Influencer Marketing for Sports Brands in 2019

Influencer marketing in sports
Influencer marketing is a hot topic in 2019. In an effort to cut through the advertising noise, brands are aligning themselves with influential people who have a large social media following. The definition of “influencer marketing”, as per Wikipedia is:
Influencer marketing (also influence marketing or social media influencer) is a form of marketing in which focus is placed on influential people rather than the target market as a whole on social media. It identifies the individuals who have influence over potential customers, and orients marketing activities around these influencers.
Sports brands have been an early adopter on the influencer marketing scene, and it’s not hard to see why. Athlete endorsement of products has a history dating back to baseball player Honus Wagner in 1905. From there, Nike made a splash by sponsoring Romanian tennis player Ilie Năstase, and then distance runner Steve Prefontaine. Now athlete endorsement goes beyond use in competition and advertising, and bleeds into use and promotion in their social feeds. I mean, who’s a bigger influencer on us amateur athletes than our heroes at the top of their game?

Influencers, Micro-Influencers, and Nano-Influencers

With influencer marketing being a relatively new form of reaching consumers, there are lots of terms out there that lack concrete definitions. You’ll see the terms “micro-influencer” and “nano-influencer” being used alongside “influencer”. Here’s my definition of each, as it related to sports advertising:
  • Influencer – an athlete or person with the highest profile in their sport. The World Champ, the Record Holder, the Olympian. They’ll likely have over 100k followers on social media.
  • Micro-influencer – usually between 10k-50k followers, still a high profile athlete or someone who has a compelling story that has captured national media coverage.
  • Nano-influencer – between 500 and 5k followers. Usually an amateur athlete of varying athletic success. These nano-influencers tend to be more relatable than the elite athletes, and they can be a stronger influence within their local communities.

Who to Align With

So should you be using influencers or nano-influencers to promote your brand? Something to take into consideration is the cost implications of aligning with an influencer over a nano-influencer. World class athletes and influencers are going to require a significant investment, likely in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. If you’re a smaller brand, this could exclude you from seeking influencer endorsement. Micro- and nano-influencers can still provide value for getting your product into the right hands. Micro-influencers will likely request payment for endorsement, but nano-influencers may be more open to other forms of in-kind payment or affiliate revenue.
Beyond the cost implications of influencer marketing, it is essential to align your brand with someone who represents your core values and mission. The follower count should not be the only deciding factor, and for a few reasons:
  1. It is very easy to buy followers and engagement. While platforms like Instagram say they are actively fighting follower and like schemes, the schemers are always one step ahead. Check out this article, which shows how easy it is to become an “influencer” by setting up a fake account, buying followers, and using stock photos.
  2. Another way to get a lot of followers is to post semi-nude photos of yourself. These Insta-famous accounts, mostly women, get 10s to 100s of thousands of followers, and some brands think the high follower count is reason enough to get their products placed in their posts. This leaves your brand vulnerable to backlash as you alienate entire sections of your consumer base, see this example, and if their followers are there to see semi-nude pics, will they even see or care about your product in the post?
  3. Beyond the followers, we’re talking about real people here. No person is going to align with every one of your brand values exactly, but it’s worth making sure there aren’t negative digital footprints out there, like racist or sexist posts. And if someone representing your brand does something egregious and anti-brand, like doping or cheating, you’ll have to take a strong stand against it. See Coeur Sports’ response to finding out one of their brand ambassadors cheated at Raleigh 70.3.

Consider Creating an Ambassador Program

For the brand who’s not ready to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a few big influencers, there’s still a chance for you to get in the game. Especially popular in the endurance sports world (and possibly other sports) are ambassador programs. For very little cost, you can create a team of individuals who are passionate about your products, and incentivize this team to promote them. Ambassadors are usually unpaid, but benefits include more exposure of their social profile through your social profile, exclusive discounts, affiliate income, or VIP access to events. The biggest benefit for the brand is more exposure to highly motivated consumers at very little cost to you. Ambassador programs do require proper management and administration, and you need to make sure you take into account the following items:
  1. What are you offering Ambassadors instead of payment? Discounts on product? Exclusive access to a team or coach? Free kit? Affiliate opportunities? Showcased on their website? Be upfront and defined about the benefits of being an Ambassador for your brand. Have all of your promo codes set up and ready for the season before ambassador onboarding begins.
  2. What do you expect from your Ambassadors? A post with your product every week, month, or quarter? Tagging your brand in their posts or using a specific hashtag? Determine this ahead of time, and be crystal clear about it during the application process. Don’t create a moving target once you’ve already signed up your Ambassadors.
  3. Understand what type of person you are looking for and ask lots of questions. Are you looking for high performance athletes with national and international accolades? Or athletes who are more relatable? What is their philosophy for sports training and competition, and does it align with your brand? Your brand should have strong core values, and your ambassadors should reflect those values in an authentic way.

Ready to Get Into Influencer Marketing?

Influencer marketing is a powerful tool for brands in this social media era; hence, I don’t foresee influencer marketing going away any time soon. The costs involved will certainly change as this new channel develops. For any brand looking to get started in influencer marketing, my advice is to have solid digital marketing strategy in place, and use influencer marketing to support that strategy. You should have identified your ideal customer types, and your influencers and brand ambassadors should have the ears and eyes of this audience. Be clear about your expectations for influencer marketing, and how you will measure success or failure of this channel over the months and years.
Influencer marketing in sports