Social Media Influence and the Professional Athlete

This is a long post but hugely beneficial to professional athletes, so please settle in and take your time. Trust me it’ll be worth it.

Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.

As Bob Dylan once wrote, the times are a-changing.

Well in fact they’ve already changed and now everyone is playing catch up. A dramatic shift has been going on over the past few years and as that shift cements itself in popular culture people are trying to make sense of how to operate in this new world.

The concept of social media influence has become a dirty term over the past 12 months. As with anything in popular culture, it’s the bad and negative stories that have floated to the surface and everyday folk selling everything and anything that they can, buying followers and generally milking it has been the highlight attributed to something that’s been going on in mass media for decades.

Where are we now?

With the rise of social media everyone now has a platform. Everyone has voice. Everyone has the ability to reply. But in sport, social influence and branding has been going on ever since marketers realised that the colour box in the corner of people’s living rooms could sell shit. I remember growing up in the Michael Jordan era when every middle class white kid in my school had a pair of Nike Air Jordans, even if they didn’t like Basketball. Professional athletes have been aligning with brands for decades in order to future their careers and sell product. It’s not a new phenomenon.

Now the pursuit athlete and fan among us will cry foul and say that professionals should do it for the love of the sport but frankly that’s always been a naïve mindset. The modern professional athlete is a brand in themselves. That involves brand partnerships, ambassadorship roles and product placement. This isn’t anything new.

In fact all that the internet has done is opened up the doors for all professionals athletes to do the same not just the stars and leveled the playing field for everyone to engage with brands and build an audience.

What brands want from you

The short answer is money through sales.

The long answer is a bit more complex.

Ultimately as a professional athlete when you win, the value your sponsor gets comes from their branding being prominently shown online, in national press, on TV and in print. The sad fact of the matter is when you boil it down, they don’t ultimately care that you’ve won, they care about the fact their branding got attention. Now they may love you and you may have a brilliant relationship with your sponsors but the long and short of it is they’re invested in you because of the return they’ll get on that investment by you performing well.

It’s more than results

Brands like Sky created huge brand awareness by partnering with one of the most dominant cycling setups in modern history. But as soon a the awareness and press around the team became negative they pulled out because it’s bad for their brand. It didn’t matter how many Gold medals or Tour De France wins they’d notched up.

It’s more than results. It’s about the person and the team. As soon as it turns sour and the brand’s don’t feel like their getting a financial reward for supporting you, they’ll pull out. It’s a simple as that.

It’s wonderfully romantic, especially in this modern era of sport, to think that just because you’re a professional athlete that brands will flock to you with a big cheque. I know plenty of full time professional athletes who get no monetary support from brands.

So what can you do about it?

It all sounds miserable and one-sided but if you’re still reading here comes the good bit.

As a professional athlete you’re already an influencer without really knowing it. Your performances are having a positive influence on others from fans to other sports people simply by you being you. People you don’t even know are making buying decisions based on what you use and wear for no other reason that you’re their favourite sports person (think Michael Jordan).

This is leverage. When talking to a brand about support and sponsorship you need to be thinking about the influence you’ll have on your follower base and the positive impact that you will have for the brand in question. The more you bring a positive influence to your followers, the more they look to buy from the brands you support, the more money they make, the more they support you. And the cycle goes round and round. As soon as that cycle breaks down, then the brand’s will step away.

The reason athletes who constantly win get the big sponsors is because they get a higher amount of attention globally. But that doesn’t mean if you’re not winning consistently that you can attract big sponsors to support you. An athlete with 120,000 followers who are actively engaged online is often more powerful for a brand than an athlete who regularly wins.

Let’s take an example from the retail world.

Have you ever heard of the shopping app Wish? If you haven’t go look on the app store in the top 100 apps. Wish is an online shopping app which sells discounted value products. It’s has an estimated $2 billion in revenue total since it’s launch. That’s a billion with a B. And get this…all they do is mainly advertise on Facebook.

Targeted ads on Facebook to the right demographic created initial sales and then those happy customers told their friends and the brand spread. Rinse and repeat.

I’m not saying you have to run ads for yourself, although it wouldn’t be a bad thing. As an athlete you already have your targeted audience, they’re your fans who come to watch you compete. They’re already following you online, they already read your website, they already like your Facebook posts and watch your Instagram stories. They’re engaged. This is unicorn dust to a brand!

Beware of the deal too good to be true.

It’s exciting when a brand comes on board promising you the world. But not all brands are created equal. Imagine if tomorrow Under Armour called you and told you they wanted to ship a ton of kit to your door and become your new training sponsor? Great right?!?! But do you want to partner up with a brand who’s currently under scrutiny for supporting animal hunting? Is that going to be supported by your fans and followers or will it cause you to lose engagement? This is something to consider before you sign.

Take the example of a nutrition partner wanting to support you this year. Woohoo. But what if it’s not a great product and that you really don’t like. Social media followers are really savvy in 2019. They’ll know you’re using an inferior product that you don’t particularly like but that you’re constantly trying to push on them. That just comes off as pushy sleazy sales and it’s a no no.

Where to go in 2019

If you think that posting randomly on social media is enough or you’re happy with all the support and sponsorship you already get as an athlete then that’s great! But if you’re conscious that you should be doing more or that you’re on the hunt for sponsors and support in 2019 then below is a list of the things to consider.

  1. Realise you’re a personal brand as well as an athlete.
  2. Be authentic and open. Share your experiences, the highs and lows.
  3. You don’t have to share on every platform. If you vibe well on Instagram and have a ton of your followers are there, great. You don’t have to spin 7 different social media plates just to make some waves.
  4. Know your numbers. That doesn’t simply mean knowing how many followers you have. Take an afternoon to dig into your analytics on your social media accounts and see per month how many people you reach (how many people see your content) and how many impressions you get (the number of times your content is viewed). These are metrics that brands love to know. If you post 3 posts a month tagging in a sponsor but you only reach 500 users with it, its less impactful than 3 posts that reaches 2.5 million users. Know the difference.
  5. It’s not about the gear. You don’t need fancy cameras to create good content. Just be authentic and be yourself.
  6. Document. Document. Document. Capture your day to day life sprinkled with wise words, product placement and authenticity.
  7. Don’t hard sell. There’s no need. Show your fans what you do, how you do it and tell them about stuff that helps you. If you’ve done it right you’ll be supported by the right brands and they’ll get a return on their investment into you.
  8. Approach the brand’s you want to work with and share with them your story rather than simply asking them to give you a cheque and new kit. Tell them what you will do for them and what you can offer. It’s a partnership, not a chance for you to get new stuff.
  9. Realise you’re an ambassador for the brands who support you so pick them carefully and work with brands you personally love and want to be involved with.
  10. Dedicate the time to get it right. Yes training takes up a huge amount of your time. But 1 hr a day when you’re resting rather than binge watching Netflix could pay hugely for you when you compound that over time.
  11. You don’t have to start a YouTube show. Unless you’re good at it. People often think they need to do a certain type of social media in order to develop their brand and promote themselves. You don’t. If you’re hugely charasmatic and good looking like me yeah maybe a YouTube show or online video is the way to go. But not everyone is the same. You might be able to write, take pictures or happily do audio. If you want to take these steps then great but play to your strengths.
  12. Understand that it all comes down to money and attention. When you’re talking to brands and sponsors think about talking with this mentally. What will you be able to do that will make them more money or bring more attention to their brand?

If you’ve made it to the end of this have a protein cookie, you’ve earned it!!

If you’re interested in talking more then you can always message me on social media or email me here – I can literally talk for hours about this stuff and I know what works.

I would mean the world to me if you’re an athlete and you shared this with other athletes who you think would benefit from reading.



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