For Athletes, Unless You’re Shaq (and Even Then), Twitter Isn’t Enough

I love Twitter. The second I was introduced to it, it was obvious just how significant it could be for our clients when it came to marketing themselves. Athletes, usually relegated to short, closely monitored public sessions by team PR staff, perhaps understandably unwilling to put themselves in contact with the masses, suddenly had a way to interact directly with fans without a media middleman, and build a loyal, always accessible following — all from the safety of a cellphone.

The implications of that are staggering, particularly from a marketing standpoint. For athletes, authenticity — a trait valued by marketers and which normally involves all sorts of branding gymnastics to achieve — became instantly achievable (assuming, of course, one tweeted the right way, and was actually doing the tweeting). There is no better example of this, as Tweeters around the globe know, than Shaquille O’Neal. THE_REAL_SHAQ, in his 1,000-plus twitter posts, musings, ticket giveaways and jokes, has produced the tweeting equivalent of a pointillist’s self-portrait, showing a still-growing legion of a half million followers who he is: utterly likable, and exceedingly real.

To draw conclusions about Twitter and its value to athletes in general based on Shaq’s success, however, would be misguided. Shaquille O’Neal is the Twitter equivalent of the Terminator, a virtually perfect Tweeting machine. If you were to construct the ideal athlete Tweeter, you’d be hard pressed to do better than a seven-foot tall, 300-plus pound teddy bear with the wit of a comedian, a smile that could sell toothpaste, and the generosity of Santa Claus.

The vast majority of athletes — of people — do not have all of those qualities. Moreover, very little about what Shaq does on Twitter has to do with playing basketball. That’s largely because at this stage of his career, partially because of Twitter, Shaq is known more for being Shaq, the personality, than anything he’s accomplishing on the hardwood (a point I’ll come back to later).

That isn’t a branding strategy that will work for the majority of athletes; just being the “real,” authentic you alone isn’t a point of distinction if the “real” you isn’t that engaging, or quite frankly, even if it is.

Fans care about athletes for one reason above everything else: being great athletes. It’s a simple but significant observation. It’s why no one cares about the starting small forward of the Yakima Thunder, even if he’s more interesting than Dos Equis’ woman-toting Hemingway lookalike. It’s why people quite happily found Paul Pierce ( hilarious when he wrote, “Man what a Game and Jesus Shuttleworth comes thru again” after he and Ray Allen recently led the Boston Celtics to a double overtime win.

It’s also why using Twitter alone — rather than as part of a larger online branding/marketing strategy — is, at best, effort that could be used more productively, and at worst, could prove exceedingly damaging to a career. It’s not difficult to imagine any number of scenarios where an athlete’s instant access to the world backfires because of bad judgment or a simple mistweet: an athlete tweets a prediction that fails to come to pass; an athlete tweets during a game that he later is responsible for losing; an athlete tweets something he fails to recognize as offensive, and in seconds, irrevocably undoes years of work.

An athlete should think of Twitter as a window he’s opened into his world. What fans see through that window is totally in the control of the athlete, and can consist of far more than what the athlete ate for breakfast, what song he’s listening to, or the tickets he’s giving away.

That’s where a properly branded web site comes into play.

You can get to know an athlete through his tweets. But with a well-branded, correctly implemented web site — the kind that we create and maintain — you’re constantly reminded of what he’s achieved and what he’s continuing to do, whether its inside the game (great performances) or out (community service).

For a fan, it’s like the difference between entertaining small talk at a cocktail party (the athlete on Twitter), and a long, meaningful conversation (the athlete’s web site).

The former lets fans be entertained and feel connected. The latter constantly reminds them why they want to feel that way.

The former helps develop a feeling of authenticity. The latter transfers the authenticity to the breadth of the athlete’s accomplishments.

In good times, the web site can reinforce the way fans feel about an athlete.

In times of crisis, the web site can remind fans of all of the redemptive qualities an athlete possesses.

The failure to use an effectively executed web site as the heart of an overall online strategy, particularly in conjuction with a tool like Twitter, is precisely why so many athletes currently tweeting (or blogging, posting YouTube videos, and so forth) are wasting a lot of their electronic breath.

Even Shaquille O’Neal, for all his tweeting, has to date, figuratively speaking, left a lot of branding money on the table. Consider how different all the press coverage and tweeting about Shaq would have been if his tweeting had been done in combination with, say, a web site campaign that emphasized his dominance as one of the greatest centers of all-time — if not the greatest.

If that were the case, we might be talking about his place in history as the Big Aristotle, four-time NBA champion and unstoppable force, instead of how amusing he is as the Big Tweeter.

Knowing Shaq and his marketing savvy, perhaps we still will be.

3 Responses to “For Athletes, Unless You’re Shaq (and Even Then), Twitter Isn’t Enough”

  1. Jason Peck April 3, 2009 at 2:02 pm #

    100% agree with you. Twitter is just a tool that can enhance overall efforts, not a strategy by itself.

  2. Brittany April 3, 2009 at 2:17 pm #

    Great post! I’ve been looking a lot at how athletes and celebrities are using Twitter… some successfully and some not so successfully!


  1. Proceed With Caution, or Not At All: The Role of Social Networking for Athletes | Insight / The Athlete Interactive Blog - April 15, 2009

    [...] Twitter presents the ideal place for communicating with fans provided that athletes keep their posts light and exercise good judgment. With that in mind, we recommend some sort of content oversight from an objective source to ensure that a well-intentioned post doesn’t go awry, or to deal with it immediately if it does. (And as I posted a little while ago, don’t use Twitter  – or any of these tools — without a well-branded site to go wi…) [...]

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