The advent of the internet dramatically reshaped the entire world, bringing together people from all backgrounds and experiences to communicate with each other and share their stories. Years later, social media would enhance that connectivity and bring us even closer together, providing platforms for all users to share videos, photos and more. Today, new platforms are popping up every day, enhancing the online conversation and introducing new neighbors from every corner of the globe.
As new platforms continue to emerge, they are shaped by a young generation of content geniuses bursting at the seams with entrepreneurial spirit and creative potential. At C&IS, part of equipping the next generation of global leaders in the world of communication and information is encouraging growth in and mastery of new emerging platforms through experience and practice. For now, that new platform is Twitch.
Twitch launched in 2011 as a new streaming website showcasing live-streamed video games and live e-sports. By 2014, the platform was purchased by Amazon and had more than 20 million visitors per month. Twitch became “the next big thing” in the tech industry, and advertising and public relations professionals quickly recognized a new creative outlet for getting content into households and onto devices all over the globe. Companies began promoting branded gaming content and partnering with streamers to sponsor them. As Twitch continued to grow, advertising strategies from major brands developed to sync with the platform and the opportunities it presented. In 2019, consumer brands spent more than $650 million on sponsorships and branded content for online streaming platforms globally. The total for 2020 surpassed $800 million, and experts predict the global spending to top $1 billion annually by 2022.
With Twitch advertising budgets at nearly $22 million and the website ranked the 14th most popular in the United States last year, the new platform can experience upwards of 2 billion hours in viewed content in one month alone. The future success of Twitch is clear now, but The University of Alabama took a chance on prioritizing the platform in the early days. That chance is paying off.
Three years ago, when COVID-19 was not part of our everyday vocabulary and the idea of a global sports stoppage was unthinkable, faculty in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations were building a partnership to help educate students on “the next big thing.” In 2018, Twitch was making its way to college campuses, and UA was one of the first institutions in the United States to launch an official university Twitch channel — the first school in the Southeastern Conference (SEC). The channel was developed as a means to teach students about the platform and its relevancy to the advertising and public relations industries while also giving students a place to create their own original content.
Today, students are learning the platform and practicing the art of creating their own original content through a regularly offered course specifically focused on Twitch. Developed by advertising and public relations senior instructor, Randall Huffaker, the course teaches students a variety of skills related to content marketing, including search engine optimization, social media and influencer marketing, analytics, and event promotion.
“There are billions of marketing dollars being poured into this streaming platform every year, so the potential for future public relations and advertising professionals who know the platform and can strategize with Twitch in mind is limitless,” said Dr. Kenon Brown, associate professor of advertising and public relations. Brown and Huffaker worked together to bring Twitch to UA’s campus.
The class is structured so that students work in collaborative teams where each student carries different responsibilities. Students might work on the “community management team” where they oversee the channel itself, from content to analytics. Or, they might work on the “writing team” or “creative team” where they are writing scripts or creating graphics to promote streaming events, gaming nights or interviews with industry professionals. The goal is that students contribute their unique talents while stretching themselves to learn something new through a very hands-on experience. To Huffaker, the class is about the original content creation; after all, that’s why people are part of the Twitch community.
“Taking ownership of their learning leads to a more motivated student,” said Huffaker. “They become more engaged with the concepts, preparing them for that next stage and the start of their career.”
In the C&IS Twitch class, students create content for an audience that they also develop and nurture throughout the semester. Essentially, in 12 weeks, students create a product and develop a ground-up content marketing campaign to promote it.
“It is very much a ‘learn as you go’ experience,” said J.J. McGrady, a senior public relations major from Prattville, AL, who was enrolled in the Twitch class last fall. McGrady was a member of the community management team. “We were able to learn on our own and find what content worked and what didn’t in an organic way.”
Huffaker understands what creative freedom can do in the learning process.
“I just want them to create and find things they’re passionate about and go to work,” said Huffaker. “As they create and analyze the content, they can tell a story with the data to make meaningful changes.”
“Content” can include anything from playing live video games and creating educational videos about photography, to recapping the latest episode of “The Bachelorette,” discussing UA athletics or giving a cooking demonstration. The point is for students to choose topics of their own interest and to build their content as a way of channeling that passion.
“It’s an exciting moment when the teams begin streaming their content and viewers from all over tune in, but the students know the work doesn’t stop there. That’s when we begin diving into the analytics,” said Huffaker.
Students learn how to analyze viewership metrics and social media analytics. They are responsible for adjusting their programming as necessary to reach larger audiences through Twitch and their other channels. The comprehensive and fully integrated learning experience is something the advertising and public relations department knows will give students an advantage in the industry.
“This class really helped pinpoint what aspect of public relations I would be interested in when I begin my career,” said Alyssa Harrison, design team leader for UA Twitch in fall 2020. “In the public relations field, having firsthand experience with content creation and how to use shared media platforms is a huge strength.”
What started as a class dedicated to preparing students for a new arena of marketing has now grown into a channel with national attention. The UA channel, created and managed by C&IS students, has participated in some of the biggest nationwide e-sports tournaments and the faculty has worked to garner sponsorships from worldwide companies such as Red Bull, Dell Computer, Mainline and Learfield IMC among others. And they are just getting started.
“The dollars and the data on Twitch speak for themselves,” said Brown. “We will continue to grow the course, the channel and the learning opportunities as Twitch continues to evolve and grow in the future. Our goal is to have the most highly-qualified and prepared graduates in the country and this course plays a part in that.”