From Grad Assistant to Director, the Journey of Justin Swanson

By: Chase McCaskill, @itsmechase

Justin Swanson, Director of Marketing at North Dakota State University

Justin Swanson, Director of Marketing at North Dakota State University

Front Office Sports is proud to have had the opportunity to sit down with Justin Swanson, currently the Director of Marketing at North Dakota State University located in Fargo, North Dakota. Before assuming this position, Justin kicked off his career working as a student/graduate assistant for the NDSU athletic department. He hopped around a bit and saw his career take him to the University of Maine working as the Assistant Director of Marketing/Promotions followed by a 3.5 year stint as Assistant Athletic Director at South Dakota State University.  We want to thank him for giving us insight on the grind of beginning a career in sports and the light shed on the importance of getting a head start in the industry.

You started out as a student/graduate assistant at NDSU, can you talk a little bit about the journey for you and how you ended up back at NDSU?

I started with NDSU on the team operations side, working for the football team. As a result of that, I got to work with our athletic director, got to know our media-relations staff, our marketing staff, and our sales staff. I saw that working with the athletic department as a whole, rather than just football, was a pretty attractive option. I had the opportunity to jump out to the University of Maine, it was really hard to leave NDSU but, looking back on it, was probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me…I met so many fantastic and incredible people. I then had the opportunity to go to South Dakota State where I met a lot of great people as well. Following that, the opportunity presented itself to move to NDSU in May of 2012.

How did those years as a student/graduate assistant shape your career? What did you learn?

When you’re starting off, it’s a grind, there’s really no rosy picture to paint. You learn early you have to love sports; you have to love college athletics to be in this business because it’s not a 9-5, weekends off, holidays off type of job. You have to love being around the game, all sports included. You’re working with those coaches 24/7 and they want the best you have to give. What my experience really taught me was that if you’re serious about being in this business you’ve got to love the grind. The great thing is, not one of us feels like we’re going into a ‘job’ everyday.  At the end of the day working with sports is very rewarding and if you have a passion for it, there’s really not a day when you feel like you are going into work.

NDSU has received a lot of media attention with its recent success and the publicity from College Gameday. How has this success changed the way you approach marketing for the school?

We really haven’t changed what we’ve done internally…we’ve really just stuck to a process. For us, it’s always been important to cover our home base first, doing a lot of grassroots marketing in our hometown (Fargo) and throughout the state. We do events down in the twin cities, trying to get our coaching staff in front of our fans and in front of other people. We use social media to reach out to people across the country [especially] helping our coaches in recruiting. [Recruits] can now turn on ESPN to see College Gameday in downtown Fargo two years in a row and recognize that NDSU is a viable Division One opportunity with a lot of great things going on here.

How has relationship grown with ESPN over the past few years?

ESPN has been great, what they’ve done to showcase our program has been unlike anything we ever could have dreamed of. A neat thing this has allowed us to do is to showcase our other programs [as well as football].

Social media is growing exponentially each and every day, how have you used social media to engage your fan base?

Social media has probably been the most important piece, for us, activating our brand and engaging with our fans. Many of our alums do move out of state and work in other places throughout the country. Spending the money to do mailers and direct calls are not as cost-effective now a days. For us, we’ve really leaned on social media to spark some engagement and to help build our brand.

One of the challenges we receive from our coaches is to stay connected to our recruits 24/7. Its fallen on the marketing department to create and cultivate some of that content, some of those creative ways of reaching not only the fans, but letting recruits know about our programs. We view social media as an avenue to reach multiple audiences across the board.

With having opportunities such as College Gameday, playing in an NCAA Tournament, etc., we’ve tried to put ourselves in a situation of success before we get in those situations. Plans are already in place to take advantage of those opportunities to build our numbers because when they hit, you may, only have a 24-36 hour window to capitalize. If we didn’t have a social media plan in place ahead of time, we may have not seen some of the traction we experienced otherwise.

What are some of the key skills that make someone successful in a Director of Marketing role?

You’ve got to have excellent communication skills. At NDSU we deal with such a large group of people that we work alongside. We deal with corporate sponsors, alumni, coaches, student athletes, recruits, and the student body so you have to have a pretty refined set of communication skills to have success in this role.  You have to stay on top of new trends. It seems like every three months there’s a new product that can change the way you market, so knowing in which one of those to invest. You want to be proactive [on new trends] instead of reactive.

It helps to be fluent and literate in the language of social media and some of these new marketing techniques, which are key to a lot of people out there.  Many times, your colleagues and peers are there to help you … with implanting things they are doing, in which we can have success with as well. College athletics is a close-knit community, people in this industry are extremely helpful and try to pay-it-forward. 

At the end of the day, it’s nice to see how everybody helps each other and puts the best interest of the whole at front, rather than just thinking about themselves. Maintaining strong relationships with your peers can be extremely helpful in being successful.

Parting Wisdom?

If it is something you know you want to do, volunteer, and get involved early. If there’s a student interested in interning, our philosophy at NDSU is, we will never say no to a meeting. I encourage any young people starting out in the field, to take initiative and reach out to athletic departments/minor league organizations. Take it upon yourself to get involved and make a phone call because [people in the industry], with all they’ve got on the table, are not picking up the phone to call you. In picking up the phone to call them, 9 times out of 10, you’re going to get a positive response. Make yourself visible and volunteer.

We would like to thank Justin for his time and insight and we would like to wish him the best in his future endeavors!

You can follow him on Twitter here or connect with him on LinkedIn here!

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