TAMPA — In the video plea, Rocky the Bull is trying to tweet on the smooth surface of a smartphone, but his fingers are just too fat. And furry.
That's why, the video explains, the school mascot needs people with actual skin to cast Twitter votes for the University of South Florida. The university, ever wading into the social media ocean, is nominated this year for a Shorty Award. It's ranked fifth out of 174 nominated schools.
The Shorty Awards are funny and irreverent, but oh-so-relevant in 2013. They honor people and companies doing cool things in short forms on websites like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube and Foursquare. The awards are five years old and growing. Past winners include Conan O'Brien, Ricky Gervais, Neil Patrick Harris, NASA, mayors Michael Bloomberg (New York) and Cory Booker (Newark, N.J.), Suze Orman and Grover. Yep, the blue Grover.
The official college category is new, but makes sense considering social media giants like Facebook were born of student minds on college campuses. If USF wins, the school gets a trophy with a Twitter whale tale, plus credibility and bragging rights forever.
"If you listen to people who win Oscars, it's not that it matters that they got recognized for a movie they did last year," said Greg Galant, CEO of Sawhorse Media, the company that created the Shorties. "But because they have the Oscar, they can make whatever movie they want to make after that."
To be eligible in the college category, a school has to have a campus bookstore run by Barnes and Noble, a Shorty Awards partner. That opened the field to about 700 schools.
USF had 49 official votes as of Friday, which may not seem like many in the ticker-tape world of Twitter.
But the Shorties seek quality votes over blind ones. The current top school, Boston University, had 119. Fourth-place University of Mississippi had 76. Some sexier Shorty categories like "actress" garner more votes. Selena Gomez had 1,582, Miley Cyrus, 728.
"We add a whole bunch of parameters to voting," Galant said. "You have to tweet it and share it. You can't vote for someone unless you're willing to tell all your friends that you're willing to put your name on the line for them. You have to write a reason why you're nominating the person. If we wanted to, we could have gotten a ton more votes by just adding a button."
To vote, anyone can go on Twitter and write: "I nominate @USFNews for a Shorty Award in #bncollege because. …" Reasons tweeted so far:
… because they keep me connected from 6 states away!
… because they're awesome and giving info in a fun way
… because… i bleed green and gold!
Success may lie in the campaign. Folks at USF heard about the Shorties last year, but by then voting had already started. The school's social media intern casually sought votes and got a handful, but USF didn't make it to the top.
This year, with help from the Rocky video, USF has never been out of the top six. A panel of Shorty judges will pick a winner from the top six, deciding who uses social media best on all platforms, not just Twitter, capturing the school's attitude and spirit.
Social media at USF is an evolving thing. It started with a Facebook page in 2010 and grew to seven official platforms — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Foursquare and Tumblr. The @USFNews Twitter feed has more than 10,000 followers. The Facebook page has about 95,000 likes.
The school hired graduate student Jenna Withrow as social media coordinator, updating the platforms every day and reaching out to the hundreds of unofficial USF Twitter handles to engage in chatter.
The online crowd at USF is everyone from faculty to current students to college-shopping high schoolers.
They like hearing about sports, campus scenes and research, and they really love new and vintage pictures of campus.
"It's an experiment," said Withrow, 22. "You never know what people are going to respond to or enjoy. It's really about understanding your audience."
Voting will stay open through Feb. 10 at shortyawards.com and via Twitter.
The winners will be announced at a ceremony in New York on April 8. Two years ago, USF alum and Daily Show regular Aasif Mandvi hosted the Shorties, which are streamed online.
If USF wins, the pressure to be witty and brief does not end there. Just like a tweet, Shorty acceptance speeches are limited to 140 characters.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3394.