Photo Credit: Mackenzie Gerry
When Victoria Dewar started working with the Brock women’s hockey team as their social media coordinator, the coaching staff had just one question for her: how do we get more followers?
It was this simple question that led Dewar to talk to her second year sport marketing professor Dr. Olan Scott during his office hours.
“He had this wealth of knowledge in social media and digital marketing,” said Dewar.
Dewar would go to Dr. Scott’s office hours where they would look at the content she was posting. From there they talked about the things that were working and the things that weren’t. They looked at trends and engagement.
“And then from there, he reached out to me about the Match of Minds research grant that Brock has that pairs professors with students to do research projects,” said Dewar.
It was an opportunity to take the things that they had been talking about and apply them to something tangible and find out what content Brock students and community members were actually engaging with and what steps could be taken to increase that engagement.
“The comparison that was always brought to me was that, when I started, the women’s accounts had about a quarter of the followers that the men’s accounts had,” said Dewar. “That was the question that I was always being asked, ‘how do we get more followers?’”
Dewar decided to take a closer look at the content that was being posted.
“That’s where the research project kind of started, with that question,” said Dewar. “It was like, ‘well let’s look at the engagement levels and the actual analytics to gain an understanding of what works and what we can put in place to grow the following.”
Dewar’s research focused on Instagram and Twitter. The team does have a Facebook page, but Dewar quickly realized that their target audience of university students weren’t on Facebook in the same way that parents and older community members were.
“I was more interested in how we could get more students following the accounts,” said Dewar. “From there we could hopefully get them to come out to the games. We knew [the rink] was off-campus and sometimes an annoyingly long bus ride [to get to]. So we hoped if they didn’t come out to the games they could watch them on OUA.tv and enjoy them that way.”
When Dewar began the project at the start of the 2018-19 season, the team’s Instagram account had 690 followers. The account now has over 1,400 and the Twitter account now has more than 800. Dewar looked at data from the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons to inform her research.
“We learned very quickly that content about the charitable things that the team was doing, like the community care food drive, going into schools, photos of the players being at the Junior Badgers practices because we have that partnership, people loved things like that. They jumped on it right away; lots of likes, lots of comments,” said Dewar.
Dewar began posting more content that had less to do with the games and more to do with the players as people.
“You’d think with them being athletes people would want to know who scored in the last game but it was always, ‘I want to know who these players are as people,’ so I started doing player introductions,” said Dewar.
Dewar posted the team’s headshots and used the Instagram caption to provide the players a platform to introduce themselves to followers.
“I think the one year we asked the players, ‘what’s your number one song that you’ve listened to before a game? What’s your pump up song’. We wanted to have that different, more creative personal question rather than just ‘name, program, your position.’ We were trying to extend it a little bit further so people could actually feel like they knew them in a different way than just, ‘oh yeah she wears whatever number and plays this position,’” said Dewar.
In future research, Dewar hopes that a comparison can be made between men’s sports team accounts and women’s sports team accounts.
“The interesting thing that came about from just focusing on the women’s account for this research was thinking about how this might compare to men’s sports accounts, especially because the followership is always so drastically different between the two,” said Dewar. “It’s important because there’s still this gap between men’s sports and women’s sports. You always see and hear about men’s sports, you’re more likely to engage with them because it’s talked about more. Even just from the professional side of things. You hear so much more about men’s sports and women’s sports still very much come second,” said Dewar.
“You could look at why people follow men’s accounts and don’t also follow women’s accounts for the same sport or for the same geographic area. It’s even more so prominent in universities because for every men’s team you’re almost guaranteed for there to be a women’s team playing the same sport,” said Dewar.
She also thinks that things like gender norms and expectations could be the reason why content about charitable events and player introductions performed better than photos from games and game scores.
“There’s always that tie that you can make back to gender norms and gender stereotypes between male and female athletes. You want to see male athletes as strong players and athletes whereas you kind of see female athletes differently,” said Dewar.
In addition to posting more personable content to Instagram, Dewar found other forms of content that performed well on Twitter.
“We found that videos did really well, especially on Twitter, like goal highlights.”
OUA.tv, the platform that OUA games are broadcast on, introduced the ability to rewatch games in the 2019-20 season.
“Before, when I was at the rink and taking photos it was like, ‘well, I’m never gonna see that goal again’ because it was gone, there was no replay. So last year when [OUA.tv] started letting you rewatch games, it was perfect. I was able to very quickly get the clips and get them on Twitter as highlight reels,” said Dewar.
Players were excited about the ability to share their own goal highlights to their personal accounts, which helped grow engagement on the team’s account. There were also a couple of times where larger accounts dedicated to posting women’s sports highlights would pick up the clips and share them.
“That all came from the research, figuring out what did and what didn’t [work] and that definitely helped to boost the followers at that time,” said Dewar.
Dewar’s research was quite niche, in that it was about university sports, but it was even more so due to the fact that it was about Canadian university sports. The bulk of the existing research is about NCAA teams.
“There are lots of pathways that can still be taken and I hope that more does come about because it’s definitely a niche area that can be explored further,” said Dewar.
There is especially more room to research considering the way that the sporting landscape has changed since March.
“It was kind of frustrating this year, I had just figured out what was working and then, boom, COVID,” said Dewar.
Though the project has concluded, Dewar has continued using the accounts as a platform to introduce new players and allow returning players an opportunity to promote themselves and give the followers a look into their lives. Dewar has had the players send in photos and videos of themselves over the summer.
“Usually in the summer in past years I wasn’t too involved with the accounts and it just kind of stayed low. But this summer I actually wanted to do something. Everything you’re seeing on social media is about COVID-19,” said Dewar. “We wanted something different to kind of shine a light on more of the positive things that were going on. So I reached out to the team. I think it was the beginning of May. We did a really great post for Mother’s Day and [to] kick off being back on social and a bunch of the girls sent in photos with their moms and with their grandparents.”
Current players have been sending in content about workouts and summer jobs and activities.
“I wanted to give them a platform to promote themselves,” said Dewar.
In addition to current players, alumni have also started sending Dewar content to post. Former players have joined the PWHPA (Professional Women’s Hockey League), or are going to play in the NWHL (National Women’s Hockey League) and some are playing overseas.
“It’s easy to lose touch, but they still follow us and we want to keep that connection alive,” said Dewar.
Before COVID-19 changed the game for everybody, Dewar enjoyed being at the rink and being there for special moments with the team. She was there when they clinched the playoffs for the first time in years and for some players, she watched them play every game of their OUA career.
Dewar gives the players some of the credit for buying into her social media strategy; they were always willing to pose for a picture and participate in a promotion.
“A few years ago we had a fan-of-the-game promotion and Brenna [Murphy, former captain] and Jensen [Murphy, former goaltender and current goaltending coach] found out that Brenna’s dad was going to be there wearing one of Brenna’s old jerseys and so they were like, ‘can he be fan of the game?’ and they were just so invested in it and the fact that we had a fan of the game and they didn’t have to be. Those engagement moments with them and their families were really special,” said Dewar.
“Another good one was warm-up because I would always sit by the glass and take pictures to put up on Twitter and our stories and they would always skate right in front of me and be like, ‘Hey! Right here! Take a picture!’”
While she was no stranger to working around sports, having grown up as an Irish dancer (which she calls a “non-traditional sports background”) and being on her high school’s athletic council, Dewar didn’t have much of a background in research and didn’t see herself as a researcher when she started the project. Social media came into the mix when she started running a blog for the athletic council. In addition to her role with the hockey team, Dewar says she worked at the pool at Brock for a while, danced competitively and served as the Vice-President of competition with the Brock Dance team. Despite the wealth of experience, starting the research project was unfamiliar territory.
“When I first started, we were just doing the research and we were going to put together a journal article and submit it to a sport management journal.”
Dr. Olan Scott told Dewar about the conference that the North American Society of Sport Managers (NASSM) holds every year and encouraged her to look into submitting an abstract in the hopes that she might be selected to present.
“I was so new to research, I didn’t really know what a conference was and how people went about presenting at them. Dr. Scott told me to think about it and look into submitting an abstract,” said Dewar.
In researching the conference, Dewar found another intimidating hurdle to overcome. She found that most of the presentations in years past had come from graduate students and university professors.
“I was like, ‘yeah, sounds super cool, I’d love to do one, but do undergrads usually present at something like this, is this a normal thing?’ and I was told right away that a bulk of the presentations are professors, or even groups of professors and doctorate students,” said Dewar. “So super intimidating right off the bat.”
Dewar submitted her abstract anyway and then played the waiting game. She was in her car last January when she found out she’d been selected to present at the conference. She was unable to present in person because of COVID-19 restrictions, but she did so at the virtual conference. Her presentation was titled, “Increasing Engagement and Online Interest in Women’s University Sport.”
“I got into this conference and it was not something that was even planned in the beginning when we started the project,” said Dewar. “Presenting as an undergraduate was intimidating at first but definitely one of the highlights of my university experience. Not many can say they got to present at NASSM in their undergrad.”
“I hope that this research can translate into future research and obviously see where this research can be applied once university sport is able to come back and fans can get back in the rink and engage with the accounts in a normal sporting way,” said Dewar.
Dewar didn’t expect to cap off her undergraduate experience by presenting her research to NASSM and she certainly didn’t expect to do it virtually in the middle of a pandemic. She’s currently applying the things she learned at Brock in her new job working with Field Hockey Ontario as their programs and social media assistant.
Her presentation can be found by clicking here and Brock Women’s hockey can be found on Twitter @Brock_W_Hockey and on Instagram @brockwhoockey.