By: Peter Studer, @Pete_Studer
Front Office Sports is proud to have sat down with Zachary Schroeder, Director of Marketing at Illinois State University. Zach is currently leading a progressive transformation of the Redbird experience. He has gained experience at a number of positions in his ascent to Director of Marketing, and as a result has developed a mindset as an industry leader. We were lucky enough to sit down with Zach and hear his insights on collegiate marketing and the challenges facing young professionals.
One of your specialties is ‘Game Day Environments’. How do you turn some of the under the radar programs like women’s basketball, baseball, and volleyball into must see events from a marketing perspective?
We developed a really good relationship with our pep band and they are constantly developing new pieces based on pop music and top 40 hits. So we rely heavily on them and have started using them more in game. They have a drumline as well, so we often bring that drumline into an arena or baseball field and they drum out, do a performance in dead ball situations, during timeouts, at halftime. Just time that ordinarily would be canned music from the laptop. They really add to the experience and helps to fill that void. And one of my things is, I don’t want one game to be a carbon copy of the last. So I’m always looking for new promotions to run, new music to play (if the band isn’t there) and new video content to incorporate the student athletes in.
How much of your job is maintaining an industry standard and how much of your work is innovating and pushing the boundaries of sports marketing? Do you wish it was more one way or the other?
Obviously we have our eyes out for what other people are doing and we’re taking best practices from other institutions. We’d be crazy if we weren’t doing that. I wish we were pushing the boundaries more, I think that that’s our challenge as a marketing team, to show our administration what we want to do and what we think the results will be. In the last three years our team, specifically our video production and marketing team, has done a good job of that. We’ve won a few NACMA [National Association of Collegiate Marketing Administrators] awards in the years that I’ve been here and I think that points to the fact that we are pushing the needle a bit from the FCS level.
I saw that Illinois State recently expanded their social media presence to snapchat. Do you feel pressure to engage with your fans on as many platforms as possible?
We do feel pressure. Our approach is that we’d rather be on just a handful of platforms and do it well than adopt everything and have our hands on every platform. We haven’t been super quick to adopt as the new platforms roll out, but we have studied them and make sure to go where our audience is. For snapchat, we realized that it was really big for 18–25 year olds so we use that to reach our students and within a month since we’ve launched the student account we’ve seen some really good engagement. We’re expecting some really big things from it as the school year kicks off and we move towards basketball season, but with that comes the continued creation of really good content. Otherwise they’re just going to ignore it. So we feel the pressure but we don’t give in to everything.
You’ve had a very methodical climb up the ladder to your current position as Director of Marketing. How do you make the most out of your opportunities and show that you’re ready for the next step?
I think that my route is essentially the industry standard going from intern to grad assistant to assistant director to Director, but what is cool about the sports industry is that not everyone takes that standard path. What a mentor told me once was to ‘be the best in your current role, and the rest will take care of itself.’ That’s my mindset. Be the best baseball, women’s basketball, and volleyball marketer I can and somebody will take notice. Something else that I will do to show that I’m ready is to be proactive in my department and make sure my voice is being heard. Make sure that I’m providing input and good thoughts as we brainstorm, and showing that I’m not too big for any one job. One thing I tell my interns is that I’ve picked up garbage, and swept floors, and that you can’t be too big for anything.
When you were working as a grad assistant and such, did you search out mentors? What advice would you have for a young professional to find mentors?
It was something that I proactively sought out. Our department pays for NACMA memberships for all of our grad assistants and as part of that you can join their mentor/mentee program. I developed two really good relationships out of that. But it takes work, you have to show that the mentor is going to get something out of it. You can’t just expect help, and have it be completely one-sided. You have to build a relationship with that person first. You have to give them as much as you hope to get out of it.
Working in Sports Marketing, do you have to master a particular skill (i.e. Graphic Design, Digital media, game day ops) or is it more important to be a ‘Jack of All Trades’?
You’re much more valuable if you do have a mastered skill set and if there’s something in particular that you’re really good at. But, especially at our level, the mid major/FCS, you have to be able to do more than one thing just because of staffing size. I’m almost completely self-taught when it comes to graphic design. When I started at Illinois State I had never opened a Photoshop or an Illustrator. I’ve gotten some help along the way from our designer and my boss, but those are things that you just have to take the time to learn. We’ve seen that images in social media, and click-through rates on email marketing campaigns are so much higher if you have good graphics to go with it. Almost out of necessity you have to be able to do everything, but if you can master one thing you are that much more valuable.
What do you hope the next step in your career is and what kind of things do you do on a daily basis to help make that a reality?
The very natural next step is to get to a director of marketing role for an institution. Things that I would do on a daily basis that a director at our school would do is to really understand what it takes to oversee an intern army. We have 15 game day interns on top of ones that we utilize in the office. Not only do you have to be capable of getting your stuff done, but you also have to make sure they’re accomplishing what they need to do. Another role is the Student Affairs Campus Liaison. They work with housing, student government, to get their support and to give support as needed to push the needle from in on campus perspective. My boss and I also talk about taking the next step from a promotional marketing perspective to a revenue marketing mindset when it comes to marketing. It’s about trying to develop campaigns that eventually lead to the bottom line. That’s what I’ll focus on to get to the next job.
One piece of quick advice…
You need to continue to learn and see what’s out there. I’ve been out of school for a year, but while you’re a student on campus every day, taking classes, and meeting people, those are invaluable resources. If you don’t look for input and continue to try and grow on your own opportunities are going to seem hard to come by. But if you put yourself out there and continue to push the boundaries, you’re going to stumble upon something that’s pretty big.
We would like to thank Zach for his time and insight and we wish him the best in his future endeavors!
You can follow Zach Schroeder here and keep track of his work with the Illinois State Redbirds!