Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football Leverages Social Media To Engage Recruits, Fans During Pandemic
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Notre Dame Leverages Social Media To Engage Recruits, Fans During Pandemic

Notre Dame sent out a recruiting bat-signal Tuesday night in the form of a viral GIF. This graphic depicts a packed Notre Dame Stadium at night, with bright lights illuminating the field. Toward the sky, a spotlight projects the Notre Dame Monogram, which gently moves side-to-side among the clouds

The digital graphic alluded to Wednesday’s “Pot of Gold” recruiting day, which coincides with St. Patrick’s Day. Synchronously, each member of the Notre Dame coaching staff tweeted the graphic.

To some, this might seem like just a glitzy gimmick, but the opposite couldn’t be more true. This recruiting strategy immediately grabbed the attention of the Notre Dame media, the Fighting Irish fan base and, most importantly, prospective recruits.

This comes in a day and age where every major college football program works with a graphic designer and sends "edits" to recruits, which often leads to an oversaturation of graphics on social media.

For Notre Dame to rise to the top and own a day in the spring on the recruiting trail, it’s significant.

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The Notre Dame coaching staff made good on the generated hype by offering scholarships to dozens of prospects in the 2023 recruiting class on St. Patrick's Day.

The bat-signal-like graphic is the creation of Matt Taylor, the Notre Dame football art director, who the coaching staff raves about as a vital aspect of the recruiting process.

For St. Patrick’s Day, Taylor also created an additional graphic for the Notre Dame coaches and recruits to share.

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“Matt Taylor is dedicated to football graphics,” said Rob Kelly, the Senior Associate Athletics Director Media & Brand, who oversees Fighting Irish Media. “I would guess that he would say the majority of his time is spent on recruiting graphics, but he obviously does all sorts of graphics work.”

This isn’t the first time Notre Dame made viral waves with recruiting content on social media during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Signing Day 

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and associate head coach Brian Polian
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly (left) and new associate head coach Brian Polian (right) at a Notre Dame practice during the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP)

For the December signing day in 2019, Notre Dame created videos for each commit where they’re filmed walking down the stairs from the Notre Dame Stadium home locker room. In the edited version of the videos, when the commits touch the famed “Play Like A Champion Today” sign, they’re transformed from teenagers in street clothes to Fighting Irish football players, decked out in the golden helmet and full uniform. Each commit had a parent narrating their video.

The coordinated effort was a huge success and received notoriety from the national media.

To create these videos, it required each to commit to tour campus and to be filmed in the stadium, an impossibility for the 27 members of the 2021 class because recruiting visits were postponed indefinitely in accordance with COVID-19 safety protocols.

Notre Dame, instead, had each 2021 commit film their own “day in the life” video.

Taylor and the design team then created the main video graphics, while Fighting Irish Media features producer Cody Baker instructed the commits on what to include in their video and coordinated much of the project. Associate producer Kevin Barrett and creative and brand program director Tim O’Connor assisted in adding the emojis and sound effects throughout the videos.

Even without in-person access to the commits, Notre Dame’s videos were once again a huge success when they were shared during the early signing period in December 2020.

“We've actually seen some national outlets comment on the work that our support staff did,” Brian Polian said on signing, then Notre Dame’s recruiting coordinator who has since been promoted to associate head coach. “I thought it was awesome. The videos are great.

“I'm sure that we have some guys in these videos that four or five years from now are going to look back and blush a little bit, but they were really cool, and congratulations to our staff and all the people that put that stuff together because it looked great.”

As it pertains to football, the organizational process for creating recruiting graphics and videos is unique. For instance, Taylor focuses on creating graphics for the football program but he’s still part of Fighting Irish Media.

“This is not your traditional org structure,” Rob Kelly said. “Notre Dame is different in this way. The traditional power five football organization would include all those things. Very rarely would those people sit outside the football organization, because they're dedicated to football, and they would do nothing but football. If the football coach wanted something done, they would be running to them saying doing this.

“We made an early decision supported by our athletic director, that when it came to content creation and communications, that all those people would simply be in [Fighting Irish Media], but we would dedicate some of those individuals to support football.”

Additionally, as the assistant athletics director for Notre Dame football communications, Katy Lonergan has a hand in all of the football-related content and marketing initiatives. She also coordinates press conferences and team access with the independent media.

Social Media’s Use Extends Beyond Recruiting

A year ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, it wasn’t just Notre Dame recruiting that had to adjust to a new normal. Fighting Irish Media was suddenly left without the resources typically used to engage fans and could no longer collaborate in-person or create large-scale media productions.

Fighting Irish Media leadership met virtually and decided the department must pivot its strategy for the time being. They produced a statement that summarized this adjusted approach.

The last sentence of this statement captures the types of content Fighting Irish Media would focus on creating: “personal stories, treasured memories and authentic conversations.”

“Social media quickly became the mode through which we knew we were going to be able to communicate and engage with our fanbase,” Rob Kelly said. "Absent events to broadcast and absent games to attend and events to play in, it was going to have to be social media.”

One of the more popular initiatives to come from this strategy was The Vault: ND on NBC. This involved re-broadcasting classic Notre Dame home football games on YouTube in full, and hosting watch parties through YouTube’s chat function or via Facebook. These #NDWatchParty broadcasts​ were hosted on Saturdays in the spring of 2020 — an attempt to replicate a game day experience that adhered to social distancing requirements.

On occasion, former Fighting Irish players, members of the media and even head coach Brian Kelly participated in the watch party chats.

Re-broadcasted games date back to Notre Dame’s 1993 victory over No. 1 Florida State. More recent classics are also available such as a last-second takedown of Virginia Tech in 2019. Fans can also watch BlueandGold.com contributor Mike Goolsby help lead an unranked Notre Dame to a 28-20 upset over No. 8 Michigan in 2004.

A similar content strategy was also used during the 2020 season.

Three days after beating No. 1 Clemson 47-40 in double overtime, Notre Dame published the game in its entirety on YouTube. The rewatch has garnered more than 700,000 views.

Notre Dame was able to offer fans this content thanks to a stipulation in its contract with NBC.

“One of the great aspects of our partnership with NBC is that within a certain time window after the initial broadcasting, we take full ownership of the broadcast. And so from that point on we can do what we want with it,” Rob Kelly said.

“It's taken us a little while to put the resources and effort into putting a strategy together around it, and the pandemic gave us that push to move forward with it. That’s on the bright side of things that have come out of the pandemic experience.”

Last spring, Notre Dame also produced several iterations of the Notre Dame Minute to give fans an inside look into the thought process of various football coaches. The first edition of this series was new offensive coordinator Tommy Rees laying out his vision for the 2020 offense.

During the season, associate athletics communications director Sydney Sims, who manages the football team’s social media accounts, gave Notre Dame football fans a behind-the-scenes look on game days, including sideline access, tours of the Notre Dame campus and pre-game interviews with Brian Kelly.

This type of content must have worked, because on Instagram in 2020 Notre Dame football increased its yearly social engagement by nearly 900,000 interactions.

These are just a few examples of Fighting Irish Media’s content strategy for fan engagement during the pandemic, which extended well beyond the football program.

In fact, Notre Dame athletics as a whole experienced significant growth on social media throughout the pandemic. Last year, most schools actually saw fan engagement on social media take a hit. But Notre Dame actually increased its reach in 2020 and did so more than any other athletics department in the country.

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“They increased the number of interactions on those main accounts by a substantial amount,” said Jason Matheson, the director of Skull Sparks, an organization that partners with college teams to improve digital and design strategy. “We went into our study expecting to see declines. That's just rational.

“But we saw the opposite, and with some schools, it was very dramatic and Notre Dame was one of those. I would just commend all of the creative staff and the administrators that made it happen.”

Since the advent of social media, college athletics departments have progressed further and further into content creation, offering fans innovative videos and graphics to consume.

Yet, this is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to fan engagement.

“It needs to be content that is unique to you, that only the athletics department can deliver,” Matheson said. “You've got to give people some reason to follow the official accounts. I think most schools have gotten there. Some have been slower than others. But I think fans also understand that, let's face it, you're only going to get positive news and content from the team themselves.

“So you do have to have independent media to provide you a fair look at everything going on.”

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