Illini basketball connects with fans through social media

Students+in+the+Orange+Krush+fan+section+cheer+for+the+Illini+basketball+team+during+their+match+against+Iowa+on+March+8+at+State+Farm+Center.+The+Illini+social+media+team+is+using+social+media+to+engage+with+fans.

Cameron Krasucki

Students in the Orange Krush fan section cheer for the Illini basketball team during their match against Iowa on March 8 at State Farm Center. The Illini social media team is using social media to engage with fans.

By Claire O'Brien, Staff Writer

In a college basketball season where the fans “watching” the game are mostly cardboard cutouts, social media is one of the sources where fans go to keep tabs on their favorite teams and athletes. Some fans come for the content, others come for the memes.

And the Illinois’ basketball social media team is balancing keeping fans informed and including the latest social media trends in their content.

The men’s basketball social media team has focused this year on highlighting the behind-the-scenes of the basketball program with the content fans know and love.

Thursday night, the team tweeted a video of Kofi Cockburn blocking a shot followed by the ball traveling in various backgrounds. One of the scenes was of Senator Bernie Sanders, whose pose sitting at President Joe Biden’s Inauguration ceremony Wednesday has turned into an internet meme over the last several days.

Kelsea Ansfield is usually the one who comes up with much of the content fans engage with on the men’s basketball social media accounts. The team had dropped the Kofi block video Thursday but has also kept the feed interactive with plenty of GIFs and videos.

The Illini men’s basketball team was set to play Nebraska on Jan. 13. The game got called off due to COVID-19, but the social media team still decided to drop the pregame hype video.

Ansfield credited Grace Duggan, the Illinois Athletics’ social media strategist, as the person whose idea it was to send that video into the world.

“It was a pretty genius idea by Grace to be able to put that out,” Ansfield said.

The team’s strategists have focused on highlighting the behind-the-scenes of the program. The men’s basketball team is in the midst of one of its best seasons in recent years, but Ansfield said the strategy would have stood even if fans filled the State Farm Center every game. Ansfield has been at Illinois for a few years, and in that time, the social media team has pivoted to things beyond the team on the court.

“I think our strategy has changed in that it’s not just about having a basketball on every post,”  Ansfield said. “I mean, there was a week there, almost a week, between games, where we didn’t make a post that had a physical basketball (in it) because it’s not just about that anymore. We’re trying to promote the brand. We’re trying to tell you what our program is about.”

The combination of interactivity and giving fans a glimpse of what it’s really like in the basketball program is paying off.

SkullSparks, which releases a lot of data surrounding the interactivity of college sports social media accounts, noted in a Jan. 8 tweet that Illinois had about two more million impressions on social media in 2020 than they had in 2019. Only Kansas’ men’s basketball social media accounts, which have a significantly larger following than Illinois’, had a larger increase in social media impressions.

“So, you know, during a time when we didn’t have any basketball to talk about we still (found) a way to be efficient,” Ansfield said. “Kansas, I believe, has almost double the followers we have on most platforms.”

The Illinois women’s basketball team has taken a similar approach as the men’s team has. Sports Information Director Danny Mattie is usually the one who runs the Illinois women’s basketball social media accounts.

Mattie has been in his role for just short of a year, and most of that time has been during the offseason. Fans currently aren’t able to attend the games, and for much of the offseason, social media was one way to keep fans engaged.

“We were able to come up with some fun things to try and keep content fresh on social media platforms,” Mattie said. “Because even though there was sort of (an NCAA recruiting shut down), right, like it’s still possible for recruits, and fans and donors and everybody else who follows us to see the content that’s going on, on (social media platforms).”

Mattie collaborates with a lot of people in the athletic department and the program to produce content for the social media accounts. He mentioned he works closely with the athletics creative services staff, but within the program, he also works with Tianna Kirkland, who is the Head Coordinator of Recruiting and Director of Student-Athlete Development for the program and Jenn Dynis, the Director of Video and Scouting Operations. Kirkland is in her first year in her role and was a former assistant coach, and Dynis played for head coach Nancy Fahey at Washington University in St. Louis.

The creative services team helped make much of the content that fills the Twitter feed during the season, especially many of the GIFs that fills the feed during games.

“As far as posts during the game, (our) creative services staff does a really good job of coming up with some assets and things that we can have at our fingertips so that we can use them,” Mattie said.

In a season where fans are watching from places other than the State Farm Center, social media has been one of the largest ways to connect with fans.

“While you have hundreds or 1,000s of fans in the arena, people are able to check in with the team whenever they want to come,” Mattie said. “And obviously, that’s not the case this year. So people are more reliant on watching, watching on TV or streaming, listening on the radio, and obviously social media (is) a big thing for fans (to) follow along.”

In the off-season, Mattie said the program focuses on more in-depth content, but the team has still put out features during the season. Fighting Illini Productions put together a short video about J-Naya Ephraim about her childhood in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the team posted it to its social media accounts.

Though Mattie hasn’t been running the social media accounts for a long period of time, he has found he enjoys sharing the players’ stories with the world.

“I think it’s fun to be able to run these accounts where you’re able to focus on good and positive stories and kind of put that stuff out into the world (and) try to promote student-athletes who really are working hard to compete at the highest level possible,” Mattie said.

As the accounts have gotten more interactive over the years, the teams’ social media accounts have gone from posts being about in-game and basketball-related activities to highlighting the people who are part of the program in addition to interacting with the followers. The team’s accounts have gained traction in recent years, and in a season where fans aren’t able to watch their favorite teams compete in-person, changing the strategy has been a boon for the program.

“I would say that we’ve evolved for the better,” Ansfield said.

@obrien_clairee

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