“Why I Play” at Portland State University

Portland State University

When Erin Merz was asked to implement a yearlong campaign for Campus Recreation at Portland State University, her wheels started turning. “I wanted to create a campaign that created a human connection, it demonstrated inclusiveness, it really invoked emotion and promoted engagement,” said Merz, the marketing and outreach coordinator of Campus Recreation.

In the spring of 2015, she sat down with her team of student staff to brainstorm ideas for a campaign. With a background in public relations, Merz said she really wanted to take advantage of storytelling and the power of members’ faces. So, the “Why I Play” campaign was born, an idea inspired by a video produced by Portland State for the national campaign, “You Can Play.”

With preparation over the summer, “Why I Play” was launched in September 2015. Merz has a team of about eight to 10 students who implement the vision she sets. The campaign told the stories of individuals, clubs and intramural sports teams with short videos.

For example, the campaign highlighted Erin Bransford, a staff member of campus recreation, in her pursuit of fitness while pregnant. Merz explained Portland State is a “non-traditional” urban campus — one quarter of its students have children, and the average age of students is 26. “A lot of students here are older, they have families. They have a full-time job and they’re going to school in addition to that, so it made sense for us to use Erin’s expertise and then this experience that she’s now going through with her first child and to tell that story,” said Merz. “We knew there was an audience for it.”


But the campaign goes beyond just using video to tell stories. For starters, Merz has installed a large chalkboard at the entrance of the rec center that asks, “Why do you play?” Students can write on it and Merz has gathered the responses and used them to create materials for the campaign.

The Pop-Up Play is another component. Although the idea wasn’t proposed until halfway through the campaign, Merz put it into play. While out tabling for Campus Recreation, Merz said they now have games and hold contests. From hopscotch and Pictionary to jump roping and pushup contests, it’s a way to get students to play.

Merz did try implementing a hashtag but found a lackluster response. She said it was because the rec center doesn’t allow students to take photos inside of it. “They don’t really have that content, the typical kind of selfies in the gym,” she said. “We’ve learned that these in-person experiences, like the chalk wall or the Pop-Up Play, those are even more successful in some regards.”

The biggest piece of advice Merz gave was that in the end, Campus Recreation doesn’t rely solely on this campaign. She said it’s good to be flexible — like she was with the hashtag and the Pop-Up Play — and make changes where necessary. Overall, she has seen success in the campaign with an uptick in social media numbers and website visits. “I would say the campaign has something to do with that in some way,” she said.

Heather Hartmann
Heather Hartmann is the editor for Campus Rec Magazine. She can be reached at heather@peakemedia.com.

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