The burn is one of social media’s less-appealing qualities. Zach Seidel felt it on March 16, 2018 in the first round of the 2018 N.C.A.A. basketball tournament.
A few minutes into the game with #16-ranked Retrievers from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) vs. No. 1 seed University of Virginia, Seidel, who was live tweeting the game as part of his job as UMBC’s Director of Digital Media, saw a two-word tweet from Seth Davis of CBS Sports.
Seidel, a UMBC alumnus, wasn’t about to ignore the digital gauntlet. His boss had given him the go-ahead the day before to show the school’s personality while live tweeting. That night, he brought more than school spirit with his now-famous tweets, showcasing the same underdog attitude as the UMBC Retrievers brought to the game.
During what became one of the greatest upsets in college sports history – the Retrievers beat the Cavaliers 74 to 54 – Seidel made history as well. His witty, in-your-face, school-pride tweets made the sports world stand up and notice (and crashed the UMBC website during the game), skyrocketing @UMBCAthletics followers from 5,400 to 111,000 in almost two days. Since, he’s become a sought-after expert on the power of social media, while continuing his day job of sharing all things UMBC Athletics.
We talked with Seidel about his March Madness moment and the lessons schools and colleges can learn about finding and using an authentic institutional voice online.
Kalix: What inspired your live tweeting during the historic March 2018 game?
Zach Seidel: It’s kind of how we’ve always tweeted [our athletic events], but more people noticed that night. Around halftime, I said to our conference liaison, ‘People are watching,; let’s speak in the voice of the sassy underdog.’ We used it to supplement other messages about UMBC. Our school website crashed that night!
When Twitter started becoming huge in 2013, my boss would come to me for guidance, since I was the youngest person on our staff. I didn’t have too many restrictions and was always drawn to having a personality on Twitter.
I knew that followers would fall off after the game [against UVA] once people realized that it was our UMBC Athletics account, but by the start of the 2019 basketball season, we were still around 90,000 followers and are at 83,500 today.
It got UMBC more notice. Admission applications went up and SAT scores for applicants went up. Ticket sales went up for all sports events. Before, if you were in academia, you knew about UMBC because of our president Dr. Freeman Hrabowski. Now, 7 out of 10 people know who were are. As a graduate, what’s important to me is that people are looking at UMBC.
Kalix: Why do you think your tweeting that night struck such a chord?
Zach: I noticed that when team and company accounts are a little snarky, people identify with it. I had people associated with the school and alums stop me and tell me that I captured UMBC’s personality. School public relations tends to be very succinct, but I was firing from the hip that night. I had the conference liaison, who was also the conference social media person, next to me, and our associate athletic director and the athletic director were at the press table right next to me in the room, so I had guidance.
March Madness is one of the biggest things in American sports. A #16 seed beating a #1 seed had never been done before. Being cocky wasn’t my intention, but when I went back [and read the tweets], I realized that they celebrated us an underdog, a ‘Yeah, that’s what you get for underestimating us.’
Kalix: What are the takeaways for schools and colleges to engage an online audience?
Zach: You can’t be something that you’re not. People told me that my tweets fit the personality of the school. UMBC people have a lot of pride. We’re used to fighting back and making sure that people know not to underestimate us. I made sure not to be mean to the Virginia fans.
Know your fan base. It’s important that social media have a personality, but you need to make sure that it fits your school or it will turn people off.
Kalix: What tips do you have for schools and colleges to have different voices for different social media platforms?
Zach: UMBC has a social media communications group, and each department does use social media but in different ways. We keep the same message across the platforms. Know that the audiences for each platform are different.
For Facebook, in regard to Athletics, we’re only posting school pride news stories and PR info to the older fan base that tends to be on Facebook. We don’t put as much personality into those posts.
Instagram is tough since we can’t guarantee that someone sees something since it doesn’t offer a chronological timeline. We use Instagram Story more. Our Instagram is mostly for our students, and we’ve shifted to a lot of fun videos of activities. Make sure you have quick, good-looking videos with good graphics.
One of the schools that does this the best is the Instagram for University of Central Florida Knights (@UCFKnights). Everything they post is something you want to stop on. Their photos are artistic but relate to the school. Look at any of the big college football Instagram accounts, too. Arizona State football is great on Instagram (@arizonastatefootball).
For Twitter, that’s a broader audience and where we have the most personality. TikTok is becoming huge – it’s the second-biggest social network – and some pro teams are using it. I’m spending this year figuring out how to leverage it for us.
It’s all about creative content. If you can add a person on staff who can do the videos and graphic design, that’s a smart and strategic move.
Zach Seidel joined the UMBC Athletic Communications staff as an intern in 2007 while a senior in high school. As a UMBC student, he coordinated video production for the department. After graduating from UMBC in 2012 magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. in Media and Communication Studies, minor in American Studies and an Honors College Certificate, he worked with video operations for the Baltimore Orioles, the Baltimore Sun and the Bowie Baysox.
In 2014, Seidel returned to his alma mater’s Athletics Communications department. Today, he directs all Athletics multimedia, as well as social media and digital media for the UMBC Marketing department. He also teaches undergraduate courses within the Media and Communication Studies department and works with the UMBC Sports Marketing department on digital and new media aspects of external engagements. He speaks nationally about social media. In 2015, he earned an M.S. degree in Human-Centered Computing from UMBC.