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Marketing Post-COVID: Tim George, CMO, Athletics @ University of North Carolina Greensboro

Brian Erickson:
Thanks for joining the Cardwell Beach Marketing Podcast. My name is Brian Erickson, Chief Strategy Officer and partner at Cardwell Beach. In this series, we’re interviewing senior marketers across industries to develop perspective on what marketing will look like in a post-COVID-19 world. Today’s guest is Tim George, the Senior Associate Athletic Director for External Operations and Chief Marketing Officer at the University of North Carolina Greensboro Athletics Department. In this role, Tim oversees the school’s athletics program revenue, sponsorships, merchandising, and licensing, as well as brand identity and major gifts. Tim, thanks so much for joining us today.

Tim George:
Yeah, you bet. Glad to be here.

Brian Erickson:
So, athletics, that is an interesting realm here during this unprecedented event. Obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed how universities think about athletics, and I’m sure UNC Greensboro is deep in conversations about what sports might look like on campus next year. Talk to us about how the pandemic has changed your approach to marketing strategy for UNC Greensboro.

Tim George:
As you mentioned, it has definitely been interesting and, like everyone, I guess, it’s changing feels like by the minute, so we have lots of contingency plans and working through those trying to plan as best we can for what we know when we know it. So, for us, the changed approach really has been more about moving away from event-driven marketing, because for us so much of it is about events and games and selling tickets and the sponsorships and things that go along with that. But for us then, especially once in the spring, the events stopped, we had to pivot pretty quickly.

We took on definitely much more of a social presence. We’ve always been on social, but we needed a way to reach our fans and engage with them. And so, we’ve really turned more into communicating and operating on social media with our fans and trying to engage them on that. We have different looks at our student athletes and our coaches, and just really build that connection and keep that connection because otherwise it was going to be silent. There would be nothing going on. We had no way of seeing our supporters. So, that’s been certainly our biggest change in the way that we’ve changed our approach to our marketing strategy. And quite honestly, it’s something though that we are talking about that we’ll continue moving on in that direction. Moving forward, it’s been successful for us and something that we see as a vital part of our strategy.

Brian Erickson:
Absolutely. It’s definitely going to cause some positive shifts and everybody’s aware of the negative shifts. I guess I would just ask, looking back on the things, if you look at the minute you realize that this was really going to hit hard and that you were going to have to make some major shifts, where were you in the different sports seasons at that time where you realized you were going to have to make some major shifts?

Tim George:
We were just about maybe a month into our baseball and softball seasons. Well, our regular seasons had wrapped up, we actually were waiting on post-season invitations. It hit us at a strange time. Luckily, for basketball, because that is our primary revenue generation source, we were dealing with a regular season so it didn’t impact us on that end, but it did impact us from when we got our season ticket renewal information out. We actually just sent that out yesterday. Normally, we would have had that out really the first part of April, but obviously once everything happened, we wanted to take a breath, take a step back. People were hurting in many ways, so we didn’t feel like it was appropriate to roll those kind of things out at that point. We wanted to wait and let the dust settle and just see how things were progressing at that time.

Brian Erickson:
Definitely have to be sensitive in many different ways in this situation. And obviously universities often rely heavily on long-term institutional loyalty from alumni legacy donors, members of the community and whatnot for support. How has the pandemic changed the way that you’re currently reaching out to these groups and the nature of that conversation?

Tim George:
Definitely it has changed, and now it’s more, I would say, conversational and relationship-based over transactional-based. In the past, I think we always liked to think that we were really built on relationships and trying to engage and relate with our fans so that they felt like this was a two-way street versus just a transactional relationship. And I think this has forced us to really focus on that even more. We’ve been making daily and weekly check-in calls with season ticket holders and donors to let them know that we care about them, really not mentioning anything about donations or ticket sales. And I think that’s gone a long way. I know many other entities out there have done the same thing. Really was a positive, with our fans, I believe. But then also, of course we need their support financially, but we’re all working through this together and I think it’s important for your customers and understand that you empathize with them. Many of us are in the same boat. We have families and kids and things like that at home and we’re all dealing with a lot of the same things they are. So, I think in some ways it maybe brought us closer to some of our fans.

Brian Erickson:
Yeah, there’s definitely no more globally shared experience than this, right? I don’t know of that ever in history of a time where everybody’s going through the same thing on the same timeline all at once together separately. You got to make the best of that and use that to build a relationship if you can.

Tim George:
Absolutely.

Brian Erickson:
Hopefully, towards the end of this initial phase of this storm here, and I guess everybody’s looking at what comes next. So, what do you think is the big picture reality that universities and other educational institutions are going to face as we enter a post-COVID-19 world? Do you anticipate a return to pre-COVID reality or a new normal that incorporates some of these lessons learned from the pandemic? And I’m asking this to an individual whose job it is to pack stadiums with thousands of people, right? So I’m very interested in your answer here.

Tim George:
I do believe that we’ll return to some of the pre-COVID reality, but incorporating some of the lessons that we’ve learned that one positive out of this… Well, I say one positive. Not everything that has happened as a result of COVID has been negative. I think some of the innovation that we’ve seen happen, specifically in marketing, and I think some of the approaches that we’ve taken, I mentioned earlier about being more relationship-based instead of transactional, I think will be a positive. I think you’ll see people continue doing that in the future and probably realizing how important it is to be engaged in your community and get that support and that greater bond that I know we’ve created with our community and fans is something that we’re going to strive to achieve more consistently throughout the years.

Brian Erickson:
For sure. I think that relationships on all levels have become more of a focus during this. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, right? Both on an individual and friends and family sort of level and on a brand and customer and audience sort of level, too. I think that’s a very positive thing.

Tim George:
Right. And certainly for us in athletics, we want everybody to feel a part of the team. We want them to feel like they are invested in this, as well. And so that’s where, again, I think our focus is going to be much more on that than it probably has been in the past.

Brian Erickson:
Maybe you could elaborate a little bit on that in terms of how marketing athletic events will change in the future. Obviously there’s the relationship aspect, making people feel like they’re part of the team, I think is a great phrase there. Will there be any sort of tactical realignments in terms of the marketing channels that you’re using to connect with people that you think are going to be long standing? Do you think there’s going to be a different way that budgets are going to be allocated across channels? Anything like that?

Tim George:
I believe so. I do think that, tactically, there’ll be some changes. First of all, it’s a great question as far as how it will change the marketing of athletic events, because right now, obviously we’re still dealing with the potentials of, at least in the short term, potentials for how many fans will even be in the stands or will they be allowed in the stands. We’ve been having lots of conversations of, if only 20% of our venues can be full, and I’m just grabbing that number out of thin air, then what about the other fans who want to be there, who want to support our program? How does that change how we broadcast our games?

I don’t know if you watched The Match this past weekend with Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods and Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, but I thought the engagement through that was great. And so, how do we then maybe take on some of those similar approaches that they took to make our fans feel like they’re a part of the event, even if they can’t physically be there? We haven’t focused on that as much in the past, because again, for us it’s always been about people in the stands. We broadcast our games, but focus has always been, like I said, more about getting them in the stands. Well, if they can’t be there, how do we maintain that relationship with them, and how do we continue to make them feel more ingrained in our events outside of actually being there?

Brian Erickson:
That’s an interesting area, and obviously, as everyone’s aware, consumers are spending more time online right now and that’s going to definitely be something that’s going to be moving into the foreseeable future. So, you have some ways that you’ve adapted to deal with the short term situation here, staying connected with your fans and audience digitally, and you talk about some other major sporting events that have been broadcast and people are interacting with. Are there any areas that you could see as a next logical step to keep fans engaged that you might consider moving forward in the next six months to two years as this unfolds further?

Tim George:
I think, for us, one of the next logical steps is just really enhancing our broadcasts and how we engage with our fans through those broadcasts. Certainly, we’ll also continue to push and promote our online store and sales through those avenues. But I think we’ll also turn a lot more attention to that than we have, trying to package those a little bit differently. Again, how do we ingrain ourselves into people’s lives outside of just the events?

For a small school like us, that’s not something that we necessarily have been as engaged in in the past. Probably something we’ve always wanted to do, but just haven’t been able to do it. Now, I think we see more of the need for it and more immediate need for that. So, that’s an area that I think we’re going to be pushing a lot harder on. We’ve already had a lot of discussions about that, continuing that trend and emphasis on engagement.

I saw an interesting stat the other day. I may get this somewhat wrong, but I think 75% of people who follow a brand on social media are likely to purchase from them in some way, which I thought was very interesting because I know a lot of times, when it comes to social media, I think a lot of people just think of that as “fun” or not really a moneymaker, which I get that, there’s not a lot of direct sales from social media usually. But that’s an interesting stat for me because the more we can engage, not just the people we’ve got on there currently, but the more people we can get to follow us or to be engaged with us on social media, the better chance we have to generate some revenue from them. So I thought that was really interesting stat and something that we are trying to dig into a little bit deeper as well.

Brian Erickson:
Yeah, that is very interesting. I would love to check that out and maybe attach this to the podcast here. It makes sense, right? You’re not going to just follow any sort of random things that you’re not interested in. It is a vote of confidence. That definitely makes sense. What do you think is the single biggest change that we’re going to see to marketing as a whole and even within the realm of the athletics industry and segment? How will marketing professionals have to adapt coming out of this skillset wise?

Tim George:
One big change that you will see, and a lot of us would probably say, “Well, we’ve been meaning to do it forever,” when we lost some of the opportunities around COVID, whether it be ability to reach our fans at the games, as an example, I think it forced us to really look at what are the avenues that we can engage and communicate with our fans that truly work and what are the ones that we continue to do but they really aren’t that effective? And just kind of cutting those out, because we were scrambling and moving kind of quick, had to make some decisions as we were moving along, that, okay, well that doesn’t make any sense right now, so get rid of that. Hopefully, I think it will make us a little more streamlined and maybe put our resources to better use. I’m hopeful, at least. And like I said, it doesn’t mean that there weren’t good intentions to do that before. I think it’s just sometime we can all get in the habit of doing things that, well, we’ve been doing it that way, and it feels like we need to keep doing it because we think X demographic of our fan base is going to miss it. And then, in reality, once you’re forced to rip the bandaid off, it didn’t really make that big of an impact anyway.

Brian Erickson:
Many times from a business decision making standpoint, it doesn’t pay to even take that close of a look at things because you got to just keep moving forward and doing things. That is the value of the counter cycle, right? And any sort of recession or otherwise where you do cut the fat and really streamline it and focus on what’s working. Not to say that that’s a fun activity, but there is business value in it.

Tim George:
Correct. And it just forces everybody to really do a hard reset and look and go, “Okay, what’s really needed and what really works and what gives us our best value?”

Brian Erickson:
For sure. What advice would you give to marketers who might find themselves as free agents right now? Obviously, we’re pushing 15, 20% unemployment. How can people position themselves and their skillsets best for this moment?

Tim George:
This is probably going to sound cliche because I’ve seen people saying this quite a bit on social or even in person. But it’s a great time right now to learn new skills or enhance the ones that we’ve got already. I know, for me, I’ve been doing a reset as well, and you really look at, okay, what are the things I really enjoy, value out of my job, and what are the areas that I can get a little bit better? That’s one, but I would also say, and I’m sure if, again, people are at this point looking for opportunities, they probably already are connecting with people, but that’s been one of the positives I’ve personally taken out of this time, is I made a pretty conscious decision that I really wanted to get back to connecting with my colleagues and friends that I’ve made all over the country during my career that I just haven’t done as good a job of staying connected with recently. And once you get married and you have kids and things are going fast and you keep thinking you’re going to call somebody and you never get to it.

I just had put together a list of people that I’d met over the years and have known. And sadly, now maybe talk to once a year or something. You might see them at a convention. I just want to start reaching out to people just to connect. And I did that and have been doing that. And not only has it been great to connect with them just to see how they’re doing, but, for me, it honestly was very uplifting, positive impact on my mindset after getting to talk to them and coming away from it and just remembering whatever great conversations we’ve had in the past or how I’ve known them in the past. So, I think it’s twofold because, one, sometimes people don’t even know that you’re out of a job, or might be looking. So I think it helps for people to know that. But two, I think just the positive impact of talking to somebody that maybe you haven’t had a chance to speak with in a while. That really just uplifted my spirit. So hopefully I think people could maybe take that from the conversations as well.

Brian Erickson:
Important for multiple reasons to stay connected socially, and you might be gainfully employed one day and not the next.

Tim George:
Right.

Brian Erickson:
So you never know how things are going to go, and good for mental health during this time to maintain that sense of connection as well. Tim, you joked before that you guys are a smaller school, but really, technically you’re probably falling into the medium to large size university in the grand scheme of things. So, what advice would you give to marketers who might be operating a smaller athletics program or a university that has a smaller student population as it relates to marketing in-person events and some of the trends that you’re seeing in terms of going digital?

Tim George:
To me, the most important thing is part of it I guess is a little bit of marketing 101. But, obviously, first, what’s the most important message that you’re trying to send? And two, what is the best avenue that you can take to have the biggest impact to get that point across or get that message across? Because whether you’re a small school, big school, whatever, I think we all fall in love with all of the different avenues and the different marketing strategies. Maybe not strategies as much, but I guess in mediums, should we be on TV, should we be doing radio? And sometimes I think we spread it so thin that we are not really getting our message out there as effectively as we can. So, hey, if your approach is, let’s just even say email marketing, and you get great returns from that and you’re hammering your database and you’re getting positive returns you need, then focus on that and really try to do that to the best of your ability versus spreading yourself so thin that you’re not reaching nearly the number of consumers that you need.

Brian Erickson:
That definitely makes sense and very important to stay focused on at any time, let alone during something like this. Great. Well, Tim, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. Very much appreciate it.

Tim George:
Absolutely. Thanks for having me.

Brian Erickson:
Make sure to look Tim up on social media. He’s got a lot of great content elsewhere, in addition to this podcast. Add him on LinkedIn and check out some other things he’s creating. And of course you’re going to want to check out some of those live streams that he’s going to be getting going. No pressure, Tim.

This is Brian Erickson with Cardwell Beach. Thanks again for listening. And please make sure to check back for more senior marketers sharing their perspectives on what marketing will look like in a post-COVID-19 world.

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