Cristiano Ronaldo has more Twitter followers than Canada does citizens. LeBron’s following — with eight million fewer than his goal-scoring counterpart — is on par with Australia and Thailand.

With audiences like these, it’s no wonder marketers find tremendous value in sealing digital endorsement deals with the biggest names in professional sports. What was once considered a risky fad has become an increasingly understood and leveraged practice for brands of all sizes.

When managed effectively, athlete social media endorsements are a competitive alternative to more traditional digital media ad buying. But at its pinnacle, this new wave of athlete influencer marketing can carry far more weight than a simple promoted post or banner ad. An athlete’s message naturally reaches a large, receptive audience — their fan base. In an article with Advertising Age, Jason Stein, founder of Laundry Service, told the publication:

“Advertisers pay for people, they pay for audiences, they pay for eyeballs, they pay for attention, they pay for trust, they pay for influence.”

As Stein explains, marketers and advertisers tend to not be satisfied simply by the large impressions numbers provided by athlete endorsements. They also desire the awareness, affinity, and influenced action that comes when an authentic brand-athlete partnership reaches its intended audience with an effective message.      

How Head & Shoulders Got It Right. Again.

For six years, Head & Shoulders exemplified how success could come from partnering with the “right” athlete.

Troy Polamalu and his iconic locks acted as the face (or hair) of Head & Shoulders advertising for the past half-decade. Upon his retirement following the 2014-15 NFL season, it was apparent that the official shampoo of the NFL was in need of a new brand ambassador. To fill Polamalu’s void, Head & Shoulders partnered with Team Epic, a sponsorship and lifestyle marketing partner, to create a multi-media campaign, generating awareness and interest in the brand’s soon-to-be unveiled Heir to the Hair.

The campaign included the activation of social media endorsements from multiple NFL players, including Polamalu. Athletes of all hair styles asked their respective audiences for their opinion; some even lobbying for themselves, ultimately reaching and engaging thousands of consumers, and drawing massive amounts of interest to the unveiling.

Finally, the Heir to the Hair was announced. Polamalu’s predecessor would be second-year sensation Odell Beckham Jr., who had risen to fame during the 2014-15 season with an array of impressive performances, an unmistakable head of hair, and perhaps the play of the year.

After a six-year stretch of successful advertising with one of the NFL’s premier defenders in Polamalu, Head & Shoulders appears to have not missed a beat in its transition to Beckham Jr. The New York receiver currently leads all NFL players in jersey sales and has been ranked at the top of the NFLPA’s Rising 50 list of future top-selling stars.

In OBJ, Head & Shoulders not only affiliated with a wildly popular player located in America’s largest media market, but also a player with seemingly endless upside who has yet to inundate his audience with a flood of commercial endorsements.

By pairing Beckham Jr.’s unveiling with the pre-release hype from players in various markets, Head & Shoulders and Team Epic effectively maximized the launch of the Heir to the Hair campaign.    

Finding the Right Athlete Endorsers

All marketers have to do is find a popular, engaging athlete who is willing to endorse their brand, right? That’s a good start, but to maximize endorsement success, marketers need to dig deeper.

Athletes are not one-dimensional personalities. They have varying backgrounds, interests, demeanors, and habits. Each of these out-of-sport qualities affect their appeal with different audiences and brands. Just as OBJ’s unique hairstyle made him more attractive to Head & Shoulders, other attributes can make athletes attractive prospects for some brands, while perhaps eliminating consideration from others.

Thankfully, there is no shortage of athletes with impressive influence. Marketers can begin the process of selecting the ideal athlete influencer with the following campaign checkpoints.

Authenticity

Sure, you might see dollars signs when considering the prospect of putting your brand’s message in front of LeBron’s 23 million Twitter followers. But no matter how appealing massive impressions numbers are, it is crucial to consider the athlete’s natural fit with your brand.

Read up on prospective athletes. Do they represent the ideals of your brand and target audience? Check out their past tweets. Examine the language they use, what they discuss, and how they communicate with their audience. If the fit doesn’t look authentic to you, the athlete’s audience won’t be fooled either. Social media endorsements are commonplace in 2015, and users won’t reject an authentic partnership, but posts that appear contrived will be widely disregarded by the intended audience.

Consider Under Armour, who has long played the underdog to sports apparel giants Nike and adidas. The Baltimore-based company earned endorsement partnerships with Stephen Curry, Jordan Spieth, Misty Copeland, and Tom Brady. Each of these now-superstars dealt with underdog predictions on their way to the top: too small; wrong body type; will never compete with Rory; sixth-round draft pick. This year, Under Amour turned their cumulative longshot stories into one of the most powerful campaigns of 2015.

 

Bonus: the more authentic the relationship, the more likely the athlete is to agree to participate in your campaign. Check out our tips for securing athletes to endorse your brand.

AUDIENCE

The focus of any campaign should be on those who consume it: the audience. Ultimately, the audience makes the decision of whether or not a campaign was successful. As the saying goes, if you try to reach everyone, you impact no one. Identifying the appropriate target audience and finding the athletes and message that will reach them is the first step toward a successful campaign.

Region
A large percentage of a professional athletes’ audience typically resides near:
+ The player’s home city
+ Where the player attended college
+ Past cities they have played
+ Their current team’s city  

Melvin Gordon is influential in Wisconsin and California

60% of Melvin Gordon’s followers live in Wisconsin and California. Gordon is a Wisconsin native, former Wisconsin Badger, and current San Diego Charger.

Professional athletes are naturally followed and trusted most by those who are most exposed to their performance. While mega-stars like LeBron and Cristiano have fans around the globe, this rule even pertains to them, as large factions of their fanbases reside in the cities of their current and past professional teams.

Gender
The days of brands ignoring the achievements and popularity of female athletes are finally coming to a close. Katie Richards of Adweek explained in a recent article that marketing dollars are moving toward female sports stars. While male athletes are earning more endorsement income than ever before, female athletes are, for good reason, making progress. Richards’ article explained:

“Peter Laatz, evp of sports marketing firm Repucom, attributes advertisers’ growing interest in female athletes to the potent purchasing power of women—who control 70-80 percent of consumer purchases—coupled with the growth of the women’s activewear market, with $18 billion in annual sales, per NPD Group.”

Leveraging the influence of female athletes can be especially effective when targeting a specifically female audience. opendorse data helps to confirm that female athletes are more likely to reach a predominantly female audience. The majority of audiences influenced by athletes on the opendorse platform see a significant lean toward the athlete’s gender.LeSean Mccoy Abby Wambach Twitter influencer audience demographics

Age
This one’s simple. You probably wouldn’t hire a retired Hall-of-Famer to reach a millennial audience, right? Instead, find an athlete whose messages resonate with your targeted age group. Athletes have broad audiences. Remember: just because they’re primarily reaching one generation of users doesn’t mean their messages won’t also be seen by other age demographics.

Interests
Here’s where the practice comes back to remembering that professional athletes are more than just athletes. They each have unique areas of interest and opinion, and often discuss them on social media. NFL fans knew of Marshawn Lynch’s affinity for Skittles long before he began appearing in the candy company’s ads. Now, Lynch acts as a face of the Skittles brand.

Social media offers marketers an inside look into the lives of these athletes, allowing them to easily identify which athletes match and influence their intended audience’s interests.

Campaign Plan

Whether you are employing a single social media endorsement or a full-fledged, multi-media campaign, chances are, you’ve done your planning. Several checkpoints that you will want to consider when determining which athlete or athletes you target to work with might include:

Timeline
Brands often attempt to join the conversation during large events in which their audiences have interest. Finding athletes that are relevant to the event, available, and allowed to post during the determined time can help brands make big impacts.

During the 2015 NFL Draft, Fanatics, an apparel provider for professional sports leagues, activated athlete endorsements on Twitter from three draft picks just minutes after their selection.

CLICK HERE to see how Fanatics reached more than 350 thousand fans during the 2015 NFL Draft

Investment
Professional athletes and their social media personas can be valued from $100, to well over $100 thousand. The beauty of social media endorsements is that they allow brands large and small to affiliate with professional athletes. Before starting a campaign, it is important to match performance expectations, with an athlete or athletes who fit inside your budget. Sure, everybody wants to work with the superstars, but a lesser known athlete who better fits your brand and campaign goals can prove to be just as effective and far less expensive.

Screen Shot 2015-09-23 at 5.00.21 PM

Involvement
Another positive of social media endorsement deals is the potential for fast execution. However, if your campaign requires the athlete to receive brand material, take a picture, or shoot a video, it is necessary to include some lead time. Athletes are busy. So are their agents. Between training camp, in-season and off-season travel, and daily practice, taking a picture in your brand’s t-shirt probably won’t be their top priority. But with proper communication and time allocated, athlete involvement can be executed.

To Recap: What To Consider When Choosing Athlete Influencers

Is the brand-athlete relationship authentic? Will the intended audience buy it?
Does the athlete have ties to your intended audience? Consider:
+ Region
+ Gender
+ Age
+ Interests
Does the athlete fit the details of your campaign? Consider:
+ Campaign timeline
+ Budget = Goals
+ Athlete Involvement

Ready to take the next step to digital athlete endorsements? Let’s get started.