see that the school is committed to them after they've started paying tuition.
Slicing the market
It's not just smaller schools that have become more agile about marketing on the social network.
Facebook probably reaches the most extensive audiences — from 12-year-olds to elderly alumni to University of Kentucky basketball fans who might never have attended UK — but Lexington's top university uses a variety of social media to reach various segments of the technologically savvy.
"We've researched what other schools are doing, what they're seeming to get traction with, and what type of audiences they're drawing," said Whitney Hale, a UK spokeswoman who works with social media development. "Is it students? Is it alumni? Is it a mixture?"
The other part of the equation, she said, "is keeping up with the trends ... to see what's coming next and in what types of ways it can be used, and who seems to be using it."
The school is active not only on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr; it also has created a FourSquare account. The hope is not only to alert students about places to study and eat but to tell them what goes on in various buildings.
Hale and Bonifer are both fascinated with Pinterest and say they can't wait to see how it develops as a communications tool.
Facebook has the most extensive audiences among all groups at UK, but Twitter followers "are mostly college students and young alumni, so most of those messages are targeted to major accomplishments that have happened at the university, and events that they would want to go to," Hale said.
Still, social media is not the end-all. The goal is still to provide information that is frequent, reliable and personalized across a variety of platforms, the marketers said.
Social media "is not a silver bullet," Bonifer said. "It's not a magic potion. ... All it is is a tool in the communications toolbox.