Doug Meffley joined the Northwestern athletic communications as a work-study student in 2002. For the past 15 years, he’s worked his way up through the department, and today he serves as the director of digital and social communications.
In that role, Meffley (BSJ04, IMC16) and his staff are responsible for content strategies for NU athletics. He also is responsible for overseeing NUsports.com, the Wildcats’ social media efforts and serves as the primary communications contact for Northwestern softball.
Meffley has helped NU Athletics be at the forefront of the digital landscape. Asked what advice he’d give to a student looking to make a name for themselves in that space, Meffley’s response is simple.
“Learn graphic design and video,” Meffley said. “The more versatile you are as a storyteller, the more attractive you will be to outlets across the media spectrum.”
Meffley took time to talk about managing a brand’s social media presence, the need for flexibility in the workspace and the importance of learning from experimentation.
You’ve helped NU put together a number of creative pieces of content. What three pieces of social content are you most proud of?
It should be telling that these all are video! Our teams have done some great things over the years, but these stand out:
1. GAMEDAY IS COMING. I’m probably super biased in selecting this piece of content since I’m also featured in it, but it’s a true example of what one person’s off-the-wall idea can become. In 2013, ESPN’s College Gameday chose to bring its show to our campus for a huge game against Ohio State. Our football office had the idea of a “Paul Revere” character riding through campus to spread the news, and we all jumped on board for a long night of filming to release it the next day. In no small part due to content like this, our fans packed the lakefill for the show and it turned out phenomenally well.
2. I love being early to a trend, and we were early adopters on the “Walk-On Receives Scholarship” train. When James Montgomery III got a basketball scholarship in 2013, we filmed both the team meeting and his subsequent phone call to his mom and sister. What stands out about this one to me is that we didn’t orchestrate some elaborate staged way to inform him, but instead opted to film the emotion of his conversation with his family. That emotion is what really connected to the audience and sparked our first true viral video at over 1M views.
3. Recency bias, and another good example of multiple ideas coming together. Our concessions folks have stepped up their game this year, and we’ve gone all-in to promote their new offerings. Their donut bacon burger at homecoming generated enough buzz and sales that we brought it back for another game, and introduced a “breakfast” version. To promote that, one person in our creative meeting came up with a slo-mo video idea, and another immediately brought up the current Arby’s campaign. We went for it, and we loved the results. Still too early to tell if the message landed from this particular piece of content, though.
What is the biggest challenge of overseeing a recognizable social media account?
Being responsive in a timely fashion. We have a prolific team of creative content producers, and our fans are clever folks, too, so finding content to serve and re-serve is never an issue. Fans have strong bonds with athletics brands, and it’s our goal to interact with their content and questions as quickly as possible — sometimes that’s tough with everything else we’re doing.
What is one thing you think most people don’t realize about managing/planning social media content?
The best content most often isn’t the planned content. We can sit in our meetings and plot out something we think will be a killer campaign, or simply plan for “filler content,” but the best ideas will often come via a light bulb and a scramble. For a recent example, we created multiple graphics and videos in preparation for Justin Jackson breaking the all-time rushing record in a game at Maryland. Even with all of this super-sharp content, far and away our most engaging piece was a picture of Justin climbing into the stands after the game to hug his dad. Our staff on the ground saw it happening, ran over and snapped a photo, and we deployed it immediately. The spontaneous emotion of the moment landed, and it was awesome.
You’ve now spent 15 years in the Athletics office at Northwestern. What are two or three of the biggest things you’ve learned during that time?
1. “Scramble, Be Flexible.” In college, I spent my summers working as a Ranger at Philmont Scout Ranch in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico. We had this saying: Scramble, Be Flexible. I’ve carried that with me to this day, and it’s the No. 1 rule I apply to life in athletics and in social/digital media. No two days are the same, the environment is constantly changing and we have to evolve with it. Even day-to-day: the most carefully laid plans can be blown up in an instant, and we have to be able to let it go and adjust on the fly. It’s a grinding pace to keep, but it makes the job fresh and exciting even after 15 years.
2. “Nobody cares what you think!” In the end, the only opinion that matters about our content is the end user’s. We can sit in a room and think we’ve come up with the most brilliant idea, but if it doesn’t resonate with our fan base or recruits or whatever the target audience is, then it’s not brilliant at all. Listening to fans on social media and tracking their interactions with our content has helped us to tailor our output to have greater impact. It’s the most important thing we do.
3. “It’s never failure if you’ve learned.” In the world of social marketing, new platforms and features are coming out all the time. We can’t be afraid to try them! Quite often something new we think might work falls flat on its face, but there is no failure if something is learned in the process!
How do you think your time at Medill helped you get to where you are today?
Medill gave me the foundation to become a strong communicator. Getting to the heart of the story and telling it compellingly is the key to what we do. Who knew when I was learning to quickly write precise, concise copy in the early 2000s, it would become an essential skill for communicating via social media? Medill’s network has also been so crucial to making connections and helping to spread our stories and content to larger audiences.