Even if you don’t follow college basketball, there’s a very good chance that you heard about the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s upset of the University of Virginia in last year’s men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament.
It was the first time in the history of the men’s tournament that a team seeded #16 beat a team seeded #1. Absolutely nobody expected it, and it’s now counted among the greatest underdog moments in sports history.
That the feat was accomplished by a team with an actual and feisty-looking dog for a mascot made it all the more poetic. And that UMBC was beaten in the second round made no difference whatsoever. They’d already cemented their place in history.
If you’re wondering why I’m writing about all this now, over a year after the fact and on a blog about higher ed enrollment marketing, well, that’s where things get fun.
Because, you see, the second best thing that happened at last year’s tournament was the emergence of the UMBC Athletics Twitter account as the clear frontrunner for best higher ed Twitter account in the country (in my humble opinion, anyway).
I won’t recap the whole saga of exactly how that came to be, but here’s the Cliff’s Notes: Leading up to and during the big game—again, remember, a game that everybody in the world expected UMBC to lose by a very wide margin—the UMBC Athletics account tweeted hilariously, spunkily, faux-combatively, and with such tremendous verve and style and passion that the sports-Twitter universe couldn’t help but take notice.
How much notice? When the game started, UMBC Athletics had around 5,400 followers. After the weekend, they had over 1110,000.
For a quick rundown on some of the specifics—and for an intro to the marketer behind the tweets—you can read this article that was published in a little newspaper called The New York Times.
Yes, you read that right: the guy (one Zach Seidel, Director of Multimedia Communications & Sports Marketing Digital Media ) who ran the Twitter account for a little-know university’s even littler-known athletics program was profiled in the paper of record. (For a better roundup of the tweets that made his performance so great, I’d encourage you to read the interview he did with SB Nation.)
As a higher ed marketer, a few things about the Great UMBC Twitter Triumph Of 2018 are interesting to me.
The first is that, while I love the sheer audacity and creativity of Zach’s tweets, I want to know… So what? What did that output actually do? Sure, there were more Twitter followers for the school’s athletics account… but what’s the value of a follower on your school’s athletics Twitter account? From a bottom-line perspective, what does it all add up to? (Or as this Harvard Business Review article puts it: What’s the Value of a Like?)
The second thing I’m curious about is what other schools can learn from UMBC’s example—how do you ready yourself to capitalize on athletics success? If you’re a digital marketer, what are the takeaways?
Given that he’s just up the road from Waybetter’s headquarters, I reached out to Zach to see what he had to say about the whole crazy experience and to get his reflections on what it all means.
[The interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
Hey Zach. Thanks for doing this.
What’s it been like to go from, no offense, kind of relative obscurity—both as a school and as a digital marketing manager at that school—to being interviewed by The New York Times… to go from having no profile to a pretty substantial one?
I'm not one for the spotlight so, at times, it's been a little uncomfortable. But, in my mind, it's all for the school. You know, I'm an alum. So whatever helps the school.
My boss has known me since I was interning at UMBC when I was 16. And he knows me. He's like, "I know you don't like this. If it ever gets too much, let me know." But I'm not gonna lie, it is fun, at times too—knowing that if you put something out there, someone might pick it up. It might go viral. You never know what it'll be, but it is a little fun to be able to tweet at all these famous people and they'll answer you at the athletics account.
Right, I saw the one a couple days ago! You tweeted at [ESPN writer] Mina Kimes, and she tweeted back.
That was great, and you even got in a shoutout about your academics.
Yeah, that was fun. We follow her and she follows us, and I was like, she made a baseball joke and right now maybe I can get our baseball team some love, you know?
Speaking of that tweet, I couldn’t help but notice you sent it at 11:44 p.m., and that leads into another question I had about what you do. Do you have to always be on? Always monitoring? What’s your schedule like?
Yeah, it’s busy. Most of the time there's something to do. Some days there's too much to do! My job, first and foremost, is video and digital stuff for the school, and this time of the year I'm also the sports information director for softball.
So here’s an example.
We have a freshman who just won national pitcher of the week among all DI schools. I mean she leads the country in strikeouts, so my daily life these past few weeks has been fielding all these interview requests for her. You know? We're getting newspapers and stuff from all over the place wanting an interview with her, so I'm setting those up. I'm coordinating with her. I'm coordinating with the coach. I'm coordinating with our schedule.
I'm doing all that, and then I'm trying to staff our baseball broadcasts and our lacrosse broadcasts that we have going on. I'm talking with our student workers, like, "Hey can you work this lacrosse game? Can you work this baseball game to stream?" Making sure our equipment's up to date for that.
I have meetings all the time. Like today, I have a meeting discussing streaming equipment for next year. And then I have another meeting—the school's doing something called like “the anatomy of a UMBC fan” and so I have to be there for that.
I'm also doing photos. I'm updating record books for softball. Doing graphic design. We have a graphic design intern. A local high schooler, actually. When I was in high school, I got the chance to intern at UMBC. So when he reached out, I said of course and he's amazing so we're working with him—but managing him takes time.
I'm also sitting and talking with coaches. “What do you want? Do you have a video you wanna do this week? Do you have any photo stuff you wanna do?” All that.
There's never nothing to do. Last night, our softball team had a conference double header on Long Island, so I was up late because their game ended around like six something, and I wrote the story, but there was a question about scoring. “Was it an error, a hit?” something like that, and I wasn't there so I was going back and forth with our coach and their SIDs until 11:00 at night. That's why I was up and tweeting at Mina.
Wow. That’s… intense.
Sorry to ramble! There's just… there's always something to do. There's ALWAYS something to do.
It’s a lot of work, no doubt. You mentioned before that you’re so invested in this work—that the purpose of it all—is to help get the word out for UMBC. Can you talk about that? About the relationship between athletics and the school itself?
I think, especially at our level—Division I—I think the relationship is that athletics can be a great ambassador for the school. I think it's a way to reach people. It can reach an audience that might not know you.
It’s funny, because at UMBC, people in the academia world, they actually do know about UMBC. They know about our president. Like when I've done stuff involving academics, everybody knows who we are. They're like, "Oh, Freeman Hrabowski. You guys are young but you're a great school. You guys have, like…” and they'll list stuff about the school. And then when it's people who aren't in academia, they'd be like what is that? What’s UMBC?
[Editor’s note: UMBC was founded in 1966. Freeman Hrabowski has been the president since 1992, and he’s widely regarded as a visionary leader in higher ed. Among other notable accomplishments, UMBC produces more African American dual MD/PhD graduates than any other university in the country.]
So I think that’s part of why the win against Virginia was so great—because there were people in academia who knew all about us and now it kinda opened it up to the rest of the country and the world.
So I have to ask: What can you tell me about the effects of the win on enrollment? Has anything changed?
Right? That’s what everybody wants to know. What I’ve heard so far is that applications were up 10% this year. And what’s really interesting is that I’ve heard the average SAT score for applicants is up 20 points.
Ok, the last thing I’m curious about—I spend a lot of time in various higher ed marketing circles, and so many schools are trying to do better at social media. And there’s a lot of good advice and best practices out there. But what stands out about you in particular—about your crazy success in getting so much attention for the UMBC Athletics account—is that you’re just naturally gifted. You’re really funny. You’re quick-witted. Your jokes are biting but they’re never mean or rude or even remotely objectionable. It’s a really high level of skill.
So, other than hiring you away from UMBC, what can other schools do to try to get better?
Ah thanks. I really appreciate the nice words. I think I come by some of it honestly. My dad is a sports journalist. He’s written for The Baltimore Sun, Major League Baseball, The Washington Post. And my mom’s a teacher and she loves sports. So sports was always big at our house, and writing was always big in our house, and my family, everyone in my family has a sense of humor, everyone's joking all the time.
As for what other schools can do, I think the biggest thing is to just remember: Not every school is the same. And not every fan base is the same.
One great thing I will admit about this whole thing is that it's put me in contact with a lot of people in my industry from schools all over the country. Like, for example, I’ve talked with the guy from the University of Central Florida, and he and I think about things the same way. Their AD is very outspoken, so it makes sense for them to be that way on Twitter too.
But then I've also recently talked with someone from Alabama, and I'm like “What we do at UMBC would not work for you.” Their fans want something very different, and there's nothing wrong with that. It's just every school is different, and you have to know your base.
I was just at Duke too. And everyone loves to hate Duke, right? And what I told them was, “Now if it were me, I'd lean into it and—everyone hates us—so I would just lean into everyone hating us. I would get cocky," I said. But then I said, "But your fan base probably wouldn't like that. Everyone else would, but your fan base wouldn't."
So you just have to remember, every school is different and you have to find your niche and you have to really make sure that your voice aligns with your school's voice.
That’s a good note to end on. Thanks, Zach.
After we talked, as if to prove a point about voice and staying on brand, the UMBC Athletics account continued to prove their relevance and staying power, at the expense of the New York Giants, who took a beating in the sports press for their controversial pick in the NFL draft. Well done, Zach. Well done.