Professional athletes, who already have popularity and brands to pitch, are in a unique position to connect fans with products. They have it all at their fingertips.
The traditional brand-athlete-consumer relationship often relied on the athlete's perceived "star" power, whereby the brand would dump a bunch of money into paying the athlete to sponsor or endorse a product. Hopefully, fans would see it. But it relied on connecting to them through a TV ad, a radio promo or a billboard on I-95. The advertising, just as in other distribution businesses, became a middleman that had to be paid to reach consumers. And in doing so, the message was controlled, edited and became less than 100% honest in the consumer's mind.
Today, social media allow athletes to showcase direct relationships they have with a core fan base, building a more efficient bridge between brands and consumers who would be influenced by the athlete's endorsement. Social media cut out the middleman, and in doing so, their direct impact has great value. Consumers hear pitchmen in their own words: imagine hearing when LeBron drinks down some Vitaminwater or Reggie Bush gets a push from Red Bull. Not only do brands get "star power" relationships, but real credibility from letting the athlete speak in his own words.
Instead of listening to the athlete through the middleman's carefully controlled script, the consumer listens to the athlete directly. For athletes with a vibrant personality, and the business sense to maintain their social sites, the following can become a lucrative proposition.
Shaq, known for his off-court antics as much as his on-court presence, has grown his following by unleashing his personality onto Twitter, amassing over one million followers. How valuable is a real Shaq-tastic comment every so often about dropping into Burger King for a few Whoppers? Or teammate Steve Nash's cameo on Entourage? Or Eli Manning's comment that he's hitting Aspen this weekend? Right now, it's anyone's guess.
We work with a number of athletes, including NASCAR drivers, moto phenoms and snow pros, to find ways to integrate a major energy drink brand into the lifestyle of sports and athlete fans, rather than via product placements. Brands must learn to let go of the control reins and let athletes truly integrate products into their lifestyle. When that happens, products feel less placed and more believable. Social media are a reflection of life, so if it's in their life, it should find its way into their status updates, tweets and pages.
Athletes looking to expand their endorsements become more valuable with a ready fan base. Even if they aren't the most popular athletes in their sports, advertisers will see their direct relationships as a valuable tool in connecting their brand with consumers. It becomes an additional negotiating point, and it's on the athlete's side.
But for the busy athlete, it may seem like more work than it's worth. That's where social media strategy agencies come into play. Athletes need to translate their brands to social media first. For some, they may actually build a bigger fan base online than off. Baron Davis, NBA guard for the Los Angeles Clippers, has 33,000 Twitter followers. Proportionally, online he's one of the top 10 athletes but you wouldn't put him in the top 100 offline.
Tennis star Serena Williams has 200,000+ followers. When she dropped how excited she is about Paramount's new "Transformers" movie, she incited a flood of comments and re-tweets. Social media are all about buzz. For brands who need that, athletes have the followers to make it happen. And happen now.