This Memorial Day weekend, while much of Indianapolis was enjoying Carb Day, the 500 Festival Parade, or the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500, TCEM students spent 12-hour days in front of their computers engaging fans and attendees on social media.
The partnership with the 500 Festival and Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) began in 2015, when faculty member Erica Shonkwiler recruited student volunteers to assist the local organizing committee with reactive posting for customer service during the Mini Marathon. Now in its third year, the Social Media Command Center (SMCC) has grown in presence and impact.
The SMCC monitors the 500 Festival and IMS social media accounts as well as mentions and hashtags across many platforms throughout the events. Students are empowered to respond to questions and work with the event staff to handle problems in real time. In one instance, a tweet was received from a race attendee that the screen in his section wasn’t working. The SMCC responded to the tweet and notified the staff who repaired the connection. The attendee then tweeted back with gratitude in having the situation resolved so quickly without even having to leave his seat.
Encounters like this illustrate the value of social media, says Shonkwiler. “A huge percentage of the calls that used to go to event hotlines go to social media now. Users find it to be easier and more often get what they want because the exchange is public.” Organizers also get a boost in reputation from the posts of satisfied attendees. “Recording the number of followers on each social media platform at the beginning of our shifts and seeing how much that number increased by the end of the day, was an awesome feeling,” says Kendra Warne, one of the student SMCC members.
With more event organizers seeing the benefit of this kind of social media strategy, the students operating the SMCC set themselves apart as they begin their careers. While the social media and event experience is important, the SMCC goes deeper into the strategy behind the operations. “These events are very diverse,” says Shonkwiler. “They go from is the largest half marathon in the country, to the third largest float-based parade in the country, to the largest single-day sporting event in the world. The brand elements and fan demographics of each couldn’t be more different. The students are learning what it takes to appeal to and serve different audiences.”
Ryan Wess has been a member of the SMCC for two years. “My experience has been amazing. I have worked with some incredible organizations to better their interactions with the community, and I have learned that there are many different ways to have a professional voice.”
The work days are long, but have perks including one-of-kind opportunities to ride in helicopters with celebrities, getting to see the race from 20ft above the Yard of Bricks, and making connections with industry professionals. Three of the SMCC team members from 2016 went on to hold high-level internships at the IMS.
This year, the SMCC supported all of the 500 Festival events, and will be at the IMS for all major races through October. The team expanded to help the IMS staff pursue new social media platforms, trends in video, live capture, and digital storytelling. The 500 Festival seized upon a new onsite social media strategy to make the SMCC more obvious to attendees to generate engagement by putting the teams in a visible location with custom branded gear. Additionally, the School of Informatics and Computing at IUPUI joined the SMCC at the Indianapolis 500 to beta test a new social media software tool they are developing for large events.
The reports for 2017 are still in progress, but the SMCC are confident they far surpassed the 857 hours worked and 21,000 online interactions from 2016’s events.