How The Colorado Buffaloes Embrace Digital Storytelling

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One of the graphics made for Colorado’s schedule. (Image via @RunRalphieRun)

In the mountains of Colorado, you’ll find one of the nation’s most picturesque college towns in Boulder. In recent years, Boulder has also been home to some of the most striking and impressive digital content in the sports world, created by the digital team in CU Boulder’s athletic department.

This group is headed up by Director of Digital Strategy Curtis Snyder. After spending nearly two decades as a member of the Buffs’ staff, you won’t find too many people with more insight into CU sports that Snyder. He uses that knowledge and his wide range of technical capabilities to oversee the Buffs’ website and social media presence as well as mobile applications. But while social media is one of three components of his job, Snyder estimates that social takes up over half of the time that he devotes to his role.

“Our apps are pretty self-sufficient, so there’s sometimes of the year where we are working on them. A lot of the time they’re just taking care of themselves. The website is always there and a big part of the job. But social is 24/7/365 and to do it right, it’s just so much quicker and faster than other communication mediums, it takes more and more of our budgeted time.”

In addition to Snyder’s multifaceted role, he jokes that CU leads the Pac-12 “dual-role” staffers. Take for example Maggie Still. Before recently assuming a full-time role as CU football’s social media manager, Still served that role in the fall while also working as the sports information director for several spring sports.

“We’re kind of fall sport heavy. We don’t have a baseball team or softball team. In the spring, we have track, golf, tennis, and lacrosse. In the fall we have football along with volleyball, soccer, and cross country, which we regularly compete for national championships.  Because the workload is heavier in the fall, her job in the fall is a lot more just social.”

Since returning to work at her alma mater, Still has been heavily involved in several projects that have elevated the team’s social media to new heights. Snyder recalls how Still utilized Instagram stories and the new features associated with it to engage the team’s audience in new and unique ways.

“For example, she would put a poll out on the story ‘Do you want me to be in the tunnel and or standing beside Ralphie for her run?’ And she let people vote and they decide where they wanted her to go. So the fans could kind of drive our story. I’m pretty proud of that because I can’t imagine how we ever would’ve done that even a year ago.”

CU’s digital team, in addition to a limited number of highly talented and carefully selected student interns, also makes use of two full-time graphic designers and two separate video departments. One of these video departments works exclusively with the football program, producing game film and highlights for program use in addition to behind-the-scenes content. These inside looks at the Buffs’ football program earned the video team multiple regional Emmy awards within the past several years.

The Buffs also have a video crew known as Buff Vision who create content for the video boards and home events and produce games for broadcast on the Pac-12 Networks. In fact, CU is one of only two schools in the Pac-12 who are trusted to provide their own broadcast workers.

“From my point of view, we get the best of both worlds,” explains Snyder. “I think we’re probably unique nationally and that we have kind of those contrasting video departments that one creates long-form, high quality winning Emmys content and the other one if I called today and said, ‘Ceal Barry went into the basketball hall of fame last night. We need a 30, 40-second video of her.’ They can find it, turn it out and get it to us in an hour. So we’re pretty lucky in that regard.”

In realizing this, Snyder chuckles as he realizes the strange double-edged sword situation he finds himself in with such a large abundance of quality content.

“It’s almost to the point where sometimes it’s a struggle for me to figure out the best way to get every piece of content we have out. Are we doing everything so that it’s getting the most eyes on it? We are sometimes moving so fast and have so much content that it’s hard at times to take a step back and say ‘OK, are we maximizing our viewership and readership of all this stuff?’”

In order to achieve this maximum viewership, Snyder and team have adopted several different tactics recently.

  1. Some changes to their website

“I feel like we built the website the last five or six iterations every couple of years the last decade with the main goal of impressing recruits, 17 and 18-year-olds. Recruits are not swayed by a really cool athletic department website anymore. They’re swayed by really cool social. So that’s a completely different conversation. Which segment of our fan base are we servicing with the website?  So our next redesign will be significantly different and will look different. But I think it will get more of our content in front of people who visit the front page instead of having a lot of really good content that doesn’t have a place on the website because you have a photo that takes up the entire screen when you first visit.”

  1. Catering to platform-specific audiences

“People come to every platform for different reasons.  Facebook wants more person-to-person interaction, so as a brand, how do you present content to encourage those conversations.  Also understanding that how you present a story on your website on an Instagram story is much different than what a Tweet should say.”

  1. Experimenting with different features

“Take Facebook groups for example. We are thinking about moving away from pages and towards groups. If you join a group you kind of know you’re going to engage more with that audience. Would we rather have 5,000 really invested fans in a group or 70,000 people on a page? We’re doing some testing on this right now with a big sport in a small sport and really trying to get those groups built up to see kind of the analytics and what they’re like.”

The Buffs have also made use of their recent partnership with Team Infographics in order to publish high-quality gameday content quickly. Snyder details how the partnership came to fruition.

“Using them has been huge because it honestly wasn’t a huge monetary investment for what we got. When I called them I told them I’d love to do this but my budget isn’t that big, they came up with a way to make it work.”

“I also came to them with an idea that I had that they hadn’t necessarily ever investigated before. With a lot of companies the answer is, no, we can’t do that, maybe next year.  They understood it was valuable to us and had it done in a week or two. I was really impressed with that.”

Incorporating motion into their graphic design elements was something that the Buffs saw an opportunity in to improve their social footprint. Team Infographics has been a big help in that department.

Aside from their talented content creation professionals, Snyder and the athletic department also rely on SIDs, administrators, and in some cases student-athletes to maintain the social presence of the individual teams at CU.

“For the individual teams, we’re trying to build up some solid resources at the center that all sports can utilize, but then we really do need somebody from each team to kind of step up. We don’t really travel with every team, so whether it’s a director of operations or a coach team manager, somebody. That person really needs to kind of take the reins and help out a lot with social.”

“Sometimes if it’s a trusted student-athlete we’ll give them access to do something like an Instagram story on the road. Or we recently started implementing Facebook live segments where athletes interviewed each other and we ended up giving every sport a weekly Facebook live show.”

In the same way that CU’s student-athletes reached D1 status through hours of practice and putting themselves out there, Snyder believes that the quickest way to a job with a high profile digital team like his is to put the time in.

“Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. Go meet with people. There’s somebody on every campus that does what I do and there’s always people that are willing to talk.  Go make those connections and you’ll create a path to get where you want to go.”

In a way, it’s funny how in a place so well-known for trails and wanderlust, Snyder’s’ advice ends with the advice of taking matters into your own hands and blazing your own trail in the digital space.

*Team Infographics is a proud partner of FOS