Sooner fans are familiar with the tweets.
Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley regularly floods the feeds of his 180,000 followers with tweets ending with #OUDNA, eyeball emojis to tease news about commitments, personalized trading cards for 2018 signees, record covers for 2019 signees, logos for 2020 signees and hashtags branding each recruiting class — #SoonerSquad17, #ST2K18, #NewWave19, #20Deep and now #LincUp21.
On Dec. 18 — the first day of college football’s early signing period for the 2020 class — Riley continued to dominate the digital landscape, as he had the second most Twitter interactions of any head coach behind Florida’s Dan Mullen, according to data from opendorse.com, a website focused on digital marketing for athletes.
Riley and the Sooners’ social media department unleashed an elaborate campaign that included personalized videos for the 19 signees, a four-minute video featuring former Sooners such as Kyler Murray, Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and Adrian Peterson, among others and a four-phase takeover where the program set up murals reading “Dare to Be Different” in Oklahoma City, Dallas, Los Angeles and Atlanta.
“I know everybody was able to see the things we did via social media,” Riley said at a press conference on early signing day in December. “We did some things on signing day and have done and will continue to do things that nobody has ever done before. Ever.”
Ahead of Wednesday’s national signing day, the Sooners have the 13th ranked recruiting class, per Rivals.com. Most of the class signed in December, but the Sooners have the opportunity to put the finishing touches on their 2020 class.
Most notably, Oklahoma commit and four-star defensive end Reggie Grimes is expected to sign with the Sooners, and five-star uncommitted defensive end Alfred Collins has Oklahoma in his final three options.
And in the same way Riley has been among the nation’s most forward-thinking minds on the football field since taking over as head coach in 2017, he has taken Oklahoma to the forefront of the digital landscape, particularly in recruiting.
“You're used to seeing Coach Riley tweet and there’s just constant pictures of Heisman Trophies and pictures of Big 12 Championship trophies,” said Brandon Huffman, a national recruiting analyst for 247Sports.com. “I would say OU is probably among the top five or six social media programs in the country.”
But Riley’s Twitter presence goes beyond just signing day, as he has to be conscious of recruiting year round. In his three recruiting classes as a head coach, Riley’s classes rank in the top 10 nationally on average. He’s done that by cultivating a strong brand around the prestige of Oklahoma football.
“As with any good business, you have to decide what makes you unique, what your values are and that’s what OU really promotes well,” said Jason Matheson, CEO of SkullSparks, a website focused on digital content for college athletics. “They have decided that there are three or four things that define OU football and they hammer those.”
The four things Matheson — who was OU’s director of digital media from 2003 to 2013 — said what he sees in OU are edginess, a family culture, a tradition of success and a sense of exclusivity.
“They’re edgy for a traditional power, they really push the family part of it, they push the championships and they feel like an exclusive club,” Matheson said. “They really differentiate themselves by hitting those four key things, and they’ve been really successful doing that.”
Matheson said the family aspect is something most programs try to push, and the winning side of OU’s recruiting is self-explanatory: five straight Big 12 championships, four College Football Playoff appearances and two Heisman Trophy winners in the past three years.
But what he said separates Oklahoma is the exclusivity factor, and no motif captures that better than #OUDNA, which the Sooners use to promote current and former stars when they succeed on the field. With the implication that you need something unique in your genetic code to be worthy of being part of the program, #OUDNA has become synonymous with the success the program has had in recent years.
“They also kind of have a feel almost as an exclusive club, and that’s where the OUDNA part comes in,” Matheson said. “You have to have something special inside of you to be a Sooner.”
But using social media for recruiting isn’t what makes the Sooners unique — nearly every college football program understands its potential as a tool. However, it’s how they emphasize Riley and use his brand over the team’s that separates them.
While Riley had the second-most interactions of any coach on early signing day, the main @OU_Football Twitter account didn’t rank in the top 25.
That’s not because the branded account was posting regularly and not gaining traction, it’s because the main brand account retweeted Riley’s content. The branded account tweeted only three original tweets about signing day Dec. 18.
Only three official program accounts — Georgia, Tennessee and Nebraska — generated more Twitter interactions than Riley.
Even with a brand as strong and prestigious as Oklahoma football, the program’s decision to focus on Riley and his staff seemingly stems from their collective youth, which contributes to the edgy feel of the program.
At 36, Riley is among the nation’s youngest head coaches, and he has continued to hire a young staff — offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh and inside receivers coach Cale Gundy are the oldest at 47. Riley is continuing to hire a young staff, as his two hires this offseason — running backs coach DeMarco Murray and outside linebackers coach Jamar Cain — are 31 and 40, respectively.
Instead of hiring assistants with decades of experience under their belts, Riley has hired a younger, social media savvy staff that understands the power of the digital world, such as cornerbacks coach Roy Manning, 38, whose energetic Twitter videos generate regular traction on the site.
Riley’s staff doesn’t have the following he does, but their youth makes them more relatable in the digital space to the teenagers they are recruiting than older coaches of other traditional powerhouses.
“You’ve got a lot of young coaches that get it, they see it and they understand it,” Huffman said. “(Riley) is pretty young, and he (was) a lower-level staffer as Twitter and Instagram are taking off, so he sees how that communication tool is key and that makes him the perfect conglomeration.”
All of the work Riley and OU have done to become one of the top social media programs in the country is focused on one goal: landing the best recruiting classes in the country.
As social media becomes more of a must-have for high school athletes, the use of Instagram and Twitter is becoming more ubiquitous for coaches as well. A strong social media presence can help teams land top prospects.
“There's a lot of kids that are very impressionable right now,” Huffman said. “I've had kids legitimately tell me that they're keeping a school in their top five just because that fan base will give him a bigger social media following. So if they're keeping a school in their top five just because the fans are rabid on Twitter, that tells you that it's just — it's a lot more serious, and you're now seeing why schools are making the effort to hire full-time graphics designers for their football program.”
This year, the Sooners were once again ahead of the digital curve by focusing on what experts say could be the future of social media recruiting: player-specific branding. Oklahoma topped off its early signing day with individual logos for each of its signees.
Oklahoma continues to raise the bar when it comes to celebrating their student athletes as individuals, and helping them build their personal brands.Website with content and profiles of each signee, and they made every kid their own logo. Well done.https://t.co/8Tb2zetOMO pic.twitter.com/04cjJpJNat— Zach Soskin (@ZSoskin) December 18, 2019
“People ask me what I think the next frontier in this space is and I always say it’s individual player branding, and you saw OU really hammer that this year,” Matheson said. “If you look at (OU Director of Content) Zack Hefley’s Twitter feed, he had a thread about how they really wanted to show the kids if they came to OU they were about, ‘What can we do for you?’ It’s not so much about what can you do for OU. What can we do for your personal brand?”
With most of the 2020 class already locked up, Riley likely won’t be relentlessly tweeting on Wednesday like he did in December, but he’s made it clear he wants to stay ahead of his peers when it comes to social media.
“It’s groundbreaking and I think our players are excited about it, and I know our future recruits are excited about what we’re doing at Oklahoma,” Riley said in December. “And we’re going to continue to be on the cutting edge. That’s not going to slow down.”