October 5th, 2019

By putting #Ath1etes first, James Madison scores on social media

As Assistant Athletics Director for Communications at James Madison University, Kevin Warner holds the responsibility of telling the story of JMU Athletics to the public.

That job has changed considerably as social media has become a dominant platform. Warner came to a realization: There are no more powerful storytellers of that experience than those who live it every day.

He saw that getting content into the hands of the Dukes’ student-athletes and coaches and letting them tell their story their own way, on their own terms, would connect with fans, boosters and recruits in ways that traditional means never could.

“We see on social media that fans are more and more drawn to personalities rather than to brands,” Warner said in an interview with ESPN Radio in Harrisonburg, Va. “Why should we just focus on what our brand is saying — JMU Sports or JMU Football. Let’s let the student-athletes and coaches tell it themselves.”

With that in mind, JMU recently launched an athletic department-wide partnership with INFLCR, a software and mobile app solution that empowers those brand ambassadors to tell their own stories on social media using digital content produced by the university.

“INFLCR in their young time as a company has a great track record of proven success in doing that,” Warner said.

JMU uploads content — photos, videos, graphics, etc. — into a cloud-based INFLCR account. Artificial Intelligence-powered technology tags the content to create personalized galleries delivered straight to each athlete’s mobile phone via the INFLCR app. The athletes can easily download and share that content to their own social-media channels, and the university can track that activity through live dashboards that measure usage and regular Client Success reports that help measure the audience and brand impact.

Activation is easy and is done remotely. The athletes and other brand ambassadors receive a text alert prompting them to download the free INFLCR app and create a password. When that is done, they are directed to their personal gallery where content is already waiting for them. Then moving forward, they receive a notification when they are tagged in new content.

That impact has been immediate. In the first month:

— JMU activated 12 varsity teams.

— 94 percent of athletes in those sports — a total of 331 — activated and used the INFLCR app to access content.

Six teams had a 100-percent athlete confirmation rate.

— JMU uploaded 4,159 content items.

— Athletes downloaded/shared 2,345 items (57 percent).

— 46 percent of JMU athletes were active on the app at least four times per week.

— 50 athletes had used the app at least once per day since confirmation.

“INFLCR says that the emphasis should be to put the digital content into the hands of your influencers,” Warner said.

“That’s our student-athletes. That’s our coaches. We may expand that to certain alumni, our pro players, people who have strong digital reach … taking the photos, maybe some video in the near future, maybe some design content, taking those pieces and getting it right into the hands of our student-athletes and letting them tell the story of their great experiences here at JMU Athletics.

“It’s one thing for JMU Football to promote something that (head football coach) Curt Cignetti is doing. But it is another thing for the student-athletes to tell it themselves.”

Warner said the ability for fans and recruits to connect directly with the student-athletes was not something to fear, but an opportunity to educate and empower them to grow a personal brand responsibly within the context of the JMU brand they represent.

“The great thing about social media is the person-to-person connection. It is fun to follow a brand, but we want to connect with people,” Warner said. “A celebrity on social media, you can reach that person instantly. You can feel this connection to them, and that’s what we want our student-athletes and coaches to have. That is what we want our fans to feel. 

“An important by-product that we have is the education we do with our student-athletes so that they understand the do’s and don’ts and best practices of how to responsibly share their story and interact with those fans. They are 18-22 year olds. Social media brings a lot of excitement and opportunity. It does take a sense of responsibility in an effective, appropriate way.”

The upside, however, makes it worth it.

“There is a huge potential return on investment there in a lot of different ways,” Warner said. “For fans to feel that connection and want to come to games to support the student-athletes … for people to give to the Duke Club. Everything we say is we’re about the student-athlete experience, so who better to tell that experience than the student-athletes themselves and show what a great time they are having here at JMU. Hopefully that pays off in recruiting for the high school prospects to see first hand our student-athletes talk about what they are doing and for those recruits to say, ‘Yeah, I want to be part of that.’”

Listen to the full interview here.

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