Professional football players have recognised the potential of Twitter and how it can boost what Mitch Joel calls «The New Marketing of You» (Ctrl Alt Del, 2013). In this post we will apply the six lessons to the Twitter activities of Southampton’s Graziano Pellè and analyse what he does well and where he could improve.
Hambrick et al. (2010:pp.461-462) analysed the use of Twitter by professional athletes and found out that
- 34% of their tweets were direct interpersonal communication with friends and fans;
- 28% were non-sport related;
- 15% shared information or insights directly related to their team or sport;
- 13% directed readers to personal content, such as photos, websites, etc;
- 5% were dedicated to promotion activities (events, products, etc.); and
- less than 5% of their tweets talked about sports other than the athlete’s own sport.
Witkemper et al. (2012:179) suggest that Twitter is used as a medium to gain information, as a form of entertainment, to enhance fan experience, and simply as a way to pass time. They add that in an effort to enhance the relationship with fans, sport organisations should use social media to be more informative about their clubs, such as providing inside stories as a source where fans could learn facts and details about their favourite athletes. To underline the statement by Witkemper et al. and the study by Hambrick et al., Sanderson and Kassing (2014:114) contend that “blogs and Twitter afford athletes more control over the release of sports news while also increasing their self-presentation management. The ability to circumvent sports media and sports organisations in breaking news shifts sports media and consumption practices and directly connects fans and athletes with one another.”
According to Simmers et al. (2009), “Athlete celebrity endorsers are compared to traditional product brands, and endorsement agreements are compared with traditional brand alliance agreements.” In order to build a brand, certain marketing activities need to be undertaken. Mitch Joel (2013:pp.198-201) depicts six lessons for professionals to get more digital and in touch with «The New Marketing of You», which we will now apply to a professional football player. For this exercise we will focus on Twitter and choose Southampton’s Graziano Pellè.
Football players and personal branding in the age of social media
Lesson #1–Intent is everything.
Mr Joel (2013:198) suggests to ask the following questions before tweeting anything: “Why are people here? What are they doing here? What is their experiential intent when they come here, and how would I–as a brand–be able to better connect without disrupting their experience?” Hambrick et al. (2010:460) categorised tweets into six categories: interactivity, diversion (non-sports-related information), information sharing (sports-related), content, fanship, and promotional. In the case at hand, this means that football aficionados on Twitter, who potentially want to follow Mr Pellè, are interested in a direct interpersonal communication with him, want to know what he’s up to also off the pitch, want to know about his involvement in and with the team, obviously want to receive content such as photos and videos that include him, and don’t mind promotional content.
Crawling through Mr Pellè’s Twitter feed, it can objectively be stated that Mr Pellè does provide tweets to most of the above-mentioned categories. The category that seems less represented in his feed is ‘interactivity’. Mr Pellè does not engage much publicly with fans or other celebrities. He does, however, include handles from clubs, staff or players that have a connection with him. Nonetheless, there is definitely room for improvement in terms of interacting with his following.
Lesson #2–Marketing yourself should not be spammy.
I often quote Tara Hunt (2009), because she put it perfectly in her book, The Whuffie Factor, “[T]he number one reason why people don’t listen to you is because they are too busy listening to their friends! The people they trust. The people they care about.” I make the unfunded assumption that many Twitter users trust and care about people they admire. Because of that, athletes that provide them good emotions, such as winning matches, rank high in that list. Hambrick and Mahoney (2011:176) refer to research done by Ohanian (1990), which suggests that when consumers believe celebrity athletes possess trustworthiness, they engage in positive behaviours after seeing the endorsements. Building upon that statement, it is advisable to only engage in ethical and socially accepted self-marketing practices. For example, Mr Pellè tweeted that he’s going on vacation and attached a photo with clear brand placements of Nike and Etihad Airways. Nonetheless, it was positioned within a story to portrait the end of the season.
There are examples of footballers that provide a certain amount of tweets to their sponsors for blunt subliminal marketing purposes and thereby upset some fans. A good example of how not to do it is shown in Module 3 of the Football Communication & Social Media course at Sports Business Institute Barcelona. The case study states, “In 2012, Manchester United defender, Rio Ferdinand, was one of the celebrities investigated by the UK’s Advertising Standard Authority for not having clearly indicated that some of the tweets between the player and the brand were adverts. Ferdinand tweeted several ¨teasers¨ where he alluded his affinity to the chocolate bar yet it was difficult to tell if he was simply hungry and sharing personal information or if it was in fact a commercial relationship between the player and the brand. In the final tweet Ferdinand shared a picture where he appeared ready to eat the chocolate bar and eventually ¨revealed¨ the commercial relationship by including the hashtag #spon (to allude that it was a sponsored tweet). (SBI Barcelona, 2014)”
Lesson #3–Pitch to win.
Mr Joel underlines that being likable and being yourself are the keys to winning every pitch (2013:199). Mr Pellè is a down-to-earth and straight-forward footballer that does not qualify for whole tabloid sections. He does his job as a footballer, tweets about visits to his old team @Feyenoord, occasionally shows what his normal life outside the stadium looks like, and all of that with professionalism and good attitude. In addition, he does not offend anyone with inappropriate comments, over-confident opinions, or over-selling his endorsed products. His personal branding–or, pitch–is based on football skills, a great track-record, and authentic professionalism.
Lesson #4–Automation is still for robots.
Most social media sites offer automatic publishing onto Twitter or even content aggregation on a specific topic. However, it is essential that an athlete (or whoever manages the Twitter account) is aware that even though, for example, a status update is sent out on Facebook, a reply might happen right away on Twitter. Of course notifications can be set up for Twitter interactions, but what Mr Joel is addressing here, is that we should think of new and exciting ways to add more human interactions instead of tools for automation (2013:200).
Mr Pellè seems not to have any automation or aggregation working on his Twitter handle. Furthermore, looking closely at the copywriting in his tweets (emoji, formatting, etc.), it can be assumed that he writes most–if not all–of his tweets himself, providing a human touch to his Twitter communication.
Lesson #5–Focus on influence.
Based on my experience as a Social Media Manager, I always urge marketers to lay more importance on relative KPI’s that are based on engagement and influence, instead of counting the total amount of followers or clicks. In the same vein, Mr Joel (2013:200) says to “[s]pend your time connecting your business to influence…not to reach.” That means, become a brand that people cannot do without (on Twitter, at least). For example: A football player I would not want to do without on Twitter is Juventus’ Fernando Llorente. Most of his tweets come in very personal tone of voice, and he very often adds a photo that is obviously taken unprofessionally with a phone (authenticity). I just wish he would tweet more (continuity).
In regard to our example with Graziano Pellè, my subjective opinion on how the Southampton player could improve his Twitter activities is by adding more pictures or short videos taken by himself–maybe a selfie every now and then–, provide some diversity in terms of what is going on during trainings, official events, with his sponsor engagement, and, like Mr Llorente, more tweeting would keep his brand top-of-mind when his fans are surfing on Twitter.
Lesson #6–Kill your content.
Mr Joel’s (2013:200) statement is clear and to the point, “Step back and look at the list of what you’re about to publish and ask yourself if these are stories–real stories–that the people who read them will actually care about.” Sheffer and Schultz (2013:pp.211-212) support that statement by writing that “individual athletes, who were shielded from the media and groomed to be cogs in the overall “team,” now have a direct communication line to his/her fans. Social media gives rise to the accessible athlete. … Professional athletes worldwide increasingly have some sort of social media presence, in which they use to tell “their” story.” Applying these statements to our example means that athletes, such as Graziano Pellè, could systematically think of possible content that fits into the six categories as analysed by Hambrick et al. (2010:pp.461-462):
- Direct interpersonal communication with friends and fans: Mr Pellè’s followers will recognise that he is approachable for anyone on Twitter and might feel more comfortable engaging with a football star. Such activities will grow Mr Pellè’s following and give more authority to his activities, which can ultimately play an important role when negotiating new sponsorship or endorsement deals.
- Non-sport related messages: From my professional social media experience, I would suggest that an athlete keeps his Twitter communication widely in the context of his professional brand. In this case, football. However, tweeting from a fundraising event or simply from the hotel room before an important match can show a more human side of an athlete and bring authenticity to the brand.
- Information directly related to their team or sport: Tweets do not always have to be about the athlete. Mr Pellè can tweet about a colleague, like Southampton’s manager Ronald Koeman or the St Mary’s Stadium. Or, as we’ve seen from Rio Ferdinand, he can tweet his live commentary on a match that he is following from the stands or on TV. Nonetheless, it is advisable to carefully consider the tone of voice, as well as the wording used in the tweets. There are many examples of football players that have upset their followers, hence, created storms of unpleasant feedback.
- Personal content: For me, this category can go with #2 Non-sport related messages. Again, stick to the sports context and tweet personal content to add authenticity to the brand.
- Promotional tweets: This plays directly into Mr Joel’s Lesson #2, which states that ‘Marketing yourself should not be spammy.’ Footballers like Mr Pellè can and should promote their brands, but those tweets need be to clearly understood as promotional tweets and never be misleading. For example, Mr Pellè can show off his brand-new football boots and thank his manufacturer with a picture or video. A good example is Juventus’ Leonardo Bonucci, who posted a picture on his Instagram that depicted him playing wearing a complete Nike outfit while playing with his son, who was driving a toddler car by Fiat; Mr Bonucci is a Nike endorser and Fiat is the owner of Juventus, the club Mr Bonucci plays for.
- Tweets about others sports: As with #2 and #4, this falls into the category I like to describe as ‘stick to your context, because that’s why your followers follow you’. Nonetheless, if Mr Pellè visits the Rose Bowl for an NFL game or is a guest at the Winter Olympics 2018 in PyeongChang, I can imagine his followers appreciate tweets from those events with his genuine commentary. In the end it is all about the perceived relevance of the content published by Mr Pellè.
Self-marketing, personal branding, or the Marketing of You is a hot topic for football players and anyone who wants to build a name for themselves and be perceived as a strong professional. Twitter and other social media are the most effective and efficient tools and vehicles to build any kind of brand today. For that reason, it is highly advisable for any footballer like Mr Pellè to strategically think about possible content (what kind of pictures, videos, etc.), processes (who can create that for me if I can’t or won’t?), response and dialogue management, and enact a comprehensive plan. Some athletes are proficient enough to handle such activities by themselves. Nevertheless, more accurate planning can bring continuity to a Twitter account, hence, strengthen the respective brand. If you’re a football player or simply want to boost your professional career, do not underestimate the effect that «The New Marketing of You» can have on your career.