First Impressions

There’s always a balance of art and science in our work. As just one example, we put a fair amount of thought and effort into the ways our stories are presented in the initial touchpoint with an audience – whether on social media, or especially in the case of our flagship, Images, GIFs, videos and headlines have an enormous impact on whether a story is read, and ultimately shared.

In the case of headlines, we use a text analyzer that uses an algorithm to give each headline a score based on its emotional marketing value. Most readers react to headlines that elicit an emotional reaction, however small. Of course, most copywriters will find the idea that a headline could – let alone should – be written by a computer to be completely unacceptable. It’s important to note that the recommendation produced by this program is just that – a recommendation. In the case of “Steps,” for example, the analyzer wasn’t much help because it needs a minimum of four words to provide a score; yet there was little doubt that was the appropriate title of the story, alluding figuratively to the incremental nature of the research and literally to its application. The analyzer, then, is more of a method of honing and fine-tuning a headline that already has its central idea settled, in most cases. (In case you’re wondering, the highest scoring headline to date is the profile on a Russian artist serving a fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study, called “The Art of Truth.”)

The imagery that accompanies that headline in a feature block or on a social media post isn’t always a clear-cut decision. In two recent stories, “Digging Deep” and “Super Speed,” the research being profiled did not lend itself to the immediate recognition factor we usually try to convey online. At least not yet. We opted instead for imagery that spoke to the subject matter in a more general sense, not necessarily the specific research being conducted. Did it work? In the case of “Super Speed” – which featured a jet airplane racing across the screen – the story outpaced by 20% the average number of page views for the first day of one of our features. “Digging Deep” – which featured a video loop of ominous looking waves – did not have quite as much success in its first 24 hours (among the contributing factors was a late-day publish, which often impacts page views), but has maintained a steady viewership and is performing well overall.

We continue to research and monitor our content across all channels to optimize its performance. Some of the results we uncover are unsurprising (photos of the Golden Dome yield a ridiculously high engagement rate on Facebook, i.e.), others force us to re-evaluate and hone our craft. But all insights are useful, especially when it comes to first impressions.

2016: We’ve been everywhere, man

Jan. 4, 2016; San Xavier Mission in Tucson, AZ.  (Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame)
Jan. 4, 2016; San Xavier Mission in Tucson, AZ. (Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame)

The University was active across the country and around the globe in 2016, and Strategic Content was there to document the work. All told, the team logged more than 34,000 miles covering Notre Dame this year. Here are some of the big stories that took us off campus:

A Transformative Journey: Notre Dame Experiences Life at the Border: Just two days into the new year, our team traveled with a group of Notre Dame students and faculty, as well as members of the South Bend community to Tuscon, AZ and Nogales, Mexico. The group participated in a community-based learning immersion seminar to examine the issue of immigration through the lens of Catholic social tradition. The story uses rich imagery and touches of movement – time lapses and video – to support the text that describes their journey.

Jan 21, 2016; At 4,850 underground at the former gold mine, researchers and staff board the shaft elevator to return to the surface at the Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead, South Dakota. (Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame)
Jan 21, 2016; At 4,850 underground at the former gold mine, researchers and staff board the shaft elevator to return to the surface at the Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead, South Dakota. (Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame)

Unearthing the Secrets of a Star: A week after our team returned from the border, they headed north to South Dakota to a gold mine now serving as a high-tech laboratory. They joined a group of Notre Dame nuclear astrophysicists who are looking to replicate the reactions that take place during the formation of stars. The lab – the Sanford Underground Research Facility or SURF – is located approximately a mile underground, and is serviced using the infrastructure originally built to haul gold out of the earth. This piece captures the visual aesthetic of the mine, which is itself a character in the story – the researchers are doing their work in this setting to protect from the sun’s cosmic rays.

Fr. Jenkins Reflects: Our Compass Points South: In March, a photographer accompanied University president Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. who led a delegation to South America to build and strengthen relationships on that continent. The delegation visited Santiago, Chile; Buenos Aires, Argentina and Sao Paulo, Brazil. Our University photographer sent back photos, video and updates as the feature piece was built one day at a time. We repeated the process for a similar trip to Mexico led by Fr. Jenkins in July.

Crossroads of the Americas: We sent a team to cover a conference of Church leaders convened in Havana, Cuba by Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies. The conference examined the significance of Pope Francis’ visits to the U.S., and for one ND student who made the trip, the journey had special ancestral significance.

October 27, 2016; Notre Dame and St. Mary's College Irish Dance Team rehearsal. (Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame)
October 27, 2016; Notre Dame and St. Mary’s College Irish Dance Team rehearsal. (Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame)

Steps in Time: In November, a team member joined with the Notre Dame – Saint Mary’s Irish Dance Team as they traveled to Belfast, Northern Ireland to compete in the 2016 All Ireland Dance Championships. The story takes a look at the often unseen world of Irish dance, and its role in these students’ lives.

The StratCon team also turned up in Columbus, Ohio; San Antonio, Indianapolis and more to cover the life and work of the University. We’re already making plans to document the breadth of the Notre Dame experience in new ways in 2017, and we couldn’t be more excited.

Fighting For A Social Media Success

Fighting For spot To cure food allergies. For lasting peace. To explore the moon. To protect the innocent. For better cancer detection. For our veterans.

These are the things we fought for at Notre Dame this football season – the ‘What Would You Fight For?’ campaign’s 10th.

You’ve probably seen the spots. Every home football game at halftime Dan Hicks (and a few times this year, Mike Tirico) cues up two minutes highlighting a component of the academic mission of the University. And while this is aired to the millions of people watching at home, we’re not naive enough to think that everyone is glued to their television sets when there are bathroom breaks to take, halftime snacks to eat and an entire internet to peruse before the second half kicks off.

Enter: Social Media.

Since 2013, we’ve shared the ‘Fighting For’ spots across our Facebook and Twitter accounts to great success, but in 2016 we blew success out of the water.

3721% out of the water.

That’s the percentage increase in views in the 2016 campaign over the 2014 campaign across social media (we saw a 190% increase over the 2015 campaign). We also saw a 1247% increase in organic reach on Facebook over the same time period.

While a lot of this can be attributed to the outstanding team of Notre Dame and NBC professionals who work tirelessly for most of the year to concept and produce the spots (and they have some great stories which they chronicled in Notre Dame Magazine a few years back), we’ve also spent four years – especially the last two with the advent of Strategic Content (the official name of those of us behind ND Stories) – building our social media brand as a robust outlet that rewards those who click on our content with visually compelling, well-written pieces.

The ‘Fighting For’ spots are compelling in themselves. They tell a story and always feature a resolution to a problem, but oftentimes you can’t tell the whole story in two-minutes. That’s where we upped our game this year. Each spot was accompanied by a long form written piece which went in-depth into what problems our professors, graduate students and alumni are attempting to solve in the world.

Because we had this extra piece of content this year, we approach social media with a two-pronged attack – on Friday, we published the video component on, Facebook and Youtube and launched the piece on Twitter. This allowed people the chance to watch the video at their leisure even if they were heading to campus for the game on Saturday. Then, we published posts linking directly to the long form piece on without mentioning that the piece was a Fighting For or had a video component on Monday. Some readers commented “I saw this on Saturday during the game” on the Monday post, but quite often those who commented on Monday came to the piece cold and learned about our research completely removed from a football or Fighting For context.

After 10 years, the question of whether or not a campaign has reached the end of its self-life is inevitably asked. I think this response to our 10-year Anniversary spot, which aired during the Notre Dame-Virginia Tech match up on November 19 show us that we should be Fighting For things for years to come:



BTS: Stepping in time

Credit: Barbara Johnston
The ND-SMC Irish Dance Team rehearses before their trip to Ireland. Credit: Barbara Johnston

Our story profiling the ND-SMC Irish Dance Team’s trip to compete in the All Ireland dance competition was a change of pace for Strategic Content in a few ways. First, it focuses on an aspect of student experience at the University, something that we do not often cover. (Though when it is, the stories typically perform well. A Transformative Journey remains one of the top-10 most viewed StratCon stories of the past 2 years.)

In some ways, it’s one of the most involved pieces Strategic Content has done to date. Some tidbits:

  • 2 videography shoots – one at a normal rehearsal, one at a staged dress rehearsal at ND’s Washington Hall.
  • 1 photography shoot.
  • A web designer visiting a dance team rehearsal.
  • A StratCon team member traveling with the team to Dublin and Belfast, acting as both chaperone and brand journalist on the trip. (And he brought back iPhone video that was used in the package included in the story – a first for StratCon, for what it’s worth.)

The resulting story is a look at a small part of the student experience at Notre Dame and St. Mary’s. It’s also a brief recounting of the history of Irish dance in the context of Irish history. It’s a story about chapters of life amid the passage of time, and in a certain way, an interesting commentary on age. Irish dancers rarely compete on this stage once they reach 21 or 22 – the age of the team members who made the trip – as usually injuries or studies or both take their toll. The ND-SMC team competed in the “senior” division, if that’s any indication.

The design of the feature takes cues from The Book of Kells, and rightfully so, as explained in the story. We tried several video takes using the OrcaVue platform to capture some of the dancers’ footwork, though it proved difficult.

We called the story “Steps in Time,” a nod to the importance of music time signature in Irish dance and also an allusion to the chapter in life it represented for these students. It published December 22, and occupied the main feature block on starting January 3. Thanks for reading!