Paid Athlete Posts Are Here To Stay, But What Should They Say?

In the “Roaring 20s,” it was Babe Ruth hawking everything from tobacco to underwear.

In 1984, Mary Lou Retton made history on the front of a Wheaties box.

In the early 1990s, Gatorade convinced everyone who bounced a basketball they wanted to “Be Like Mike.”

The relationship between athletes and advertising is nothing new. For decades, sports has mixed with products to produce big money for both sides. Now, as traditional methods in both media and marketing start to erode, the mix of athletes and endorsements enters a whole new era.

Last month, CNBC sports business reporter Darren Rovell noticed some curious activity on Michael Vick’s Twitter account. Why was the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback tweeting about McDonald’s and Thanksgiving recipes? The answer was easy, even without Rovell’s subsequent reporting: Vick’s getting paid to send out those tweets.

Vick’s not the first athlete making a buck through his social media channels. An ESPN.com story in March detailed how the practice is quickly sweeping through the world of action sports.

And how about celebrities? American brain cell killers like Charlie Sheen, Lindsay Lohan and the Kardashians have all brought in significant figures with a simple tweet.

Some may think this new form of advertising is cheesy. Fans don’t “like” or follow an athlete to be bombarded with sales pitches. But it can work effectively if done well. The key: Drop in product mentions occasionally and subtly.

Many athletes are now looking at contracts containing social media clauses. They’re being asked to make a certain number of posts, at specific times. In many cases, they’re given scripts of what they need to tweet. But fans aren’t dumb. They can see through obvious, forced messages.

Take Michael Phelps for example. The 14-time Olympic gold medalist tweeted this pic to his 100,000+ followers. I and more than 32,000 others clicked on it. Why? Perhaps because the actual text in the tweet didn’t sound scripted.

A couple days earlier, Phelps sent this into his Twitter stream:

I didn’t bite and I doubt many did. That’s an ad in its most generic sense and it’s not going to generate clicks. Comprising posts that make a fan click is an emerging art form advertisers and athletes have to master.

There’s big money to be made by companies and athletes that can team together to make their messages sound organic. Amy Martin, who helped turn Shaquille O’Neal and a handful of other athletes into social media stars, points out there’s a science to this new form of marketing. The concept is obvious: Use athletes to push messages to their thousands, and even millions, of followers. But the implementation isn’t that simple.

Most athletes have one source of income — a contract with their team. Social media’s created an opportunity for many to add another revenue stream. The great thing is, they don’t have to “Be Like Mike” to cash in. First and foremost, they need to sound human.


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