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Cinderella social media stories brighten March Madness

March Madness, as the NCAA basketball tournament is known, transcends the athletic contests to create a tapestry of stories at colleges large and small. The perennial basketball powers — Kansas and Kentucky, Duke and UConn — expect to do well and be there. But what if you’re a lesser-known school suddenly finding national attention on social media?

The University of Arkansas Little-Rock, Stony Brook University and the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay were among the unlikely heroes of the latest tale, the Cinderellas at the big ball. We asked their social media managers how their schools handled the sudden rush of attention, affection and admiration that comes their shining moments.

Rock-ing the moment

UALR not only secured a tournament berth out of the Sun Belt Conference, but the Trojans scored their first win in the NCAA tournament in the last 30 years. The double-overtime 85-83 win over heavily favored Purdue was a thrilling triumph, even if the glass slipper broke two days later with a 78-61 loss to Iowa State.

Meaghan Milliorn Fikes, who runs the main UALR accounts as the college’s online marketing manager, coordinated efforts with the separate athletics accounts to keep the excitement going.

By knowing when certain things were going to happen, I could make sure I was proactive with tweeting and posting about it,” Milliorn said. “It helped drive up the excitement. I also kept up with the games while they were happening, which meant I had to adjust my personal schedule — I had to cancel some plans I had when the Trojans went into double-overtime against Purdue. Canceling my plans was worth it! … Social media never stops and I had to stay on top of things, but fortunately, it’s enjoyable for me so there are no complaints.”

Milliorn enjoyed watching the underdog story pick up steam throughout the weekend. “It was so incredibly awesome to see tens of thousands of people tweeting and posting about UALR,” she said. “When the Trojans went into OT in round one, it seemed like in an instant we had the support from people all across the country, and I got to sit there and see it unfolding.”

As the win over Purdue unfolded, Milliorn “was watching it on Tweetdeck and it was suddenly just an overflowing waterfall of tweets,” she said. “Up until that point, I had been ‘liking’ or replying to almost every single mention of UALR. I think this is so important to do because it shows that you are a real person behind the account and that you appreciate and care about what’s being said. But, we suddenly started trending and that has never happened to me before. So … I quickly messaged someone in our office and gave them the login information and told them to help me keep up! But then I realized that was pointless. There was no way I could keep up with all the tweets coming in.”

But individual connections proved as wonderful as the widespread attention. @UALR and a man from Milwaukee started a tweet conversation (now on Storify) because the man’s young son picked UALR to win the title because the boy is “little and he likes rocks,” his father said. “The conversation went on for several days, with his son even drawing pics of our logo and showing his support for us,” Milliorn explained. “I am going to mail Charlie a little gift to show my appreciation. It was just so cute to know that a child was rooting for us the whole time, and he really had no connection to us, other than he liked our University name.”


stonybrooktweetsFor Stony Brook, elation ruled the day the prior weekend when the Seawolves punched their first ticket to the Big Dance by topping Vermont 80-74 to take the automatic bid of the America East Conference. As Christopher D’Orso, assistant director of enrollment communications, ran the @StonyBrookU account, the emotion flowed including a very popular tweet that merely said “NO YOU’RE CRYING.” The raw passion of D’Orso’s work earned stories on TheScore and CollegeSpun.

“Winning our conference championship changed everything for us,” D’Orso said. “We had lost the AE title game four times in five years, and everyone thought we were snakebit. When we won that game on national television, I literally couldn’t control my emotions in the stands, and like 4,000 other people there and countless others in the larger Stony Brook community, I reflected that on social media. My favorite part was realizing how much people really responded to that emotion.”

With the Seawolves’ NCAA tournament debut, the college wanted to make the most of it. “We had a compelling story — first-time team after four heartbreaking conference finals losses in five years, a dynamic trio of seniors led by the best player we’ve ever had, a coach who was ready to make his mark on the national stage, and a top-notch university community behind the whole effort — and we wanted to make sure that we balanced all of those things for maximum impact,” D’Orso said.

In the Big Dance, Stony Brook drew Kentucky, blue-blood basketball royalty considered a national title contender every year, and gave them a good fight before Kentucky eventually pulled away for a 85-57 win. But the ride to that point was thrilling.

Logistically, the Stony Brook marcomm and athletics teams met a half-dozen times in the last few weeks, starting just before the conference tournament. D’Orso made the trip with the team and chronicled as much as he could. “Nothing really surprised me because I think we planned well,” D’Orso noted. “We got the pictures we needed, we got the engagement we wanted. We just didn’t get the WIN we wanted. We had the ‘luxury’ of being an underdog, so we got a ton of support, and that continued even though we lost.

Double the pleasure

UW-Green Bay had not one but two reasons to celebrate, as the Phoenix qualified for both the men’s and women’s Division I tournaments by winning their Horizon League tournaments. Alas, their seasons concluded with neither team advancing past the first round of the Big Dance: The men fell to imposing Texas A&M 92-65, while the women lost a hard-fought 59-53 battle with perennial power Tennessee.

Jena Richter, social media specialist for UW-Green Bay, ensured the main channels worked closely with the athletics marketing and communication teams. “We created a specialized communication chain and as a collaborative team, we considered plans of action for the two possible outcomes— survive and advance or celebrate a great season— for two different teams,” she said.

“UWGB has a lot of great stories to tell, and I am elated that March Madness and both our teams advancing to the NCAA tournament gave the University the opportunity to showcase some of those stories about how great our fans are, how our athletes are talented and overall wonderful people, and show how fun and supportive our chancellor and his wife are (they split up to support the two teams, and Chancellor [Gary] Miller was on the floor shooting hoops with the women during one of their practices in Tempe, Arizona),” said Richter, which they shared on Snapchat and other platforms.

Advice for the future

The social media managers offered advice for others working with great moments, sporting or otherwise — with planning, collaboration and having fun all key takeaways.

“When opportunities such as this present themselves and you find your University in the spotlight, be sure to capitalize on the national attention!” Richter said. “Watch for conversations about your university by big names/brands and respond and share! (We had many big names showing their support— Milwaukee Bucks, Green Bay Packers, Packers players, CBS Sports, local politicians, and more!) We retweeted all of the tweets from big names, but for even more bang for our buck, we put together a blog post showcasing the high-profile shoutouts after we won the Horizon League Championship game.”

Richter also emphasized providing feel-good moments for as many fans as you can. “Seek out the other positive conversations about your brand and interact with as many people as possible!” She said. “These positive posts about your brands are like a high-fives and you don’t want to leave social media users ‘hanging’ or you may never get a high five again. I noticed that this March Madness was a great way to engage with University alumni and friends that don’t usually engage with the University on social media. Hopefully our positive interactions surrounding March Madness lay the foundation for future engagement!”

D’Orso’s advice, in all caps, was: “HAVE FUN WITH IT.” He always stresses brands should show personality on social media “and this was a great example of that,” D’Orso said. “People that are invested in the outcome of the game are watching it. When they check their phones during and after the game, they don’t want just the news, they want reaction. It’s like watching the Oscars; you’re not following on social media to see who won, you’re following on social because you want to see things that are funny, and you want to interact with and share things that are funny.”

Milliorn emphasized staying on top of everything you can, but also letting a few other things go if necessary. “Some of my other tasks got put on the back burner so that I could focus on social media during this time, but thankfully my boss was fine with this,” she said.

She also emphasized working with colleagues to get things done. “My boss was at the Sun Belt conference and then went on to Denver with the team,” Milliorn said. “My boss was able to text me photos of things that were happening at the tournament, and then I was able to post those to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. It was awesome to be able to provide a ‘behind the scenes’ viewpoint (pics of the players in the elevator before the game, pics of the dance team getting ready, etc.). Another co-worker was at the on-campus watch party and she was able to film the students’ reaction to the Trojans tying up the game. I quickly edited the video down and got it on Facebook and YouTube, and people just went crazy over it.”

All your fans want to share in that shining moment, so getting everybody involved is a win-win. “Reach out to others and ask them to send you photos and videos,” Milliorn recommended. “Also, have fun! It was crazy and wild and overwhelming, but I really loved it. Have a sense of humor and engage with your followers.”

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By Tim Nekritz

Tim Nekritz is Link's Chief Editor and the communications director for SUNY Oswego, where he also teaches a class on blues history. In his spare time, he is an active musician, booker and promoter who leads a monthly Songwriters Circle.