Social Media Secrets of Duke Men’s Basketball Any Marketer Can Learn From

With over 5.4 million followers across major social platforms, Duke Men’s Basketball has the largest following of any college sports team – even bigger than Duke University itself. Their social media presence is truly in a league of its own.

So how have they built such a commanding social media empire? I recently had the chance to go behind-the-scenes with Dave Bradley, the creative director masterminding Duke’s social strategy, to learn the secrets behind their staggering success.

Full disclosure, I’m a longtime Duke basketball fan and therefore biased on this topic. However, while Duke certainly has some inherent advantages being one of the premier brands in college basketball, I believe their approach contains numerous takeaways that any social media marketer can apply, no matter what industry you’re in.

Here’s the full video, but if you’d prefer to read a summary of what I took away from the conversation instead, that continues after the video.

Build Trust to Earn Creative Freedom

One of the foundational keys to Duke’s social media dominance is the level of trust and autonomy Dave has earned from leadership over his tenure. As he put it, “Since I’ve been doing this, I think I earned Coach K’s trust relatively early on in my career. To his credit, once I earned that, he trusted me to go and figure it out.” This has continued under Coach Scheyer.

This lack of excessive oversight or bureaucracy enabled Dave to be nimble and make decisions rapidly based on insights from the frontlines. It’s allowed Duke’s social team to move at the speed of culture and quickly adapt as channels and content trends evolve.

In many organizations, social media is still micromanaged by lots of stakeholders which prevents this type of responsiveness. But Dave’s example shows the massive payoff in empowering your social leads and putting trust behind your experts to “figure it out.”

Adopt a Competitive, Fan-First Mindset

You’d probably expect a competitive fire from the director of social media for one of the most intense college basketball programs. But Dave takes it to another level: “I’m wired to be competitive since I was young…and our program prides itself on being that way. There’s a level of pride and competitiveness that drives our social media creative.

This mentality – combined with being able to focus solely on serving Duke’s fan base rather than sales or promotional angles – has been critical. “We’ve been really 100% locked in on brand…There’s been no sales plays with this. Our games are sold out,” Dave explains. “We can be very intentional about growing our following and connecting with our fans.”

For brands where social media is often restricted to being a direct marketing channel, this level of fan-first, brand-building ethos is extremely powerful and effective. It frees you up to create the type of entertaining, storytelling content that resonates most on social.

Invest in Physical Resources & Staff

Having the budget and buy-in to make big investments has been key for fueling Duke’s social media juggernaut. This includes scalable staffing (4 full-time creatives plus student personnel and outsourced services), dedicated physical spaces built for creation, and high-end equipment.

As Dave describes it, “Coach K understood at a 20,000-foot level what we were doing was important and worthy of resources, salary positions, access to the team…that goes a long way.” Duke’s social media headquarters has incredible proximity to players and facilities. “Coach K Court is right out here. Players eat over here, locker room over here. So you’re intersecting with your key guys all the time.”

For many brands, social media is still under-resourced as an afterthought. But the results speak for themselves when you treat it as a strategic priority by giving your social media team the physical spaces, personnel, tools, and operating territory to operate effectively.

Leverage Data for Decision-Making

With such a prolific social media presence, effective use of data is critical for Duke to measure what’s working and inform their strategy. Dave shared that they use an array of tools and partners for in-depth measurement and insights, including:

  • Social media management platforms like Sprout Social and in-app analytics
  • Customized spreadsheets for tracking engagement over time
  • Inflcr for tracking and content distribution software
  • Nielsen for branded content measurement
  • Player marketing analytics from Opendorse
  • Plus a cloud asset management system for content (Air)

This appetite for and access to quality data is what allows Duke to deliver such a fine-tuned experience for their fans and players across all their channels. For brands looking to take their social media efforts to an expert level, investing in robust social listening, measurement, and content management capabilities is essential.

Never Stop Cultivating Access & Relationships

Perhaps Duke’s greatest advantage on social media is their unparalleled access to offer behind-the-scenes perspectives that no one else can. This all stems from Dave’s long-cultivated relationships throughout the program.

“Certainly I think on the front-end, being intentional in those relationships and conversations with coaches [and] players is key because you’ve got to get that trust,” Dave advised. “Understand there’s a level of buy-in strategically…but then let me go do my thing.”

The trust and closeness Duke’s social team has with players shines through authentically in their feed. You see it in moments like players being able to casually answer impromptu questions while heading to practice. For any brand marketing on social, discovering those opportunities for a fly-on-the-wall look into your product, people and processes is gold.

In my experience, behind the scenes looks is an underutilized content type on social media for most brands.

Build an Elite Creative Culture 

Duke’s commitment to creating exceptional social media content is palpable. From ample staffing of videographers, photographers and designers to giving their creative team an ideal home base, the resources they dedicate to production is remarkable.

Dave spoke about the importance of “drilling down and having as much control as possible over content and staff” to cultivate that creative culture. “There’s a level to this and skill sets that are really important,” he said of being selective with who contributes to their channels.

You get the sense that Duke’s standard for social media is just as exacting as their standards for on-court excellence. And the proof is in the industry leading content their channels produce daily.

For any brand hoping to develop a compelling social media presence, it requires a similar commitment to resourcing best-in-class creative talent and shaping an elite culture around delivering engaging, innovative social content.

While Duke has extraordinary advantages, their elite social media mastery is really a combination of fundamental ingredients any marketer can apply: autonomy and buy-in, a fan-focused mindset, dedicated resources, sophisticated use of measurement, unparalleled access, and a fanatical culture of creativity.

For most brands willing to make those types of investments in their social media team, the opportunities for growing and engaging their community are significant. Learn from Duke Men’s Basketball – treat your social media presence like the top priority it deserves to become.


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