A shower of purple and gold confetti rained down on Mercedes-Benz Stadium on a January Monday night after Joe Burrow finished a record-setting season with one final record-setting night. During LSU’s unprecedented 15-0 run, Burrow won the Heisman trophy, set a single-season record for passing touchdowns, was responsible for an FBS record number of total touchdowns and threw for the most passing yards ever in a championship game as the Tigers’ took down a record seven teams ranked in the AP Top-10, including the reigning national champion Clemson on the biggest stage of all.
“Dominant” dripped off the tongues of commentators, radio hosts, reporters, fans, and neutral spectators alike as they all marveled at the electric stats and historic season the grad transfer from Ohio had just bowtied for the Bayou faithful.
And every highlight, every heroic act by Baton Rouge’s sudden savior, every moment of history made, was amplified by another dominant LSU team: the Tigers’ small social media squad.
According to MVPindex, LSU Football had the most engagements – likes, comments, or shares – of any NCAA football program this season, with 29 million across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. That’s almost twice as many as the No. 2 program, Ohio State (14.6 million), more than double Clemson (11.8 million), and nearly three times that of Alabama (10 million). The Tigers received a 14% boost after their championship win but were still more than 10 million engagements ahead of the Buckeyes even before the title game. LSU Football claimed nine of the top 10 – and 20 of the top 25 – most engaging social posts from NCAA football teams this season.
And while few would attribute the school’s success on the field to luck, the social media explosion off of it didn’t happen by chance either. LSU’s social team strategically capitalized on the program’s stellar season by focusing on three key components: culture, celebrity connections, and creating a live feel on their channels through quick-turnaround content. And although it took off this season, that social strategy was part of a revamp that began the season before.
Prior to 2018, the University had no dedicated social team within the athletics or video services departments. Last season, they shifted their strategy to start to focus specifically on social. This season, as Matt Tornquist, coordinator of creative and digital content, explains it, they did the same stuff they started a season before but “better and faster.”
Part of the ‘better’ began on the field – more football success meant more significant moments throughout the season to leverage. But they also got better at incorporating culture into the content.
“Louisiana has a really rich culture, and our fans aren’t any different,” Brandon Berrio, associate director of creative and digital content, said. “So this season, we used that to connect with them where they were on those social platforms.”
A video of the team dancing to ‘Get the Gat’ by New Orleans-raised rapper Lil Elt in the locker room after winning the title (aptly captioned “Get the Nat”) served as the top-performing post from any official NCAA football social media account in 2019. An earlier video of the team dancing to the 1992 song, one of Rolling Stone’s “20 Essential New Orleans Bounce Songs,” had already taken social media by storm during the regular season. By tapping back into a cultural connection with their dedicated Louisiana fanbase and tying it to the team’s national title, the Tigers created an even bigger viral sensation.
The video generated more than 24.5 million views across Instagram and Twitter as of the Friday following the team’s championship win for an estimated social value of $551,898 – the amount it would cost if LSU were to purchase the same reach and audience engagement.
Before the championship win, footage of Burrow running out of the tunnel at Tiger Stadium on senior day with the cajun ‘Burreaux’ on his back held the title of the team’s top-performing post. The cultural connection resonated with LSU’s fanbase, resulting in 9.6 million views on Twitter alone, which, per MVPindex, carries a potential value of close to $200,000.
But it wasn’t just local connections or Louisiana-specific cultural references that contributed to LSU’s social success – sometimes it was simply a good caption that connected with fans, Tornquist said. A post-championship photo of Burrow smoking a cigar with the captain ‘Big Joe Energy’ brought in the third most engagements in NCAA football.
“[Our] caption game was really strong,” Tornquist said. “It might sound like something small, but we can’t discount that. When people think something is funny or clever, they’re more likely to engage with it and share it.”
The final cultural component came from the team and the tone that head coach Ed Orgeron set inside the locker room.
“What changed the game this year was that we started working directly with the football team – people like Derek Ponamsky [special assistant to Orgeron] helped us to better understand Coach O’s mindset every week, which helped us match our content to what’s going on inside the locker room and on the field,” Tornquist said. “By making sure it all aligned and all had the same feel, we were able to achieve a whole other level of success.”
Working directly with Orgeron’s right-hand man added an element of authenticity to the school’s content. And as Orgeron, the man behind the messaging, led the Tigers to continued success on the field, the social team took advantage of the success of several notable members of the LSU and greater Louisiana communities.
One of those was Tyrann Mathieu, former LSU star and current Chiefs safety. Mathieu narrated a hype video for Burrow’s Heisman finalist campaign, which did two things: leveraged Matheiu’s legacy and uniquely utilized a rap song, ‘Set It Off,’ to “really take the video to the next level,” according to Berrio. Copyright issues often prevent teams from using popular songs for longer than a few seconds. Still, the Tigers’ social team obtained the rights by merely asking the Baton Rouge-born artist, Lil Boosie, for permission.
He obliged, and the music was theirs to use.
“All those little things, those tiny extra steps we didn’t have to take to get the rights to a song or to make sure everything we did was on the same page as the football team or to find an extra connection to our fanbase, that’s what made it work,” Berrio said. “Joe was going to win the Heisman Trophy no matter what, but I think what we were able to do that’s special was give fans a background of who Joe is and make it exciting to watch while doing that.”
Mathieu was one of several big names to show up in the Tigers’ feed this season. Dwayne’ The Rock’ Johnson, who played under Orgeron as a defensive lineman at Miami, and Louisiana-born actors John Goodman and Anthony Mackie all narrated videos for the team this season, with Mackie’s effort resulting in the fourth-best performing NCAA football post of the year. Country legend Tim McGraw and former LSU star and retired NFLer Glenn Dorsey also lent their talents to LSU social media.
The right people were only part of the equation – the team was able to maximize their impact through strategic timing. Mackie’s video, shared just hours before championship kickoff in the actor’s hometown of New Orleans, was released just as the team knew fans would begin to engage with game-centric content. But their strategy didn’t stop there.
On championship night, as they did throughout the entire season, the Tigers’ continued to share content quickly enough to evoke the emotions of a live-game on their social channels. Tornquist and Berrio said LSU’s social team worked to create content before, during, and after games that captured what was happening in real-time. They’d then share it as quickly as possible so that even fans separated from the action by a screen felt a part of the live atmosphere.
“Starting with the forethought to create a series of hype videos narrated by celebrities and culminating with the quick turnaround video of the team celebrating their championship win, the LSU digital and social team has been responsible for some of the most engaging social moments in NCAA football,” Sam Kilgore, MVPindex’s head of market strategy and research, said.
By the end of the season, the social team’s ability to create those moments through culture, celebrity, and strategy had paid off. Behind the brawn and brand of Burrow and the team’s complete success, they powered LSU Football’s social channels to higher growth than any other college program.
The 1.72 billion impressions – the number of times their content was seen on fans’ feeds – that Orgeron’s team attained over the course of the 2019 season dwarfed the 706.9 million that Dabo Swinney’s squad saw. Despite amassing the second most views across college football social media channels, Clemson still generated just 41.1% of the views that the national champions did. The additional exposure brought LSU’s accounts a league-high 434,973 new followers across all platforms – over 134,000 more followers than Penn State, who saw the second-most growth this season.
LSU specifically added 100,000 new followers on Twitter, bringing their total to over three-quarters of a million users. They added over 299,000 more on Instagram – a 67% boost on the platform in five months. The LSU brand itself basically went viral.
“What we were able to do this season completely blew our expectations out of the water,” Berrio said. “The combination of this historic season, the access we had, the trust we had, the connections we were able to leverage, the content we were able to create, it’s all directly reflected in the numbers.”