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College Football Tailgating & 4 Tips for Marketers on Joining the Conversation

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College football is one of the most lucrative sports – college or pro – in North America, with net revenue topping $345 million in 2014 and showing no signs of slowing down. More than 49 million fans attend college games every year, and over 3 million fans can be found talking about college football on social platforms.

Of the college football fans on social, social listening revealed that over 25% of them are specifically discussing the fan tradition of tailgating, making opportunities ripe for brands to enter into the tailgating conversation during preseason, season, or both. While entering the conversation around college football tailgating may not be the best strategy for every brand, for those that want to connect with football fans, there are many opportunities for them to align with one of America’s favorite sports and build consumer connections over it.

With the first kickoff of the season upon us, the 360i Insights & Planning team has developed four tips for marketers considering entering the college football conversation in social media during the 2015-2016 season.

Stagger Your Approach During the Preseason
This weekend marks the start of college football and when brands are likely to begin seeing a dramatic rise in conversation. But for many sports fans, the countdown to football begins a lot earlier. In fact, many colleges and universities rally their fans by posting their countdown clocks as many as 30 to 100 days before their teams’ first kickoff. As a result, accurately timing when to begin driving social engagement can get tricky for brands.

Mentions of tailgating for college football occurs sporadically throughout the year, but starts picking up in July. The graph below shows that after the first week of July, the frequency of fans talking about college football tailgates steadily increases right up until opening weekend.

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In 2013, the most significant increase in tailgating conversation occurred in Week 9, coinciding with the start of all college football games. For 2014, ESPN debuted what would become its annual Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) Kickoff in Week 8, jumpstarting tailgating conversations a week earlier. In fact, in 2015 preseason conversation began even earlier (Week 5), giving brands even more opportunity to engage with tailgating participants and fans.

Marketer Takeaway: In 2016, brands should consider entering into the preseason conversation during the last week of July (Week 5) when conversations are at their highest point during the month, and then ramp up the frequency of engagement during the final two weeks of August before opening weekend (Weeks 8 & 9). The topic that might be most successful for them to weigh in on is tailgating. Again, this might not be the best strategy for all brands, but tailgating represents a big driver of conversation around college football. Relevant brands are likely to see positive engagement around smart creative plays around this fan favorite activity.

Target the First Month of the Season
A year-over-year comparison demonstrates that annual tailgating conversation volumes vary depending on how the season is scheduled for the year, and if or when bigger conference or rivalry matchups are grouped closely together. However, despite the difference in conversation volume intensity, there has been a consistent trend in September of a disproportionately higher volume of tailgating conversation compared to the rest of the season year-over-year – particularly on the second Saturday of the season.

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Marketer Takeaway: Conversations around college football tailgating are highest during the first three weeks of September and decline by the fourth game of the season. Brands should capitalize on fans’ early season excitement by focusing on and preparing more content for the first three games rather than equally distributing content throughout the entire season.

Top Attendance Doesn’t Correlate with College Football Tailgating
Knowing that the college football experience can vary from state to state, and school to school, we were curious about how fan attendance and social buzz around tailgating correlated. We analyzed tailgating conversations of the 26 most popular college football teams based on average home game attendance. Interestingly, high attendance rates did not always equate to high tailgating conversation volumes, and vice versa, as seen with the top attended team, Ohio State, falling short of the top 10 colleges with the most social conversation around tailgating.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Ole Miss, which had the lowest home game attendance in 2014, tops the list of the most vocal tailgating schools and is often recognized as being one of the best tailgating universities in the nation.

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Marketer Takeaway: While it might seem most logical to direct tailgating marketing efforts towards the college football teams with the most attended games in the nation, our analysis demonstrates that high ticket sales do not necessarily correlate with the most vocal and fanatic tailgating fans in social. When looking to concentrate marketing efforts on specific schools for tailgating, marketers should consider the level of tailgate-related conversations around different schools, as buzz volume will reveal more about the enthusiasm consumers have for football tailgating around a particular college.

Don’t Dilute Your Efforts
From the hyper-targeted college level, mapping where the majority of tailgating conversation occurs by state and region can illuminate areas for brands to focus their efforts on. Of the schools where we saw the majority of tailgating conversation, most were located in the Southeast and Midwest within the 16 states shown in the graph below.

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Marketer Takeaway:
It can behoove marketers to create local tailgating content for specific regions that are more likely to talk about tailgating rather than following a broad, national strategy. By localizing efforts, not only are marketers more likely to reach the right audiences, but using custom content could lead to even more engaged fans.

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Conversations around college football and tailgating are exponentially increasing as we head into opening weekend, with fans beginning to express their excitement for the season on social media. While brands may have missed out on opportunities to enter the conversation during preseason, there is still time to engage with college football fans in meaningful ways.

Brands looking to join the conversation around one of the most lucrative sports in North America should ensure they have a strategy in place to make the most of their efforts. Marketers will see the most success by playing into the anticipation and thrill of college football through tailgating conversations, and coordinating their content calendars to share content when there is the highest volume of social chatter. They should also focus their efforts on the states and regions with strong tailgating volume and be mindful of new tactics that may shift or extend social conversation volume trends and the excitement for tailgating season. Who’s ready for kickoff?

Cover photo via An Appealing Plan.