Notre Dame football stays ahead of the curve on social media

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

On Sunday morning, the Notre Dame football program’s official Twitter account tweeted, “ONE WEEK,” along with the hashtag, “#BeatTexas,” a shamrock emoji and a Vine video of Irish players preparing to take the field.

Now, imagine reading that sentence 10 years ago.

Twitter? Hashtag? Emoji? Vine?

My, how things have changed.

ONE WEEK.#BeatTexashttps://t.co/t2iDoMQykp

— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) August 28, 2016

Mike Elston is making sure the Irish change with it. Since he took over as Notre Dame’s recruiting coordinator prior to the 2015 season, Elston — who doubles as the team’s linebackers coach — has transformed Notre Dame’s approach to social media. As of Sunday, the team had 680,948 likes on Facebook, 321,000 followers on Twitter and 71,800 followers on Instagram.

In 2016, this is how you interact with your fan base.

It’s also how you recruit.

“I think it’s been a priority for us from the moment coach (Brian) Kelly asked me to take over the recruiting. It was the No. 1 objective,” Elston said of the program’s amplified social media presence. “We have a brand, and we want to get our brand out there. We want to change people’s conceptions of the brand. So we have a tremendous amount of resources going into our social media.”

Two of Elston’s most important resources are members of his staff. This offseason, Notre Dame hired Laura Thomas to run the program’s social media efforts and Grant Apgar to head its graphic design. It’s Thomas’ job to manage all of Notre Dame’s social media channels, to oversee content, to keep the nationwide Irish fan base engaged with one of the country’s most visible programs. Apgar creates the graphics that so frequently adorn your Twitter and Facebook timelines.

A visit from Notre Dame can nearly DOUBLE ticket prices for the opposing home team.

THAT is the Notre Dame Effect. pic.twitter.com/avyGqIVZGb

— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) August 17, 2016

20. More. Days.#CountdownToPrimetimepic.twitter.com/np0ONeh3Dr

— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) August 15, 2016

ND showing love❗️ #GOTOPENpic.twitter.com/FMyxDXkiTt

— Robert Hainsey (@RH56__) July 4, 2016

More broadly, though, they promote the core pillars of the Irish brand, while smothering those pesky misconceptions.

“There’s a lot of things that are positive with the brand,” Elston said. “Things that are negative that we get out there (on the recruiting trail) is that we’re soft at times. (They say we’re) not necessarily a tough brand. So we want to do things that put that out there, that we are a tough, physical football team. We are a tough program.

“So we’ll show things on our social media that display that. A lot of times when you think of intellectual academic programs, you’re not thinking of aggressive, physical, strong-built (programs). So that’s the kind of stuff I’m talking about.”

Hence, on March 3, the team’s Twitter account published a video showing players throwing tires, running sprints and pushing sleds in a South Bend snowstorm. Same goes for Aug. 2, when linebackers sweated through t-shirts and swiveled around cones, the video brashly captioned, “Do one more.”

Prepare.

Work your craft.

Make each other better.

Become a great football team.

Camp Kelly 2016.https://t.co/IcoG22Ox7H

— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) March 4, 2016

August means football.#DoOneMorepic.twitter.com/ggRSHDzO6g

— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) August 2, 2016

Run ⬆️ Hill

Jog ⬇️ Hill

Repeat

Another day closer to training camp.#DoOneMorepic.twitter.com/ujlY3uJOg0

— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) July 18, 2016

If the public perception was that Notre Dame’s football program lacked a physical punch, Elston and Co. are here to change that — one tweet, Vine video and Instagram post at a time. More importantly, they’re here to get Notre Dame’s most coveted recruits on campus.

Then keep them there.

“It’s more of an analytical piece now,” Elston said. “A kid is tweeting. What’s his interests? OK, well he likes Jay Z. When he comes to campus, what can we do for him with Jay Z? It’s just little things like that that, before, we wouldn’t have even messed with.”

The message, though, is useless without a microphone. In other words, Notre Dame’s social media content is only as good as its ability to distribute it.

That’s where Bleacher Report comes in.

On Aug. 4, Notre Dame announced that it has reached an unprecedented social content partnership with Bleacher Report, which describes itself as a “preeminent next generation content creation company.”

Just how preeminent? The company claims that it reaches more than 200 million people per month — including 50 million unique visitors — across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Vine. More important for the Irish, roughly 80 percent of its audience is under the age of 34.

The goal isn’t simply to reach an audience, but to reach the targeted audience.

In this case, young people. A new generation of Notre Dame football fans.

And, of course, the all-important recruits.

“Social media is a huge part of what we’re doing because that’s where these 17, 18 year olds are,” Elston said. “So enter Bleacher Report. No one else is doing that. That’s a product of recruiting. We’re going to get exposure on Bleacher Report that no one else in the country is going to get.”

That process began in fall camp, when four Bleacher Report video producers embedded with the program. Over the next four months, the two sides will collaborate on video projects — player interviews, features, skits, etc. — that will spill onto social media and spread the Notre Dame brand.

Last night, @WOPUnation lost one of their own.

Congrats to Chris Finke (@FinkeMasterFlex) on earning a scholarship.https://t.co/5P4dCYw8gM

— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) August 23, 2016

“Notre Dame thought it was a great opportunity to deliver content about their program and key principles — tradition, faith, academics, athletics — in a different platform to a different type of audience,” said Bleacher Report editor-in-chief Joe Yanarella.

A year ago, Notre Dame granted similar access to Showtime, which produced the weekly television show, “A Season With Notre Dame Football.”

The difference this time around is not the access, but the audience.

“I don’t even have Showtime,” Elston admitted. “I don’t watch television. My kids don’t watch Showtime. The next step for us, when we sat down and met as a staff, was whatever the next piece is, it has to be content that’s free and content that these young kids can get. Otherwise, why do it?”

Added head coach Brian Kelly: “Pick up your phone and you can be on Bleacher Report. You couldn't do that with Showtime.”

According to Elston, the Notre Dame coaching staff polled recruits and their parents last year to gauge how many watched “A Season with Notre Dame Football.” Forty-eight recruits and 75 parents responded, and less than 10 percent had seen it.

“Even the committed kids, they didn’t have Showtime,” Elston said. “Even kids that I’m recruiting now, I go through this whole presentation to them when they get here and I’m talking about the Showtime series and it’s crickets. They’re blank. ‘What are you talking about?’ ‘OK, forget it. Don’t worry about it.’

“The Showtime series was incredible, but it wasn’t hitting our demographic for recruiting.”

There’s no illusions as to why the Irish brought Bleacher Report into the huddle. To win, you have to recruit. And to recruit, you have to adapt.

These days, adapting means blending unparalleled tradition with a healthy dose of innovation (and a few hashtags) along the way. Before you can #BeatTexas, you first have to win on Twitter.

"Our edge is being forward-thinking and setting the standard really for how we’re going to do social media,” Elston said. “(The NCAA) passed the new rule where you can use social media now. You can like (recruits’ tweets). You can favorite.

“Do you want to be a team that waters it down and likes and favorites everything? Or do you want to be one that’s selective in deciding on what they want to favorite? We have a plan for that.”

When it comes to social media, it seems Elston has a plan for everything. As a prominent recruiting coordinator in 2016, he has to.

mvorel@ndinsider.com

574-235-6428

Twitter: @mikevorel

Mike Elston, recruiting coordinator and linebackers coach, during Notre Dame football practice on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016, at LaBar Practice Field at Notre Dame in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN