When senior advertising and public relations major Makayla Hipke began to explore the idea of a research project that explored the relationship between social media, fans and collegiate athletic departments, she knew she was at the right university.

At Nebraska and the Big Ten, massive resources and enormous fan bases power some of the most influential athletic departments in the nation.

A native of Stuart, Neb., Hipke had been fascinated by the culture of sports in America for many years but did not consider a career in athletics until her sophomore year at Nebraska. After some assistance from Career Services at UNL and several meetings with many advisers, she entered the College of Journalism and Mass Communications to pursue a career in sports communications.  Hipke said she was impressed with the availability of professors, with the college’s hands-on instruction and with her teachers’ passion for their subject matter.

In spring 2011, Hipke investigated the Undergraduate Creative Activities and Research Experiences program as a way to get hands-on research experience while kick-starting her honors thesis. When Hipke realized she needed some direction with the project, she approached Dr. Frauke Hachtmann, the College of Journalism and Mass Communications graduate chair and a former marketing employee in the University of Nebraska Athletic Department.

“At the time, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to research other than collegiate athletics and social media,” Hipke said. “Dr. Hachtmann pitched several ideas to me and even offered to be my UCARE sponsor. The project really took off from there.”

As the pair began to look into current research in the field, they realized there was very little information available on the relationship between social media and sports in general, let alone at the collegiate level. The more Hipke read, the more she began to consider a project that would answer some of the biggest questions that exist about social media strategy.

“Social media is a huge part of public relations strategy these days, but there are still a lot of unknowns,” Hipke said.  “How does the use of social media impact the loyalty a fan feels for an athletic program? How does that loyalty translate to tangible results? How do athletic departments utilize social media, and how has their strategy changed over the years? These are a few of the questions we’re hoping to answer through our research.” 

Hipke and Hachtmann’s project is titled “Game-Changer: The Role of Social Media in Big Ten Athletic Departments,” a qualitative case study that will gather information about social media use in athletics. The research team will conduct interviews with athletic department personnel in marketing and communications at Big Ten member institutions before analyzing answers for recurrent themes and messages. The pair hopes to uncover information about social media and brand loyalty that will help current advertising and public relations professionals understand more about what makes effective communication strategy.

Both Hachtmann and Hipke bring unique backgrounds and interests in sports to the project because both have experience working in the sports industry. Hachtmann, a former tennis player at the University of Nebraska, worked in athletic marketing at NU for several years before joining the advertising faculty at CoJMC in 2002. Hipke is in her third year as a student assistant in media relations at the Nebraska Athletic Department where she serves as the lead sport contact for the men’s gymnastics and women’s tennis teams.  By combining their respective experiences with the College of Journalism’s support for research, Hipke and Hachtmann hope to contribute new ideas to the world of sports communication.

“The great part about my project is how much freedom I’ve had with it,” Hipke said. “Dr. Hachtmann has really allowed me to take the project in the direction that interests me most. I always have the guidance I need, and Dr. Hachtmann’s expertise helps me consider new viewpoints and ideas.

“Nothing is more beneficial than the real-world experience that a research project offers, and this experience has been one of the highlights of my undergraduate career,” Hipke said.

Makayla Hipke

Makayla Hipke