By David Schissler – While at the Killington FIS Alpine World Cup this past November I made the acquaintance of Courtney Harkins, online Content Manager for the US Ski Team. The Team’s current social media numbers are rather impressive. They have 185,000 followers on Facebook, 100,000 on Instagram, and 54,000 on Twitter. Recently, she was kind enough to discuss how she does it.
First, a little background. Courtney is originally from Boston. She grew up at Loon Mountain and spent years racing in New Hampshire for Loon and Holderness. She attended the University of Colorado where she majored in English, was a member of their Alpine Team and spent eight years living in Boulder. After school, at a time when social media was just catching on, she worked as an intern and in positions in event marketing in the outdoor products and music industries. She moved to Park City three years ago to take on the US Ski Team communications job.
As the Content Manager, what are her top priorities? “For me it’s just creating really awesome content and making sure it’s really engaging and that people are interested and sharing it. The end goal is always to make more fans whether it’s the average ski racing kid up in New Hampshire or the soccer mom in Florida, we’re trying to target all fans of any sport. Our sports are very approachable and can be loved and followed by anyone. We want to create content that everyone can understand and everyone wants to see.”
Courtney is a department of one. As the sole driver of the US Ski Team’s social media effort she has to be on scene given the real-time nature of her work. Fortunately, she has a robust support staff within the Marketing, Communications and PR departments. She can call on photographers, video production, graphic designers, corporate communications, and press officers to assist her. “It’s a little hard but we have a really cool team covering each discipline. For instance, Megan Harrod’s primary job is to run PR and to be the liaison between the media and the athletes for the US Alpine Team. She can do side work for me so I can ask her to grab a short video of Mikaela talking about her first run and then I can post it.”
With so many events taking place around the world, I asked Courtney, how do you choose which events to attend? She told me “It’s a little tough since we have so many events going on simultaneously. I have to choose the more relevant domestic events from a media perspective. The reason I’m going to Snowmass is it’s a major Olympic qualifier for our freestyle and snowboard teams with a lot of major athletes, sort of celebrity profile athletes there. The bigger, more popular events are where we have more potential for partners and I sort of bridge the gap between our communications team and PR team. On the marketing and sales side we can sell to brands because of our social media coverage and fan base.” If TV coverage is on the scene, so is Courtney.
Since so much of her work is event driven, I asked Courtney to walk me through the process of promoting a podium appearance by a team member. She said, “Prior to the event we’ll post on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter this is happening, this is how to watch it, this is how to stream it, make sure to follow along, who’s going for the win, etc. During the event we’re live tweeting everything that’s going on. We’re also doing Instagram stories and posting photos from the ground. As soon as it’s over we post the results then we’re in a holding pattern while we wait for good photos. We usually get one within 15 to 20 minutes and it goes up on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram as soon as possible.”
With regard to the importance of good photos for social media I asked Courtney about the quality issue of smart phone pics versus those from higher quality cameras and professional photographers. Are smart phones so expedient they’ve become the standard? “It depends. I’m totally good with sharing smart phone photos for Instagram stories and for Twitter and such but I try to use a higher quality photo for Facebook and Instagram because both are so visual. We try to keep everything in a similar vein or voice which requires high quality photos.” Courtney went on to say only photos of the highest quality are acceptable for the website.
Since likes, interaction, and reach are so important I asked Courtney how the US Ski Team tracks their social media data. “No third party analytic software package or company is used. The only app we’re currently using is Hookit. Through a dashboard, it allows us to judge our athlete’s social media content and coordinate the social media effort. I depend on the analytics of the various social media sites. I think the Facebook analytics are excellent but largely underutilized tools since they’re so time consuming. You can do a deep dive into those analytics. Instagram is getting better but is still under development. Twitter analytics are fabulous. Super, super strong.” Does Courtney weight any social media more heavily than others or is it all about aggregate numbers? “It depends on what group wants the analytics. For me, from an all in all perspective, I think they’re pretty comparable. I know when I post Alpine content on Instagram it’s going to do better than x-country content. Facebook is where our partners look to keep an eye on our content and from a sales perspective we can say “Hey look, this kind of post reaches this many people. Will you sponsor us for this kind of post?” A case in point is the breath mint Icebreakers. The ski team generated a special “break through” package for them. Each time a competitor had a break through competitive moment it was sponsored on social media by Icebreakers. Courtney pointed out that US Ski Team social media sales tend to be just one element in a larger sponsorship package.
“I judge a lot of our social content on how well it does off of engagement and reach. For instance, if we post Mikaela’s (Shiffrin) winning run it does really, really well for us. It could have a couple thousand “likes” and 10,000 interactions, and reached 100,000 people. It’s really important for me to see. That’s how I judge what kind of content we’re going to post. If it’s something we worked really hard on like a cool free-skiing edit and it reaches 10,000 people and gets 60 likes we won’t do it again. We want to post only really, really solid content. The thing about social media is it’s so new it’s still trial and error.”
Given the strength of the US Ski Team brand you would think fans find them organically but that’s not the case. Courtney said, “With the current state of the various social media platforms and their desire to figure out how to make more money, our organic growth is not enormous. Looking at our fan base today we probably gained 500 new fans this week. If we want to grow faster than that, if we want to grow 1,000 fans a week, we’d have to put a little bit of money in to that. Right now we’re growing on Facebook really quickly with over 100 hundred new fans a day.” Courtney suspects the uptick is due to the approaching Olympics. Of course she anticipates a significant bump with the Olympics in February.