Before winning the 2011 Heisman Trophy and taking the NFL by storm as the quarterback of the Washington Redskins, Robert Griffin III was a little-known junior at Baylor University. But thanks to a low budget marketing campaign fueled by social media, creativity and a whole lot of passion, that all changed in a major way. Heath Nielsen, The Associate Athletic Director for Communications for Baylor University, joins Brent Leary to share the personal story behind the campaign that was instrumental in helping Robert Griffin III win the 2011 Heisman Trophy – and become RGIII.
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Small Business Trends: Did you really think Robert Griffin III would become the Heisman? Not that he didn’t have the skills, but just the thought of a player from Baylor winning the Heisman?
Heath Nielsen: That was pretty farfetched. We knew early in his career that he was special, we knew he was a once in a generation. We figured heading into his junior year, which became his final year, that he was going to get a lot of publicity, and we could maximize on that publicity.
To be honest, our goal all along was just to become a finalist and get him to New York. Then use that as a spring board for his senior year to really make a big run at the trophy. But we never really imagined this was possible.
Small Business Trends: Talk about the branding, the actual brand of RGIII?
Heath Nielsen: I think it is huge. RGIII, that nickname’ origin, I think will probably be debated around here for years. His freshman year there was actually a thread started that said: ‘Robert Griffin III what are we going to call him? What is his nickname?’ It was actually the title of the thread.
From his freshman year, Griffin insisted that they put the Roman numeral III on his jersey. So it just kind of made sense on a lot of fronts, that RGIII is his nickname. Now, it is not something that we ever called him; nobody called him RGIII to his face. But it was something that we pushed a lot.
Small Business Trends: What input did RGIII have into this process? What role did he play?
Heath Nielsen: Very little. His focus was on winning ball games. Coach Briles’ focus was on the X’s and O’s, and getting his team ready. They kind of gave us carte blanche to run the publicity side.
Small Business Trends: Was there anything that took place when you heard RGIII said, ‘You know, I am not sure about that one?’
Heath Nielsen: Well, I don’t know if he was ever critiquing our strategies. I think he got tired of the interviews. Because one of our main pushes was to get him on with as many regional, national people as possible. So we really rode him hard with phone interviews.
We had a weekly segment we taped videos of him once a week that we called ‘30 with the 3rd.’ We would typically bring in a team mate and have them fire back and forth. What was supposed to be 30 seconds. They all ran longer than that.
Sometimes, I think he rolled his eyes a little bit about that. But the guy is a remarkably good sport. He is very mature and he was special off the field as well as on. He was a dream to work with and really saw the bigger picture.
Small Business Trends: How did you get the student population involved in the campaign?
Heath Nielsen: The fans were great. The students were great with signs. You know Roman numeral III’s were pretty much everywhere. Probably the neatest thing we did all Fall as we were promoting him that tapped into the students big, was we had a grass roots Facebook movement. A gentleman on my staff came up with a completely unique idea in which we asked all of our fans to change their Facebook names and add a Roman numerical III to their name.
The idea was pretty simple, just make a little change, and then we called the movement “Join the Third.” We ended up using a hashtag on Twitter as well. On Facebook, everyone – my wife, my son – we all became the Third. Then, as you changed that, you would go on your Facebook page and say,”I have joined the Third!’
And then you link back to our website page. It was really cool when the next morning, hundreds and then thousands of people started changing their names. The real neat thing about that was, it was a nice tangible thing. Like a stamp of approval saying,”I am with this person!”
Small Business Trends: Sounds like it was a team effort and seeing how he handles it, it sounds like it was also a team win.
Heath Nielsen: Oh, absolutely. If you get a chance, go onto YouTube and Google or search “Griffin Heisman Reaction,” or “Waco Heisman Reaction.” There are people who have kind of spliced them together, edited them together. It is basically just homemade camera phone reactions to students and Waco residents watching the Heisman show.
The announcement in 2011 just brought absolute euphoria and joy on this campus. We have had a lot of down years. We have had bad things happen around here. And for somebody related to Baylor to win one of the greatest individual awards in sports – it meant a whole lot.
The fact that our candidate was a likable, charming, good, moral person with a great background – a humble person – that was icing on the cake.
Small Business Trends: I think that’s a great testament to how social media can work for somebody who is not even necessarily seeking fame. Are there any places on the Web where people can learn more about the campaign?
Heath Nielsen: He has a site, BU-RG3.com .
Small Business Trends: How many people were working with you on this?
Heath Nielsen: The primary core group was about 4 of us in PR and 2 in video. I would say six.
Small Business Trends: Any kind of budget you guys laid out for this?
Heath Nielsen: We spent a little bit on our website, we spent some on graphic designs, and then we produced promotional football cards that cost a little bit to produce. Not much at all. A little bit to ship, a little bit to design.
We stayed less than five figures when it was all said and done. So we did it on the cheap and social media was a big part of that.
This interview about the social media campaign for Robert Griffin III is part of the One on One interview series  with some of the most thought-provoking entrepreneurs, authors and experts in business today. This interview has been edited for publication. To hear audio of the full interview, click on the player above.