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While listening to and understanding audience perceptions is a critical part of daily marketing communications strategy, it’s never more important than when virality occurs—like your men’s basketball team qualifying for the NCAA tournament for the first time in nearly 50 years.

A critical part of our marketing strategy is to apply real-time listening and insights from our online conversation to measure brand awareness and inform decision-making. The data, gleaned from our partnership with Campus Sonar, has been especially timely as our conversation volume exploded this month amidst our men’s basketball team’s unexpected conference championship and first-round NCAA tournament victory.

Athletics is a critical part of brand awareness in higher ed, especially for potential students and emerging audiences. On average, campuses with athletics teams receive more than half of their annual online mentions from athletics-related topics—increasing their total online conversation by 236 percent annually. Across all NCAA divisions, athletics is the largest single source of earned media for your college or university.

Duquesne’s team was already ahead of the game when the mayhem of March began. With dedicated professionals in place, a well-established and detailed approach to executive reporting, and strong understanding of brand awareness trends over time, the team moved quickly.

While athletics is a consistent driver in Duquesne’s online conversation, the University experienced this effect in historic dimensions last week. Following the Atlantic 10 championship win on March 17 and first-round NCAA Tournament game on March 21, our mention volume increased 314 percent—and 93 percent of that was athletics-related.

By Thursday evening after the first-round NCAA tournament victory vs. BYU, we accumulated more than 50,000 mentions in one day—an increase of more than 1,200 percent from the prior day. (We typically see about 14,000 mentions per month.) “Duquesne'' was a no. 1 search term on X.

This brand awareness isn’t just limited to social. Web searches simultaneously skyrocketed. The search term “Duquesne” peaked on Google Trends. While our homepage usually receives between 10,000 and 15,000 visits in March, during Thursday’s game it had more than 60,000—a 400 percent increase.

Located in a city with no NBA team (Pittsburgh) and being the only Pennsylvania university in the men’s NCAA tournament, we also contrasted reporting of this national coverage with the regional coverage, particularly in the surrounding news media market for greater context.

Roughly 25 percent of the colleges and universities in the U.S. are in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York—areas experiencing or that have already experienced demographic decline. Ours is one of the most competitive enrollment markets in the country—so regional context matters enormously to my colleagues in enrollment management, finance and operations, fundraising, and more. And with so many foundations, businesses and elected officials invested in our success—and watching the games—making the most of the moment means a return on their investments in our students’ success.

It was critical to have this data quickly to share with colleagues and to inform on-the-run strategy. It’s not just having access to reliable data; it’s understanding and articulating what it means, especially as it relates to enrollment and advancement strategy. Our established listening approach allowed us to thoughtfully develop reports to answer our cabinet and board’s most pressing questions. They wanted to know more than whether we had reach; we knew that would happen. With several storylines (a coach retirement, a dormant city rivalry, a late-season run, and the environment on campus during a key enrollment time), they wanted to ensure sentiment aligned with and supported our goals of showing university spirit and building a strong program. In other words, with so many eyes on us, were people seeing what we most wanted them to see?

Fast-forward to last week and the good fortune that descended with the massive athletic attention. From a professor going viral for canceling class to LeBron James cheering on his former coach to Good Morning America’s bracket picks, March was an exciting month on and off the court for the Dukes. And it’s not just basketball fans joining the conversation. An incoming student who happened to visit campus this weekend shared their excitement to be a future Duke.

Our team used this time to weave our brand message in between the basketball news, showcasing the intersection of athletics and academics in a comprehensive illustration of campus life. We collaborated with teams across campus to support brand alignment, partnering with our student activities office, dining services and academic units to capture the hype on campus via their accounts. We boosted an athletics-produced pronunciation guide to introduce new fans to our brand name. Students rallied behind the team, creating core memories. Alumni shared their pride and affinity while reflecting with nostalgia.

While the second round didn’t turn out like we’d hoped, the experience shared among our students, alumni, and faculty and staff alike was irreplaceable. We’re eager to get to know future generations of Dukes who met us for the first time this weekend.

Prepared with an audience-first approach to data collection and reporting, we have the framework in place to continue measuring how our online conversation contributes to brand health and how we’re making progress on our marketing and enrollment goals.

Gabriel Welsch is the vice president for marketing and communications at Duquesne University. Katlin Swisher is a senior strategist at Campus Sonar.