A Social Media Strategy for Non-Marquee Sports & Athletes

I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Dan Clarke (@speedydanclarke), an Indy Lights racer from England who lives in Indianapolis, and learning about his struggles this off-season. He’s looking for corporate sponsors so he can race in the upcoming season.

Dan Clarke at Carb Day 2010

Dan Clarke at Carb Day 2010

If you don’t know what Indy Lights racing is, then you’re starting to see Dan’s problem. Indy Lights is the developmental racing league for IndyCar — Indianapolis 500 — racing. In a sport with fewer US fans than the NHL, he’s in the minor leagues.

Think of your favorite baseball team. Can you name its AAA minor league affiliate? Can you name their players? Do you know who their best hitter was last year, or their best pitcher?

Now you understand Dan’s problem. He’s looking for sponsors for a sport outside the big three — NFL, NBA, MLB — trying to convince them that the developmental league is a great place for them to be seen.

This is where social media can help. A personal branding campaign, even for athletes, can help build their brand, find new fans, and hopefully, bring in the big sponsors. It doesn’t matter if you’re an IndyLights driver, a minor league baseball player, or even the veteran right guard for the New Orleans Saints. If people don’t know who you are, they’re not going to care, and you’re going to have a tough time getting them to notice you. But by doing some basic personal branding, you can use that network to bring in new opportunities that contribute to your total success.

Start with Twitter

Twitter is one of the easiest places to start. This is where you can immediately see your fan base (# of followers), interact with them, and even measure the impact you’re having. Turn followers into fans, turn fans into evangelists. And as more people follow you, demonstrate to potential sponsors that you carry a lot of weight with your network.

Most athletes ignore their fan base on Twitter, choosing instead to communicate with each other publicly about private issues. For example, most IndyCar drivers have only a few thousand followers and only follow a few dozen people. Helio Castroneves, one of the most famous drivers in the world today, only has 31,000 followers, Ryan Briscoe has 8,600+, and Penske Racing (“one of the most successful teams in sports history with 330 race wins”) has 9,900 followers. To put that in perspective, I have 7,200 followers, I write blogs for a living, and the last thing I won was “Best Comedy Script” in a theater script competition in 2005.

If you don’t follow people, they won’t follow you. When you’re in a small-market sport, you can’t afford to be picky about who you follow. If you’re worried about privacy, don’t tweet your personal life. If you’re worried about managing a large Twitter network, get TweetDeck and use Twitter lists. But don’t make yourself seem unapproachable. Twitter is the one place you can interact with fans and still keep them at arm’s length.

Tip: Use Klout or Twitalyzer to measure the influence you have. Show sponsors that a positive word from you can influence buying behavior among your fans.

Create a blog

The blog is really the hub of your personal branding campaign. The point of being on those networks is to drive traffic to your blog; the point of your blog is to get people to join you on the other networks.

Visual diagram of a social media campaign, with blogging at the center

Your personal branding campaign is a wheel, with the blog at the center.

A blog is a place where you can share a behind-the-scenes look at what you’re doing. Share your exploits on and off the field/court/track, post photos, post videos, and tell stories. Fans love feeling like they’re connecting with their favorite athlete and learning stuff the casual observer or fair-weather fan doesn’t know. This is why celebrity news is so popular. People get to learn something about their favorite stars. But since small-market athletes don’t get the rave coverage that the Peyton Mannings and LeBron James of the world, you have to make your own news.

Blogs are becoming more important and popular among the PR crowd, especially crisis communicators, because they avoid the whole filter of mainstream media. For athletes, this avoids the filter of the sports media, which only gives a scant amount of attention to your sport anyway, and even then, only to the victories of the marquee stars and screwups of everyone else.

Tip: Use Google Analytics or Yahoo Analytics to measure web traffic. Demonstrate to sponsors that you 1) can get traffic to your blog, and 2) can send that traffic to sponsors’ websites.

Social Media PR

Adopt a strategy of sharing with other bloggers in your sport. Even though I’m not a big open wheel racing blogger (I’ll get to blog from the media center of the Indy 500 for the 3rd year running, but won’t be going to any other races), I can name at least five other race bloggers who all have a decent readership. And they’ll gladly share some digital ink with anyone from the sport who will talk to them.

So, talk to them. Tell them stories, give them exclusive news, and grant interviews. In short, treat them like real journalists, and they’ll pay you back with space, exposure, and kindness. Let a few bloggers break the news about your new team, your plans for the year, or even your struggles. They’ll become your fans, and tell their fans all about you, which will make them your fans too.

I’ve been listening to Wall Street Journal sports writer Stefan Fatsis‘ book, A Few Seconds of Panic (affiliate link), about his weeks spent in training camp with the Denver Broncos as a kicker. While I have never been a Denver Bronco’s fan, Fatsis’ look at the danger and drudgery of training camp and football has me looking at the Broncos in a whole new way, and I may have to cheer for them a few times this year (something I would never have done until this week). Can you find bloggers to do that for you? What about bloggers outside the sport? When less than 1% of the country knows who you are or what you do, non-industry bloggers are a rich, untapped vein. (Just don’t blanket every blogger out there. You’ll be labeled a PR spammer.)

Tip: Let other bloggers tell your story. If they make it compelling enough, they’ll win your fans for you. If you connect solidly with 10 bloggers and they each have 1,000 readers, you’ll reach 10,000 people. Now, compare that to the effort you would need to put out to reach 10,000 people yourself.

Build a Facebook Brand Page

You may already have a Facebook page, but that should be kept private. Try not to connect with your fans on your personal Facebook profile, since that’s where you’re also connecting with family and friends. Instead, create a Brand Page, and connect with people there.

However, it’s crucial that you actually use this page regularly; don’t ignore it. Promote your blog posts there. Post status updates when you publish your tweets (but don’t feed your Twitter stream into Facebook; it’s annoying. Just rewrite them to be more Facebook friendly.)

Tip: Republish your videos and photos to your Facebook page too. Ask your fans to share them with your friends. It’s a well-known adage in social media circles that we consumers trust recommendations by our friends. Let your fans evangelize to their friends about you.

There are a whole lot of other strategies I could recommend — posting videos to YouTube and photos to Picasa/Flickr — but that’s for another post. Use these strategies as a place to start and start building your personal branding campaign as a way to get sponsors, build name recognition among fans, and add new fans.

Do you have any strategy suggestions? Anything you’ve done as an athlete, or anything you wish an athlete would do? Share your wisdom in the comments section and let’s learn from each other.

My book, Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), is available on Amazon.com, as well as at Barnes & Noble and Borders bookstores. I wrote it with my good friend, Kyle Lacy.

Photo credit: Just_Bryan (Flickr)

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    About Erik Deckers

    Erik Deckers is the President of Pro Blog Service, a content marketing and social media marketing agency He co-authored four social media books, including No Bullshit Social Media with Jason Falls (2011, Que Biz-Tech), and Branding Yourself with Kyle Lacy (3rd ed., 2017, Que Biz-Tech), and The Owned Media Doctrine (2013, Archway Publishing). Erik has written a weekly newspaper humor column for 10 papers around Indiana since 1995. He was also the Spring 2016 writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, FL.


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